What matters most is how well you walk through the fire
Christmas poem to a man in jail
hello Bill Abbott:
I appreciate your passing around my books in
jail there, my poems and stories.
if I can lighten the load for some of those guys with
my books, fine.
but literature, you know, is difficult for the
average man to assimilate (and for the unaverage man too);
I don't like most poetry, for example,
so I write mine the way I like to read it.
poetry does seem to be getting better, more
the clearing up of the language has something to
do with it (w. c. williams came along and asked
everybody to clear up the language)
I came along.
but writing's one thing, life's
seem to have improved the writing a bit
but life (ours and theirs)
doesn't seem to be improving very
maybe if we write well enough
and live a little better
life will improve a bit
just out of shame.
maybe the artist haven't been powerful
maybe the politicians, the generals, the judges, the
priests, the police, the pimps, the businessmen have been too
strong? I don't
like that thought
but when I look at our pale and precious artists,
past and present, it does seem
(people don't like it when I talk this way.
Chinaski, get off it, they say,
you're not that great.
hell, I'm not talking about being
what I'm saying is
that art hasn't improved life like it
should, maybe because it has been too
private? and despite the fact that the old poets
and the new poets and myself
all seem to have had the same or similar troubles
wives, and so
you write me now
that the man in the cell next to yours
didn't like my punctuation
the placement of my commas (especially)
and also the way I digress
in order to say something precisely.
ah, he doesn't realize the intent
to loosen up, humanize, relax
and still make as real as possible
the word on the page. the word should be like
butter or avocados or
steak or hot biscuits, or onion rings or
whatever is really
needed. it should be almost
as if you could pick up the words and
(there is some wise-ass somewhere
who will say
if he ever reads this:
"Chinaski, if I want dinner I'll go out and
an artist can wander and still maintain
essential form. Dostoevsky did it. he
usually told 3 or 4 stories on the side
while telling the one in the
center (in his novels, that is).
Bach taught us how to lay one melody down on
top of another and another melody on top of
Mahler wandered more than anybody I know
and I find great meaning
in his so-called formlessness.
don't let the form-and-rule boys
like that guy in the cell next to you
put one over on you. just
hand him a copy of Time
and he'll be
but I'm not defending my work (to you or to him)
I'm defending my right to do it in the way
that makes me feel best.
I always figure if a writer is bored with his work
the reader is going to be
and I don't believe in
perfection, I believe in keeping the
so I've got to agree with my critics
when they say I write a lot of shit.
you're doing 19 and 1/2 years
I've been writing about 40.
we all go on with our things.
we all go on with our lives.
we all write badly at times
or live badly at times.
we all have bad days
I ought to send the guy in the cell next to yours
The Collected Works of Robert Browning
that'd give him the form he's looking for
but I need the money for the track,
Santa Anita is opening on the
26th, so give him a copy of Newsweek
(the dead have no future, no past, no present,
they just worry about commas)
and have I placed the commas here
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comments upon my last book of poesy:
you're better than ever.
you've sold out.
my mother hates you.
you're the best writer in the English language.
can I come see you?
I write just like you do, only better.
why do you drive a BMW?
why don't you give more readings?
can you still get it up?
do you know Allen Ginsberg?
what do you think of Henry Miller?
will you write a foreword to my next book?
I enclose a photograph of Céline.
I enclose my grandfather's pocket watch.
the enclosed jacket was knitted by my wife in Bavarian style.
have you been drunk with Mickey Rourke?
I am a young girl 19 years old and I will come and clean your house.
you are a stinking bastard to tell people that Shakespeare is not readable.
what do you think of Norman Mailer?
why do you steal from Hemingway?
why do you knock Tolstoy?
I'm doing hard time and when I get out I'm coming to see you.
I think you suck ass.
you've saved my god-damned life.
why do you hate women?
I love you.
I read your poems at parties.
did all those things really happen to you?
why do you drink?
I saw you at the racetrack but I didn't bother you.
I'd like to renew our relationship.
do you really stay up all night?
I can out-drink you.
you stole it from Sherwood Anderson.
did you ever meet Ezra?
I am alone and I think of you every night.
who the hell do you think you're fooling?
my tits aren't much but I've got great legs.
fuck you, man.
my wife hates you.
will you please read the enclosed poems and comment?
I am going to publish all those letters you wrote me.
you jack-off motherfucker, you're not fooling anybody.
like this night
seem to crawl down the back of one's
neck and settle at the base of the skull,
it is probably a little prelude to
then the mind becomes like a
I watch Dostoevsky in a small room
and he is drinking a glass of
it is not a long movie:
he puts the glass down and it
then I'm back
an air purifier
makes its soft sound behind me.
I smoke too much, the whole room
often turns blue
so now my wife has put in the
now the night has left the back
of my skull.
I lean back in the swivel
pick up a bottle opener shaped
like a horse.
it's like I'm holding the whole world
shaped like a horse.
I put the world down,
open a paper clip and begin to clean
waiting on death can be perfectly
one goes from being a poet
to being an entertainer.
I read my stuff in Florida once
and the professor there
told me, "you realize you're
an entertainer now, don't
I began to
feel bad about that remark
because when the crowd
comes to be entertained by
then you become somehow
and so, another time,
starting from Los Angeles
we took to the air and
the flight captain intro-
duced himself as
and thousands of miles
later I found myself trans-
ferred to a small 2-engine
plane and we took off and
the stewardess put a drink
in my hand
took my money and then
hollered, "drink up,
took off again and she put
another drink in my hand,
took my money and then
hollered, "drink up,
the 3rd time I ordered
although we only landed
I read twice that night in Arkansas
and ended up in a home with
clean rugs, a serving bar, a fireplace
and professors who spoke about budgets
and Fullbright scholarships, and where
the wives of the professors
sat very quietly without speaking.
they were all waiting for me
who had flown in with Captain
entertain them to make a move on
someone's wife to break the windows
to piss on the rug to play the
fool to make them feel superior
to make them feel hip and liberated.
if I would only stick a cigarette
up the cat's ass!
if I would only take the
who was doing a term paper on
but I got up and went to my
closed the door
took off my clothes
went to bed and
the best way
the angel that pushed his wheelchair
long ago he edited a little magazine
it was up in San Francisco
during the beat era
during the reading-poetry-with-jazz experiments
and I remember him because he never returned my manuscripts
even though I wrote him many letters,
humble letters, sane letters, and, at last, violent letters;
I'm told he jumped off a roof
because a woman wouldn't love him.
no matter. when I saw him again
he was in a wheelchair and carried a wine bottle to piss in;
he wrote very delicate poetry
that I, naturally, couldn't understand;
he autographed his book for me
(which he said I wouldn't like)
and once at a party I threatened to punch him and
I was drunk and he wept and
I took pity and instead hit the next poet who walked by
on the head with his piss bottle; so,
we had an understanding after all.
he had this very thin and intense woman
pushing him about, she was his arms and legs and
maybe for a while
it was almost commonplace
at poetry readings where he was scheduled to read
to see her swiftly rolling him in,
sometimes stopping by me, saying,
"I don't see how
we are going to get him up on the stage!"
sometimes she did. often she did.
began writing poetry, I didn't see much of it,
but, somehow, I was glad for her.
then she injured her neck while doing her yoga
and she went on disability, and again I was glad for her,
all the poets wanted to get disability insurance
it was better than immortality.
I met her in the market one day
in the bread section, and she held my hands and
trembled all over
and I wondered if they ever had sex
those two. well, they had the muse anyhow
and she told me she was writing poetry and articles
but really more poetry, she was really writing a lot,
and that's the last I saw of her
until one night somebody told me she'd o.d.'d
and I said, no, not her
and they said, yes, her.
it was a day or so later
sometime in the afternoon
I had to go to the Los Feliz post office
to mail some dirty stories to a sex mag.
outside a church
I saw these smiling creatures
so many of them smiling
the men with beards and long hair and wearing
and most of the women blonde
with sunken cheeks and tiny grins,
and I thought, ah, a wedding,
a nice old-fashioned wedding,
and then I saw him on the sidewalk
in his wheelchair
tragic yet somehow calm
looking greyer, a profile like a tamed hawk,
and I knew it was her funeral,
she had really o.d.'d
and he did look tragic out there.
have feelings, you know.
maybe tonight I'll try to read his book.
Beethoven conducted his last symphony while totally deaf
his paintings would not be as valuable
if he hadn't
sliced off his ear
worn that rag around his head
and then done it to himself
among the cornstalks.
and wouldn't that one's poems be
so famous if he hadn't
faded at 19,
given it all up to
go gun running and gold hunting
in Africa only to
die of syphilis?
what about the one who was
murdered in the road
by Spanish fascists?
give his words more
or take the one who was a
those iceberg symphonies soaring
cutting that particular sky
he had it all working for him
then he got worried about old age
saved his head
went into his house
vanished and was never seen
such strange behavior, didn't somebody
that the man should be as durable as his
art, that's what they want, they want the
impossible: creation and creator to be as
one. this is the dirty trick
of the ages.
the old guy next door died
he was 95 or 96,
I'm not sure.
but I am now the oldest fart
in the neighborhood.
when I bend over to
pick up the morning
I think of heart attack
or when I swim in my
they'll come and
find me floating here
my 8 cats sitting on the
dying's not bad,
it's that little transition
from here to
like flicking the light
I'm now the old fart
in the neighborhood,
been working at it for
but now I have to work
in some new
I have to forget to zip up
all the way,
wear slippers instead of my
hang my glasses around my
fart loudly in the
back my car into a
I must shorten my
stride, take small
develop a squint,
bow my head and
ask, "what? what
did you say?"
I've got to get ready,
whiten my hair,
I want you to know me
when you see
I'm now the old fart
in the neighborhood
and you can't tell me
a damn thing I don't already
respect your elders,
sonny, and get the
hell out of my
squatting over their machines
on hot nights
while their wives talk on the
while the TV plays
in the background
they squat over their machines
they light cigarettes
and hope for fame
beautiful young girls
or at least
something to write
"Yeah, Barney, he´s still at the typer.
I can’t disturb him.
he’s working on a series of short novels for
magazine. his central character is some
guy he calls ‘Bugblast.’ I got a sunburn
today. I was reading a magazine in the yard
and I forgot how long I was out there..."
endless hot summer nights.
the blades of the fan tap and rattle
against the wire cage.
the air don’t move.
it’s hard to breathe.
the people out there expect miracles
continual miracles with
the world is full of
and eager readers who need plenty of new
he sits in the chair across from me.
"you look healthy
," he says in a voice that is
"I've given up beer and I drink only
3 bottles of white German wine each night,"
I tell him.
"are you going to let your readers know
you've reformed?" he
asks. he walks to the refrigerator and opens
the door. "all these vitamins!"
"thiamine-hcl," I say, "b-2, choline, b-6, folic
acid, zinc, e, b-12, niacin, calcium magnesium,
a-e complex, papa... and 3 bottles of white
German wine each night."
"what's this stuff in the jars on the sink?" he
"herbs," I tell him, "goldenseal, sweet basil, alfalfa
mind, mu, lemongrass, rose hips, papaya, gotu kola, clover,
comfrey, fenugreek, sassafras and chamomile... and I drink only
spring water, mineral water and my 3 bottles of white German
"are you going to tell your readers
about all this?"
he asks again.
"should I tell them?" I ask.
"should I tell them that I no longer
eat anything that walks on
"that's what I mean," he says. "people think you are a
"oh?" I say.
"and what about your image
?" he asks. "people don't expect
you to live like this."
"I know," I say, "I've lost my beer-gut. I've come down
from a size 44 to a size 38, and I've lost 31 pounds."
"I mean," he continues, "we all thought you were a man
walking carelessly and bravely to his death, foolishly but
with style, like Don Quixote and the windmills... all that."
"we just won't tell anybody," I answer, "and maybe
we can save my
image or at least prolong it."
"you'll be turning to God next," he says.
"my god," I say, "is those 3 bottles of white German wine."
"I'm disappointed in you," he says.
"I still fuck," I reply, "and I still play the horses and I
go to the boxing matches and I still love my daughter
and I even love my present girlfriend. not that much has
"all right," he says, "we'll keep it quiet.
can you give me a ride back to my place?
my car is in the shop."
"all right," I say, "I also still drive my car."
I lock the door and we walk up the street to where
I'm parked now.
they arrived in time
I like to think about writers like James Joyce
Hemingway, Ambrose Bierce, Faulkner, Sherwood
Anderson, Jeffers, D. H. Lawrence, A. Huxley,
John Fante, Gorki, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Saroyan,
Villon, even Sinclair Lewis, and Hamsun, even T. S.
Elliot and Auden, William Carlos Williams and
Stephen Spender and gutsy Ezra Pound.
they taught me so many things that my parents
never taught me, and
I also like to think of Carson McCullers
with her Sad Cafe
and Golden Eye
she too taught me much that my parents
I liked to read the hardcover library books
in their simple library bindings
blue and green and brown and light red
I liked the older librarians (male and female)
who stared seriously at one
if you coughed or laughed too loudly,
and even though they looked like my parents
there was no real resemblance.
now I no longer read those authors I once read
with such pleasure,
but it's good to think about them,
and I also
like to look again at photographs of Hart Crane and
Caresse Crosby at Chantilly, 1929
or at photographs of D. H. Lawrence and Frieda
sunning at Le Moulin, 1928.
I like to see André Malraux in his flying outfit
with a kitten on his chest and
I like photos of Artaud in the madhouse
Picasso at the beach with his strong legs
and his hairless head, and there's
D. H. Lawrence milking that cow
and Aldous at Saltwood Castle, Kent, August
I like to think about these people
they taught me so many things that I
never dreamed of before.
and they taught me well,
when it was so much need
they showed me so many things
that I never knew were possible.
deep in my blood
when there was no chance
gave me one.
they called Céline a Nazi
they called Pound a fascist
they called Hamsun a Nazi and a fascist
they put Dostoevsky in front of a firing
and they shot Lorca
gave Hemingway electric shock treatments
(and you know he shot himself)
and they ran Villon out of town (Paris)
disillusioned with the regime
and after a lover's quarrel,
he shot himself too.
Chatterton took rat poison
and it worked.
and some say Malcom Lowry died
choking on his own vomit
Crane went the way of the boat
propellor or the sharks.
Harry Crosby's sun was black.
Berryman preferred the bridge.
Plath didn´t light the oven.
Seneca cut his wrists in the
bathtub (it's best that way:
in warm water).
Thomas and Behan drank themselves
to death and
there are many others.
and you want to be a
it's that kind of war:
many go mad,
some lose their way and
can't do it
a few make it to old age.
a few make money.
some starve (like Vallejo).
it's that kind of war:
all right, go ahead
but when they sandbag you
from the blind side
don't come to me with your
now I'm going to smoke a cigarette
in the bathtub
and them I'm going to
Rilke, she said, don't you love
no, I said, he bores me,
poets bore me, they are shits, snails, snippets of
dust in a cheap wind.
Lorca, she said, how about Lorca?
Lorca was good when he was good. he knew how to
sing, but the only reason you like him
is because he was murdered.
Shelley, then, she said, how about Shelley?
didn't he drown in a rowboat?
then how about the lovers? I forget their names...
the two Frenchmen, one killed the
o great, I said, now tell me about
a great man, she said.
he was clever, I said, but you believe in all these things
for the wrong reason.
Van Gogh, then, she said.
there you go, I said, there you go again.
what do you mean?
I mean that what the other painters of the time said was true:
he was an average painter.
how do you know?
I know because I paid $ 10 to go in and see some of his
paintings. I saw that he was interesting,
honorable, but not great.
how can you say, she asked, all these things about all these people?
you mean, why don't I agree with you?
for a man who is almost starving to death, you talk like some
but, I said, haven't all your heroes starved?
but this is different; you dislike everything I like.
no, I said, I just don't like the way you
I'm leaving, she said.
I could have lied to you, I said, like most
you mean men lie to me?
yes, to get at what you think is holy.
you mean, it's not holy?
I don't know, but I won't lie
to make it work.
be damned with you then, she said.
good night, I said.
she really slammed that door.
I got up and turned on the radio.
there was some pianist playing that same work by
Grieg. nothing changed. nothing
they applaud each work
without fail or thought
and four or five voices respond
with the same ringing
as if they had heard a fresh
and vital creative
where have the audiences gone
that were able to select and
now the thought in the collective mind of
the audience is:
at the wheels of their automobiles
they dash out of the underground
more rude and crass
than any boxing match crowd
than any horse race crowd
cutting off others
the March to the Gallows, indeed
Pictures at an Exhibition, of course
the Bolero, yes
The Afternoon of a Faun?
zooming toward the freeways
BRAVO West L. A.
BRAVO Westwood Village
BRAVO Hollywood Hills
BRAVO Beverly Hills.
Symphonie Pathétique, indeed.
you do it while you´re killing flies
Bach, I said, he had 20 children.
he played the horses during the day.
he fucked at night
and drank in the mornings.
he wrote music in between.
at least that´s what I told her
when she asked me,
when do you do your
the ordinary café of the world
new worlds shine in the dust
come up through the slums of the mind only
to choke on mosquito
it's most difficult
like eating a salad
in the ordinary café of the world;
it's most difficult
to create art
look about. the pieces to work with are
missing. they must be created or
the critics should be generous an the critics are
they think it's easy to
put out water with fire.
but there's been no wasted effort
no matter what they've done
the lost women
the lost jobs,
damn them all anyhow
they're hardly as interesting as
this ordinary café, this ordinary world,
we know there should be a better place,
an easier place,
but there's not;
that's our secret
and it's not
but it's enough.
we have chosen the ordinary,
to create art means
to be crazy alone
"I inherit," "Beethoven conducted his last symphony
while totally deaf," "comments upon my last book of poesy:," "odd," "they
arrived in time," "combat primer," "bravo!," "image," "the ordinary café
of the world," "Captain Goodwine," "you do it while you´re killing flies,"
"Christmas poem to a man in jail," "the angel who pushed his wheelchair,"
"the professionals," and "more argument" by Charles Bukowski. Copyright
(c) 1999 by Linda Lee Bukowski. Reprinted from WHAT MATTERS MOST IS HOW
WELL YOU WALK THROUGH THE FIRE with the permission of Black Sparrow Press.