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Monday, April 4, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Charles Bukowski New Poems COME ON IN! Canongate Books Ltd, Edinburgh, 2006, 279 pages.

This is one of the many posthumous Bukowski books published by Ecco after they bought out Black Sparrow Press in 2002. The preface states officiously that ‘these poems are part of an archive of unpublished work that Charles Bukowski left to be published after his death.’ The book is edited by Buk’s long term editor John Martin and is a highly readable blend of poems which will not disappoint Bukowski’s ‘true believers’. The collection is not presented chronologically but provides an overview of the full gamut of Bukowski’s work. You will find here recollections from his childhood, fascinating anecdotes about writers, conversations with his fans, barkeeps, strangers, an eclectic mix of damaged women & also poems which document his struggle with cancer and his descent into death.

The title poem  'come on in' invites the reader into Bukowski's 'wormy hell' where the reader, like the poet is 'a pawn', 'a sucker'. The speaker makes a direct appeal to the reader, 'we need to discover a new will and a new/ way.' I'm not sure what Bukowski's new way is but he finds many inventive ways in which to entertain the reader through his use of humour, the crudity of his insights into humanity and his continuous experimentation with form, subject matter and point of view.

Bukowski is full of contradictions. He is disgusted by life around him but takes joy in being called a 'depraved' drunkard who calls 'every woman a whore' (‘my personal psychologist’). He hates people but craves their affections. He resists death but longs for its embrace. It is in the paradoxical interplay between humour and tragedy  that Bukowski  produces his best work.

On Writing

Much of Bukowski's appeal amongst underground writers results from his self conscious discussion of the writing process and the many satirical portraits of the literary world that he creates. Through his extraordinary determination and some help from 'lady luck' Bukowski was able to pave his own way as an imaginative writer and seventeen years after his death he still sells tens of thousands of books each year.  

He has many enemies of literature in his sights. Characteristically, Bukowski is scathing of academic verse and puts the boot into those who have sold out along the way by accepting comfortable university tenures. In ‘the "Beats"’ he is derisive that some people still connect him with Beat writers who he dismisses as vain and full of ‘public postering.' He views them as 'hucksters of the despoiled word' & clamoring for handouts,/ still talking the same/ dumb/ shit.' The poem ‘do you believe a man can be taught to write?’ is essentially a critique of the writing industry, particularly of MFA programs which work from the premise that any idiot can write. The hard hitting ‘a note upon modern poesy’ goes further by critiquing modern poetry in general- in particular, its reliance on literary allusion and obscurity. Bukowski sarcastically quips, ‘if you can’t understand a poem then/ it almost certainly is a/ good one.’ More to the point he argues that poetry is headed in the right direction ‘when your average garage mechanics/ start bringing books of poesy to read/ on their lunch breaks.’ In another venomous poem ‘talking about the poets’ he concludes that it ‘will be a beautiful day’ when ‘many a darling/ poet would either be allowed to/ starve or forced to get a/ real job.’ He outrageously states that they might be better off robbing banks or selling drugs.

More interesting perhaps are Bukowski’s views on his own motivations & writing processes. In ‘on the sunny banks of the university’ while considering the ‘comfortable’ poetry of an English Lit professor he quips:

I think good poetry should startle, shatter and,
yes, entertain while getting as close to the truth as
I can get all the comfort I need from a good

One of the best poems in the collection ‘200 years’ he clearly spells out how poetry differs from the factories and time clocks:

writing’s different, you’re floating out there in the
white air, you’re hanging from the high-wire,
you’re sitting up in a tree and they’re working at
the trunk with a power

A main message to readers is to ‘keep it going/ keep it/ hot’ (‘this machine is a fountain’) And ‘once the poem is written, the only need after that/ is to write/ another’ not to read it to other people (‘I’m not all-knowing but…’). In ‘Paris in the spring’ Bukowski explains that he never wrote for money ‘but to keep himself out of the madhouse.’

What I admire about Bukowski is that he understands the limitations of his writing but knows that the form he uses best suits his material. In an amusing conversion about Bukowski's alter ego Chinaski, an unknown third person speaker castigates the fictional writer  as having 'no idea what a stanza is/ or for that matter- a line break./ he just begins at the top/ of the page and runs to the/ bottom.' A common criticism of Bukowski's poetry is that it is merely prose dissected to resemble poetry. In 'from the Dept. of English' he thinks it is sweetly ironic that his poems have been accepted for the department's Literary Journal. His poems and stories are now regularly taught in universities around the world.

On Relationships

Bukowski’s poems about his relationships with women often raise charges of sexism because of his speaker’s blunt, egotistical views. The poems in this collection are hugely varied in their view of relationships and cover many of the author’s favourite topics- sexual attraction, infidelity, betrayal, unrequited love, incompatibility and love making. In ‘endless love’ he writes about a passionless married couple who have stayed together for ’60 or 70 years’ and have stayed together not out of love but because ‘fate / fear and/ circumstances have/ bound them/ eternally together.’ In ‘sex sister’ it is his girlfriend who is the sexual predator. She stalks him everywhere & later trashes his car. In the third person ‘fooling marie (the poem)’ he meets his archetypal woman at the race track- ‘strawberry blond with round hips, well-bosomed, long legs’. He wins big & after his fat frame mounts her ‘young marvelous’ body he takes a shower. When he opens the bathroom door she is gone and so has ‘his pants with the car keys and his wallet.’ In ‘red hot mail’ young women send the elderly poet suggestive letters. He trashes them and asks himself: ‘where were all these eager/ girls/ when I was starving, broke, young and/ alone?... I only wished now some lass had/ chanced upon me then/ when I so needed her hair blowing in my/ face/ and her eyes smiling into mine.’ Instead they left him sitting in tiny rented rooms ‘terribly alone with/ suicide mornings and/ park bench/ nights.’

Bukowski entertains us with his adult takes on relationships. This is not the messy, dragged out affairs which involve the children or grandchildren of real life, but rather Bukowski’s fantasy world which does not involve true responsibility or long-term commitment. As in ‘alone again’ the speaker thinks about past women in his life ‘living somewhere else/ sitting somewhere else/ standing somewhere else/ or maybe feeding a child.’ He directly addresses those women who think their relationship with him can be revived. The poem concludes harshly: ‘this poem will last much/ longer than we/ did.// it deserves to:/ you see/ its strength is/ that it seeks/ no/ mate at/ all.’ He seems to play the tough guy that he doesn’t need women while at other times he is so desperate to hear a female voice that he dials up an automated operator to listen to her announcing the time (‘operator’). Bukowski’s own life didn’t seem to have much long-term stability until he married Linda Lee in 1985 when he was sixty-five.

On Death

Many of the poems in this collection are contemplations of his certain death approaching, ‘towards the loss, the leaking away’ without god.  In 'to the ladies no longer here' while driving to the race track he finds temporary consolation in the thought that he is waiting for death, 'Death sits in the seat next to/ me// we make a lovely/ couple. In ‘hello there’ he jokes that ‘when death comes with its last cold kiss/ I’ll be ready:/ just another whore/ come to/ shake me/ down.’ More disturbing in 'hello and goodbye' he feels ‘stuck’ in his poor body & ‘poor life’ as it slowly dissolves into nothing. He exclaims, 'there's no hell like your own hell.' In 'alone in the chair' after a harrowing 'twisting/ screaming/ churning' pain inside his brain & guts he feels 'trapped like a fish to bake.'

He wavers between an acceptance of death and the joy that he is still alive. In 'hello there!' he says, 'when death comes with its last cold kiss/ I'll be ready.' In 'Sumatra Cum Laude' he says, 'you can only pray for a quick clean finish.' In a remission in 'another comeback'  he considers himself lucky to be able to climb 'back up out of the ooze, out of the thick black tar' and rise up like 'a modern Lazarus.' But inevitably, the pain returns and as in 'hurry slowly' the dark voices remind him he has lived too long & tell him to 'give way' and to 'get out.' The bleakest poem is 'the disease of existence.' He waits for death in his bed, feeling 'mutilated', but it won't come. He finds solace in the idea that death will bring 'that final separation' from humanity whom he despises, but in the waiting he feels more greatly 'dark humanity's/ insufferable/ relentless/ presence.'

In the end Bukowski must learn to balance the horror of waiting for death with his ‘endless determination to endure.' In ‘two nights before my 72nd birthday’ he mockingly suggests he ‘should be able to afford a decent burial.’ In ‘everything hurts’ as he senses his mortality, he appreciates more the ‘small things’ how everything around him ‘suddenly seem…new.’ Driving along streets, he watches people in their cars and he thinks; ‘each of them must finally/ die.’ In the last poem in the collection ‘mind and heart’ he anticipates his own death and appeals again to the reader:  'grieve not for me. /read/ what I’ve written/ then forget it /all’.


This is a solid collection which represents some of Bukowski’s last work, consciously written when he knew he was dying of cancer. He knows he has nothing to lose and continues writing for his growing readership. He writes about what he knows best- relationships, writing and the pain which will kill him and end all sensations, all memories. His writing is clear, accessible and always full of fresh insights and surprises. He is far more than ‘just a drunk who writes’ (‘Paris in the spring’). He is far more than an aberrant American voice who writes about whores and puking (‘I have continued on regardless’). Bukowski is a smart, funny, irreverent voice amongst a wasteland of conformity.