what matters most is how well you walk through
Black Sparrow Press
what matters most is how well you walk through the fire,
the first in a series of his previously uncollected poems to
be brought out by Black Sparrow Press, does something quite crafty:
while presenting itself merely as a collection of posthumously
gathered poems (Bukowski died in 1994, at the age of seventy-three),
it in fact serves quite well as an autobiography that is told
exclusively through poems. The only clue that Black Sparrow Press
had such a thing in mind comes from the order in which they place
Without an introduction or editorial comment, the collection
is divided into three parts that fall roughly into three periods.
The first section (by far the longest, in terms of years covered)
begins with Bukowski's unhappy childhood and carries us through
his tough, often hard-scrabble early years as an adult. The childhood
poems are among the best in the collection because Bukowski wonderfully
captures in them the innocence and the somewhat confusing longing
for adult experience (particularly sexual) that marks early adolescence.
But he also shows, equally well, a child's bitter discovery that
the adult world isn't always pretty (witness "my father's
big-time fling," in which Bukowski walks in on his parents
arguing over his father's infidelity with "a woman with
a large nose"). Bukowski is keenly aware that desire can
be dangerous and self-deceiving, and it remains a preoccupying
theme throughout the collection.
The second section picks up with Bukowski at the age of fifty.
Here, Bukowski is consciously middle-aged and aware of death,
but he is unwilling to give up just yet, as he writes in "$180
I'm not dead yet
yet not dead
I want to see more kneecaps under
tight nylon hose.
He is also, for the first time, experiencing what he calls
"minor success" as a writer, and he worries about becoming
an entertainer rather than a poet.
By the third section, Bukowski is an old man learning to accept
limitations. "[W]aiting on death can be perfectly peaceful,"
he writes in "odd," and in "a new war," he
not so long ago your night would be just
beginning, but don't lament lost youth:
youth was no wonder either.
He's less flummoxed by injustices and more likely to consider
ways to help other less fortunate people, even if he doesn't
actually do anything. In a word, he mellows out. And, after a
lifetime of hard living, he gets healthier too. By the end of
this third section, he's an old man looking at young men and
seeing their naivete, their soft inexperience. And he's wholly
aware of the change he's undergone from raw, angry youth to--for
example--tolerant (though privately fuming) host, as he tells
us in "the crowd":
I can't believe they are
I can't believe their words or their
I have no idea why they are here.
I have invited nobody.
I am the husband.
I am to act civilized.
I am to behave like them.
but I will live past them.
this night will not turn me into them.
there was a time when I used to run such
out the door.
but then I would hear over and over
what a beast I had been.
so now I sit with them,
attempt to listen.
I even lend a word now and then.
they have no idea how I feel.
Bukowski is a highly readable poet, with a good ear for rhythm
and a strong, clear understanding that, with each poem, he has
a story to tell. Occasionally, a poem's last lines don't
turn as dramatically as Bukowski might have liked, but what
matters most is how well you walk through the fire is a strong,
intoxicating collection, and it often shows Bukowski at his best.
Back to Archived Short
Biting the Moon
have fallen in love with Martha Grimes's whoppingly witty Richard
Jury detective novels might be disappointed with her latest effort,
Biting the Moon. No corpses pop up in the first chapter,
very little alcohol is imbibed, and not a single epigram worthy
of Oscar Wilde is spoken. Nor--alas--are there any British pubs
in sight. Instead, the novel is set in the American Southwest,
and in place of a good detective novel, Grimes gives us a quieter,
much less tightly plotted mystery about lost identity.
Here's a quick summary. A girl--she doesn't know her name
or exact age, though she appears to be seventeen or so--suddenly
wakes up alone in a bed-and-breakfast in the Southwest. She doesn't
know how she got there or where she came from. The proprietor
tells her that her father has gone out on foot and should return
shortly. Instead of waiting for the mystery man who calls himself
"Daddy," the girl steals a handgun from the trunk of
his Camaro and walks away. Hours later, she is climbing into
the wintry mountains in the distance--with six hundred dollars,
a few supplies and not a single clue as to who she is or where
she's from. Eventually, on a trip into town (she's been living
in an abandoned cabin), she meets another girl--almost fourteen
years old and likewise orphaned--and the two of them get along
well enough for the lost girl (she's named herself Andi) to share
her secret. Together, they gather a few promising clues and set
out in the family car to track down Andi's "Daddy"
From here, Biting the Moon is essentially a road flick
in print. As is often the case with such forms, the novel has
a loose, episodic quality, and the girls' rather prosaic dialogue
will probably make Jury fans long for a martini and an evening
of witty, jaded chatter. Grimes does have a talent for
nature descriptions, though, and some passages in Biting the
Moon are breathtakingly well-done. But Grimes's leisurely
approach to solving Andi's mystery and--perhaps more importantly--Andi's
lack of a backstory strong enough to make us care inordinately
about her makes this novel rather slow going for readers looking
for Grimes's usual fare.
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Blonde Like Me: The Roots of the Blonde Myth
in Our Culture
Blonde Like Me: The Roots of the Blonde Myth in Our Culture
is an odd blend: part autobiography (in which Ilyin marks the
stages of her life through her hair color(s)) and part mythopoetic
/ semiotic analysis of what hair--and more specifically, blond
hair--means in our society at large.
The autobiographical elements are the most enjoyable, by far.
Ilyin has a biting wit ("Tall women are afraid they will
hurt short women. I always marvel at the way their tiny hands
work"), and she shows a strong talent for presenting amusing,
well-drawn characters. Here, for example, is how she describes
the modeling school mistress to whom her mother sent her when
Ilyin was thirteen and already over six feet tall:
The modeling school mistress, Ms. Luker, was an old model
herself, about my mother's age. She had seen too much sun in
her perfect youth, and her skin was lined and colorless. She
had a size-eight figure, wore yellow pants and white tops, had
a double-processed blonde pageboy the color of ginger ale, and
smoked cigarettes to keep from eating. She could summon an outgoing,
natural-looking smile on command. She was nice to me; she knew
I was hopeless.
Now that's a beautifully compressed portrait.
The mythopoetic / semiotic parts are more an acquired taste,
I suspect. Ilyin is a little repetitive there (a minor problem
that's magnified by the book's brevity), and she sometimes belabors
obvious points. (How many times must we be told that the Innocent
Blonde is virginal, for example?) A more serious problem lies,
I think, in the speed with which she works through a wide range
of disparate images and metaphors. Skeptics--and novices to the
Joseph Campbell-style of mytho-poetic analysis--may find Ilyin
simply moves too quickly at times to be won over.
Still, Ilyin writes with a smooth, calculatedly easy rhythm
that makes reading her book effortless. Ilyin's voice in Blonde
Like Me is fun and conversational, by turns teasing and conspiratorial,
and the skill with which she manipulates her text suggests she's
a strong writer from whom we can expect strong work in the future.
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Daughter of My People
Daughter of My People could be described as a novel of
racial manners taking place in the South after the Civil War
but before the Civil Rights revolution. It makes me squirm. That
is surely Kilgo's intention as he describes an interracial love
affair in the South Carolina backcountry.
The first automobiles, vanguards of change, are forcing horses
off the rutted roads, but the old racial hierarchy seems secure.
Hart Bonner, a white man from a proud old family, falls in love
with Jennie, a black servant in a plantation household. Slavery
has been abolished for more than a half-century, of course, but
in many ways blacks still aren't free to make their own choices.
Hart loves Jennie unconditionally and without racial prejudice.
Jennie's position is ambiguous. We are made to wonder: is her
tenderness toward him love or the solicitude that the protected
person feels for her protector? Her feelings are tested when
Hart's older brother Tyson makes sexual advances to Jennie. The
nature of her dilemma is clear: "Wild panic broke out in
Jennie's eyes, the terror of a squirrel unable to decide which
way to evade the swooping hawk." Invisible lines are crossed
in this caste society on a path that seems to lead inevitably
It's no surprise that the white males in this book only seem
to feel at ease in the woods, away from the complications of
race and sex. Kilgo has a fine eye for nature and an outdoorsman's
appreciation for hunting and fishing. Here Hart, out hunting,
comes across a pair of male turkeys fighting over a hen: "Hart
saw two red wattled necks entwined like grapevines that have
grown around each other, and for one instant the gobbles seemed
suspended in the energy of their beating passion, inches above
the ground. He brought the gun to his shoulders and fired."
If you're morally opposed to hunting, you'll find some scenes
hard to stomach, particularly one in which Kilgo describes in
clinical detail how to skin a deer and cut up the meat. And some
of the dialogue makes me uneasy. Black characters, ever mindful
that the white man has the upper hand, say things like, "John
Earl say best come quick, suh. That mule een bad shape."
But then again, Kilgo's gift is to make us feel uneasy when we
are confronting racial wrongs too often swept under the carpet.
--Arthur Alexander Parker
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Mr. Darwin's Shooter
the protagonist of Roger McDonald's brilliantly realized historical
novel, Mr. Darwin's Shooter, is a mere boy working during
the week as a clerk in a leather-merchant's loft and a butcher's
assistant at his father's market table on the weekends when a
Pied-Piper-like Congregationalist sailor prone to seafaring metaphors
shows up and convinces Covington's father to let the boy leave
home with him and a group of like-minded youths. The fact that
the leather merchant has just shut down operations temporarily
because of a plummet in the hides market makes the boy's apparent
lack of spiritual inclination seem relatively unimportant, and
the father grudgingly gives up his son to the evangelist.
His father's take on Covington's spiritual nature isn't as
insightful as the evangelical sailor's, though, and the evangelist's
promise of a journey, metaphorical or otherwise, resonates strongly
with Covington. Even as a young child, McDonald writes, he had
been moved tremendously by Christian, the hero of John Bunyan's
The Pilgrim's Progress (Bunyan was himself a Bedford native,
like the Covingtons):
A story tingled his arms to the fingertips and shook his shanks
down to his toes with anxiety and restlessness. It was The
Pilgrim's Progress that belonged to their town and countryside,
telling of a sally away from Bedford in a great undertaking.
It was all about walking and peering and finding, coming out
from behind trees and passing down narrow rocky paths into darkness
and light. It was all a great test for goodness of heart. Obstacles
were to be met, most horrendous, and there were dangers of falling
into an abyss. Black rivers were to be crossed. Vain and foolish
strangers were to be put to rights.
But the seafaring evangelist gives Covington a prescient warning
to mind the calling of Jesus ("the only man whom the Great
King on High has authorised to lead the fleet in which any of
you may serve") "lest in your journey you meet with
some that pretend to lead you right."
Of course, the warning is to no avail, for a few years after
leaving home, Covington insinuates himself in a job as the shooter
and butcher on the then-unknown survey ship, the Beagle. His
client is a young, unknown scientist named Charles Darwin, and
when Darwin's journey yields an evolutionary theory that threatens
to topple Covington's religious beliefs (as well as Darwin's
own), Covington finds himself morally...flummoxed. The
fact that Darwin, an aristocrat who never exactly befriended
his shooter, never acknowledges Covington's role in advancing
his research doesn't help either, of course.
McDonald has a conjurer's talent for setting the pace by which
he reveals his tale, and Mr. Darwin's Shooter is an exemplar
of the historical novel genre. He never shows off his research,
yet with a calm authority, he shows us a man's soul, mid-nineteenth
century. His ability to draw such a compelling, heartfelt, and
ultimately timeless portrait in Covington marks this novel's
greatest achievement. And that is a great achievement indeed.
Back to Archived Short
Between Father and Son: Family Letters
Alfred A. Knopf
It is revealing
to learn that the idea to collect and publish these letters--which
date primarily from 1949 to 1953--is actually contemporaneous
with their composition, and that the idea was encouraged by V.S.
Naipaul's father, Seepersad. (He even suggested the title Letters
Between a Father and Son; it was abbreviated for American
publication.) Naipaul was only seventeen when he left his family
in Trinidad to attend Oxford University on a highly coveted scholarship,
and his father, though in his forties, was still struggling to
make his mark as a fiction writer, so one has to wonder what
made them think readers would care to read letters exchanged
between two merely aspiring writers. If the letters weren't so
entertaining, the notion to write with publication in mind would
at least show the father's enterprising drive to see print.
It is, in fact, delightful to read letters written by such
comfortably confident writers. Even in the midst of family squabbles,
money problems and publishing woes, Seepersad and V.S. Naipaul
seem to take delight in extended epistolary efforts. (Most parents
would kill to receive even V.S.'s shortest letters from their
college-bound child.) And the Naipauls do seem to enjoy their
ability to complain at length--which, of course, is partly why
their letters are so entertaining. Let's face it: reading gossipy,
private letters has a voyeuristic quality, and it's great fun
to see others engaging in the sorts of garden-variety duplicities
we all want to deny engaging in ourselves.
But these letters do have merit beyond mere entertainment,
I think, because there is a terrific sense of longing to be published
in both father and son, and to read them goading and coaxing
each other to write, write, write at all costs is quite moving.
Early in the collection, it is the father who advises most authoritatively,
but as V.S. gains confidence and meets with some success with
short stories, he quietly begins to assert himself in his letters
In hindsight, of course, we perceive the son as the writer
who 'made it;' Seepersad died in 1953 with only a single published
novel to his credit. Thus, to read through the father's letters
documenting his short story acceptances and explaining away his
rejections as if he were on the verge of breaking through is
grimly ironic, and it underlines the curious track our individual
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