Remembering Bukowski

March 27, 1994|By VICTOR PAUL ALVAREZ

If there is anything more futile than coveting a man's soul, it is pretending to be that man.

I wanted to be the poet Charles "Hank" Bukowski.

I tried to be Bukowski.

Now Hank is dead, and I've stopped trying.

This month, leukemia took Hank away at 73. His family came to America from Germany when he was 3, landing first in Baltimore. They settled in Los Angeles. It was here that Hank suffered his father's stern discipline, without escape, until finding solace in a bottle at age 13. Like Los Angeles, booze would both corrupt and create his writing all his life.

On good days he would write of women and the track and Brahms on his radio. On bad days he challenged the inner doom of the alcoholic, and wrote things like this :

there is nothing subtle about dying or,

dumping garbage, or the spider

and this fist full of nickels and

the barking of dogs tonight

when the beast puffs on beer

and moonlight

and asks my name

and I hold to the wall

not man enough to cry

as the city dumps its sorrow

in wine bottles and stale kisses,

and the handcuffs and crutches and slabs

fornicate like mad.

This is the Bukowski perspective. If he were generally read in college English classes, they might call this romantic realism: lyrical, precise and sometimes even tender. In college they teach me of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Byron. I've studied their words about death, and never did they compare death and dumping garbage.

But Bukowski's death is not the dumping of 73 years of garbage. It is the loss of a writer that would not fit neatly into the existing literary circles. He stood, or rather slouched, alone.

Two years ago, he was a stranger, an ugly face on the cover of a book given to me by a friend. I noticed the eyes first, heavy brows lurched over their listless circles. Rocky crevices scarred his face, and he held a brown cigarette to unparted lips.

The book, "Tales of Ordinary Madness," is a collection of his short stories that read like long poems. He reminded me at first of a filthy Hemingway, working with short, declarative sentences and a nearly complete avoidance of adjectives. But there were no big fish stories or clean, well-lit rooms or bullfights. Instead, there were losers and drunks and long nights at the "typer." Either Bukowski could both write and lie as well as Hemingway, or he truly lived a life of solitary madness. Turning the typer inward to study his madness, he shows us the true soul of Bukowski to be childlike, and scared:

Bukowski cried when Judy Garland sang at the N.Y. Philharmonic, Bukowski cried when Shirley Temple sang "I got Animal Crackers in My Soup; Bukowski cried in cheap flophouses, Bukowski can't dress, Bukowski can't talk, Bukowski scared of women, Bukowski has a bad stomach, Bukowski is full of fears, and hates dictionaries, nuns, pennies, buses, churches, park benches, spiders, flies, fleas, freaks; Bukowski didn't go to war. Bukowski is old, Bukowski hasn't flown a kite for 45 years; if Bukowski were an ape, they'd run him out of the tribe. . . .

Bukowski didn't go to war because he was deemed exempt from the draft for being "too anti-social." His critics often said the same of his writing.

I finished this book in two days and was off to the bookstore for another fix. They had lots of Byron at the store, but no Bukowski. Although he has 2 million copies of books in print, it seemed Baltimore didn't have very many of them. When the Borders Book Store opened in Towson, I found a shelf full of Bukowski. Like a junkie, I spent the first dollars of my paycheck on his books every Friday.

I envied his style, underlined many passages and memorized the shorter poems. It seemed I was always thinking and writing about him. But when I tried to write like him, I failed miserably.

He would have cursed me for being so weak.

I wanted to write a poem a day, like him. And I wanted to know these strange drunks he spoke of, who carry copies of Kafka to the track and lose money on horses and are sometimes !c published in little magazines. He made it look so easy, immortalizing these common folks with words. He would say that "so far there is nothing easier than writing," and I believed him.

I turned the radio to the classical station, like him. I wrote late at night, like him. On occasion I even sipped whiskey and smoked cigars while banging at the typer, only to fail and crawl to bed, defeated.

I struggled with my daily adventures. They lacked the sour taste of losing at the track, of run-ins with the cops and nights spent in jail cells. Most importantly, they lacked the wisdom that comes ,, with age. When I discovered him two years ago, he was 71. He had more than 50 years on me. No amount of atmosphere or booze or vile cigar smoke could create what he had lived through and for.

I didn't have his scars -- my father was a good man who never beat me. I am not an alcoholic, and the drunks I know are not very interesting. I felt like a traitor, trying to exploit his madness rather than finding my own.

So now he is my ghost editor, my standard for comparison. At the end of a night's work at my own typer I ask myself: Would Bukowski have liked that metaphor? Would he respect this poem if he had read it? If he hated it, would he at least find it sincere?

I'll never know, but it keeps me honest.

I have a tape of him reading selected poems. It was lost for months, and I stumbled upon it on the day he died. I heard of his death in the newsroom, stared at the obit on the wires for a while and left after midnight. The tape clicked on when I started my car, and Bukowski's oddly soft voice poured from the speakers:

"Each one gets a taste of honey, then the knife."

Victor Paul Alvarez is a copy boy at The Baltimore Sun and a

student at Towson State University.

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