and the next I remembered I’m on a table,
everybody’s gone: the head of bravery
under light, scowling, flailing me down…
and then some toad stood there, smoking a cigar:
“Kid you’re no fighter,” he told me,
and I got up and knocked him over a chair;
it was like a scene in a movie, and
he stayed there on his big rump and said
over and over: “Jesus, Jesus, whatsamatta wit
you?” and I got up and dressed,
the tape still on my hands, and when I got home
I tore the tape off my hands and
wrote my first poem,
and I’ve been fighting
It’s funny. I have come back to this poem many times over the years. Not all of Bukowski’s poetry resonates with me so completely, but “The Loser” always did, until today. This time, reading it again, I realized that there was a hidden implication, a splinter of the story that I had never received before. Bukowski didn’t want to be a writer–he wanted to be a fighter.
And I found that strange, because I’m the opposite. I was a fighter. I will probably always be a fighter, although God knows I wish it were otherwise. But a fighter is not what I ever wanted to be.
A few years ago, I went to the dentist for a check-up. They x-rayed my teeth and discovered that they needed to fill one of my canines in; it was dead, had been dead for many years, a hollow spear of bone that remained standing only because my gums were healthy and strong. No tooth decay, no dent in the enamel.
So I asked. What could cause that? Why would a solid tooth just die?
Trauma, they told me. A blow to the jaw can knock a tooth loose. It heals, and you don’t notice it, but the tooth is dead–if it never gets infected, it can hang in there for years, dry as an old gourd.
As I listened it all came back to me, sharp and clear as thirty seconds ago. The smell of snow, the smell of garbage, the golden cone of sodium light with the fat bright feathers of the blizzard drifting through it. The impact of that fist, the wet crunch echoing through my skull. As I bent to spit in the dentist’s sink, the numb lips and the taste of my own blood weren’t so much terrible as they were familiar…an old friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while.
I’ve taken a few beatings in my time. When you stand up–for anything and anyone, including yourself–someone is going to try and knock you down. This particular incident was a deferred payment on a deposit I had made the previous summer, the night I faced down three angry young men in front of a bar called Fahrquart’s. They were coming for a friend of mine; his crime was being gay, and they’d already beaten him once that spring for it. I knew damn well who they were and what they’d already done, so when they came stalking up that night and asked him “Do you want some more?”, I didn’t miss a beat–I just stepped out into the way and said, “Yes, we want some more.”
They didn’t fight it out there and then. Too many people around, and to be honest they were afraid; bullies are always afraid, and the fear becomes sharper and more acute when they face someone who isn’t. But they found me later, and they wanted to settle it, so we settled it. It wasn’t the first time for me and it wasn’t the last, although of course I hoped it would be, because I always do.
I didn’t want to be a fighter, and I don’t want to be a fighter. I want to be a writer instead. Honest and for true, I think writing is the noblest, most beautiful, most sacred job that a human being can do in this world. I never wanted to be a baseball player or a ballerina, an astronaut or a beauty queen, a movie star or a magnate. All my heroes in life are the people who write well, and bravely. If I fall in love, it’ll always be with the ones who touch my heart with words, who have poetry in their souls.
It sometimes amazes me that there are so many people who come to writing second, after exhausting some other dream or ambition. I’m amazed that someone would rather have spent 20-odd years standing on the pitcher’s mound, washed out at forty, than the beautiful lifetime he’s had weaving words together. I’m amazed that someone would rather have joylessly clawed her way onto the silver screen to spend the best years of her life chasing vaporous approval and dreading her next wrinkle–it astonishes me that acting would have been anyone’s first choice. I understand music a little better–there’s poetry in music, and it can be your own–but even that is something I’d do also, not instead of writing.
All my life, I’ve tried to live well enough to write well. I listen, watch, taste, touch, smell everything intently, absorbing the experience into that bottomless well inside me, from which the writing eventually comes. I am endlessly curious, endlessly analytical, endlessly passionate about the world and its people. I want to know everything, try everything, come staggering back from my adventure with my arms piled high with treasure–so that I can share it with anyone and everyone who has learned to read.
The act of reading is a communion with another writer’s spirit–living or dead, for me the experience is a séance. During that trance I get a taste of the other’s life: his thoughts, feelings, longings, experiences. It all flows through me like blood, and for a moment I am there: running just a few steps behind Catullus as he tries to get his wallet back from a Roman whore, a few decades before Christ was born. Standing at the feet of a shattered statue of Ramses the Great, while the Sahara rolls and whispers for lonely miles in every direction. Stealing into Mecca with Burton. Weeping over the body of Enkidu. Standing on a dirt road in Kentucky on a moonless night, listening for the moan of the mountains or the honk of geese winging north, and longing to know the world’s name.
If I can give even a fraction of that back, to someone else down the line? I will be well repaid for every punch in the stomach and kick in the teeth that I ever took. Because I’m not coming to this second, after some other dream slipped between my fingers; this is it, for me. I don’t come to the words bitter and loathing myself because I couldn’t be something better. There is nothing better than being a writer, and I want to be the best damn writer I can.
If I can’t do it? Sure, then I’ll be a loser. And I’ll bitch and I’ll drink and I’ll screw the sort of people who make me hate the world and myself, just like Charles Bukowski did. Why? Well, because I really wanted to be a writer…and all I got to be was the President, or an astronaut, or a rock star or a beauty queen, or some other tarnished second-best thing that I don’t give a damn about, but happen to be good at…
…like knocking other people down.