Review: Charles Bukowski, On Love

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Charles Bukowski (ed. Abel Debritto), On Love, 2016, Canongate, 216pp, pb, ISBN 978 1 78211 730 8

The third volume in the series of new publications of Charles Bukowski’s writings collects poems on the subject (loosely) of love. The new collections edited by Bukowski scholar Abel Debritto use original manuscripts or first printed appearances, usually in low-circulation poetry journals. Debritto correctly identifies serious editorial interference in the posthumous Black Sparrow Books of Bukowski’s poems and has taken pains to use Bukowski’s original texts where possible.

This is the first of the new series to contain no prose. It benefits thereby. Although Bukowski did publish a few mixed collections – and there are times when his verse turns conversationally prosodic – the changes in tone and density give those collections (and the recent collections) an odd fast-slow-fast feeling. The poems in this volume date from 1957 to 1993 and span the poet’s entire mature career. The poems are ordered chronologically. Some of the poems were not previously collected and a handful was never published at all.

The range of love here is great. The majority of these poems were written about and to Bukowski’s lovers. The most prominent among those are Jane Cooney Baker, Linda King and Linda Lee. There are two poetic eulogies to Jane, seared by grief following her death in 1962. He describes their bodies and snatches of dialogue suggest Bukowski’s relationships with them. Other women go unnamed in the poems and they may or may not be these prominent women in the poet’s emotional landscape.

There are poems of frank sexual excitement and reflections on the absurdity of sex. (These are the poems Black Sparrow decided not to republish.) There is a tender poem written about an anonymous pick-up. “I sit up in bed at night and listen to you / snore / I met you in a bus station / and now I wonder at your back / sick white and stained with / children’s freckles / as the lamp divests the unsolvable / sorrow of the world / upon your sleep.” Another recalls a stripper who enchanted the poet as an adolescent. Others are more passing acquaintances. There the regret about a relationship ended by an argument is more self-centred, like that of a gambler misplaying a hand of cards. Bukowski does not always come out of the poems looking so gallant, which the poet knew well enough. Bukowski is always willing to tell tales against himself for the sake of an insight into human behaviour – or just to raise a smile.

As it turns out, the most delightful and unalloyed poems are to the poet’s only child, Marina. He writes of her as an infant, a child, an adolescent and a woman. The poems document their mutual affection despite Bukowski’s difficult relationship with her mother (“old snaggle-tooth”), who also has some poems to her in the collection. Bukowski’s own parents are mentioned but bitterness towards a bullying father, and a mother who would not take young Bukowski’s side, lasted until the end of Bukowski’s life.

Bukowski writes of his first love – reading – and of other strong bonds of affection, to his typewriter and the “unbelievable gallantry” of his old car as it is towed away to the scrap yard. He writes a eulogy to a trap-driver who raced in Los Angeles at the tracks Bukowski frequented. It is odd that there is no poem specifically about his love for horseracing, but that poem “a magician, gone” stands as a tribute to the sport he loved and the respect he had artists in all fields. The perennial favourite “the bluebird” is included. It is one of his most touching poems, sad in its joyfulness, shot through with loneliness and fierce protectiveness. “there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I pour whiskey on him and inhale / cigarette smoke / and the whores and the bartenders / and the grocery clerks / never know that / he’s / in there.”

The selection is fitting, as it includes favourites (such as “for Jane”, “shower”, “the bluebird”) and unknown poems; it covers the major figures in Bukowski’s life and hits notes of pathos and hilarity. The decision to order chronologically has its drawbacks (one cannot read poems about one period or one lover, as they were written at different times) but we do see Bukowski’s concerns change as he ages. At the end he writes a heartfelt message to his future widow, which makes a fitting ending. Throughout the book are (black-and-white) illustrations of photographs and Bukowski’s own paintings and drawings. The famous Bukowski cartoon protagonist Hank makes many appearances – lumpen, laconic, lecherous and laughable.

The collection is fine, readable and accessible, yet has a single flaw: it is simply that it is thematic. With the exception of a collection of writings on horseracing, Bukowski himself never published a collection on a single subject. His range is part of his outlook; he wished to be able to cover life in the telling vignette and also to provide the vast and grandiose overview of humanity. He wanted to write about crowds, cities, ages, civilisations and philosophy as well as writing about a man and a woman in bed together, the dog in the street, the man at the typewriter. Bukowski’s urge was not only to encompass the grand and intimate but to be able to do so – if he wished – in a single page and for that reason the approach of any thematic collection is inappropriately limited for a writer such as Charles Bukowski.

But never mind. This is a bracing, amusing and enjoyable collection of Bukowski’s poems faithfully presented as he wrote them. And that is good enough to unhesitatingly recommend On Love.

24 September 2016

My other Bukowski reviews

On Cats: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/review-charles-bukowski-on-cats/

On Writing: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/charles-bukowski-distortion-of-a-dissident-poet/17405#.WJbosPl_s5k

Essential Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/book-review-essential-bukowski/

Changes to posthumous publications by Bukowski: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/changes-to-posthumously-published-poems-by-charles-bukowski/

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