A few of Steve Kowit’s poems
One fine morning they move in for the pinch
& snap on the cuffs— just like that.
Turns out they’ve known all about you for years,
have a file the length of a paddy-wagon
with everything- tapes, prints, film …
the whole shmear. Don’t ask me how but
they’ve managed to plug a mike into one of your molars
& know every felonious move & transgression
back to the very beginning, with ektachromes
of your least indiscretion & peccadillo.
Needless to say, you are thrilled,
tho sitting there in the docket
you bogart it, tough as an old tooth—
your jaw set, your sleeves rolled
& three days of stubble … Only,
when they play it back it looks different:
a life common & loathsome as gum stuck to a chair.
Tedious hours of you picking your nose,
scratching, eating, clipping your toenails …
Alone, you look stupid; in public, your rapier
wit is slimy & limp as an old bandaid.
They have thousands of pictures of people around you
stifling yawns. As for sex—a bit
of pathetic groping among the unlovely & luckless:
a dance with everyone making steamy love in the dark
& you alone in a corner eating a pretzel.
You leap to your feet protesting
that’s not how it was, they have it all wrong.
But nobody hears you. The bailiff
is snoring, the judge is cleaning his teeth,
the jurors are all wearing glasses with eyes painted open.
The flies have folded their wings & stopped buzzing.
in the end, after huge doses of coffee,
the jury is polled. One after another
they manage to rise to their feet
like narcoleptics in August, sealing your fate:
Innocent… innocent… innocent… Right down the line.
You are carried out screaming.
CUTTING OUR LOSSES
In a downtown San Jose hotel,
exhausted & uptight & almost broke,
we blew 16 colones & got stewed on rum.
You lounged in bed
reading Hermelinda Linda comics
while I stumbled drunk around the room
& reciting poems out of an old anthology.
I read that Easter elegy of Yeats’
which moved you,
bringing back that friend of yours,
Bob Fishman, who was dead.
You wept. I felt terrible.
We killed the bottle, made a blithered
kind of love & fell asleep.
Out in the Costa Rican night
the weasels of the dark held a fiesta
celebrating our safe arrival in their city
& our sound sleep.
We found our Ford Econoline next
morning where we’d left it,
on a side street, but ripped
apart like a piñata,
like a tortured bird, wing
window busted in, a door
sprung open on its pins like an astonished beak.
Beloved, everything we lost— our old blues
tapes, the telephoto lens, the Mayan priest,
that ancient Royal Portable I loved,
awoke me to how tentative & delicate
& brief & precious it all is, & was
for that a sort of aphrodisiac— tho bitter
to swallow. That evening,
drunk on loss, I loved you
wildly, with a crazy passion, knowing
as I did, at last, the secret
of your own quietly voluptuous heart— you
who have loved always with a desperation
born as much of sorrow as of lust,
being, I suppose, at once unluckier,
& that much wiser to begin with.
Years ago we owned two cats who hated each other.
When I said we had better give one away
you wouldn’t hear of it— you
were adamant, outraged …
relenting only weeks later when it was clear
they were going to tear each other to shreds.
I remember the speech you made:
if it came to that we would give away Sluggo,
our loveable calico,
who could purr his way into anyone’s heart.
For in less tolerant hands, Mphahlele,
our difficult, misanthropic gray
might be abused, or abandoned … or worse— whereas
if he lived with us he would be loved always.
& of course you were right,
tho God knows you have paid dearly
for a compassion as absolute
as the copper sheet of the Mexican sky
rising each morning over that house
high in the hills of Chiapas
that you loved so
with its eleven rooms,
those great hanging bells of datura,
that courtyard, tangle
of wild vines
that you would never let me weed
to begin a garden,
insisting in that quiet way of yours
that every creature
had as much right to live as we had,
& that it was a garden.
FRAGMENT OF ANCIENT SKULL
A young man, told to die for his country,
preferring, he mutters, to suck his toes
in his own room.
The civil guard, delighted to practice,
take him outside & shoot him.
His hat blows over the wall.
A piece of his head is found in the brush
by entomologists looking for beetles.
Scrubbed down at the local museum
it is stuffed in a jar & labeled:
fragment of ancient skull
But not a word about the fate of his calico,
or the anguish of his father,
or the whereabouts of his hat.
CROSSING THE RIVER
I am translating a poem by Domingo Alfonso
called Crossing the River.
When I lift my head from the page it is night.
I walk thru the rooms aware of the shapes
that loom in the silence.
In the bedroom Mary has fallen asleep.
I stand in the doorway & watch her breathing
& wonder what it will be like
when one of us dies.
In 8 years
we have not been apart for more than a few days.
The cat drops to my feet & sashays past me.
I open the side door. Outside
there is no sound whatsoever. If things
call to each other at this hour of night
I do not hear them. Vega alone
gleams overhead, thousands of light years
off in the region of Lyra.
The great harp is still.
JOY TO THE FISHES
I hiked out to the end of Sunset Cliffs
& climbed the breakwater,
sneakers strung over my shoulder
& a small collection of zen
poems in my fist.
that had sloshed out of someone’s baitbucket,
& that I came within an inch of stepping on,
convulsed in agony.
Delighted to assist,
I tossed it back into its ocean:
swirling eddies sucked about the rocks,
white pythagorean sailboats
in the middle distance.
Kids raced the surf,
a labrador brought down a frisbee,
& the sun sank pendulously
over the Pacific shelf.
I shivered & descended,
slipping the unopened book
into my pocket
& walked south
along the southern California coastline—
all the hills of Ocean Beach
in the rouged light
of midwinter sunset.
it pleases me to think
in the western coastal waters off America
that minnow is still swimming.
If I am ever
unlucky enough to die
I would like to be propped up
in my orange overstuffed chair
with my legs crossed
dressed in a cashmere sweater & jeans
in a permanent glaze
like a donut
a small bronze plaque
on the door of my study
showing the dates
of my incarnation & death.
& leave the room as it was!
Let nothing be touched in the house!
My underpants stuck on the doorknob
just where I left them.
My dental floss
lying on top of the Bhagavad Gita
next to my socks.
Let the whole of Ebers Street
be roped off
& planted with yews
from Narragansett to Cape May
& left as a monument to my passing.
No— the city itself?
Let it be known
as the Steve M. Kowit
Memorial Park & Museum.
if the thing can be done
without too much fuss
put the whole planet to sleep.
Let the pigeons & busses
& lawyers & ladies
hanging out wash
freeze in their tracks.
Let the whole thing
be preserved under ice
just as it looked
when the last bit of drool
trickled over my chin.
Let the last of the galaxies
like a match in the wind
& the cosmic balloon
shrink down to a noodle
& screech to a halt.
Let time clot
like a pinprick of blood
& the great solar flame
to the size of a yertzite candle
leaving the universe dark
but for one tiny spotlight
trained on the figure of me
propped in my chair—
for after my death
what possible reason could life
in any form
care to exist?
—Don’t you see
it would be utterly pointless!
I would be gone!
Look, try to conceive it,
a world without me! Me
nobody here with these eyes,
Nothing but vacant space
a dry sucking wind
where I walked
where I sat— where
you used to see me
you would see nothing at all—
I tell you
it dwarfs the imagination…
Oh yes, one last thing:
the right leg
is to be crossed over the left
— I prefer it that way —
& poised on the knee .
Prop the left elbow up
on the arm of the chair
with a pen
in my right hand—
let my left
scratching my skull
or pulling my hair.
If you wish
close the lids of my eyes
but whatever you do
the mouth must remain open
just as it was in life—
On that I absolutely insist!