After having been beaten over the head with some pretty damn good stuff over the past 10 years, a decade-length installment which has left me generally Bukowski-less despite my four books of his on my shelf (Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit, Love is a Dog from Hell, Sifting through the Madness for the Word, the Line and the Way and Tales of Ordinary Madness), I found myself with 10 minutes to kill in the library today, and the numeral seemed to grapple with my entire body as it always does: 813. Daniel Berrigan I’d taken in, and bought a copy of, Robert Hayden I’d taken in, and bought a copy of, while other past favorites like Gertrude Stein and James Tate seemed anticlimactically dissolute, at least in the editions I picked up. Well, Ah, I thought today, here’s Bukowski, he never disappoints.
My enthusiasm was only punctuated by the specific book’s title: The Pleasures of the Damned, named after one of my favorite Bukowski poems (I won’t give it away, suffice it to say it hits a little harder than the average juvenile bantering we’re used to seeing, from the LA lush or otherwise). Play the Piano was gaudy in its cover — orange with big, menacing black piano keys inundating the scene, and Love is a Dog from Hell pictures a perched gargoyle-like mythical dog which seems to be laughing sardonically at the onlooker.
The Pleasures of the Damned looks from the outside like something that would be featured on Oxygen. It’s this pristine, pale white, features of picture of the poet large and right in front (none of my old editions do that) — the whole thing, not least for its unwieldy stature of five hundred some poems, plays as some opulent celebration of Bukowski’s life. This is all fine and dandy, I certainly respect the man and his family palpably, but at the same time, such endeavors do little for advancing of the initial creative tract that put him in such a privileged position in the first place.
Bukowski became famous, and successful, by being funny. Anyone who knows the fine line between humor and luridness realizes this. Bukowski prized sense of humor, time and time again, in poems in which he urges, pleads and bargains with the reader to keep his or her inner orientation intact, in the face of our world which often seeks to homogenize. Excuse my frankness, but to just choose one, the poem “Mystery Leg” just isn’t very good — what’s more, it’s written by a man who can afford to go to the doctor to treat a leg, when we all know that Bukowski was once 50 pounds underweight, or even at times freezing in an Atlanta park, only to scrounge up enough money for one loaf of bread from the grocery store, and find it moldy. “Living on one candy bar a day” is another indicative swatch of lifestyle I remember from his early work, or rather, ABOUT his early work.
“The Pleasures of the Damned,” the poem, sadly, is buried unassuming at the dead center of this book, not prominently as it should be at the very front or very back. In further flipping through I came upon this sappy piece about a cat killing a mockingbird — it could have been something out of a Sherman Alexie. There was no marked danger, no surreal juxtaposition of impenentrable, undeniable human evils, or even worldly evils of a larger scope, as in one piece I remember about a dog named Briggs tearing someone’s fingers off with his brutish teeth, an event followed by an older homosexual passing on a bike with the words “Meat me, baby” on the back of his shirt. The poem ends as follows, “It was 1979, the year of our lord.”
Bukowksi, when great, gives me goosebumps on the back of my neck, and down my arms (erogenous zones? but I digress). I just wish he had an editor with the same sort of hunger, unique to the poet himself, the poet who would grab us with a chokehold, run across an empty dinner table, a table doomed never to feed, only to reflect and mock in the crackling sun. With The Pleasures of the Damned, I sense some serious, disaffecting artistic air conditioning going on.