2020 Countdown, day three: puppets in a really bad show










Poet Charles Bukowski has the dubious honor of being featured twice in the Poem Elf 2020 Countdown. I guess his dark sensibility and wild spirit resonate with me in a chaotic year.

With only three more days till we start afresh—or hope to God we do—let’s look at one of the many unpleasant gifts 2020 has bequeathed us:  foundational loss.  I taped Bukowski’s “pull a string, a puppet moves. . .”  to a lamppost in a tony shopping district in suburban Detroit.

pull a string, a puppet moves …

by Charles Bukowski

each man must realize

that it can all disappear very


the cat, the woman, the job,

the front tire,

the bed, the walls, the

room; all our necessities

including love,

rest on foundations of sand —

and any given cause,

no matter how unrelated:

the death of a boy in Hong Kong

or a blizzard in Omaha …

can serve as your undoing.

all your chinaware crashing to the

kitchen floor, your girl will enter

and you’ll be standing, drunk,

in the center of it and she’ll ask:

my god, what’s the matter?

and you’ll answer: I don’t know,

I don’t know …

For a poem that was written in the early 70’s, “pull a string” has really found its moment this year. Amazing how predictive it is. Surely Bukowski had no idea what would be manifest in March 2020—

each man must realize

that it can all disappear very


So many things we took for granted are gone. Poof! as my Polish friend likes to say. No need for a list of what’s been lost. Undoubtedly you’ve made your own. Bukowski has his–

the cat, the woman, the job,

the front tire,

the bed, the walls, the


The second half of the poem paints a picture of the downside of our interconnected world. The details are different in Bukowski’s poem—

the death of a boy in Hong Kong

or a blizzard in Omaha …

can serve as your undoing

—but the truth holds. Virus in one small part of the world, millions of deaths every else; environmental disaster in one city, supply lines shut-down for local businesses thousands of miles away, revenue lost, livelihoods at risk. The fabled butterfly effect is real, never more so than in a pandemic.

The title suggests that a malicious puppet master is at work. An unknowable force sets chaos in motion, leaving us helpless and confused. In the wake of our destruction and self destruction we stumble, we rage. I don’t think that chinaware crashed itself to the ground.

Dark stuff. But don’t worry, I’m closing out the series with two poems to lighten the darkness.


Below is a bio of Bukowski from a previous post. But first, an inspirational video about his life with a great message for anyone struggling to find their way.

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.” Ouch.

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.

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