Musings On a Sign in Capitol Hill Books

Sign on a bookshelf

I don’t have to ask why. It’s because people steal his books. Buk’s locked up as if his books were rare first editions in pristine dust jackets. In the writing classes I taught there were two kinds of poets: fans of Mary Oliver and Buk fanatics. That’s an exaggeration, of course; a case of black-or-white with nothing in between and you know better, as do I, but there’s a kernel of truth there. I could predict a kid with a rough edge would prefer Bukowski.

The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. That’s the one Buk book I own, more for its magnificent title and the fact that it’s Black Sparrow Press than for its contents. Bukowski had a gift, a fine sense of rhythm, and gave us a gritty version of Frank O’Hara. They both wrote about what they did today, everyday stuff. Buk’s urban and O’Hara’s urbane.

Owned since 1968

Lunch Poems is the City Lights Pocket Book I still have. Someone spilled coffee on it. Could’ve been me. O’Hara was a museum curator who wrote poems on his lunch hour. Those poems renewed my hope that I’d keep writing after I realized that despite being a poet I would have to work for a living. His poem “The Day Lady Died” brings tears to my eyes at the end, when he sees her face on the cover of the New York Post and remembers her whispering a song along the keyboard and how he stopped breathing, listening to her. Billie Holiday: no one can touch her.

I don’t deny Buk was a poet, but if you’ve known alcoholics, you get weary of all the drinking in those poems. Not to mention the misogynist bits. But yes, he was the underground outsider, rebel, social critic: all those things a poet is supposed to be. Or one kind of poet.

The sign says “author,” was in the fiction section and the guy wrote novels too. Like the poems, I hear they’re centered on the seamy side of urban life. Never read one, so I can say nothing about them.

I have one Buk story and got it second-hand. A poet I knew back in my reading days read with Bukowski at a Southwestern university. They were on a stage and a piano was shoved to the back. While the other poet was reading his poems, Buk, who’d been drinking, went upstage and pissed into the piano. I don’t know if that story’s true. The poet who told it was Irish and you know the Irish: never let the truth get in the way of a good story. O’Hara was also Irish and I sometimes suspect him of making up stuff in his poems.

I also once saw a poet take a leak in front of an audience, but at least he was outdoors. Poetry readings were apt to be wild in the late 60s and early 70s. Please note how the wildness (drinking and pissing) is exclusively male. About the Irish, though, my favorite quote is by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes: “The English language has always been alive and kicking, and if it ever becomes drowsy, there will always be an Irish writer…”

From Myself with Others: Selected Essays. Fuentes wrote “Irishman” in that quote. I updated him. Scads of Irish women keeping English alive these days.

That title of Buk’s inspired me to write this prose poem, years ago, published in Talking Writing, Fall 2018:

Horses Over Hills

“The days run away like wild horses over the hills,” he says, quoting Bukowski. She doesn’t know that, though, and replies, “they run until they forget they are horses.” What the hell? He turns to look at her. She’s staring dreamily at the bronze figures, life-size, in full gallop, cascading from their marble pedestal. He turns back to the romantic mustangs, irritated. “Ever read Buk?” he asks abruptly. “What?” she says, finally tearing her eyes away from the monument. “Never mind,” he snaps. “I was talking about time, how little we have. You’re leaving, aren’t you? I was speaking metaphorically.” “Oh,” she says, turning back to the snorting heads frozen in the act, the lifted hooves that will never reach ground. “So was I.”

In 1959, Frank O’Hara wrote: “I am ashamed of my century/for being so entertaining/but I have to smile.” He was often chortling in his poems, Frank O’Hara. He might have laughed as much—or more—at this century, had he lived to see it.

I do wonder if it’s physically possible to aim piss into a piano. I mean, how tall does a man have to be? But such an act sounds in character for Charles Bukowski. O’Hara would have found it hysterical.


This entry was posted in Humor, Poetry, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.