“Xanax Cowboy” Hannah Green (House of Anansi) – Book review

Hannah Green Xanax Cowboy book cover

“Xanax Cowboy” is a book length sequence of poems, each of which could stand alone, but the cumulative impact of reading as a whole strengthens each individual part. None of he sections have titles and horseshoes are used as separators to underline the theme. Xanax is a drug used to treat anxiety and panic disorders which often occur alongside depression. “Xanax Cowboy” is a sort of alter ego created by the sequence’s narrator as a way of exploring and dealing with her issues and hopefully bridge the gap between where she is now and where she wants to be. Cowboys are rugged, independent and self-reliant sorts. There’s a sort of explanation in the opening where the narrator states, “It is not a joke,

I expect you to laugh at because romanticizing Xanax isn’t funny
and cowboys sort of suck. But I don’t want to look the truth in its ugly
doe eyes. I’d rather pretend I am going to feel this good forever,
swaying like a saloon door in the Wild West of my living room.”

A recurring theme is,

“In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Michael Ondaatje writes
‘In Boot Hill there are only two graves that belong to women
and they are the only known suicides in that graveyard.’

I am not afraid to die. I want you to be happy for me.
I pace the aisles at Shoppers Drug Mart but there is no card for this occasion.”

Not being afraid of death is not the same as wanting to be dead. That the speaker identifies with the cowboys rather than the two suicides suggests this narrator wants to live even though life is currently a huge mass of anxiety and panic. At a party, she asks a stranger to accompany her as she goes outside to smoke. He doesn’t smoke but offers to accompany her anyway,

Why a cowboy? the stranger asks. Because their drunkenness is close to godliness.
What girl doesn’t want to be admired for the halo of the toilet bowl around her head?

Cowboys don’t need to learn to love themselves. To come home to themselves.
Cowboys spit on self-help books and curse ’em like the day they were born.

The badassery of masculinity is well-established in the literary Wild West.
Forgive me, but I am too tired to subvert a genre. I am not the cowgirl for the job.

Why a cowboy? he asks again. I am sick of repeating myself.
I’m a fucking cowboy because I said so. There is no Gender Trouble here.

I am not afraid to die but I do not want to be a suicide in Ondaatje’s graveyard.

We believe cowboys. They don’t need to explain themselves
over and over again. A cowboy goes to the doctor with a bullet hole,
not a list of symptoms with no exit wound!”

In her first response, the narrator seems flippant, giving an entertaining answer. In doing so, she romanticises the role but dismisses the idea of being a cowgirl, because she wants the independence and self-reliance of a cowboy without being hung up by gendered stereotypes and expectations. She doesn’t have the strength to pretend to be one of the boys and deal with the sexual harassment and aggression she’d get as a girl, she wants to be one of the boys. No one subjects a cowboy to a lot of why questions that might trigger introspection and the need to justify oneself to strangers. In her second response, she’s more direct and perhaps more honest in her thinking: “they don’t need to explain themselves”. A man is believed. A woman has to explain, justify and in so doing begins to have doubts about what she’s saying and ultimately begins to doubt herself. A later part of the sequence tackles this more directly,

“Google attention-seeking behaviour in women.

Seek respect, not attention. It lasts longer.
You’re an attention whore on Facebook. Please enlighten me about your clinical depression.
Attention-seeking behaviour is the leading cause of being ignored.
Let’s have a moment of silence for all those people dying for attention

Google attention-seeking behaviour in cats.

If the behaviour is due to an underlying medical issue, the cat
may be seeking your attention as a source of comfort from her pain.
It can also be because she’s confused by her discomfort.

It seems a woman asking for attention is also asking to be dismissed whereas a cat seeking attention is to be taken seriously and the reasons behind the behaviour investigated. Given the statistics which show women are less likely to be given pain relief and more likely to be told their symptoms are psychosomatic, this tendency to dismiss a woman’s “attention seeking” could have dangerous consequences.

The sequence also establishes that the narrator is a student taking a creative writing module and some of the poems have been shown to her tutor,

“My professor says the speaker in my poems is not believable.
There is too much technical control i.e. if she is a pill-popping alcoholic
why can’t she let loose — wave sloppy syntax like a lasso above her head?
As if an addict is not caged by what she loves; as if she howls
on the side of the highway like a coyote in heat. I AM I AM I AM
the speaker. These poems feel like the only control I have.”

Of course, if the poems reflected a drug-induced haze, they would also be unreadable. The narrator explores this, “In literature, we are always after the great authentic.” She references James Frey whose book “A Million Little Pieces” which was a fictional account of a rehabilitation from drug addiction that was sold as non-fiction.

“The public felt tricked by Frey. He was not the mad alcoholic they wanted. He was only half the wound he had promised to be. What interests me is that Frey had originally tried to publish the book as fiction but no publisher would touch it. What was unpublishable as a novel became a best-seller as a memoir. We were willing to forgive the lazy writing, the swiss-cheese plot, because it was an account of substance-use disorder at its finest. The great authentic dogeared in paperback.”

So what do readers and/or critics want when they demand authenticity? It also asks questions about how truthful memoirs are. They represent a chance for the memoir writer to make themselves the main character in their own life, to take credit for decisions that turned out well and blame others when things went wrong. They are necessarily edited to make them readable. But real life can’t be edited into a tidy story. For someone like the narrator who is medicalised and regarded as an unreliable narrator, writing about her life is a chance to express herself or the edited self she’d like to be.

Part of the sequence is written as a series of poems as they might have appeared on Instagram with the poem in the hashtags and alt text, e.g.,

#like-I want-this #getting-off-on-the-smell-of-my-own-vomit
#cowboys-do-not-want-to-be-happy #contracts-prevent-it
#cowboys-are-supposed-to-look-lonely #that-full-moon-kind-with-nothing-howling
#loneliness-implies-a-want #some-burning-thing-I-can’t-have
#alone-implies-I-have-set-myself-on-fire #there-is-no-witness-to-this

ALT TEXT: The Xanax Cowboy is sitting on a balcony turned away from the camera. She is a dark silhouette. A full moon looms in front of her. Cowboys are lucky. The moon can be looked at for as long as you would like.”

The image that accompanies the poem is a blank square, forcing readers to look at the hashtags and alt text. The speaker romanticises the independence of the cowboy: his aloneness is aspirational because it implies self-reliance, he made the choice to be on his own. Whereas to admit to be lonely is sad because it means not being attractive enough (not in looks but behaviour) to welcome prospective friends and to be unwilling or unable to do the work to maintain a friendship. The narrator is trying to convince herself she’s better off alone with her own thoughts where she doesn’t have to justify what she’s doing. However, uploading pictures on Instagram does imply a desire for social connection. This isn’t someone prepared to go off grid.

Some parts of the sequence document a specific period where the narrator was picked up by police for being drunk and detained,

“Her blood-alcohol level
is found satisfactory at the drunk tank
and they ask her if she would like them to call

her a cab. They ask where she would like to go.

Home, she says.
Do you live alone, they ask?
Yes, she replies.

And they call her a cab.

Because she has her pills in a plastic bag.
Because she is no longer in handcuffs.
Because she is not going to ask for help anymore.

WPS [took] client to IPDA under Intoxicated Persons Detention Act and client will be reassessed by IPDA once sober.”

The narrator obtained a copy of her medical records, “in order to contest it, but I was told that I could not rewrite their record of the night. At best, I could have my version of events added to the record.” This is common where patients feel their records are inaccurate because they reflect the observations of the medical staff and don’t contain the patient’s version of events. These observations can often feel judgmental and stigmatising, the dry language of a textbook instead of the compassion and understanding the patient seeks. Those in mental distress often self-medicate or ask for help in combative ways or lash out because previous requests for help have been dismissed or responded to negatively. Here, the police treated the narrator as a drunk but didn’t ask why she was drunk. Once sober, they checked she had medication but didn’t offer further help or referral to a medical facility. She was processed and returned home, humiliated by being handcuffed when arrested for being drunk. She learnt that asking for help doesn’t get her the help she wants. It will make it harder to ask for help next time she’s distressed.

Although the narrator spends a lot of time avoiding looking at the bigger picture, i.e. why she’s on medication, why she struggles, she does acknowledge it’s a journey that’s not over yet,

“My mother says she could stop worrying,
if only she knew how Xanax Cowboy ends. I know this
is not what she is really asking. How much easier to say
she needs to know how Xanax Cowboy ends than to say when.
How much easier it is to talk about my book than my life.
But mother, you don’t need to worry. When Xanax Cowboy ends
I’ll take off my cowboy boots and tell you another story.
The book is over and there is still so much weather to talk about,
there is still so much I have to say, you can trust me.”

She’ll talk when she’s ready. But that “tell you another story” is ambiguous, evasive even. It could imply a different perspective on “Xanax Cowboy” or it could imply a new story of life after the book.

“Xanax Cowboy” is funny, self-deprecating but also raises some serious questions about the stigmas of mental illnesses, how patients are treated dismissively and an engaging read.

“Xanax Cowboy” is available from House of Anansi.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: