Eighteen more days till the end of 2020 and our stay-at-home life goes on and on and on and on. Here’s a Charles Bukowski poem for the stir-crazy. I taped to a no-parking sign in a quiet suburban neighborhood.
wearing the collar
by Charles Bukowski
I live with a lady and four cats
and some days we all get
some days I have trouble with
one of the
other days I have trouble with
two of the
some days I have trouble with
all four of the
ten eyes looking at me
as if I was a dog.
The slow, mathematical way Bukowski delineates his uncomfortable living situation in “wearing the collar” makes me laugh. Imagine Bukowski, with all his crazy energy, confined to a house with too many cats and a woman who doesn’t adore everything he does. Funny. His casual disregard for capitalization (except for the all-important “I”) paired with touches of formality (that last colon, the references to “the lady”) add to the drollery.
It’s kind of funny too that we’re all “wearing the collar” now. Before March we were footloose and fancy-free and didn’t even realize it.
Of course for some people it’s not funny at all. No doubt the pandemic has intensified behind-closed-doors domestic turmoil. How many are trapped in homes where they live like Bukowski feels—like dogs unwelcome in their own homes, on edge, waiting for “trouble.” I can’t read this poem without shuddering for those people.
Charles Bukowski, cult favorite poet of the low life, was born in Germany in 1920 to an American soldier and German mother. When he was two, his family moved to Baltimore, eventually settling in California. He had a tough start in life, and his subsequent alcoholism is not surprising: beaten by his father, bullied by peers, and rejected by girls for his bad complexion and the German clothes he was forced to wear. At age thirteen a friend introduced him to alcohol and it was off to the races.
He went to Los Angeles City College for a few years and then moved to New York to become a writer. Lack of success in publishing led to a ten-year cross-country binge of heavy drinking, an enlarged liver, bleeding ulcer, and a close-call with death. He scaled back and took up writing again, publishing his first poem at age 35. He supported his writing with a variety of jobs including truck-driving, elevator operating and dishwashing. His steadiest employment was with the post office.
He was married twice and had a daughter with a live-in girlfriend he called “old snaggle-tooth.” Sweet guy. Nice guy.
He was a prolific writer. He wrote a column for an underground newspaper, published six novels, multiple volumes of poetry, short stories, essays, and letters, and several screenplays including Barfly.
He died of leukemia in 1994. He’s another poet who deserves more of a biography than I have time to give him. To get a better flavor of his big, big life and personality, link to his obituary here or here.
Note: he did not say “Find what you love and let it kill you,” a phrase often attributed to him. That was singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman.