Book Review: Between Gods by Donna Lewis Cowan

Between Gods, poems by Donna Lewis Cowan. Cincinnati: Cherry Grove Collections, 2012

reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Cowan’s debut collection begins with “Thaw,” a beautiful meditation on the changing of the seasons, played out through ice skaters:

At the pond’s edge, the skaters steer
from the etched-out hollows, speed

toward the marrow mapped tight.
We are trying to outrace it, thaw

channeling into the grids – where you could
step through, surrender the balance
(lines 1-8)

Cowan is hinting at more than a change in seasons; she’s alluding to growing up. She continues, “So you are an accomplice, shearing/the surface into further conquered// territories, into what will happen” (lines 16-19). These skaters are trying to wring the last bit of experience from the winter before the ice melts, though it is futile: “something our heat/cannot alter.” (lines 25-26).

Many of Cowan’s poems explore characters from religious stories. “Daphne & Apollo: Meditations” is a triptych which retells the myth of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne. What stands out about Cowan’s work is her masterful use of language. In the first section, she describes Apollo’s efforts: “his fingers/like flies against a windowpane” (pg. 14, lines 10-11). In the second section, Daphne has turned into a flower: “She wondered, if she had arms to move/could they round about a child” (pg. 15, lines 9-10). She regrets her decision to transform herself, but she finds no solace: “…the blooms about her//tightened, offered nothing;/their stems were stolid as crucifixes” (lines 15-18). It’s a lovely line, resonating with the web of religious imagery throughout the collection. In the third section, Daphne is trapped in her decision while Apollo sings, his voice, “passion raise like the chronic sweat of flowers” (pg. 16, line 12). “The Siren” is an exploration of the myth of the mythical beings who lured sailors into rocks. “Penelope” is a monologue from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife who delays the advances of suitors while waiting for her husband’s return. Cowan’s true talent with these poems is her ability to humanize mythical characters. She begins with Penelope’s concerns with her own mortality:

Now four years of fraying wool
on the loom – my hands grey,
splintered as never before –
and once the tapestry is finished,
anything may happen. We are so
vulnerable to magic; one may be raped
by swans; none of it is hearsay.
(pg. 30, lines 1-7).

It’s a touching portrait focusing on the fragility of Penelope, as opposed to the stolid, somewhat heroic version who waits patiently for Odysseus, as is often portrayed. Cowan develops Penelope’s somewhat sardonic voice: “I have heard you are lover to a woman/who could keep you with her forever –/and what a trick!” (pg. 30, lines 9-11). Cowan creates a sensual scene to portray Penelope’s loneliness:

Here the soldiers’ wives use each other
for company; the handmaids touch
my skin as they touch my gowns,
with windy light fingers, out of habit –
pressing harder only to coax
the wrinkles out. One stray touch
and my skin is alive for hours –

that is loneliness, a pair of hands
winding through that medusa
of strands, soothing the loose ends
into patience…
(pg. 30, lines 13-24).

There’s humor, as well. One of the suitors, drunk, tells Penelope, “…his semen is wine/drawn from the rarest of sea-violets” (pg. 31, lines 3-4). Finally, Penelope is faced with the futility of her situation, as the suitors gossip about Odysseus’ trysts with goddesses, and she pictures him, “driv(ing) glory slowly,/absently into the sand” (pg. 31, lines 11-12).

Cowan also deals with the mythology of everyday life. “Cleaning Lincoln Logs” is a meditation on the expected arrival of a child: “The impossible task:/making our leftovers/clean enough for a daughter,” she begins (lines 103). Cowan’s language is simple but resonating:

You empty the scratches
where you etched
letters, initials,

before you knew
how the world
could whittle away
each masterpiece.
(lines 14-21).

But this isn’t a maudlin poem: she is emphatic about passing on these toys and all they represent. “They are still alive,” she says about the toys, about what she once built and imagined with them (line 17). She hopes to pass on only the toys, not all of the damage and baggage that has occurred since she, herself, played with these toys.

Cowan is a talented poet with an ear for language and vivid construction. She tackles themes and ideas that easily fall flat, but pulls them off with aplomb and verve. Throughout the collection she deals with issues of spirituality, not just as an abstraction, but as a vital question presented in beautiful language. Part history, part magic, this collection is well worth a read.
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