Panhandling the ocean with Bukowski’s double
I have always read poetry, since I began reading poetry in any notable volume, in a manner analogous in my mind to the panhandling prospectors of old. Reading swiftly, not holding on to the sediment of words too tightly, often turning the pages to give the phrases a shake in order to see what might be dislodged and waiting, for gold, waiting for a title, a word, an image to really take hold, to sink in the pan and invite me to touch it. After it has sunk in, I focus and read that particular poem several hundred times, turning the raw metal of the words over and over in my brain pan, often to the detriment of the rest of the book, always beginning by thinking about why it was that the poem stuck out.
I have no idea whether this is a good way of reading poetry, or if it is really reading at all in some sense but I think it came about for me for two reasons: the first being that reading poetry is hard, almost without exception, and reading in this manner, though it came about in an entirely natural way, is a reflection of my own ability to manage this difficulty, to allow the efforts of my attempt at understanding, however misguided it might turn out to be, to be something whose surface, whose pool of words, had already sought my attention. The second reason I would attribute to the development of this approach to reading is that when, in my teens, I began to read poetry regularly, the first poet I read in any great volume was Bukowski.
Bukowski’s poetry was something I devoured. His restricted vocabulary and ‘loose’ poetic style were the perfect complement to my burgeoning adulthood and the subject matter is, of course, something which can enthral any adolescent. I was transfixed by the oscillating emotional states, the juxtaposition of the lust for rebellion and the pure light of dropping out, and the raw vitality that seeped out from his collections in a mire of classical music, sex, women, alcohol, writing and gambling.
Transfixed is a good way to describe the state of reading his work. It induces a soft, trance-like state, a soft glassy look resembling nothing so much as someone deciphering a magic eye puzzle, keeping the reader at a distance from the words as they are and trying to view a glinting grain that moves between them. One feels as though the words are a porous membrane, allowing the direct passage of the sediment of knowledge between writer and reader.
But what always struck me most was the almost uncontrollable desire for speed his work contained. Bukowski’s words wanted to be read quickly. Each stylistic element: the open spaces and stunted narcotic lines slipping away down the page, the repetitious actions, the sense of a body functioning behind the words, all work to enhance this effect but every once in a while a lump of text would stick, catch me completely off guard, the mud would fall away and I would not be able to go any further. I had struck gold. This dualist oscillation between velocity and slowness became its own pattern.
The first poem of Bukowski’s which had this effect on me, and which remains one of my favourite poems, is this one from Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame :
i met a genius
I met a
genius on the train
about 6 years old,
he sat beside me
and as the train
ran down along the coast
we came to the ocean
and then he looked at me
it’s not pretty.
it was the first time I’d
From the very first reading this poem sticks out from those around it, with its overtones of nostalgia and the cliché of the honesty and lack of artistry of children, and its obvious lack of any of the more ‘commonly identifiable’ Bukowski traits for the reader to latch on to: women, writing, alcohol etc. However I believe this poem offers a great deal of insight into Bukowski’s writing process, his enduring appeal and his talent as a poet. This is a poem which is unafraid of cliché. It takes the stark honesty of children, the ability of the young to reveal things to the old, to provide them with knowledge, and lays it bare.
This poem is, itself, a memory. It contains the sentiment and nostalgia for the past which are so often the features of remembrance. It is meant to glitter in the dirt: the poem which precedes it and the poem which follows it are called ‘shot of red-eye’ and ‘poverty’ respectively and contain subject matter much more in keeping with the commonly identified image of Bukowski as a writer. This poem actively undermines this image whilst concurrently supporting it: knowingly presenting the misty-eyed moment of sentimentality from the life-long drunk. This doubling pokes fun at Bukowski’s body of work as a whole, a body of work whose initial appeal and whose conveyance of a desire to devour it, to read as much as possible, is so closely tied to the idea of a particular body behind the work: that of the author himself. That an authentic portrayal of Bukowski himself seems so clearly to be functioning to behind the words: the drunk, the imposing savage, the womaniser and gambler, the violent outcast is both necessary for the work and, of course, entirely fictional at the same time.
One sees the doubling again in the image of the ocean, which here functions a manner resembling Bataille’s in his essay ’Rotten Sun’. Bataille conceives of the sun as double: one is the highest conception of elevation for humanity, impossible to look at and connected to the highest spiritual elevation and serenity, the other, the one which is scrutinised and focussed on fixedly, implies madness, blindness and violence. Bataille cites the myth of Icarus as exemplary of this double relationship: the first sun being the shining object at the beginning of his elevation, the other which melts the wax and causes a violent fall when Icarus gets too close.
The sea here too is double. It is an object which has held human attention for millennia: it flows through human history and poetry more strongly than almost anything else. It is the focus of dreams and memories, one of the principal sites of the formation of nostalgia. The oceans, the sea, have been described for aeons in a multitude of fashions: sometimes terrible, violent, other times sexual, exquisite, other times calming, nullifying, but always dominant, thought of in absolutes. But there are two oceans, just as there are two suns, the obliqueness employed in holding the sea as this all-encompassing ideal is not to prevent, as in the case of the sun, the blind madness of staring into it directly, but its ordinariness. In essence Bukowski’s sea subverts the previous doubling, critiquing the two absolutes as being tied up in the same intensity which threatens to distort the far more disturbing notion of its banality. Once this has been revealed it can shift the sea’s power: those hypnotic, trance-like states it seems capable of inducing, those moments where, if one stares too long, as Monica Vitti’s character in Deserto Rosso (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1971) asserts: ‘you forget what’s happening on the land’, may be a result of the ocean being ordinary rather than all-powerful.
The effect of this is ultimately to both support and undermine the method of reading I outlined above. Bukowski is a writer, one whose work would not be so enduring if it did not contain something universal and this poem functions as a coda, a rupture in the fabric of the authors presence which both understands the pace at which the reader might skim across the poems and, in its exposure of its falsehood, demands that attention be given back to that which seems merely to be a continuation of the pulsating ‘Bukowski adventure’. In ironising his presence then Bukowski only serves to highlight his absence and recasts the attention to where it should be: on his words. This life the reader is presented with may be composed from mostly filth, rejection, death, illness, violence, and there may be moments, brief flickers, glittering like gold in the pan to break this cycle but this gold must cast new light on all the dirt that was initially rejected: these nuggets are there to remind the reader that what these works are really composed of, what makes them ‘live’ is not the author’s lifestyle but his language.
In the dualism of speed and slowness that pulses rhythmically in Bukowski’s work, the dualism of gold and dirt, of writer and written, a complex pattern establishes itself which lends this dislocated approach to reading a powerful glimmer all of its own.