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Flash on Bukowski

The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain by Charles Bukowski

Mark Spitzer

  The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems.
Charles Bukowski.
John Martin, editor.
Ecco Press, 2005.
320 pages, $13.99 (paperback).
ISBN: 0060577029 (Library of Congress).
Buy at Amazon.

Like the six other poetry books published since his death a decade ago, Bukowski's verse hasn't changed much. He's still looking back on the factory, women, encounters at the race track, writers and writing, and how he changed his circumstances from Skid Row and prostitutes to the Jacuzzi-life of San Pedro, USA. In fact, the new Bukowski (a curmudgeonly success typing on a Mac and drinking fine wine) is now just as much a cliche as the old Bukowski (fighting and fucking his life away), both of them sharing two main things in common: a passion for drink and a loathing for critics.

There are a few differences in subject matter, though, that make this collection different than the others. First off, Bukowski gets more political than usual, taking a crack at patriotism and commenting on a President (Clinton) who "doesn't seem a bad / chap but he's sure inherited a fucking mess." He also claims that "democracy doesn't work. / Christianity doesn't work. / nor Atheism," and tells us:

Fellow citizens,
the problem never was the Democratic
System, the problem is

Another noticeable difference in this collection has to do with facing mortality. Whereas Bukowski always had some stock things to profess about death, he's not as melodramatic about it in this collection as he is conscious of the grave speeding toward him. It often seems as if the majority of these poems were written in the hospital as he waits for incompetent doctors while filling out forms. Bukowski shows himself going down: his health is failing, his leg is a mess, and his room is costing $550 per day while he endures

64 days and nights in that
place, chemotherapy,
antibiotics, blood running into
the catheter

And then, of course, he finally dies. Which might lead one to believe that these are the last of the "new poems" coming out from Bukowski every couple years. But that's not likely, since the thing Bukowski is best at now is publishing posthumously from the closets he filled with ten to fifteen poems per intoxicated night throughout his life, leaving them as currency for his widow to publish and for John Martin to edit with a less and less discriminating eye.

Meaning that there are more than the usual amount of duds in this one compared to Sifting through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way (1992), The Night Torn Mad with Footsteps (2001), Open All Night (2000), What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk through the Fire (1999), Bone Palace Ballet (1997), and Betting on the Muse (1996). Also, the amount of unrealized/unpolished verse is up a few percentage points.  Examples include a poem that ends with the uncharacteristic moral "life has both kind / and unkind / ways." It would've ended better without this obvious observation.

Still, there's another clunker that tacks on an extraneous last line echoing what he already said:

I have this new room up here and I sit alone in this
    floating, smoky, crazy
space, I am content in this killing field, and my
    friends, the walls
embrace me anew.
my heart can't laugh but sometimes it smiles
in the yellow light: to have come this far to
sit alone
in this new room up here.

Other repetitive instances abound, along with quite a few words that work to dilute each other, or at least call attention to their awkwardness. For example, note the repetition of "hard" in the following stanza:

At 5:30 a.m. I was
awakened by this hard sound,
heavy and hard, rolling on the linoleum

And the recurrence of "now" in this one:

it is past midnight now and a lone
dog howls in the
and I am as young as the fire that still

Of course, Bukowski never gave a crap what reviewers had to say. He just pounded out his poems whenever an idea hit him, which he indicates in "Hungaria, Symphonia Poem #9 / by Franz Liszt":

Yes, I know that I write many poems but it's not

because of ambition, it's more or less just something
to do
while I live out my life
if I have to write one hundred bad poems to get one good
I don't feel that I'm wasting my time
I like the rattle of the typewriter, it sounds so professional
even when
is really happening.

And later on, in a poem called "Valet":

makes a

Note also how Bukowski starts each of these stanzas with a "yes" that implies a "but," as if directly addressing critics who might have a beef with what he views as poetry.

What this collection ultimately shows, however, is Bukowski at his Olympian peak. He's not afraid to claim his place in history and use it as a vantage point. For instance, in the poem "tonight" he asserts "I have joined the great drunks / of the century," and in the second to last poem he puts himself on a baseball team with Celine, Dostoevsky, Beethoven, Hemingway, and Jeffers.

But what does Bukowski do with this great sensitivity he has achieved? He writes about the stupid and the weak, the annoying and pretentious, and all the fat-asses waiting in line. Which is why millions of readers return to Bukowski and have made him the best-selling poet in history: because there's a demand for a tough old codger voice that's not afraid of the PC Police. Hence, Bukowski's attitude in this book comes off as mellowed with age, and therefore just judgmental, rather than coming from the perspective of a tired old asshole who isn't giving us anything new. Still, he's straddling that line, but with a sense of humor that makes even his most mediocre stuff ultimately more satisfying than anything ever anthologized in The Best American Poetry series.

. . .