pull a string, a puppet moves …
each man must realize
that it can all disappear very
the cat, the woman, the job,
the front tire,
the bed, the walls, the
room; all our necessities
rest on foundations of sand –
and any given cause,
no matter how unrelated:
the death of a boy in Hong Kong
or a blizzard in Omaha …
can serve as your undoing.
all your chinaware crashing to the
kitchen floor, your girl will enter
and you’ll be standing, drunk,
in the center of it and she’ll ask:
my god, what’s the matter?
and you’ll answer: I don’t know,
I don’t know …”
Charles Bukowski: Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame
Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame is poetry full of gambling, drinking and women. Charles Bukowski writes realistically about the seedy underbelly of life.
The poems in the first three sections of this book are from the years 1955-1968
and the poems in the last section are the new work of 1972-1973. The reader
might wonder what happened to the years 1969-1971, since the author once did
vanish (literally) from 1944 to 1954.
But not this time.
The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills (Black Sparrow Press, 1969) contains the poems from late 1968 and most of 1969, plus selections from five early chapbooks not covered by the first three sections of this book.
Mockingbird Wish Me Luck (Black Sparrow Press, 1972) prints poems written from late 1969 to early 1972.
So, for my critics, readers, friends, enemies, ex-lovers and new lovers, the
present volume along with Days and Mockingbird contain what I like to consider
my best work written over the past nineteen years.
Each of these sections brings back special memories.
For It Catches My Heart In Its Hands I was required to make a trip to New Orleans. The editor first had to check me out to see if I was a decent human being. Catching the train at the Union Station just below the Terminal Annex of the Post Office where I worked for Uncle Sam, I sat in the bar car and drank scotch and water and sped toward New Orleans to be judged and measured by an ex-con who owned an ancient printing press.
Jon Webb believed that most writers (and he’d met some good ones
including Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner, Hemingway) were detestable human beings when they were away from their typewriters. I arrived, they met me, Jon and his wife, Louise, we drank and talked for two weeks, then Jon Webb said, “You’re a bastard, Bukowski, but I’m going to publish you anyhow.”
I left town. But that wasn’t all. Soon they were both in Los Angeles with their two dogs in a green hotel just off skid row. Re-check. Drink and talk. I was still a bastard. Goodbye. Much leaving and waving through train windows. Louise cried through the glass. It Catches was published …
The bulk of the poems in Crucifix In A Deathhand were written during one very
hot, lyrical month in New Orleans in the year 1965. I’d walk down the street and
I’d stagger, sober I’d stagger, hear churchbells, wounded dogs, wounded me, all that. I had gone into a slump or a blackout after the publication of It Catches, and Jon and Louise had brought me back down to New Orleans. I lived right around the corner from them with a fat, kind woman whose ex-husband (who’d died) had come very close to being welterweight or middleweight champion of the world, I forget which.
Each night I went over to Jon and Louise’s and we drank until early morning at a small table in the kitchen with the roaches running up and down the wall in front of us (they particularly liked to circle around an unshaded lightbulb sticking out of
the wall) as we drank and talked.
I would go back to my place and awaken about 10:30 a.m., quite sick. I’d dress
and walk over to Jon’s place. The press was below street level and I’d peek down
at him before I knocked. I could see him through the window, calm, cool, hardly
hungover at all, humming, and feeding pages of Crucifix into the press.
“Got any poems, Bukowski?” he’d ask as I walked in. (One had to be careful:
feeding poems into a waiting press can easily dissolve into journalism.)
Jon would become downright unlaced if I didn’t have a handful of poems. It
wasn’t as pleasant to be around that bastard then, and I’d find myself back in
my room beating the typer. In the evening, if I brought him a little sheaf of
poems, his mood would be better.
So I kept writing poems. We drank with the roaches, the place was small, and
pages 5, 6, 7 and 8 were stacked in the bathtub, nobody could bathe, and pages
1, 2, 3 and 4 were in a large trunk, and soon there wasn’t anyplace to put
anything. There were 7-and-one-half foot stacks of pages everywhere. Very
carefully we moved between them. The bathtub had been useful but the bed was in the way. So Jon built a little loft out of discarded lumber. Plus a stairway.
And Jon and Louise slept up there on a mattress and the bed was given away.
There was more floor space to stack the pages. “Bukowski, Bukowski everywhere!
I am going crazy!” said Louise. The roaches circled and we drank and the press
gulped my poems. A very strange time, and that was Crucifix …
I used to go to John Thomas’ place and stay all night. We’d take pills and drink
and talk. That is, John took the pills and I took the pills and drank, and we
both talked. John was then in the habit of taping everything, whether it was
good or bad, dull or interesting, worthless or useful. We would listen to our
conversations the next day, and it was a worthwhile process, at least for me. I
realized how oafish and overbearing and off-target I often was, at least when I
was high. And sometimes when I wasn’t.
At one time during these tapings John asked that I bring over some poems and
read them. I did. And left the poems there and forgot about them. The poems were thrown out with the garbage. Months passed. One day Thomas phoned me. “Those poems, Bukowski, would make a good book.”
“What poems, John?”
He said he had taken out the tape of my poems and had listened to it again. “I’d have to type them off the tape, it’s just too much work,” I said. “I’ll type them up for you.” I agreed, and soon I had the poems back in typescript form.
At this time a balding red-haired man with a high, scrubbed forehead, meticulous
and kind, with a very faint, perpetual grin was coming by. He worked as the
manager of an office furniture and supply company and was a collector of rare
books. His name was John Martin. He had published some of my poems as
broadsides. He wrote me out checks as I sat in my kitchen across from him,
drinking beer and signing the broadsides.
It was the beginning of the Black Sparrow Press, a house that was soon to begin publishing a large portion of America’s avant-garde poetry, but neither of us knew it then.
I showed John Martin the poems Thomas had typed off the tape for me. I had
checked his transcriptions, and he’d done a careful, accurate job. John Martin
took the poems home with him and phoned me a couple of days later: “You have a book there and I’m going to publish it myself.”
And that’s how some almost lost poems were found again and printed in book form and the Black Sparrow was flying. I called the book At Terror Street And Agony Way.
Looking at these poems written between 1955 and 1973 I like (for one reason or
another) the last poems best. I am pleased with this. I have, of course, no idea
what shape my future poems will take, or even if I will write any, because I
have no idea how long I will go on living, but since I began writing poetry
quite late in life, at the age of 35, I like to think they’ll give me a few
extra years now, at this end. Meanwhile, the poems that follow will have to do.
January 30, 1974