“Cowboy Koans”: Jesi Buell Reviews Bipolar Cowboy by Noah Cicero

“When you see a pronghorn antelope from your car, high up
north in Nevada, by the Walker River Rez, I don’t know
what to be, the antelope, the person seeing the antelope,
the grass that the antelope is eating, the feeling the person gets
from seeing the antelope, the feeling the antelope has while
eating the grass, so I try to be all things, then I realize
I’m just wind, swirling and swirling, and its is okay, and
it isn’t okay.”

Girl Noise Press has re-released Noah Cicero’s 2015 collection of heart-broken love poems this past May with a new introduction from Vi Khi Nao. Bipolar Cowboy is a very personal collection of poetry that explores the aftermath of a failed relationship. It feels very much like reading a diary and, in the very beginning, the author warns “[d]o not try to look for life answers / in this book of love poems.” However, I would contend that is exactly what this book gives us. Like all published diaries, it breaks the oppositional relationship between the universal and the personal, so that they become, if not the same, at least parallel. It is in the human reaction to unique situations where we can find commonality and, while “the beauty of a song can’t ever be reached, it always remains different for everyone,” recognition and empathy is kindled. After all, by a certain age, most of us have had at least one broken heart.

Cicero alternates between the first and third person throughout this work, sometimes even within the same stanza. He uses “Noah” next to “I” or “him” near a “me” and it creates an immediate and tangible dissonance. The first person creates an immediacy, like confession to us, whereas the third creates a disassociation with the self. Especially towards the beginning, where the loss of his girlfriend leads the character of Noah to question what it is to be human or how to be a “people,” the switch between point of view manages to dance with us, at once bringing us in while also pushing us away. Cicero’s first person becomes the “thinking I” whereas the third person “Noah” often is the body and the action of the body. He creates a space where thinking and acting occur in one body but still act as separate entities:

He recently had a
nervous breakdown. He reads into everything, he overthinks
everything, he comes up with ten truths. Strangely one of the ten
truths he comes up with is actually true. But sadly, life never lets
us know what the absolute truth ever is.

Life gives us many truths and we have to pick one.

The separation between the “acting” and the “thinking” Noah Cicero character makes this collection an extended exploration of mental illness. Obviously from the title, it’s not something Cicero the author is trying to be coy about. This book deals with depression, suicidal ideation, apathy, anger, vengeance, substance use and abuse, and, perhaps most importantly, obsession. The main character is obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, so much so that he is unable to have other meaningful relationships. There are few hints to ex-girlfriend’s identity so she remains mainly amorphous—an “every woman.” After they break up, everything stops mattering to Noah. Many of these poems pose the same questions: what is the difference between devotion and obsession? And why is one a virtue and the other an illness? At one point, another person tells the Noah character that “[a]ddiction is selfish. You are addicted to this person.” He idolizes a nebulous idea of this woman and it makes him miserable. At one point, he asks himself, “Doesn’t Buddha want me to let go of all attachment?” Later, he answers himself, “… the pain is in my brain / and I can’t escape / my own brain.” The sustained devotion to the idea of his ex-girlfriend is how the character Noah Cicero flagellates or prostrates himself before this constructed deity in an effort to make himself worthy. Does it only become illness if the object of worship is capable of rejecting you?

A few common images follow us as we traverse the world with Cicero, as the character attempts to either preserve or exorcize the memories of this woman. One notable repeated image is of Angkor Wat, an enormous 12th century Hindu temple in Cambodia. It is dedicated to Vishnu, the supreme being who creates and preserves the universe. This symbol exists as a place of reverence but also as a reminder that life eventually evens itself out between good and evil. It is a hopeful sign and it aligns with the other sustained imagery, the monk/cowboy. At first blush, I didn’t see much commonality between a monk and a cowboy but Cicero illustrates how they share a loneliness and how their loneliness is not necessarily sad but rather an example of tenacity and a devotion to contemplation.

It will be interesting to see how others respond to this collection, even only seven years after its original publication. The world has changed in many ways since then. This collection draws heavily upon Navajo mythology as well as Asian religions and culture. At one point, the narrator acknowledges that “Noah Cicero’s life / was mostly a vast collection / of cultural appropriations.” He repeatedly says “I am a white man / with blue eyes,” which acts as a way of reinforcing his identity and positioning himself in relation to these influences. It also creates a juxtaposition between some (at least former) beauty ideal, “blue eyes,” and all of the internal strife he faces. Noah’s white and blue exterior provides the framework through which he sees and interacts with everything. It brings up important and difficult conversations about race and appropriation but doesn’t attempt to offer catharsis on these points. Rather, it seems as if Cicero understands his positionality and accepts that his application of these cultural tools (stories) might be flawed. At its root, Bipolar Cowboy challenges ownership as the main character laces radicles around the world, as he molds new words, as he loses what he loves.

Cicero’s writing is brave and raw. In “The Unspeakable Truth,” he explores how we love and revere people who have done horrible things or were horrible people. Cicero says “[w]e even forgive child molesters / if they make good movies” and, collectively, he is not wrong. Our heroes can be assholes. Later in “NDR Videos on YouTube,” he writes “[i]t is really scary to think, / that some super lovely / energy thing would even / take the time to love / these stupid assholes.” The character of Noah Cicero is relatable because we can find similarities in our suffering and we can relate to his sadnesses but, on the other hand, he also acts like an asshole. He leads on a Polish girl who develops feelings for him during a time when he cannot stop thinking about the amorphous woman. He can’t find a job, yet in many ways he’s steeped in privilege. Sometimes, he feels an intense desire for “vendettas.” These are the many truths here and they live in tandem with each other. It seems like they all are somewhat true:

The world would collapse
into chaos without law
not because we are
savage beasts, but because
we are so forgiving.

I enjoyed Cicero’s subtle humor and philosophy. This is a collection of poems that are smart without being obscure and horribly sad without being hopeless. Particular gems include: “Coyote,” “The Unspeakable Truth,” and “Jesus in Wal-Mart.” As a meditation on loss and love, Bipolar Cowboy is relatable and still wholly unique. From suburban Ohio to ancient temples and back into the sprawling desert of the Southwest, Cicero follows the oscillating trajectory of a lovelorn mind. Even though he writes “love is ineffable,” Cicero constructs a perfect elegy and finds all the right words to describe its passing.

Bipolar Cowboy, by Noah Cicero. 2nd Edition Printing from Girl Noise Press, May 2022. 114 pages. $15.00, paper.

Jesi Buell is an artist from Upstate New York. She is the author of Dangerous Women (dancing girl), Kinderkrankenhaus (Sagging Meniscus), and The Book of the Last Word (Whiskey Tit). Her shorter writing has appeared in FENCE, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Split Lip, and others.

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