The latest collection of prose and poetry culled from Bukowski’s writing centres on cats. To someone only aware of Bukowski’s reputation as a hard-drinking, womanising rebel this might seem an odd choice. Yet anyone who reads Bukowski cannot help noticing the writer’s sharp-eyed observation and acute awareness of suffering; this is apparent in On Cats. The poet’s subjects were often domestic, seen through the eyes of the poet at his desk or in his bed.
The book might be short but it is not slight. Bukowski’s attitude to cats varied. Sometimes sardonic and exasperated, he also mused (indirectly) about the cat as a guide and companion, admirable because of its independence and tenacity. Bukowski’s compassion for cats is also a reflection of his compassion for the outsider – the outcast battered by fortune and spurned by society. Bukowski’s cats were sometimes strays which bore the scars of hard lives on their bodies. Yet the cats in Bukowski’s writing are always cats. Bukowski’s reactions to cats are full of sentiment though he never anthropomorphises his subjects. He differentiates the characters of the cats. Bukowski’s affection for cats is also an aspect of his misanthropy; there is no contradiction in noting that Bukowski can be by turns a humanitarian and a misanthrope depending on mood and circumstance, very evident here. His tales about the cats, and living with them, can be touching, grandiloquent, gritty, comic and ironic. Included are photographs of some of the cats Bukowski writes about. Perhaps to sedentary Bukowski – his eye ever on competition and posterity – cats were to him what bulls were to Hemingway.
How does this book differ from those coffee-table books one finds promoted at Christmas: 100 Dogs in Art or Cats in Paintings at the National Gallery, where incidental details of paintings are compiled in picturesque manner? The very removal from context and turning individual elements into the centre of attention is a rather dubious practice, even disingenuous. It is not much different to editing Hamlet to make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern protagonists.
There are differences between extracting details of larger works and placing individual poems together. Poems have rather ambiguous statuses; they both stand alone and yet exist as part of the continuum of a poet’s output. They initially appear in magazines accompanied by a couple of other poems by the same poet and by a mass of other writers’ poems fairly random in subject, tone and technique; then they are published with the poet’s other poems in a book collection; maybe later still they are anthologised as a favourite example of the writer’s work. So in effect, poems are never written or read isolated but their context varies dramatically, the way individual paintings are exhibited and published in different contexts. To extend that analogy, we can say it is sensible and informative to exhibit Picasso’s paintings in an exhibition of his Blue Period or only still-lifes by Picasso, but does it make any sense to curate an exhibition Picasso paintings which include cadmium orange? Where does one draw the line between a meaningful category and an arbitrary one? By deciding to collect thematically or by subject (there is a definite difference between those) the compiler posits that there is a) a definite sub-category within the creator’s output, b) that we benefit from encountering these individual pieces together, c) that this recontextualisation does not create a misleading impression on to the individual pieces.
In the case of On Cats, can we say that Bukowski’s cat poems form a distinct group? Well, by subject alone, yes, there are a handful of poems that dwell upon Bukowski’s reactions to individual cats. These are supplemented by a story which features a cat, also extracts from letters discussing cats that Bukowski and his wife cared for. We do benefit from reading the pieces together not least because these poems and extracts are widely dispersed and some were unpublished, others were uncollected. The editor Abel Debritto points out that some of the previously collected poems were altered significantly between first publication and republication in collections, altered by an unknown hand. By republishing the original text, Debritto corrects the text in the absence any evidence that Bukowski made post-publication changes, putting the authentic text back into circulation. This continues Debritto’s commitment evident in On Writing (2015), where his editing methodology effectively rebuked (and replaced) the policy of excessive and interfering editing apparent in posthumously published Bukowski volumes.
It is the third point, misleading presentation, that is the most difficult to assess. There is no evidence that Bukowski ever considered themes or subjects especially important to presenting his writing, with the exception of Horsemeat, a collection of texts accompanying photographs of Bukowski at the racetrack, one of his favourite locations. That was published during his lifetime and with his co-operation. Bukowski’s lifetime poem collections were usually broadly catholic but collected poems of a recent vintage. What we imagine Bukowski’s feelings about a collection such as On Cats might have been is as irrelevant as it is moot. On Cats does not distort Bukowski’s writing by suggesting that the poet treated cats as a topic distinctly important compared to his many other topics. The fragmentary nature of the story, poems, letter extracts and epigrams does make clear that Bukowski never conceived of cats as distinct literary subject for him.
What this collection does is gather material on a certain subject and present it in book form. What we take from this book is not different in tone or style from what we might get from a multi-subject collection and that in itself shows that the editor’s approach is not distorting.
Charles Bukowski (Abel Debritto, ed.), On Cats, Canongate, hardback, 118pp, b&w illus., £12.99
My other Bukowski reviews
Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/