Seventy years had passed before the Prussian-American Charles Bukowski entered my life. (It happened by the beach, at the southernmost tip of our continent: Wamoon was the place’s ancient name.) It was my birthday and an author friend drove three hundred kilometres to present me with the book. I asked him to stay the night. He limped down to the ocean, immersed himself to the waist, then drove back home where he was writing five books at once.
I learned Bukowski belonged to the Dirty Realist movement in Los Angeles. I wasn’t surprised. He had authored over sixty books (five at a time?), one of which was titled, Notes of a Dirty Old Man. On account of that title, the FBI kept an eye on him.
Here’s the first poem to take my eye, ‘Are You Drinking?’
washed up, on shore, the old yellow notebook
I write from the bed
as I did last
will see the doctor,
“yes, doctor, weak legs, vertigo, head-
aches and my back
“are you drinking?” he will ask.
“are you getting your
I think that I am just ill
with life, the same stale yet
My doctor mind interrupts, interprets.
‘Washed up’ – is he depressed?
‘I write from the bed’ – probably depressed.
‘will see the doctor’ – THE doctor, one known to the speaker, one who knows the speaker: is this patient a regular? a recalcitrant? An incurable?
‘weak legs’ – alcohol and nutritional neglect will lead to muscle wasting, thin weak legs below the large belly groaning with ascitic fluid;
‘vertigo’ – alcohol again, damaging the back end of the brain;
aches’ – the hyphen, why the line change? Who
‘and my back
hurts’ – who, in this human herd, has a back that doesn’t hurt? Or a head that doesn’t ache?
‘vitamins’ – often critical and urgent when an alcoholic comes to medical care; nutritional neglect can lead to vitamin B deficiency, with brain damage resulting.
All these items, concrete and specific: Charles writes from personal knowledge. Nothing abstract here.
I read on:
even at the track
I watch the horses run by
and it seems
I leave early after buying tickets on the
“taking off?” asks the mutuel
My wordlover’s mind wonders – mutuel – is this a typographical error?
The dictionary assures me it’s not: this office bearer at the race track checks bets, sells tickets, pays out cash where due. In Australia he’d be a turf accountant, a bookie’s clerk
‘‘… if you think it’s boring
out there”, he tells me, “you oughta be
And now, in this moment in the story, in a poem that doesn’t bother to rhyme, that refuses all song, that wastes nought by way of capital letters and punctuation, reserving them for the speech of the doctor and the clerk, now the engine of strong feeling fires:
so here I am
propped against my pillows
just an old guy
just an old writer
with a yellow
Listen as the engine roars in to high fear: I’m intruding here with bold print:
walking across the floor
Feel Bukowski’s fear. Something which has the power of motion. Some thing, some beast, some force, some terror.
Feel the poet alert, listening, paralysed in his fear. Feel his tension rising, rising, as the something comes nearer and nearer. What does he fear?
What fear is this that drives the poet to drink, that send him again and again to the doctor, what fear is it that dulls even the power and the thrill of ‘the horses that run by’?
oh, it’s just
A space, a breath, a moment grabbed from the fearful something that surely will come –
The fearful something came for Charles Bukowski on March 9, 1994. He was 73 years and seven months old.