Charles Bukowski is one of those enviable poets known even to people who think poetry is a joke. Although I had never read much of his work (until this week, thanks to The Pleasures of the Damned, which collects his poems from 1951-1993), I knew enough to consider him one of those characters who carefully cultivates a persona. You know, like Hemingway did: writer as womanizer, hard drinker, eloquent cusser.
As it turns out, yes and no. (And how often in life does it turn out “yes and no”?) Bukowski’s poems are, indeed, rife with booze and sex and select profanity, but like Hemingway, his toughness is similar to the turtle’s: hard on the outside, soup on the inside.
There’s frequent reference to symphonic music, for instance. Bukowski was an aficionado, a fan of both Wagner’s and Mahler’s, among others.
And there’s a tender side that keeps surfacing, a capital-R Romantic side. No poem shows it better than the memory piece, “for they had things to say,” a paean to his grandmother and her house with the canaries and the lemon tree.
Let’s listen in to Mr. Tough Guy, shall we?
for they had things to say
the canaries were there, and the lemon tree
and the old woman with warts;
and I was there, a child
and I touched the piano keys
as they talked —
but not too loudly
for they had things to say,
the three of them;
and I watched them cover the canaries at night
with flour sacks:
“so they can sleep, my dear.”
I played the piano quietly
one note at a time,
the canaries under their sacks,
and there were pepper trees,
pepper trees brushing the roof like rain
and hanging outside the windows
like green rain,
and they talked, the three of them
sitting in a warm night’s semicircle,
and the keys were black and white
and responded to my fingers
like the locked-in magic
of a waiting, grown-up world;
and now they’re gone, the three of them
and I am old:
pirate feet have trod
the clean-thatched floors
of my soul,
and the canaries sing no more.
It was one of those poems where I stop and read it again. And again. Such nice sounds and sentiments. Such nice memories, so much so that it gets you thinking about your own past and how the past plays tricks, coming across like a storybook cherished in childhood.
Was the world really ever that gentle and lovely and perfect? Of course the answer is no, but the driving force in writing about childhood like this is yes.
Yes and no again! Rearing its lovely head.