“Baby . . . I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.” — Bukowski, Factotum
As a bottom-feeding, hardscrabble Walt Whitman, Bukowski sang of himself, incessantly, with a volcanic chip on his shoulder. He was determined to be heard, recognized, affirmed—Charles Bukowski Wuz Here stamped on Eternity’s forehead. He coerced you to see life as a cruel and dirty joke that he was in on, and often felt himself to be the butt of, and he would play the page like a blowsy stand-up comedian with too much acid in his diet. He was a living room Pulcinella with a beer-gut, a literary W.C. Fields tossing water balloons and Molotov cocktails with sardonic glee. And yet, much like a comedian whose routine never strayed too far from its chafed heart, from its wounded “bluebird,” Bukowski had the genuine knack of unlocking pathos in a single line or turn of phrase. There was a “knowing” to Bukowski’s writing, a sadness that always leaked out to soften the rough and bestial edges. Like a little kid who builds sand castles by the shoreline so as to delight not only in the act of creation but also the inevitable destruction by waves, Bukowski, in his stories and poems, would inflate his persona, only to stick a pin in and invite you to experience the deflation with him, to become intimate party to the willed ego-puncture. All of that is on display in Storm for the Living Dead, a new volume of uncollected and unpublished poems.
Bukowski expert, Abel Debritto, curated this collection from over 2,000 “found” poems, many of which were culled from small or obscure magazines, others that were salvaged from the shadow-life of private collections and archives. Bukowki’s primary themes—sex, love, failure, literature, poverty, gambling, drinking, and madness—are cleanly and sharply rendered through a tragicomic lens, and the collection as a whole could be interpreted as “A Life in the Day of Charles Bukowski.”
Bukowski turned his life into literature. He was exclusively and unrepentantly the anti-hero of his own myth, and he concretized this by writing.
At times, Bukowski’s huff-and-puff chauvinism comes across as puerile and old hat, and yet, paradoxically, there is a refreshing quality to writing that wears its Un-P.C. on its stained sleeve, especially in these times of watchdog morality and cyber-whip-crack judgments doled out in the kangaroo courts of social media. Bukowski was sweet. Bukowski was a prick. Bukowski loved women. Bukowski feared and despised women. Bukowski thought he was God’s (or the Devil’s) gift to literature. Bukowski thought he was a piece of shit. All of it—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the divine—is there, in the poems, a congealed mixture of messy humanity. Love it or hate it, take it or leave it—it is unmistakably there.
Some of his poems which double as reverential nods to other writers and artists, belie an easygoing intimacy and familial closeness with his artistic kin.
Mrs. Carson McCullers is
long dead now
of drink and
greatness, and the heart still sails like a
Dante, baby, the Inferno
is here now.
and people still look at roses
punch time clocks
buy homes and paintings and cars;
people continue to
everywhere, and the young look around
that this should be a better place,
as they’ve always done,
and then gotten old
and played the same dirty game.
Here’s the thing about Bukowski: he was a writer whose simple and direct style (and lifestyle) convinced many would-be or wanna-be writers, particularly male ones, that they could do what he was doing. Men who thought that drinking, sexism, clowning, and generally acting like an asshole, somehow functioned as literary qualifiers in the Bukowski School of Writing, and throughout the years magazines and open mics have been littered with third-rate knockoffs and eunuchs posturing as studs. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also responsible for a lot of soulless writing.
Bukowski turned his life into literature. He was exclusively and unrepentantly the anti-hero of his own myth, and he concretized this by writing. A lot. Through thick and thin, he was dedicated to the craft of writing, to his quest for the immortality that he believed was his mantle and birthright. Or as he trumpets in the poem, “the only life”:
oh, I had an apprenticeship, I did, and now I’ve had a bit of
luck, some are beginning to think that I can write, but
actually only the writing is the thing, now as it was then,
whether yes or no or in between, it’s only the writing, it’s
the only go when all else says stop
Some of the most beautiful moments in this collection occur when the braggadocio is turned off, the lights grow dim and hazy, and from out of silence and softness emerges the bruised gospel of a cornered mortal:
I see the gap I must leap, and I will be strong
and I will be kind, I have always been kind,
animals love me as if I were a child crayoning
the edges of the world,
sparrows walk right by, flies crawl under my eyelids,
I cannot hurt anything
I cannot even in the bloody grief
this is more than just a scripture inside my brain—
(“I was shit”)
warble in the blackbird of my night,
warble in the note,
my country’s tall for falling
the rust of days
from Moscow to New York
adds a terror of hours
but I do not complain
the ten thousand kisses
or the sticks and stones
or broken Rome,
but I wait your note,
my fingers scratch
this sunlit table
In the poem “now,” penned in the twilight of his life, Bukowski is more Issa than he is Villon, as he reflects with plaintive and Zen-like resignation:
you’re tired enough to listen
you’re an old man in a chair
in a yard
in the world.
a leaf drops on your white belly
and that’s all there
And so, for those who like beer with their enlightenment, burlesque with their Mahler, and excrement with their crosses, Storm for the Living and the Dead may be the ideal stocking-stuffer this holiday season.
John Biscello is Book Critic at Riot Material magazine. Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, Mr. Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. To see more of his work, visit johnbiscello.com