Three sheets to the wind

Posted on February 21, 2008

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By Darran Anderson

Posthumous collections are a mixed blessing. For every lost masterpiece discovered (The Trial, The Third Policeman), there are a thousand dead-horse floggings. Sometimes it’s best to leave a legend alone, to cease digging around a dead writer’s bones. Given that this is Charles Bukowski‘s eighth collection from beyond the grave, it’s with some trepidation that we approach Come On In!

For the uninitiated, Bukowski wrote about one thing: Bukowski. In lesser hands, this would be an egotistical cul-de-sac but given his talents and hard-drinking barfly existence Bukowski’s accounts are, for the most part, fascinating. By documenting the minutiae of his life, he raises the daily mechanics of living to the level of art or, some would argue, drags art down into the gutter. Either way by ditching the rules and restrictions of verse and dealing with real life in all its grit and vigour, he made poetry seem relevant again, proving that dead-end jobs and hangovers are as valid a subject of rhapsodies as daffodils, nightingales and requiems.

Whilst far from an unadulterated classic, it’s a testament to the Bukowski’s abundant skills that Come On In! maintains a high standard throughout and occasionally delivers some knockout blows. The poem ‘Too Early’ establishes his familiar style; charismatic, down-to-earth, free of stylistic embellishments, edgy and heartfelt with an eye for epiphanies. It’s like being accosted in a bar by a particularly charming drunk. Whilst admittedly at times close to self-parody, there’s an emotive quality at the core of his best work that redeems, whether poems of experience that are tinged with melancholy (‘The Old Couple Next Door’) or hilarity (the genius landlord-baiting ‘Coronado Street: 1954’).

On the art of writing, he is illuminating. If you wanted a glimpse behind the curtain of the writer, it’s all here: the evils that are the blank page, the rejection slips and the stifling conservatism of the literary establishment. He’s scathing on cliques and the fame side of literature, giving it with both barrels to Truman Capote (‘Nothing But A Scarf’) and the Beats (“vanity and / all that / public / posturing”). At time he even comes across as a wise old sage, imparting advice on the twin curses of damnation (‘He’s A Dog’) and success (‘Red Hot Mail’) in his customary deadbeat-philosopher fashion.

It’s when Bukowski breaks away from the legend of Buk that Come On In! really impresses. The eerie children’s poem ‘a child’s bedtime story’ and the surreal ‘the last salamander’ are signs of the writer stretching himself. Indeed there’s a broader palette to the collection than just the usual suspects of bar brawls and bookies from mini-treatises on dead bullfighters, heavyweights, goldfish and Hemingway to Dostoevsky, earthquakes and how the atomic bomb finished off T.S. Eliot.

Like virtually all his writing, it’s not for the easily offended but then where’s the fun in that? His verse can be cruel, explicit, misogynist, sometimes just plain lacklustre. Given these factors you ask yourself what is it that redeems Bukowski? And the answer is his truthfulness.

In revealing not just the good in us but also the worst parts, it is profoundly real. Bukowski lies, bullies, boasts and hectors and that is what is great about him. This is poetry that is messy and disreputable and in being so it’s closer to who we really are than virtually any other verse. You recognise yourself in his words. It’s this zest for life in its grubbiest, least noble moments that explains his disdain for academic poets. For Bukowski, this was a matter of life and death rather than a parlour game.

“When you drank,” Bukowski once noted, “the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.” At its best, Come On In! has the same effect.

Come On In! by Charles Bukowski
Canongate
304 Pages

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

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Posted in: Reading