The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems 1953-1994: A Book Review

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The poems spin off from a weave in frenzy, each uncontainable, each with its own magic turbulent origins. His eyes look out into the light without mercy or compassion. A word aquiver on his lips…The sagacity of his gaze, still locked in on the world and its ravished body…

The publisher, John Martin’s tactful inclusion of hitherto uncollected poems jolts us into discoveries. Myriad facets of the iconoclast’s sensibility and personality parade along the pages, each offering its own bitter, prophetic, and sometimes, cleansing truth. The bard’s cautions for the post-apocalyptic future are one, and many, as in the following excerpt from “advice for some young man in the year 2064 A.D.”:

          dismiss perfection as an ache of the

          greedy

          but do not give in to the mass modesty of

          easy imperfection.

          and remember

          the belly of the whale is laden with

          great men.

Each of these motley poems meditates in and around a fundamental truth—a deduction, morale, often perceived, often stumbled upon. No pretensions, no promises of safety or surprise in the end. This is as much a shrapnel of artistry, sharpened to intensify insight and sensibility, as much a contemporary reality for him, or the brink of it. The skin is stripped off the bone. Allegories and metaphors have almost been eschewed. One of the reasons for Bukowski’s trans-generational popularity has been that his poems are never compromising in their sincerity, that they are almost “art”less in their anecdotality. This transparency has not, however, been achieved without a loss.

“People are not good to each other”, he laments. The damned are exiled by each other. The walls have furthered. Hospitals, asylums and jailhouses have spewed out personal sins onto the streets. The observer picks them up. Not giving way to the euphoric haze of many of his early Beat contemporaries, not subordinating his conscience to anything but what he feels is the truth, he absorbs what he sees, while maintaining a cool, objective distance, and sometimes avenges life. But, the drudgery of a tireless, emaciating life, with its heartbreaks, its sordid confessions, remains:

          there is a loneliness in the world so great

          that you can see it in the slow movement of

          the hands of a clock.

                                                          (“the crunch”)

There is an intrepidity to this anthology, (reminiscent of the poet himself), in that it takes the quintessential Bukowski, and without prying open the spaces of controversy, misogyny and mere sensationalism, exposes the man as he saw himself in the mirror. The man, who had manipulated the actualities of the lives of his girlfriends to produce scandalous and defamatory works, is also the same man desperately looking for a woman’s love. The genius of the crowd, he reminds us, lies in its hate and not in its love. Bodies of mutilated people rotting away in the quiet conspiracy of their houses (“safe”), of wives who cheat, in turn, on their adulterous husbands, fleet across the pages in perilous succession. They have all succumbed. The calumnious and calamitous desire of the human heart is betrayed, time-and-time-again.

Eventually, though, it is the admission of a certain degree of self-perseverance, of an indefatigable dignity (and not his “machismo”) that clears the shroud, as it were. Love is the desired painkiller in a world where relationships have collapsed. He recuperates the word from the brink of disrupted communication. The reality of the American dream has proved an illusion. Corrupt governments in debt, prisons overflowing with prisoners are components of this real “dystopia”. The self, untethered to any larger principles, of patriotism, God, or likewise, can only wait for an absolution, or for the next “fix’, and then wait some more, as “monkey feet/small and blue/walk toward” him (“ha ha ha”)…

His engagement with his surroundings was less a matter of politicization, and mostly entailed the distillation of other’s realities into poetry, albeit his reproductions of the lives of fellow acquaintances, co-workers, barmaids and friends are amalgams of fact and fiction. Bukowski toyed with the possibilities of the “most pleasurable” life with reckless abandon. Though he vehemently denied any affiliation to the therapeutic abilities of art, his empathizing with his mother, who was the victim of prolonged domestic abuse, deploys the language of a serene violence to echo the reality of many other households. He remembers his childhood days not merely through the lens of the Great Depression, or immigration blues, but also vis-à-vis his memory of the torrential outpour or the chicness of the streets. His touch is personal, tenuous in its fright, idiosyncratic in its staunchness. Such a conflation of the personal and the political accentuates the dramatic undertones in “Van Gogh”, where the speaker laments not for the painter’s untimely, posthumous recognition, but for his having led a life wherein “the other kind of love” never arrived. His views on Lorca, Eliot and others are sensationalist at the very best, and underpin a certain historical reductivism that can be easy to overlook.

The Pleasures of the Damned reads like the confessions of an entire age, for an entire age. Each word is sacrosanct, an entity of immediate purpose, and what they collectively evoke is the truth of the underclass, the outsiders, and most significantly, the individual self in situ—all crusading against the adversities of life, and asserting their will to live. The subversive potential shared by the poems is borne by the “I”, which insists that the self must be defended from the psychiatrists and the philosophers, from the clutches of all authority or from the bewilderment of illusions and conformity. The degeneration of humanity, with its frenzied appetite for self-destruction was hardly a unique obsessive concern for any modernist poet. But, as the anthology evinces, and, in contrast with the popular view of his poems being “nihilistic”, I think that the poems of Charles Bukowski inhabit the space where wounds are negotiated, conscience is proffered to the Gods. The air is seething with resentment, but also looming with resignation to a relentless, exacting cycle of life and death:

         born like this

          into this

          as the chalk faces smile

          as Mrs. Death laughs

          as the elevators break

          as political landscapes dissolve

          as the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree

          as the oily fish spit out their oily prey…

                                                          (“Dinosauria, we”)

Hugh Fox has referred to the Bukowski who “is all 300 pound whores,… rundown bars, rundown bars, rundown apartments, beer, the D. T.’s, jail, slugging it out, screwing”[1] as “The Great American Myth Bukowski that the young poet studs have hooked on to.”[2] It is not difficult to imagine why the man whose gravestone epitaph reads “Don’t Try” has reached out to the disenchanted hordes. The poems in the collection, while not diluting the experiential nature of the man, compellingly allows for the poems to speak sans the glamorized cult figure of the man. These are the subversive lullabies for the next generation. They make us rethink, revaluate, and dare I say, relate. Bukowski’s poetic art is incontestably direct, mimetic. The volume of poems described by Martin as “the best of the best of Bukowski” could have only been the product of a world which had exhausted itself of all possibilities of sustaining itself with a singular, overarching mode of philosophy, much less in poetry. It is the last night of the earth. The old man puts the bluebird back in his heart.

-Pritam Bhaumik

[1] Hugh Fox, “The Living Underground: Charles Bukowski.” The North American Review, Vol. 254, No. 3 (Fall, 1969), pp. 57-58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25117001. Accessed: 16/08/2015.

[2][2] Ibid.

 

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