Bukowski: “Storm for the Living and the Dead”, book review

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Charles Bukowski (Abel Debritto, ed.), Storm for the Living and the Dead: Uncollected and Unpublished Poems, Ecco/HarperCollins, 2017, HB, 272pp, $25.99 ISBN 978 0 06 265651 3 (US version reviewed; British edition also available)

 

Storm for the Living and the Dead shows Bukowski at his earthiest, drunkest, most vulgar and most bawdy. The poet pukes, screws and argues; he sits in his room staring at his typewriter. He types as if he is manning the last remaining machine-gun on a high redoubt. His comrades Pound, Hemingway, Fante and Celine have all fallen and Bukowski is the last soldier left, gunning down opponents, knowing he will be next.

Bukowski’s ruminations on his past, his reputation and the approach of death dominate this new collection of previously uncollected and unpublished poems. It starts in 1959 and ends in 1994 with what is probably Bukowski’s final poem. To counter the posthumous editing which so neutered the collections published immediately after the poet’s death, editor Abel Debritto has transcribed the texts from original manuscripts and rare early chapbooks to give us Bukowski at his most pure. Topics covered include love, sex, gambling, drinking, writing and fatherhood. A parade of lovers, groupies, poets, editors and friends pass through the poems; few go unscathed. The most scathed is Bukowski himself. He shows his weaknesses and is weak enough to show himself grandiose, egocentric, petty, despairing, dying.

Charles Bukowski             disputes the indisputable

                                              used to work in the Post Office

                                              scares people on the streets

                                              is neurotic

                                              makes his shit up

especially the stuff about sex

 

Charles Bukowski             is the King of the Hard-Mouthed Poets

Charles Bukowski             used to work for the Post Office

Charles Bukowski             writes tough and acts scared

                                              acts scared and writes tough

                                              makes his shit up

especially the stuff about sex

 

Technically, the selection shows the breadth of the poet’s techniques. We have the standard Bukowski – free-verse, short lines, sparse capitalisation, clipped diction, telegraphic grammar. There are also rambling yarns – or shaggy-dog stories – as well as dialogue, paraphrase, letter-as-poem, poem-as-letter and other approaches which will surprise even seasoned Bukowski fans. The decision to transcribe exactly has paid off to show Bukowski unvarnished and experimental. “kuv stuff mox out” is a stream-of-consciousness flow where line ending sever words without hyphenation. There are cautionary tales, comic lampoons and family histories.

The collection has a number of multi-page apocalyptic fulminations against the madness of life. In these we have the sweeping array of the multitudes coming within the poet’s purview; “ice cream-men, necktie-salesman, corner paperboys, warehousemen, stockboys, messengerboys, pimps, elevator operators, plumbers, dentists, clowns, hot-walkers, jockeys, murderers (we’ve been hearing from the murdered), barbers, mechanics, waiters, bellboys, dope-runners, boxers, bartenders, others others others.” In other poems lists are of animals, activities and events. The dizzying list is one of Bukowski’s favourite approaches. Despite being too often an easy reach for the poet, it remains an effectively striking technique.

In many poems we find Bukowski sparring with the perennial heavyweights – Hemingway, Pound, Céline, Dostoyevsky and others – sometimes landing a stinging hook, sometimes coming out even or being outclassed. One of the more touching poems is “the way it goes”, about his writer friend John Fante, whom he greatly admired.

he wrote a clear simple line

a passionate line,

fine short stories and novels;

he was stricken late in life,

became blind, had both legs

amputated, and they kept cutting

at him…

 

While it is true that Bukowski had a large ego (and who, writing for publication, does not?), he admits as much and sometimes makes fun of himself. (In one poem Bukowski appears as a secondary character who the narrator rails against: “[that editor] prints Bukowski/so he’ll print anybody”.) Bukowski was also big enough as a man and a writer to pay tribute to his heroes. He also measured his work against theirs. One of the functions of the canon is to allow creative people to judge themselves against the best; another is that it offers the prize of immortality to those who measure up.

Some of Bukowski’s most effective poems are when he recounts events or recall people. “a rope of glass” is a beautifully concise yet descriptive poem which tells of an encounter with an old man on a train. The old man tells him about taking mules to the Italian front in the Great War.

we made bridges of rope from

mountain to mountain

always going up

and the mules pulled the cannon

across […]

when we got the cannon to the top

we pointed them down and

shelled the city below

us.

 

The sparseness and clarity is exhilarating. Some readers might wish this narrative prosodic mode appeared more often in Bukowski’s verse. Another fine example is a state-of-world poem (“Venice, Calif. nov. 1977:”) which compresses a set of observations of the Venice Beach into a single dense page. It is cynical, elegiac and pithy. It benefits from not having a grand theme and lacking the powerful emotion of poems such as “Dinosauria, we”.

Not all the poems connect. The poem about his father seems simply sour and self-regarding. Not that the poet should have been forgiving or modest, just that this poem failed. A handful of others seem slight (struggling with a typewriter ribbon, farting in the bath) or to be reworkings of ideas done better elsewhere. One rich premise falls flat: “the world of valets” is about the prosperous elderly Bukowski having power over valets while also submitting to their power, but it seems botched. On the whole, the quality is high. The inclusion of the poet’s comic drawings is welcome.

A number of very late poems show us the writer reflecting on his life and considering his own extinction. The title poem is one of Bukowski’s best late works. He describes being inside his house and hearing a storm outside. His wife enters his room and they talk. He feels cold. The sturm und drang has gone; “the party is over”. The storm has gone and Bukowski will follow soon enough. It is restated in a later poem:

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

is.