Sunday, May 28, 2006


When I was 14, I helped my best friend and his brother build a miniature half-pipe ramp for the exclusive use of skateboarders around his neighborhood between the driveway and sidewalk in his front yard. Unfortunately, we neglected to add coping—the inch-wide metal pipes that serve both to protect the ramp and as a medium in the technical artistry of a competent skater—to the lip of the ramp where the platform met the transition. One summer day, my father drove me over to my best friend’s house and I clambered up onto the ramp to relax in a splotch of shade atop the azure-painted plywood that constituted the mini half-pipe. My friend was inside, at the moment, likely talking to some girl or other before realizing that I’d arrived for the weekend.

When my friend finally emerged from the front door, he bounded down the front steps of the stoop and ran over to me. Then, as greetings flew through the air, he grasped each of my ankles in his hands and yanked, expecting for me to slide down the transition of the ramp, giggling, before standing up to thump him with the semblance of a punch on the bicep. That, alas, is not what happened.

I did, of course, slide down the ramp. Since no coping had been added, the plywood that had been chipped and shredded by a few months of our skating was rough and exposed at the lip where two pieces of plywood met. As I slid down, my brand new, white, Jimmy-Z shorts ripped. My ass, suddenly, stung. I reached around my back to feel what had happened to the fleshiest part of my butt and felt the wet warmth of blood. After punching my friend in the arm hard enough for him to stumble backwards with a look suggesting both wonder and confusion, I dashed into the house, slammed the bathroom door, and craned my head and neck as far backwards as possible in an attempt to see the damage done. I couldn’t see anything, so I told my friend that I thought I had a splinter in my ass, and of course, he told his mother.

The next few minutes were an ordeal. I stood in the bathroom, gritting my teeth, as my friend’s mom tried to extricate the bits of wood with a pair of tweezers. Unfortunately, the splinter was too big and she ended up simply pulling tiny shards of wood out one by one. Next, I endured the pliers. Sadly, the force of the pliers seemed only to tear at the inch-and-a half long chunk of wood that was embedded in my left cheek, so by the time my father arrived and gave the pliers one last try, I was pleading to head to the hospital.

After his attempts failed, my father agreed, and I sprawled out in the back seat, refusing to sit on the damaged area. Luckily, the clinic where our family doctor worked was still open, so we simply drove there.

My father checked me in with the receptionist then grabbed a seat and started thumbing through a magazine. For my part, I just wondered around the hallway, examining the water fountain, the other patients, and the desk where the receptionist jotted down complex notations. Eventually, my pacing to and fro disturbed one of the receptionists and she asked me to have a seat.

I replied, simply, that I’d rather not, and my father explained the gruesome details to her.

After a bit of fairly minor surgery, the splinter was—at long last—removed from the fleshiest region of my buttocks.

I have no idea why, but this story reminds me of Bukowski. Perhaps it’s the grittiness, the limited violence, or the seemingly incalculable odds of having such bad luck (a few years later, I managed to lodge a splinter under my fingernail while walking back to work from a donut shop). Nevertheless, this story brings the drunken, independent, misogynistic, and supremely talented poet to my mind.

Yet, when I was in college, as much as I hate to admit it, I didn’t really know who Bukowksi was. To this day, I still haven’t read enough of his work to comment intelligently on the bulk of it. Back then, however, I never would have admitted to such ignorance.

In fact, one night, while I was experiencing a state of deep inebriation, a friend convinced me to head to the local coffee shop/movie theater where Barfly was playing. I agreed and watched the film, agitated by the senseless violence and poverty on screen, and on the way back toward campus, as we talked about the movie, I hesitated and concluded that I never really liked the Beats anyhow.

Now, as I sit here and birdsong filters in through a cracked-open window in my office, it seems to me that Bukowski—despite the variety of criticisms leveraged against him—was sometimes a damn fine poet. His work now reminds me that writers (like everyone else in the world) often don’t know what to do. We all have our intricate plans, like skateboarding away a summer afternoon, and often enough, find that reality makes such plans laughable. I think, honestly, that if we were to judge poets solely on the basis of the mistakes that they’ve made—both in print and in their lives—we’d be depriving ourselves of such tiny gems as Bukowski’s “A Killer Get’s Ready.”

Maybe with the way academic life is going, the “morality” of a poet will have some bearing on whether or not that writer should be read by students. Certainly, I think you can cite examples where that trend is beginning. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to realize, if you’d like to write poems, that even an utter dick can write lovely poems and even a father who cares deeply for his child can make an errant decision.


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