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1857 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Stolen Kisses
[+ Kiss]

by Steve Kowit

Several years ago Dorianne Laux called from Petaluma to read me a poem that she was working on called “Kissing.” It was terrific. She could hear the pleasure in my voice when I told her how much I liked it. It was one of those splendid pieces that was bound to find its way into any number of anthologies. But what I didn’t tell her, what I suppressed, because it would have sounded tacky and accusatory, was that what she had read me was my own goddam poem! Once, years earlier, when we were both living in San Diego, I had talked to her about a long piece I was taking notes for, about a couple kissing while the panorama of history, the endless bloodletting of Homo satanicus, unfolded behind them. And that was exactly what Dorianne had done: “They are still kissing when the cars crash and the bombs drop, when the babies are born crying into the white air, when Mozart bends to his bowl of soup and Stalin bends to his garden.” Yes! Exactly! Just what I’d had in mind.

Of course, she hadn’t the slightest recollection that her idea had come from that conversation, and there seemed no point in mentioning it. Besides, stealing ideas for poems is what poets do as a matter of course. At least, it’s what I do. Even in poems written directly out of my own experience I am apt to use notions, phrases and musical ideas filched from other writers—Dorianne Laux certainly among them. Into one recent poem—a poem about the pleasures of poetic lineage—I incorporate a tanka by Izumi Shikibu (inspired by Jane Hirshfield’s lovely translation); then I steal an image from Ray Carver, quote Eliot, and end with a line from Pound. To ice the cake, its tide, “Madness and Civilization,” was snitched from Foucault. No less egregiously, I’ve published two books of “imitations” of srngararasa, the erotic-mood poetry of India—poems made up of situations lifted whole cloth from that ancient tradition and then shamelessly reworked into my own idiom. Allen Ginsberg once told me with great pleasure that his poem “Things I Don’t Know” came out of my long poem “Mysteries,” a poem that was itself inspired by Fernando Pessoa’s “Tobacco Shop” and, even more directly, by Ben Belitt’s luscious translation of Pablo Neruda’s “Los Enigmas.” Oddly, I didn’t realize I had stolen Neruda’s idea till one day, years later, I started rereading his poem and was shocked. Even my title was outright larceny!

After that phone call with Dorianne I decided to reclaim my kiss poem, that is to say, to do a version of my own, for the ambitious one of years before had never materialized. I don’t remember when exactly I saw that couple going at it in the Del Mar Plaza, whether it was before or after our phone call, but I do remember that it was one of those exquisitely lingering embraces, the sort usually followed by clothing dropping quietly to the rug. A stunning looking couple, they were standing conspicuously in the center of the walkway, so the crowds had to part to walk around them. It’s an upscale three-story plaza with lots of hard-bodied Californians breezing by in designer shorts and Birkenstocks. Just about everyone floating past—it was a gorgeous late summer morning and the place was jampacked—glanced at them for an instant and then quickly looked away. I have forty-one drafts of “Kiss” on my computer, the first done in 1994 and all the rest in 1998. I must have abandoned that first draft, thinking it wasn’t worth working on, and then rediscovered it four years later and decided it had potential after all. Like most of my poems, the first several drafts are laughably inept, though here and there’s a phrase worth holding on to.

“Kiss” is one-tenth memory and nine-tenths confabulation. I certainly don’t recall how the couple were dressed, or what they looked like, or the positions of their bodies as they embraced. Was my description of their clinch even physically possible? Could she bend the way I had her bending and still have her entire body against his? And even if that were possible, could she seem, in that position, to be stretching? I wasn’t at all sure while I was writing the poem, and I’m still not sure it can be done. I moved the locale from the Enoteca del Fornaio—a wine and espresso bar in the center of the plaza—to a little coffee shop that hangs out over the Pacific Coast Highway, so that while they kissed the ocean could be in full view. For the first several drafts I had the name of the plaza wrong. The two boats with their sails that “triangulate heaven” I stole from an earlier, abandoned poem of my own. It was satisfying to make use of an image that had lain in drydock all those years. The Esmeralda is one of San Diego’s good literary bookstores, and its presence there is the reason I occasionally find myself at that plaza. I never drink latte, but I like the word. On the tenth draft that “genie of steam” appears, and in the next draft the apricot scone, and with those elements that second-person implicit narrator comes into focus: a vulnerable, slightly bemused fellow offering a moment of respite from the poem’s erotic center. The ocean and sailboats, the “blue cup of light,” and the closing images present the expansive setting that gives the poem whatever spiritual resonance it has.

I could never decide whether that couple was “tangled” or “locked” or “coiled” in that steamy embrace; I kept going back and forth. I recall that my wife—the only person to whom I’ll show my early drafts—gave me the “clutch” of dark curls well along in the process, and that seemed wonderfully right. But two sections near the end of the piece were ruinous; I was attached to them but they kept screwing everything up. One was the poem’s attempt at that historic panorama, its original conception, to which I was still committed. The other problematic lines were an attempt to describe that “hubbub of jaunty boutiquers” who floated past as the couple embraced. I kept dressing and re-dressing them in an assortment of tube tops, sneakers, t-shirts and hats, but I could never get the lines to lock in, could never hear that “almost audible click” that Yeats reminds us comes when we’ve got it right.

Hoping it would help, I went back to the Del Mar Plaza and took another look around. I wanted to see what color the roofs of the houses were between the plaza and the ocean and what that cafe actually looked like. But it was mostly the feel of the place that I wanted to re-experience. The coffee shop had closed down a few months before; the area was roped off and a crew of carpenters was building counters for a brand new cafe. I stood by the railing looking around. I’ve always been partial to that strip along the Coast Highway in North County, those vivid little pastel beach towns of which Del Mar is a perfect example. There it was again: that marvelous view of the Pacific and a luminous blue sky from which came a light of such buoyant clarity that it was hard not to feel pleased—pleased at nothing in particular—to feel optimistic and refreshed.

Returning from my trip to the plaza, I found the courage to get rid of those two troublesome final sections. The boutique hunters became a single line in the middle of the poem and then, two or three drafts later, vanished altogether. Instead of trying to repair those hopelessly muddied political lines about the angel of death and how half the world is starving, I cut them loose. No doubt they’ll show up again in another poem. Those troublesome lines gone, all that was left was that wonderfully generative empty space, and I was free to reinvent. The fork shining on its plate presented itself quickly, which led almost at once to the vase on the table, and then to the white tea rose, at which point the poem’s final four-word sentence, which had appeared a few drafts earlier, seemed to fit perfectly. I liked that ending a good deal, though, to be honest, it felt a touch too easy, too symmetrical, too neatly epiphanic. But the more I mulled it over, the more I liked how everything led inexorably to that quietly orgasmic resolution. A taste of the eternal erotic. It is the poem’s hope that the couple’s pleasure will cast a glow of sensual delight over the reader, just as it had over the author. Somewhere in The Thief’s Journal, Jean Genet writes, “I could never take lightly the idea that people were making love without me.”

About the time I was finishing the poem I got a letter from Mike Carlin, asking if I had some recent work for Mangrove, a small Florida magazine he was editing, and advising me that he had just received a piece from a fellow in Boston that was a brazen rip-off of “Lurid Confessions,” the title poem of an early collection of mine. He enclosed a copy of the poem along with the fellow’s phone number. He had slightly altered most of my lines while sticking in an occasional passage of his own—the way a C-minus student-plagiarist will bollix up somebody else’s text for his freshman research paper. I called the guy the next evening, introduced myself, and told him that Mangrove had sent me his poem. There was a long silence, and then he mumbled, “Ohhh...I think I can see now what must have...happened... Well, I’ll certainly withdraw it... I’ll withdraw it immediately...” I was relieved to hear it. I didn’t press him. There’s always a chance a guy like that could turn out to be a screwball stalker, a nutcase with a .38. We chatted uncomfortably for a couple of minutes, both pretending it must have been an honest mistake, and finally managed to untangle ourselves enough to get off the phone.

And maybe it was an honest mistake. Maybe he’d jotted down my poem years before and then come upon it in an old notebook thinking it was his own. Something of the sort had once happened to Hugh MacDiarmid and it had created an international stink. Thinking about “Lurid Confessions,” it dawns on me now that the second-person protagonist of that poem is the same figure who emerges as the second-person observer in “Kiss.” Even the situations are much the same. For example, there’s a dance in that earlier poem “with everyone making steamy love in the dark / and you alone in a corner eating a pretzel.” It could as easily have been an apricot scone. I suppose, in the end, the person we steal most shamelessly from is ourselves. I sent Mike a note thanking him for tipping me off and enclosed a copy of “Kiss” which, a couple of months later, he was kind enough to publish.

—Previously published in The Literary Review (Volume 44, Issue 1, Fall 2000); republished here by permission from Mary Kowit, and with assistance from Walter Cummins (Fairleigh Dickinson University)



On the patio of that little cafe in the Del Mar Plaza
across from the Esmeralda Bookstore, where you can
sit sipping latte & look out past the Pacific
Coast Highway onto the ocean, a couple is tangled
in one of those steamy, smoldering kisses.
His right arm coils her waist, arching her back
& drawing her toward him. He could be Sicilian,
or Lebanese, with that gorgeous complexion,
those chiseled forearms, that clutch of dark curls.
The young woman’s skirt, lilac & sheer, lifts
as she stretches, levitated out of her sandals, out
of her body, her head flung back, fingers
wrapped in his curls. Her long chestnut hair
spills toward her thighs as she clings to his mouth,
to his loins, to his chest. How wickedly
beautiful both of them are! To their left,
off the North County coast, on an infinite sea,
two sailboats triangulate heaven. In the sheen
of the morning, you munch an apricot scone
& sip your cafe latte, that blue cup of light at your lips,
with its genie of steam. In its vase, on your table,
a white tea rose shimmers. Your fork
shines on its plate. Everything trembles & glows.

—From Kowit’s collection of poems The Dumbbell Nebula (The Roundhouse Press, 2000); republished here by permission of Mary Kowit


SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Steve Kowit
(June 30, 1938–April 2, 2015)

described himself as “a poet, essayist, teacher, workshop facilitator, and all-around no good troublemaker.” A member of the Jewish Voice for Peace, he lived in Potrero, California with his wife Mary and several companion animals. He taught poetry workshops in San Diego, and his handbook for writing poetry, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop, is widely used. His most recent collections include The Gods of Rapture (City Works Press, 2006) and The First Noble Truth (University of Tampa Press, 2007).

His book of new and selected poems, Cherish: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from the University of Tampa Press in spring 2015.

In Memory of Steve Kowit

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury