What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire
by Charles Bukowski
(HarperCollins, March 2009)

I feel that this is a work that is deserving of greater attention—particularly as some of these poems, such as “I Want a Mermaid” are hard to find online—cute and thought-provoking, but just a bit too risqué for the censors of the world. This is a work in three parts, and in keeping with Bukowski’s rugged, down-to-earth style, few of the titles are capitalized. Poems like “born to lose” show the irony and hypocrisy of American society perfectly, as Bukowski takes us to a jail cell with him, where he names his cellmates after famous writers, even though he admits, “[…] if I mentioned Wallace Stevens or / even Pablo Neruda to them / they’d think me crazy.” The rather funny poet then details how he leaves the jail cell and goes to write in a shoe factory, where he names his co-workers “[…] Van Gogh, Schopenhauer, Dante, Robert Frost and Karl Marx,” showing that the game has indeed changed, but not by much.

With Bukowski’s works, I like to do a little bibliomancy: scanning all the titles before settling on one that intrigues me. What I quite enjoy is that Bukowski likes to play with length when it comes to his poetry: you’ve got shorter poems like “what?” or “2,” and then longer ones like “one more good one” or “the bakers of 1935.”

In “one more good one,” Bukowski starts off with what seems like a laundry list from a person too creative to let his brain calm down and stop making messes: “watercolor paintings under the bed / with dirty socks, a bathtub full of trash / and a garbage can lined with / underground newspapers…” Its brilliance is that these details allow us to paint a very vivid picture of the speaker: a man over fifty writing poetry and perhaps feeling a bit sheepish about it, as a man writing poetry is so often likened to a young amorous man trying to woo his lady love with words. This vision stands in stark contrast to the vision that the poem’s speaker paints for us. He talks about the “machinegun chattering” by the window, and when you think about it—an old typewriter in an otherwise quiet room—the description becomes so very apt.

I feel that what sets Bukowski apart from the other poets out there is both the gritty feel of his work as well as his intense authenticity. In a world where we are exposed to so many things that seem contrived, this utter sincerity, in all its dirt-covered glory, is deeply refreshing to read. Part of this sense of authenticity in his work comes from how deeply introspective and self-aware our speaker is. Bukowski displays this in poems like “hunger” where his speaker states, “I have been hungry many times / but the particular time that I / think of now / was in New York City…”

The reader is able to easily slip into the speaker’s shoes and see the poet’s vision. Bukowski’s style is rather informal and conversational, so that reading one of his poems is often like listening to a story related by an old friend at a coffee shop. Some of the poems relay the speaker’s thoughts to us, candidly, such as in the poem titled “canned heat?” where the speaker is at a bar and meets a man who says he’s been drinking canned heat instead of liquor. Of this man, the speaker tells us, “[…] now his breath really REEKED…”. We get to see the speaker’s other reactions to this man—which seem cordial enough—as well as the anger of the other bar patrons, who do not understand him.

I feel like this is an intensely relatable experience; perhaps not the part about the canned heat, but the feeling that other people do not see someone in the way that you do. Some of the poems are sad, like “the mice” and “memory,” and these poems leave me with a sense of the pain and injustice inherent in the world itself. And yet, in “memory,” Bukowski seems to give his writing a glimmer of hope, as he shows that although his speaker has been through and remembers a lot of tragedy, both personal and public, that he remembers some of the details showing the beauty of the world as well, as he writes, “[…] best of all / I’ve memorized tonight and now and / the way the / light falls across my fingers.”

At any rate, Bukowski is a master poet, whose work is deserving of a wider audience, greater praise, and a broader understanding.

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