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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Charles Bukowski Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed A Bit (1979) 125 pages.

This collection is slim in volume by Bukowski standards but contains a high proportion of gems. Many of the poems in this short collection were originally published between 1970 and 1979 in small press magazines such as Blitz, The Goodly Company, Hearse, Midwest, Ontario Review, The Other, Target and Wormwood Review. These are terse, tough poems by a poet at the height of his powers before he became soft through fame and especially by being discredited through the excessive  publication of inferior posthumous collections by Ecco.

Working Class Roots

Bukowski explores his working class roots in many of these poems including, ‘the souls of dead animals’. The poem is about how after working in the slaughterhouse all day he never showered with the boys. Instead he would sit in a bar and savor how the ‘blood-smell begins to fulminate/ and gain power.’ In ‘Yankee Doodle’ he reflects on a fellow factory worker Sully who retires after 40 years on the job. In contrast to him, the speaker, presumably Bukowski, continues to arrive drunk at work and is soon shown the door. In the more complex poem ‘claws of paradise’ he sums up how he was mastered ‘the hangover/ the tears’ and now ‘there is nothing to do/ but drink/ play the horse/ bet on the poem’.

Everyday Events

Some of the better poems are centered around simple every day events like observing the circular flight of pesky insects in ‘2 flies’, eating a piece of fruit in ‘apple’, going for a walk for lunch in ‘the sandwich’, getting his teeth cleaned at the dentist in ‘8 rooms’ or observing people shopping in ’59 cents a pound.’ What’s interesting about these narrative poems is you are unable to predict what is going to happen. The poems start with a basic premise but with Bukowski’s incredible imagination at work and drawing from his huge repertoire of experience you never know where you will end up.

Political Poems

Apart from the usual material describing his relationships with unusual women and men, his love/ hate of the race track and his occasional serious sicknesses, he also includes some rare political poems. In the poems ‘face of a political candidate on a street billboard’ and ‘the drunk tank judge’ Bukowski questions the ability of elitist politicians and judges to understand the plight of common people when they need to pass judgment on them. In the powerful poem ‘the proud thin dying’ he sympathises with pensioners who are trapped by inflation and starving, clutching onto outdated stoical  notions ‘that silence was bravery,’ who have to steal grapes in order to survive. In one of the best poems in the collection ‘dow average down’ he is more scathing of the system and its promises and lies and shonky practices to suck you in to make you ‘like everybody else.’

On Writing

Few writers wrote more explicitly about writing than Bukowski, and inevitably, you will find some in this collection. Notable is the clever meta-fictional poem ‘through the streets of anywhere’ which morphs on a variety of levels and makes the aching observation about humankind: ‘but we are all finally tricked and/ slapped to death/ like lovers vows, bargained/ out of any gain.’ In ‘interviews’ he complains that people often approach him to conduct interviews about his work yet he rarely sees the final product. Aptly, asked whether he has ‘any advice about writing/ poetry, it’s—don’t.’ In ‘nothing is as effective as defeat’ Bukowski satirises the typical advice given to young writers- ‘always carry a notebook with you’, ‘don’t drink too much’, ‘attend readings’. He concludes dismissively:

for a guy who couldn’t write at all
he was about like the rest
of them: he could sure
talk about

After reading many huge, sprawling post-death Bukowski poetry collections it is comforting to read his work from the 1970s when he was more vigorously alive, inventive, and still willing to take great risks and not truly giving a shit what the general community and publishers thought about his ground-breaking work. You will also find refreshing other early and now largely ignored publications such as Mockingbird Wish Me Luck (1972), and The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (1969).