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SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

[Portfolio One: Nine Poems]

by Steve Kowit

The Dumbbell Nebula The First Noble Truth The Gods of Rapture:
Poems in the erotic mood
Cover photo of The Dumbbell Nebula by Steve Kowit Cover photo of The First Noble Truth by Steve Kowit Cover photo of The Gods of Rapture by Steve Kowit
The Roundhouse Press (2000) University of Tampa Press (2007) San Diego City Works Press (2006)



The Blue Dress

When I grab big Eddie, the gopher drops from his teeth
& bolts for the closet, vanishing
into a clutter of shoes & valises & vacuum
attachments, & endless boxes of miscellaneous rubbish.
Grumbling & cursing, carton by carton,
I lug everything out:
that mountain of hopeless detritus—until,
with no place to hide, he breaks
for the other side of the room & I have him at last,
trapped in a corner, tiny & trembling.
I lower the plastic freezer bowl over his head &
slam the thing down.
                                                    “Got him!” I yell out,
slipping a folder under the edge for a lid.
But when I open the front door, it’s teeming,
a rain so fierce it drives me back into the house,
& before I can wriggle into my sneakers,
Mary, impatient, has grabbed the contraption
out of my hands & run off into the yard with it, barefoot.
She’s wearing that blue house dress.
I know just where she’s headed: that big
mossy boulder down by the oleanders
across from the shed,
& I know what she’ll do when she gets there—hunker
down, slip off the folder,
let the thing slide to the ground
while she speaks to him softly, whispers
encouraging, comforting things.
Only after the gopher takes a few tentative steps,
dazed, not comprehending how he got back
to his own world, then tries to run off,
will she know how he’s fared: if he’s wounded,
or stunned, or okay—depraved ravisher
of our gladiolus & roses, but neighbor & kin nonetheless.
Big Eddie meows at my feet while I stand
by the window over the sink, watching
her run back thru the rain,
full of good news. Triumphant. Laughing. Wind
lashing the trees. It’s hard to fathom
how gorgeous she looks, running like that
through the storm: that blue
sheath of a dress aglow in the smokey haze—
that luminous blue dress pasted by rain to her hips.
i stand at the window grinning, amazed
at my own undeserved luck—
at a life that I still, when I think of it, hardly believe.


—Previously published in The Dumbbell Nebula (The Roundhouse Press, 2000); republished here by permission from Mary Kowit
See also Steve Kowit Reads The Blue Dress, a video shot at Ducky Waddles Emporium Book Store in 2011; Steve and Mary had been married 48 years at the time of his death.



If she denies it she is lying—
there were witnesses:
two purple gallinules
among the spatterdock;
a heron,
standing motionless
on one long
reed-like leg;
& silver minnows
in the moon-drenched waters.

after Kapilar


—Previously published in The Gods of Rapture: Poems in the erotic mood (San Diego City Works Press, 2006); republished here by permission from Mary Kowit




The trouble with me is I have a low metaphysical threshold.
When I’m told the bicameral mind can never know things in themselves,
I shake my head gravely...but simply out of politeness.
Frankly, the conflict between the noumenal & phenomenal worlds 
means nothing to me whatsoever.
Is perceptual knowledge constrained by the categorical space
in which language unfolds,
or is Absolute Is-ness provoked by the Relative Ought?
“Well, I’d never quite thought of things in that light..”
I stammer & cough. I help myself to the cheese dip.
Perhaps I’m obtuse, but I could never recall whether it’s Essence 
that precedes Existence, or the other way round.
The fact is I’d rather my pinky get slammed in the door of a semi
than argue over the epistemological underpinnings of post-deconstruction,
whether signifiers are self-referential, or meaning culture-specific.
It’s knotty alright, I say, stifling a yawn.
The question of course is who is that redhead,
the one at the other end of the room with the lavender
lipstick & radical décolletage?
& why at these awful soirees do I always get stuck among the professors?
If it isn’t free will, they are beating to death the mind-body dilemma,
the transcendental nature of Time, that gut-wrenching issue:
does or does not the external world really exist?
Ah, now she is crossing her legs!
I help myself to the pretzels. I pour some more wine.
Let them build the City of God out of earwax & toothpicks without me.
And what, pray tell, is the meaning of Meaning?
Are Existence & Nothingness one & the same?
And how in the Bright Night of Dread does the body of Ontic Being arise?
I shake my head, as much as to say I too am perplexed.
Politeness itself, I am loathe to point out that perhaps what we need
is more daylight & less metaphysics.
As if this world isn’t perfectly real as it is, or as real as it gets,
they want us to think that the world behind it is better,
that the dead are elsewhere & happy,
that our loved ones are waiting for us on the other side of samsara.
As if that sort of cerebral monoxide could stifle
the groans of the dying, the winds of disaster, the weeping
that’s left here behind us. & still they go on.
Armageddon itself would not be enough to dissuade them!
Is Spirit immortal? Do dreams occupy space?
Is the universe purposeful, random, unbounded, autogenous, finite, alive?
Is death an illusion? Or simply another sort of beginning?
A journey indeed—but whither & whence?
Yes, yes! I say, my head spinning.
It’s utterly fascinating! Who would have guessed it!
Far off in the night, a coyote howls at the moon.
I have by now finished the cheese dip, the pretzels, the wine.
The lickerish redhead has long since slipped off
on the arms of her lover—some young, good-looking swine.
I rise with a hundred regrets, thanking my hosts,
zipping my jacket, & spouting farewells in every direction:
It’s certainly something to ponder, I tell them,
but really, I have to get going.
It’s late & tomorrow I’m up bright and early.
A marvelous evening! Your quiche by the way was divine!


—Previously published in The Dumbbell Nebula (The Roundhouse Press, 2000); republished here by permission from Mary Kowit



The Prodigal Son’s Brother

who’d been steadfast as small change all his life
forgave the one who bounced back like a bad check
the moment his father told him he ought to.
After all, that’s what being good means.
In fact, it was he who hosted the party,
bought the crepes & champagne,
uncorked every bottle. With each drink
another toast to his brother: ex-swindler, hit-man
& rapist. By the end of the night
the entire village was blithering drunk
in an orgy of hugs & forgiveness,
while he himself,
whose one wish was to be loved as profusely,
slipped in & out of their houses,
stuffing into a satchel their brooches & rings
& bracelets & candelabra.
Then lit out at dawn with a light heart
for a port city he knew only by reputation:
ladies in lipstick hanging out of each window,
& every third door a saloon. 


—Previously published in The Dumbbell Nebula (The Roundhouse Press, 2000); republished here by permission from Mary Kowit



Vintage photo of Steve Kowit in his twenties
Vintage photo of Steve Kowit reproduced here with permission from Mary Kowit

202 East 7th

Now & again I catch myself staring back into that world,
decades gone. Cassidy is defending the Chinese
Revolution, arms crossed over his lean, naked chest.
He is 20, agitated of course, but laughing, nevertheless,
as he paces the room. From a chair in the corner,
Doug Reisner’s hoarse, equivocal chuckle, & Lenny
is grinning, delighted, & Murray, laconic as ever, nodding
his head. That quiet, measured womanly voice is Susan
Hartung’s. Outside, the blazing white impossible glare
from the street, & more dimly lit than I guess it must really
have been, the narrow, endless tenement stairway I climb
to that earlier life, in this waking dream, again & again.


—Previously published in The California Journal of Poetics (December 2014); republished here by permission from Mary Kowit



A Betrayal

A friend I hadn’t seen in more than three decades wrote
to tell me he had just remarried & was finally happy;
this followed by a long denunciation of his former wife,
whom I had known back then when all of us were young,
& who, through tireless manipulation & deceit (or so
he claimed), had won full custody of the kids,
thus ruining two decades of his life. “She wouldn’t
even show me the room where they slept,” he wrote,
“or offer me a cup of water from the kitchen tap."
I was shocked, though at the same time could not help
but think back to that afternoon a few weeks
after their first son’s birth when my friend had dropped by,
exuberantly happy, & in the midst of kidding about how
little sleep they were getting, mentioned, in passing,
that they had taken Sasha, their lovable Irish setter,
back to the pound: “With an infant in the house...” he started
to explain—the way one might about a troublesome TV
or a sofabed returned for taking up too much space in the den.
I stood there stunned. “But...why...didn’t you find her another
home?” I tried to keep my voice under control.
“You know as well as I do at those places only puppies
get adopted. She’ll...she’ll be put down.”
It came out broken. I could hardly wrap my mouth
about the words. “Oh, not at all,” he laughed. “Sasha’s
so adorable she’s bound to find a family that will take her in!”
He shook his head with a dismissive grin & then went on
about the endless pleasures of his infant son, & I said
nothing further. What more, I’d like to know, could I have said?
By the time I was done reading his letter, the sun had set.
I sat there for a long moment, then read it through
a second time, trying, this time, to be as careful as I could
not to betray our friendship, to keep in mind what a fine,
decent, well-intentioned fellow he had always been, & all
that he had evidently suffered. Though it didn’t work. Sasha
kept pacing back and forth across the cage of that
disquieting letter, pausing now & then to lick the back
of my right hand. She could not comprehend what had happened.
Had she done something wrong? Where were those humans
she had loved so much, those humans who had seemed
so trustworthy & generous & kind? I folded up his letter,
set it down, & watched through the west window bands
of violet & magenta spread across the summer dusk & darken.
Try as I might, however earnestly I wished him well in his new life,
it smolders in me still—that old, unspoken, unforgiving anger.


—Previously published in The First Noble Truth (University of Tampa Press, 2007); republished here by permissions from Mary Kowit and U of Tampa Press



The Black Shoe

A couple of newlyweds, up at the Del Mar station, 
saw the woman stumble & fall, & ran back 
to pull her to safety, the train bearing down. 
For a thousand feet north of the point of impact, 
investigators found parts of a briefcase, sketches 
of gowns, a low-heeled black shoe. From 
the White House, the President screaming for blood.
A quarter million American boys already shipped
to the Gulf. No doubt some of the kids
from the base: Mike Santos & Tracy & Kevin, horsing
around like they used to in class—a football
spiraling over the Saudi Arabian sands. At night,
unable to sleep, tossing in bed, I hatch extravagant plots 
to bring the ship of state down. I am determined 
that not a single one of my students shall die; 
not a single Iraqi infant be orphaned
or murdered. Such are the feverish thoughts 
that spin through my head in that fugue state
before sleep lifts me out of myself & carries me off.
In the morning, however, it isn’t the President
circled by microphones screeching for war
that throbs in my head, but that unstoppable train
& the fact that both women were killed: the one
who’d just gotten married, reaching her arms
to the arms of the one who had stumbled
& fallen. It won’t let me rest. That briefcase.
Those bloody sketches of gowns. The black shoe.


—Previously published in The Dumbbell Nebula (The Roundhouse Press, 2000); republished here by permission from Mary Kowit



Will Boland & I

stroll from Dog Beach down to Cape May, grumbling 
over this nation’s inexhaustible 
predilection for carnage: the mask of rectitude 
painted over the skull of vindictive rage. 
It is midwinter, the beach all but deserted:
an elderly gent walks an elderly golden retriever; 
a family of four is out hunting for shells; 
two good old boys chugging their Michelobs 
take in the last of the sunset: 
down at their feet, Iwo Jimaed into the sand, 
a colossal American flag 
that they’ve lugged down here to the beach 
with their cooler of beer to cheer on the home team. 
Night & day, on the other side of the world, 
daisy-cutters are pounding a village 
to shambles, bathing the landscape in blood. 
Women crouch in the rubble rocking their dead.
                                        —Listen, I say to Will. 
E. O. Wilson can swear up & down there are species 
of ants even more compulsively homicidal 
than man; I, for one, remain unconvinced. 

Above us, that gorgeous midwinter dusk. 
At our feet, the Pacific, ablaze in magentas & red. 
True enough, he ventures, but Steve, you’ve got 
to admit we’re just as much a part of this world 
as anything else...& maybe, 
in some crazy way, marvelous too!
                                                I shrug. 
We walk on in silence.
A couple of high school girls, 
frolicking in & out of the surf, smile up at us sweetly.
                        A part of this world, yes, I snarl back. 
But surely the ugliest part!—the words hardly 
out of my mouth when those two young women, 
now twenty yards or so down the beach, 
suddenly fling open their arms, rise to their toes, 
leap into the air, & float there—angelic...unearthly... 
impossibly luminous creatures, alighting 
at last in a dazzle of pirouettes & glissades, 
only to rise up into the air again & again, while Will 
& I stand there—dumbfounded, grinning, amazed.
Under the flare of the night’s first stars 
each grande jete more splendid, rapturous, 
vaulting! Two ardently schooled young ballerinas, 
silhouetted against the indigo flames 
of the darkening western horizon. 
The last of the light of this world setting behind them. 


—Previously published in The First Noble Truth (University of Tampa Press, 2007); republished here by permissions from Mary Kowit and U of Tampa Press



Let the flame of my passion
glow in the eyes of my beloved.
Let it illuminate our path.
Let the liquid
of which our bodies are composed
be at once the river refreshing us
& the well
at which we quench our thirst.
Let our spirits be the air
we breathe
& thru which we move
till we are no longer ourselves,
& I lie by my beloved’s side
in the earth.
Let our dusts be one.


after Govindadasa

—Previously published in The Gods of Rapture: Poems in the erotic mood (San Diego City Works Press, 2006); republished here by permission from 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