Steve Kowit Postscript: Walt Whitman’s butterfly

April 18, 2015

“That mischievous flight of felicitous whimsy”

Before I headed off to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California, I spent a few minutes working on my bookshelves at home. I have enough new books  that I simply must prune (de-accession?) the shelves! Sorting and re-shelving, I found that treasured gifts from other poets awaited me, especially a broadside from Steve Kowit entitled “A Whitman Portrait.” It’s a 55 line poem with a delicious sense of humor. Kowit loved to let other hoist themselves on their own petard, which in this case is their presumptuousness that the butterfly poised on Whitman’s finger in a photographic portrait taken of him in Camden in 1883 was “nothing but papier mache. Kowit’s poem is the pleasure of community formation at its best. Sure it’s an “us against them” poem, but those who have mocked the alleged artificiality of this portrait (with the implied contempt for Whitman’s sentimentality) deserve this rebuke, which also rebounds to us for the ultimate fate of this species. According to Kowit, ” high-resolution spectr0- / analysis proved what any fool could have guessed: / she was just what she seemed: mortal & breathing. / A carbon-molecular creature like us. Papilio / aristodemus, now all but extinct.”

Kowit’s critique of contemporary poetry is always already blunt and merciless. He was a poet whose eyes partook of “”that mischievous flight of felicitous whimsy,” but it must also be said that he saw no reason to spare the feelings of the Great Pretenders.

If it’s true there exist fake butterflies

cut out of paper & wire, my guess is

they belong to a later generation of poets.

I’ll leave you to figure out the ones who dedicate their lines to fake butterflies, but I don’t think such a project deserves more than a few minutes. Better to give yourself the pleasure of the company of Steve Kowit’s poems, which are more than willing to alight on your fingertips.

My retrospective thanks again to Steve, for sending me a signed copy of this broadside, dated 12-22-89. I think that may have been the year when Christmas looked fairly bleak. I was living with my first wife, Cathay, in our apartment on Hill Street in Ocean Park and my job as a typesetter did not pay very much. I remember that we probably had about $50 in our bank account on December 22, just enough to buy some basic groceries to get us through the month. We had not bought any Christmas gifts for each other, even tiny ones. I remember standing at the bottom of the staircase and starting to sort through a pile of old mail and assorted loose paper. I saw an envelope from a co-worker at Radio & Records for whom I had done some free-lance work, and I was one hundred percent certain that I had already opened it, but I took another look regardless and there was a simple sheet of paper in it with a notation of hours of work done and a check for well over $200. I couldn’t believe it. I suppose that moment was a holiday butterfly. Recollections of many holidays are a blur, but in that instance I still remember how the original expectations for the year’s final week made the outcome all the sweeter. I keep thinking at the present moment that there is some meaning I am missing about how one remembers eating well and having a small tree and a few gifts. Is it just nostalgia betraying me, another “bittersweet kaleidoscope”?