Book Review by Al Zolynas:
Steve Kowit, The First Noble Truth, University of Tampa Press, Tampa, Florida, 2007 (Winner of the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry), 78 pages.
How strange it is
to be here at all
talking to you like this
in a poem….
….how unspeakably odd everything is
Steve Kowit’s latest brilliant and moving book, The First Noble Truth, powerfully expresses a full range of human emotions and responses. Some poems are deeply elegiac, others deliciously erotic; Kowit can be mordantly satiric or lightly playful and humorous; he can express anger and outrage over political and social injustice; he can hold up human foibles and shortcomings to a penetrating eye, which he also never forgets to turn on himself as well; he can be deeply loving and compassionate, full of empathy for those less fortunate than himself. In the end, Steve Kowit’s poems always express a deep wonder at this universe and our essential suffering, fated as we are to experience the “rapture/ & grief of this world.” The First Noble Truth is a living log of his navigations of that paradoxical terrain.
The first of Gautama Buddha’s four noble truths states that life is suffering, dukka. In choosing The First Noble Truth as the title for his book, Kowit brings us back to that toughest of all insights over and over. The good and bad news of Dukka is that fully gotten, it opens us up, breaks our hearts even, renders us more compassionate; the denial of dukka keeps us stuck and encapsulated in our rigid ego-space, incapable of a wider and deeper consciousness, leaving us dangerous to others, to the world, and to ourselves. This knowledge of essential human suffering, according to Buddhists, prepares us for the other three noble truths which are not really separate from the first nor from each other. (Any movement “beyond” suffering can only take place “through” suffering; any “salvation” is only possible in the full embrace of this, this…what? To say “moment” tends to cheapen into pop Zen…. Better to say the “suchness,” the simple but mysterious “just-what-is-ness” of every arising occasion. All of Kowit’s main concerns and themes grow out of a deep realization of the first noble truth: the swift passage of time, the non-permanence of all form (the inevitability of aging, illness, and death), the fleeting nature of pleasure, the folly of much human activity and posturing, and the somehow deeply and mysteriously felt directive to awaken and to live a more compassionate and conscious life.
In a time when much “Contemporary American Poetry”—especially poetry tied to the Academy—is marked by ironic stances, by poets distancing themselves from their own vulnerable humanity and the sufferings of those around them, adopting this or that poetic posture and indulging in cleverness for cleverness’s sake, in obscure imagery and world-weary attitudes, Steve Kowit’s poems are the proverbial breath of fresh air—or blast of waking cold air, or balmy breeze of compassionate understanding, or just a nonsense-stripping powerful gust of wind. Depending on his mood and subject matter, Kowit can in short order make us laugh out loud, horrify and outrage us at our own cruelty, dazzle us with the painful beauty of this world, or suggest transcendent an immanent states of glory and delight. Kowit is never pathologically detached or distant. His poems always engage at direct and human level.
In the title poem, after describing a classroom discussion on the primacy of human suffering, Kowit ends with his central thematic insight:
to stop all this chatter, time to release the slew of us back
into this piercingly rapturous, inexplicably marvelous world—world
that is everywhere freighted with sorrow. Dukka: the First Noble Truth.
This dark note of inevitable human suffering and sorrow enters even a fanciful and humorous poem like “The Erased,” where Kowit imagines a marvelous pencil and its diabolical eraser, the pencil capable of putting out the finest verses ever—“Enchanting…melodic…unsurpassably deft”—the eraser immediately returning all the words to oblivion:
I have come to some
sort of uneasy peace with the whole unfortunate business,
understanding at last what should have been clear from the start—
that even more than that fabulous pencil itself
it’s that fiendish eraser—unwriting everything back into silence—
that makes it, when all’s said & done,
the very last word in both verisimilitude & perfection.
Steve Kowit’s humor is essential to his poetry and to our appreciation of it. Even as it strengthens the power of his central theme of human sorrow and suffering, it allows us some relief in its face—and, most importantly, saves us from the danger of wallowing in self-pity. Humor is that divine gift that allows mortals a certain distance, not a Godly and aloof distance but a little “step back,” as they say in Zen. Kowit’s pervasive humor reminds us that where we take ourselves too seriously, where we stay locked into our own limiting beliefs, where we close our hearts, we end up doing damage.
In “A Mania” Kowit satirizes the human tendency to seek for easy and comforting answers to life’s mysteries and sufferings in all sorts of delusional ways. But, just when you think he may have gone a little too far in attacking his fellow fallible humans, he makes the move that shows his own complicity, his own participation in the endless round of endless human folly: he includes himself as just as capable as the next person to go off track, just as liable to fall under the same kind of spells he’s accused his fellow humans of. The speaker of the poem confesses his own
to make love in a Pullman hurtling over the countryside
in a thundering downpour at midnight…
as if that, somehow, will save him.
In one of the truly hilarious poems in the collection, Kowit imagines a narrator, a former member of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s group of transcendental meditators, bringing a lawsuit against the venerable yogi for falsely claiming to have been able to teach them to literally fly during meditation. The narrator is speaking to the presiding judge at trial:
What we did Your Honor,
was hop up and down on the floor
with our legs pretzeled together
when what I had paid for
was for my parents to see me
sail gracefully over the rooftops…
The promised release of the kundalini “coiled serpent” at the base of the young narrator’s spine becomes, instead, more of a “horrible bedspring stuck to the seat” of his pants. Even here, despite the round mocking of the foolishness of someone who would buy in to that kind of promise, Kowit recognizes the painful and yearning human desire for the transcendent, that longing for a freedom,
like a bird that
had broken out of his cage….
In the tradition of satirists and humorists, Kowit also likes to turn the status quo on its head, as in the retelling of the Hamlet story. Hamlet, who remains unnamed in the poem, the nephew of Good King Clodysus (read, Claudius, of course), is re-envisioned not as Shakespeare’s noble “sonne of the deere murthered” king but as a deranged “bedlamite with all/ his florid, broody, overwrought soliloquizing” who causes nothing but mayhem and murder around him. Shakespeare—or the guy who was called by that name, or the “Ur” author of the original Hamlet—in this send-up narrative becomes “some befuddled hack.” So much for Elizabethan tragedy, the Bard of Avon, fatal flaws and nobility of purposes, etc.
In his mock-heroic “Invocation to My Muses,” where he imagines his poetic muses as two miniaturized, strip-teasing beauties in the transparent stem of a novelty pen with which he writes his poems, Kowit masterfully stirs together the fanciful and the humorous, the political and the satiric, the erotic and the spiritual:
when I spew forth my homicidal odes against the Pax Americana,
maledictions at the banks & the shenanigans of finance capital,
philippics on the snuffing of entire populations, strophes full
of weltschmerz & angst…
when I pen paeonics to the Absolute
those muses will be there to inspire him, and, if he stays faithful to them, he hopes and trusts their “sizzling, uninhibited striptease” will continue to inspire him to write poems
forever fecund, vibrant, earthy, gracious, steadfast, wise & strong!
Sweet dames, runne softly till I end my song.
Kowit can be chillingly serious as well, most often when he writes on political themes, or themes of social justice, or on animal rights—concerns and issues deeply close to his heart. In “Memorial Day,” he bemoans our cultural conditioning that from day one seems to foster an on-going glorification of violence and war even in the face of their relentlessly proven damages:
However dispirited by grief at the graves
of their fallen, the mother returns at last to her loom,
the father to his lathe,
& the inconsolable widow home to raise sons
ardent for the next imperial bloodbath
To me that last line echoes Wilfred Owen’s famous “to children ardent for some desperate glory” and puts Kowit firmly in the tradition of our best anti-war/pro-peace poets.
“For Chile” is a short but powerful poem on what leads people to throw off oppression’s yoke. As injustice grows,
of a man’s heart
becomes the heaviness
of his fist….
For anyone who wants to read Kowit at his politically most committed and passionate, I recommend getting your hands on a copy of his poem Intifada (Caernarvon Press, 2005, San Diego).
Steve Kowit’s concern for his fellow sentient beings (he founded San Diego’s first animal rights organization) is captured briefly and painfully in “That Dog,” the story of a young couple, in love, who come across a penned dog behind a hospital, but only years later realize what it was doing there, what lab experiments it was destined for. The poem ends with a statement of the lovers’ innocence, not as an excuse, but as a description of how much of the pain and suffering in this world is caused, or abetted:
enraptured & oblivious,
unconsciously innocent & young.
Also part of our human suffering, of course, though we tend to deny it, is our relationship to the erotic and the sexual, how we grasp after it mindlessly, how desire runs our lives, how that desire, at its heart, may also be part of our salvation. Not so much in its fulfillment (is it ever really fulfilled?), but in the recognition of eros as a fundamental force of nature with the power to move us out beyond our own self-imposed boundaries. Years ago, Steve Kowit began writing a series of poems which were “takes” or “afters” on ancient Indian, Mideastern, and classical erotic poetry. Many more of these (they are among Kowit’s most delightfully erotic poems) have been collected in other volumes. (See Heart in Utter Confusion, Dog Ear Press and The Gods of Rapture, San Diego City Works Press, 2006). His technique or strategy, as I understand it, was to read some of the old 19th century translations of these poems and then re-translate the poems into verse that was totally contemporary and idiomatic, unabashedly sprinkled with anachronisms, this last, a technique he uses frequently in the current collection—as in “Vivamus” where Catallus, in speaking to Lesbia mentions the crowd “reaping their nickel’s worth of pleasure,” or as in “Brief Note to Varus” where Suffenus imagines he’s a
shoe-in for a Lannan
Prize, MacArthur, & a Prix de Rome….
Like most of us males, Kowit has a bit of the voyeur in him. The following single-sentence poem is worth quoting in its entirety for its delicious gift of an unexpected glimpse of feminine beauty:
in the Florida night
& the neighbor’s daughter
steps out of a Chevy
on the pavement
leaning her weight on one hip,
adjusting her halter
& combing her hair in the moonlight,
a shower of scarlet,
of the Poinciana,
falling about her.
Equally realized in that poem is the heart-breaking evanescence of beauty, the brief passage of youth even as it flourishes gloriously in the immediate moment. Human suffering and sorrow again, dukka. Unavoidable, says Kowit, and we have to agree.
Along with the humorous, political, and erotic, Steve Kowit takes on other themes and issues. For example, aesthetics and poetics—or poetry’s relationship to the actual. Must poems adhere to the literal truth to somehow qualify as real poems? No, he says, but how he say it is what keeps us reading. His poem, “To Tell the Literal Truth,” is a tour de force on the nature of poetry and narrative. “…in art the literal truth doesn’t matter a bit,” he claims early in the poem and then goes on to tell the marvelous story of three poet friends on a hike, debating the relative merits of telling the literal truth in poetry or not. Hiking, in the high Cuyamacas or Lagunas, the friends are volubly debating away when they are suddenly stopped short by a long, impressive rattlesnake stretched across the hiking trail, taking in the last rays of the afternoon sun. One of the friends, acting decisively, swoops down on the snake and grabs it behind the head with thumb and forefinger (”the creature writhed in his hands, buzzed with her hideous/ rattles while she hissed with her godawful tongues”) and carries it to a nearby rock outcropping and releases it with a flick of his expert naturalist wrist, leaving the other two poets gaping in shock and disbelief. And then Kowit-as-narrator steps in to the poem and reveals that all was made up, all but the friends’ argument and the confabulation of parts of real events with pure inventions, bringing us full-circle back to the subject and quite disposing of the argument for “literal truth” in poetry. Most importantly, as readers, our having been totally caught up in the well-told story is the final proof of his contention.
Kowit occasionally enjoys revisiting and rewriting—or writing about, or writing to—classical myths, Bible stories, comic strips. He has Eurydice, for example, trying to explain her love for Orpheus—the poet, the lyre-ist, the Archetypal Artist, the innocent but heroic would-be savior of his loved one—whose tragic error was to glance at her before it was time. A mysterious myth and equally mysterious poem—they both say something about the power of art to heal and to kill, the mixed blessing and curse of the Artist’s double vision, which sometimes misses what’s right there for the thing that should be there, or could be there, or ought to be there. Or in the shortest poem in the book, “Theology,” Kowit sums up that large and wobbly topic with a brief Biblical allusion: “That Salome,/ she sure could dance.” Or, in “Bumstead,” he shows his sympathy for Dagwood, our American Everyman, “that latter-day saint/ of domestic virtue,” who like many of us in our middle years find ourselves “increasingly desperate for time”—and increasingly powerless to do much about it.
Steve Kowit has also written some truly lovely nature poems—or, more accurately, poems that take place in nature, usually on a hike—whether in the Andes or in his local turf among the Cuyamacas and Lagunas of Southern California. In these poems we always find that double vision: the achingly beautiful, the momentary release from the darker side of humanity’s shenanigans, but also the sense of nature’s creatures, too, “unreconciled to this world.” In “The Bridge,” he captures the sense of nature’s beauty, power, and ultimate mystery:
The world is opulent,
Still & all, its latter purposes
One of Kowit’s favorite rhetorical strategies is to address the reader directly: “sweet reader,” “friend” or “friends,” “you”—the effect is warm; we feel embraced by the poet’s essential friendliness, his sense of compassion for all of us in the end, even though at other times, he can verge on the misanthropic: In “Rest Stop,” for example, he envisions the desert remaining,
After we’re gone—not just this infinitely sanctimonious nation-
state, but the whole duplicitous, bloodthirsty human crew….
In “Translator’s Note,” addressing the reader as Friend, he apologizes for any of his failings as a poet, that is, if his words were incapable
of wrenching the spirit
to the rapture
& grief of this world
and as part of the trope claims his poems “in the original tongue” are “absolutely sublime.” In “Raven,” a lovely and heart-wrenching pre-mourning of his own death and a celebration of the nature left behind, Kowit reminds himself and us to truly be here:
sweet earth, for not being shaken more often
out of the heavy sleep of the self. Wake up!
Wake up! Scolds the raven, sailing off
over the canyon. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!
“Kelly Park” poignantly captures the bewildering and unbelievably swift passage of time as seen from the perspective of an aging man looking back on his boyhood. The central image is that of the momentary arc of a ball hit by a boy’s baseball bat:
At the crack of the bat, the ball at once
both rises toward the left field fence
& drops into a fielder’s waiting glove—
all this in one swift parabolic arc. Who
Could have guessed it would rush by so fast?
November. Brooklyn. 1950-something. Kelly Park.
Steve Kowit is a poet of genuine and deep human experience and feeling, one unafraid to explore and share the pains, joys and our felt mystery of being alive. I’ve read and loved his poetry now for some thirty years, and The First Noble Truth is a full flowering of his superb poetic gifts.
Al Zolynas was born in Austria of Lithuanian parents in 1945. After growing up in Sydney, Australia, he lived in Salt Lake City, and in Marshall and St. Paul, Minnesota.
He has a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA and PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. At various times, he has been a poetry editor, resident poet in the schools, Minnesota Out Loud Traveling Poet, volunteer for the Hunger Project, and Fulbright-Hays Fellow to India. Retired from teaching since 2010, he now has emeritus status from Alliant International University, San Diego.
Work by Zolynas has been widely published in journals and anthologies; and his books include The New Physics (Wesleyan University Press, 1979); Under Ideal Conditions (Laterthanever Press, 1994; San Diego Book Award, Best Poetry, 1994); and The Same Air (Intercultural Studies Forum, 1997). With Fred Moramarco, he is co-editor of Men of Our Time: An Anthology of Male Poetry in Contemporary America (University of Georgia Press, May 1992) and The Poetry of Men’s Lives: An International Anthology (University of Georgia Press, 2004), which won the San Diego Book Award for Best Poetry Anthology in 2005.
His works have been translated into Lithuanian, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Polish, the last by Czeslaw Milosz. He recently completed translating (from Lithuanian) the memoir, The Parallels of Dita: Surviving Nazism and Communism in Lithuania, by Silvija Lomsargytė-Pukienė and is seeking a publisher for the book.
Zolynas practices and teaches Zen meditation in Escondido, California where he lives with his wife and two cats.