A few weeks ago, at the time of the Titan submersible implosion, lines from an old poem by Charles Bukowski came into my mind. An odd association, to be sure, but given the news frenzy surrounding the submersible and the virtual ignoring by the media of the deaths of 700+ migrants off the coast of Greece, Bukowski seemed to have a take I needed. These lines, in particular, from “Poem for Personnel Managers” flooded in:
And if you decide to kill somebody, make it anybody and not somebody; some men are made of more special, precious parts: do not kill if you will a president or a King or a man behind a desk – these have heavenly longitudes enlightened attitudes. If you decide, take us who stand and smoke and glower; we are rusty with sadness and feverish with climbing broken ladders. Take us: we were never children like your children. We do not understand love songs like your inamorata.
It was hardly the first time I had dug out my dog-eared first edition of The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. In my opinion, it is a striking achievement. Poems such as “Ice for the Eagles” and “Poem for Personnel Managers” still have the resonance they had when I first read them more than 50 years ago.
Bukowski was a flawed poet. He didn’t edit his own work enough, and as he got older and became a cult personality, his poems were more and more in need of excisions and reshaping. But when he hit, he hit. And keeps hitting even more so as income inequality becomes the norm, as the homeless overwhelm the streets of his own Los Angeles and thousands of other cities and towns. I can easily forgive his sloppiness: he needed to get down quickly what he was thinking and feeling or else it would evaporate in an alcoholic haze. And we need those poems. He gave a voice to the down and out, the uncelebrated, the overlooked, and those ignored or looked at askance.
I did not really know Bukowski. I met him once in 1970. He had come to UCSB to give a reading from his marvelous The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills that had recently been published by Black Sparrow. One of my professors threw a party for him after the reading, and I somehow wangled an invitation. Bukowski was, of course, drinking heavily and spending most of his time cozying up to the young women in attendance. And then, suddenly, he vanished.
I went outside. He was sitting on the stoop, a bottle in hand. I introduced myself and thanked him for the reading and told him I had already bought the book and read it cover to cover. Twice. He nodded. It didn’t seem as if he wanted to talk but I was pushy and sat down next to him. He passed me the bottle, then said, “Call me Hank. Rhymes with wank.” “I’m Chris. Rhymes with piss.” He laughed and we shook hands. I was surprised his hands were soft.
I knew better than to ask him about his poems but I did try to chit-chat. He asked me who I was and where I was from. I was flummoxed. I told him I was an undergraduate and had largely grown up in Mexico. “Tijuana has a good race track. Caliente. And cheap booze,” he said. He passed me the near-empty bottle. We talked a bit more but were soon interrupted by others. I never saw him after that but 20 years later, I did make contact with him again.
In 1990 I was teaching a class at MIT called “Writing and Experience.” One of the texts I chose was Bukowski’s poem “Ice for the Eagles.”
I keep remembering the horses under the moon I keep remembering feeding the horses sugar white oblongs of sugar more like ice, and they had heads like eagles bald heads that could bite and did not. The horses were more real than my father more real than God and they could have stepped on my feet but they didn’t they could have done all kinds of horrors but they didn’t. I was almost 5 but I have not forgotten yet; O my god they were strong and good those red tongues slobbering out their souls.
The students had lots of questions about why a five-year-old was out at night with horses. I told them I had no idea but would try to find out. I called Bob Sharrard, our mutual editor at City Lights, and managed to get Bukowski’s phone number. I called him in the late afternoon and he picked up after a few rings. I told him I was teaching his poem, and would he mind answering a few questions about it. “You want me to talk to the class?” he asked. I was overwhelmed. “That would be wonderful,” I said, and we fixed a date and time.
In pre-cell phone days, a speaker call was literally on a speaker. Thanks to MIT technical know-how, I had the landline in the classroom hooked up to two speakers and two microphones. If I remember right, the class was at 1 in the afternoon, 11 am, L.A. time. I dialed, only half expecting he’d answer. The suspense was broken on the first ring. As I recall, I only asked one question: What was the poem about? He said something like this:
“Just what it says. My father was a milkman and I would sometimes go with him on his early morning rounds. His wagon was—as is obvious—horse drawn. While he was delivering milk to the well-off, I would feed the horses sugar cubes. It was still dark. It was a little scary, and the horses’ heads seemed like eagles’ heads to me, just as the poem tells you. That’s it. One of my earliest memories. Thank you.”
He hung up. The room was silent. We had our explanation: short and sweet. We would all have liked to have some further dialogue but could not really complain. We had our answer.
Four years later he was dead. His poems continue to speak.