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SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

The Box Elder Bug

by Steve Kowit

When Mary asks if the little bug that I’ve just carried safely out on a stick
& shaken into the garden was a box elder bug, I put down
the Union-Trib, clear my throat, & say in my most authoritative manner,
“It most certainly was a box elder bug.” She nods in that typical
wiseass way of hers & says, “I bet you don’t even know what a box elder
bug looks like,” to which I reply: “The box elder, commonly referred to by
entomologists as Leptocoris trivittatus, is a dark brown coreid with three
longitudinal red lines on the thorax and red veins in the first pair of wings.
“It feeds,” I add as an afterthought, “mainly on the leaves of the silver
maple, that is to say the box elder tree. Hence its name.”
Well, actually that’s what I would have liked to have said, but couldn’t
because in fact I had no idea whatsoever what a box elder bug looks like,
so I didn’t know if the beautiful little creature standing on its elegant black legs
that I’d just saved from the sharp claws of our cat Bert was in fact a box
elder bug or not. Nor did I know the box elder bug fed on the box elder tree,
or that the box elder tree was also a silver maple, at least not until I walked
into what I would like to call my study, that shamble of books & manuscripts
where, at my old Pentium 4, I looked up “Box Elder bug” on Britannica Online,
& saw at once from the photo that the creature I’d taken outside was not a box
elder bug. But more importantly, just about every box elder bug website
Google comes up with refers to it as a pest, & there are all kinds of instructions
on how to exterminate it, simply because it tends to winter in human houses,
though in fact it does no damage whatsoever. The worst it can be accused of
is crapping on draperies creating tiny spots that are hard to remove.
Well, to hell with the draperies. The poor little things don’t even damage the box
elder trees they like to eat from. In short that beautiful little box elder bug
is utterly harmless. If anyone’s a pest for chrissake it’s us, isn’t it? Homo
satanicus—our own sanctimonious, genocidal, torture-loving,
insecticide-happy, maniacally exterminationist species, a species that’Well,
don’t get me started. No, the bug I took outside & shook off that stick
wasn’t a box elder, though I have no doubt whatsoever that exquisite little fellow
with his red cap & long handsome legs was every bit as benign
& seemed, as I carried him out, full of dignity & grace,
despite what must well have been his perfectly understandable fear
that he was being carried to his doom, some wretched Gaza or Auschwitz
or Nagasaki for bugs, though he is in fact far safer outside
than in a house with seven rambunctious cats, & he won’t freeze this week:
it’s the evening of the first full moon of spring—
& the weather has turned absolutely luscious & the mountain lilac is in bloom
& the snowy alyssum & African daisies & every which
sort of miraculous tiny vivid wildflower here in the back country hills.
I mean our job is to look after each other, isn’t it, & save whomever we can.
Which is when, letting him drop gently into the grass, I look around at this world
for the first time all day: In the western sky, the darkening reds of dusk.
Tecate Peak, sacred Mt. Kachama, looming over the hills of Mexico. Then, back
in the house I sit by the fireplace beneath the photo of that old Palestinian
shoemaker that my uncle George took many years ago. On the mantel,
above my left shoulder, the Cambodian Buddha that Patrick gave me,
& on the chipped brick hearth by my left foot that little tin armadillo.
In the Union-Trib I am taking in the most recent horrors that our human brethren
have unleashed upon one another when Mary looks up from the book
she’s been reading & asks me if the bug I just took outside was a box elder,
& I nod, as I’ve already told you, in my most authoritative manner, & fold
the newspaper & clear my throat, & tell her that yes, it most certainly was.


—First published in Poetry International #17 (2011), which nominated the poem for a Pushcart Prize. Republished here from Cherish: New and Selected Poems by Steve Kowit (University of Tampa Press, 2015) with kind permissions from the publisher and Mary Kowit.

See also:

1. Details About “Kowit’s Korner” and The Kowit Prize (updated in SHJ:16)

2. A Tribute to Steve Kowit in The Sun (Issue 475, July 2015)

“...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