What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski
Black Sparrow Press ($16)

by Mark Terrill

It's astonishing just how many people, when they hear the name Bukowski, are ready to dismiss him, in less than a breath, as some sort of sexist, macho, skid-row bard, caught up in his teufelskreis of booze, broads, and back-rent, whose poetics consisted of nothing more than a "gritty roominghouse lyricism." In these days of postmodern, deconstructed, politically correct aesthetics, it's easy to forget the immense contribution that Bukowski made to American poetry. Picking up where W.C. Williams and the Beats left off, Bukowski reasserted the power of the demotic and its relevance to American experience. Of course this has not been without its negative flip-side, the result being a deluge of confessional, "slice-of-life,"petit moi poetry, from which contemporary American poetry has yet to recover. But what sets Bukowski apart from all of his imitators is his ability to turn his bleak, existential vision into something truly universal, which is also the secret of his worldwide popularity. You don't have to be intimately familiar with dingy bars, nasty whores, run-down hotels, and the harsh Los Angeles sun to know where Bukowski is coming from. His understanding of the human dilemma, his compassion for animals, and his impatience with conformity and the "dead-before-death gang" transcended the claustrophobic milieu of down-and-out, blue-collar Los Angeles, and the true crux of Bukowski's art was his remarkable talent to turn his quotidian despair into something that even Japanese bank executives or Spanish art students can relate to, approximating a sort of tongue-in-cheek Kafka of American poetry.

What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire is the second in Black Sparrow's series of posthumous volumes of Bukowski's poetry, and is full of some of his most incendiary poetry to date. This is not just some old mothballed Bukowski that John Martin has dusted off and wheeled out to help pay the rent now that Black Sparrow's star poet is gone; at 412 pages, this is a veritable tome of vintage Bukowski culled from the early 1970s up to the 1990s, from one of America's most influential, oft-imitated, yet essentially inimitable poets ever.

Aside from the usual bar, racetrack, flophouse, and hangover poems, all blazing brilliantly with Bukowski's trademark fusion of angst and irony, there are also many poems of sheer, exacting, even frightening, beauty, executed with all the boldness and audacity of a German expressionist painter, such as the haunting "full moon," here in its entirety:

red flower of love
cut at the stem
passion has its own
and hatred too.
the curtain blows open
and the sky is black
out there tonight.
across the way
a man and a woman
standing up against a darkened
the red moon
a mouse runs along
the windowsill
changing colors.
I am alone in torn levis
and a white sweat shirt.
she's with her man now
in the shadow of that wall
and as he enters her
I draw upon my

Of course one can't help speculating as to the true strategy behind such posthumous collections. Did the author feel the poems weren't strong enough to be included in other collections? Were they purposely held back by the publisher in anticipation of the author's eventual death and the ensuing dry spell? Or were they simply too personal, too gut-level and potentially libelous to risk publishing during the author's lifetime? In the case of Bukowski, it was obviously partly the latter. He takes merciless jabs, pokes, and swings at many peers and contemporaries, as in the hilarious "4 Christs," where Bukowski attends a poetry reading in Santa Cruz with "Ginsbing," "Beerlinghetti," "G. Cider," and "Jack Bitcheline". In other poems, many other writers, such as Henry Miller and Diane Wakoski, are also caught in the beam of Bukowski's critical searchlight.

For anyone who wishes to re-examine the work of this immensely popular, highly contested poet, this collection is an excellent place to begin, covering as it does a span of over twenty years. For fans wishing to fill out their collection of already published Bukowski, this is a must, a cornucopia of outtakes and bonus tracks that will further establish Bukowski's already enduring place in American literature.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000