Happy Birthday, Charles Bukowski! (America’s filthiest, lowlife poet)

In high school I hid his books from my mom and the nuns. In college, it was the nuns and my English Lit professors.

Though we may all be hanged or hangable, Bukowski was born with more than his fair share of original sin. He picked fights, threw stuff out of windows, kept company with go-go girls, ran his liver into the ground by drinking, and wrote for Hustler. His work is vulgar, blunt, painful, and full of carnal imagery. His titles alone can have you reaching for the exit, titles like: “To the Whore Who Took My Poems”, “I Wanted to Overthrow the Government but All I Brought Down was Somebody’s Wife”, or “You and Your Beer and How Great You Are.”

And yet, his publishers claim he is the most imitated poet on the planet.

Out of the thousands of poems Bukowski had published, typical subjects include the workplace, women, urban life, hardship, flowers, drinking, writing and art, failure, horses and gambling, cars and driving, classical music, and death. His thoughts are obsessive and repetitive. His poems are often narrations, full of conversation, and his endings when not ambiguous, contain a line or two of brilliant, cosmic insight that comes across as accidental.

Armed with a grim childhood, alcoholism, a sex drive only a goat would admire, and a lack of academic grace, Bukowski set himself apart stylistically. His style is free form strewn with garbled syntax, an absence of capitalization, inconsistent punctuation, and an abundant use of anaphora. It leans toward short lines and single words spilling down the page one after the other as in:

when you wait for the dawn to crawl through the screen like a burglar to take your life away

the snake had crawled the hole,
and she said,
tell me about

I said,
I was beaten down
long ago
in some alley
in another

and she said,
we’re all
like pigs
slapped down some lane,
toward the

you’re an
odd one,
I said.

sat there
in the morning.

And it is exactly his content and his style my professors insisted was a mockery of everything an English degree stands for. It’s true, nobody’s going to flip through his volumes and accuse Bukowski’s poems of screaming, “I am poetry!” My professors dismissed his work for being adolescent, asinine, misogynistic, and banal.

Yet his poetry remains endearing and essential to our understanding of the human condition and how hard it is to live.

Some call him the Poet Laureate of Skid Row. He lived where his poems took place—in the armpit of Los Angeles—surrounded by drunks, prostitutes, criminals, the jobless, the homely and the witless. Hecklers and the insane. Based on his poetry (which some critics call nothing more than short anecdotes), any one of these types could easily describe Bukowski himself. He was his own subject matter. A type of Everyman, but it is his empathy for the common laborer–because he was one–that remains engaging:

blue collar solitude

picking up two six-packs
after work
to hell with dinner
going to the apartment
and stripping down
to your shorts
throwing your clothes
on the floor
climbing onto the bed
no shower
no bath
sitting up against
the pillow
and cracking open
the first tall beer can
lighting a cigarette
nothing to do
nobody to talk to
looking at the wallpaper
yesterday’s dishes
stacked in the sink
look out the window
the room getting darker
open the second can
of beer
no wife
no tv
no children

sitting in your
drinking beer

everything’s gone
the foreman
the time clock
the grocery store clerks
the newspaper
the coffee shops

the phone rings
you listen
and listen and

until it stops

another beer

hearing the breath
whistle up your

wiggling the right


I think of Bukowski as the poet without pretense, privilege or sheen. And like him, I didn’t grow up among manicured people either. I come from farmers. Like Bukowski’s working-class people, my people lack a grand education. My father never went to school past the sixth grade and my parents have no lofty aspirations for me. The fact that my brothers and I can read and write is good enough for them, though I admit my parents made me take organ lessons as a kid in case I wanted to make a name for myself in the ecclesiastical world. Unlike Bukowski, however, I had St. Francis of Assisi for a father and Florence Nightingale for a mother. I was loved and cherished every single day of my childhood. Bukowski was beaten weekly. Also unlike Bukowski, my family believes that spilling your guts is as attractive as it sounds and shouldn’t be done.

Bukowski may not have had a college degree, but he was a well-read man. Between jobs, he spent time at the library reading and was influenced by more than one professor-approved writer: Whitman, Hemingway, Neruda, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, George Orwell, and Bukowski’s favorite, Robinson Jeffers, referring to him as strong, and dark, modern and mad. His god. Bukowski too acknowledges an appreciation for John Fante, whose novel, Ask the Dust, he also discovered in the library, giving Bukowski the idea to portray in his writing, the solitary, isolated man as a subjective narrator.

The result of these influences is an openness of line, the celebrating of the direct experience and the intimate use of “I”—at once a wonder and a curse. In a weird, Emily Dickinson kind of way, he is always looking out the window into the world, watching and recording. Retreating.

Bukowski’s writing remains an embracing of what we cannot control or waited too long to avoid. He’s not only for the working-class laborer, but for anyone who’s had their life derailed. His voice speaks of the American dreamers who don’t get it right, and worse. The ones who get it wrong over and over and over.

His weaker poems display limited perceptions of men and women, otherwise known as stereotypes, where you can witness shallow thoughts and behavior, the sneering, the judging, and the dismissals that follow. But the best of his tender poems value companionship and empathize with imperfection.

His world revolves around women but they are a species he’ll never understand. When he writes about them, his narrator is wounded and befuddled.

I made a mistake

I reached up into the top of the closet
and took out a pair of blue panties
and showed them to her and
asked “are these yours?”

and she looked and said,
“no, those belong to a dog.”

she left after that and I haven’t seen
her since. she’s not at her place.
I keep going there, leaving notes stuck
into the door. I go back and the notes
are still there. I take the Maltese cross
cut it down from my car mirror, tie it
to her doorknob with a shoelace, leave
a book of poems.
when I go back the next night everything
is still there.

I keep searching the streets for that
blood-wine battleship she drives
with a weak battery, and the doors
hanging from broken hinges.

I drive around the streets
an inch away from weeping,
ashamed of my sentimentality and
possible love.

a confused old man driving in the rain
wondering where the good luck

The old man would have been 92 today if he were alive. “I made a mistake” is a reminder that age does not always bring wisdom. And that, for me, is part of the draw. He’s sooo human.

His poems have him floundering in love’s quicksand. He writes about love’s magic, love’s betrayal, love’s loneliness, love’s hurt, love’s sting, and love’s dizziness caused by an overload of emotion and desire. Love, to Bukowski, is often an inescapable plague. With no cure. And oh yes. Love is also a dog from Hell.

And yet, feeling pain means we’re alive. Pain from loss may be the worst and loss in old age becomes unbearable because, we realize, we will not have time enough to recover from it:

For Jane: With All the Love I Had, Which Was Not Enough:

I pick up the skirt,
I pick up the sparkling beads
in black,
this thing that moved once
around flesh,
and I call God a liar,
I say anything that moved
like that
or knew
my name
could never die
in the common verity of dying,
and I pick
up her lovely
all her loveliness gone,
and I speak to all the gods,
Jewish gods, Christ-gods,
chips of blinking things,
idols, pills, bread,
fathoms, risks,
knowledgeable surrender,
rats in the gravy of two gone quite mad
without a chance,
hummingbird knowledge, hummingbird chance,
I lean upon this,
I lean on all of this
and I know
her dress upon my arm
they will not
give her back to me.

And in “an almost made up poem” he offers us an epistolary love and why there is sad safety in the distance of letter writing:

I see you drinking at a fountain with tiny
blue hands, no, your hands are not tiny
they are small, and the fountain is in France
where you wrote me that last letter and
I answered and never heard from you again.
you used to write insane poems about
ANGELS AND GOD, all in upper case, and you
knew famous artists and most of them
were your lovers, and I wrote back, it’ all right,
go ahead, enter their lives, I’m not jealous
because we’ never met. we got close once in
New Orleans, one half block, but never met, never
touched. so you went with the famous and wrote
about the famous, and, of course, what you found out
is that the famous are worried about
their fame –– not the beautiful young girl in bed
with them, who gives them that, and then awakens
in the morning to write upper case poems about
ANGELS AND GOD. we know God is dead, they’ told
us, but listening to you I wasn’t sure. maybe
it was the upper case. you were one of the
best female poets and I told the publishers,
editors, “ her, print her, she’ mad but she’
magic. there’ no lie in her fire.” I loved you
like a man loves a woman he never touches, only
writes to, keeps little photographs of. I would have
loved you more if I had sat in a small room rolling a
cigarette and listened to you piss in the bathroom,
but that didn’t happen. your letters got sadder.
your lovers betrayed you. kid, I wrote back, all
lovers betray. it didn’t help. you said
you had a crying bench and it was by a bridge and
the bridge was over a river and you sat on the crying
bench every night and wept for the lovers who had
hurt and forgotten you. I wrote back but never
heard again. a friend wrote me of your suicide
3 or 4 months after it happened. if I had met you
I would probably have been unfair to you or you
to me. it was best like this.

By living among could-have-beens and has-beens, he associates himself with the mad, the poor, the agonized and the powerless, sharing their suppression and their suffering. In his autobiographical poems, he’s working marginal jobs when he’s not getting fired from them. I don’t think that he was against work per se, but rather, like many of us who have had a crappy shift job and get tired of taking orders, he just believes that he’s meant for something better.

the blade

there was no parking near the post office where
I worked at night
so I found this splendid spot
(nobody seemed to care to park there)
on a dirt road behind a
and as I sat in my car
just before work
smoking a last cigarette
I was treated to the same
as each evening tailed off into
the pigs were herded out of the
yard pens
and onto runways
by a man making pig sounds and
flapping a large canvas
and the pigs ran wildly
up the runway
toward the waiting
and many evenings
after watching that
after finishing my
I just started the car
backed out of there and
drove away from my

my absenteeism reached such astonishing
that I had to finally
at some expense
behind a Chinese bar
where all I could see were tiny shuttered
with neon signs advertising some

it seemed less real, and that was
what was

The men in Bukowski’s life are alienated and fractured. Incomplete. Always clawing for solid ground and failing to live up to the expectations of somebody. Of themselves. They are men bogged down with irrevocable discord.  He sums up this notion with

and soon it will be too late for me
and I will have lived a life
with drugstores, cats, sheets, saliva,
newspapers, women, doors and other assortments
but nowhere
a living man

Bukowski’s individual narrator—a voice pondering the disappointment of a man failing—dissolves into us all as human beings of fear and desperation, where being alive means confronting our fallibilities. It means wondering how flaws affect our work as artists. Will our shortcomings lift art up or contribute to its deterioration? In this poem, we see in others our own humbling humanness:

to weep

sweating in the kitchen
trying to hit one out of here
56 years old
fear bounding up my arms
toenails much too long
growth on side of leg

the difference in the factories was
we all felt pain

the other night I went to see the
great soprano
she was still beautiful
still sensual
still in personal mourning
but she missed note after note
she murdered art

sweating in the kitchen
I don’t want to murder art

I should see the doctor and get that thing
cut off my leg
but I am a coward
I might scream and frighten a child
in the waiting room

I would like to fuck that great soprano
I’d like to weep in her hair

and there’s Lorca down the road
eating Spanish bullets in the dust

the great soprano has never read my poems
but we both know how to murder art
drink and mourn

sweating in this kitchen
the formulas are gone
the best poet I ever knew is dead
the others write me letters

I tell them that I want to fuck
the great soprano
but they write back about other
useless things
dull things
vain things

I watch a fly land on my radio

he knows what it is
but he can’t talk to me

the soprano is dead.

Bukowski not only laments the waste of talent but the way life wrecks the best of intentions. He’s also more concerned about the deceptions of intellect than the aftermath of an emotional storm. Again, it is with his uncluttered, economy of words and line that he tries to lay bare his belief that artists must be true to their art.

The poet also acknowledges being too close to his art, leaving him unusually exposed and not in control. With Bukowski’s poems, there is always a degree of ironic self-awareness. Between the American dream of making it big and being rich are poems of homelessness and of dismal failure. Society’s so-called “making it” is a perception. A phony utopia.

the crunch

too fat
too thin
or nobody.

laughter or


strangers with faces like
the backs of
thumb tacks

armies running through
streets of blood
waving wine bottles
bayoneting and fucking

an old guy in a cheap room
with a photograph of  M. Monroe.

there is a loneliness in this world so great
that you can see it in the slow movement of
the hands of a clock

people so tired
either by love or no love.

people just are not good to each other
one on one.

the rich are not good to the rich
the poor are not good to the poor.

we are afraid.

our educational system tells us
that we can all be
big-ass winners

it hasn’t told us
about the gutters
or the suicides.

or the terror of one person
aching in one place

unspoken to

watering a plant.

people are not good to each other.
people are not good to each other.
people are not good to each other.

I suppose they never will be.
I don’t ask them to be.

but sometimes I think about

the beads will swing
the clouds will cloud
and the killer will behead the child
like taking a bite out of an ice cream cone.

too much
too little

too fat
too thin
or nobody

more haters than lovers.

people are not good to each other.
perhaps if they were
our deaths would not be so sad.

meanwhile I look at young girls
flowers of chance.

there must be a way.

surely there must be a way that we have not yet
though of.

who put this brain inside of me?

it cries
it demands
it says that there is a chance.

it will not say

Bukowski’s poems thunder with immediacy. They reflect his belief that life and art and work and relationships are not separate. From “The Tragedy of Leaves” we get

I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,
the potted plants yellow as corn;
my woman was gone
and the empty bottles like bled corpses
surrounded me with their uselessness;
the sun was still good, though,
and my landlady’s note cracked in fine and
undemanding yellowness; what was needed now
was a good comedian, ancient style, a jester
with jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurd
because it exists, nothing more;
I shaved carefully with an old razor
the man who had once been young and
said to have genius; but
that’s the tragedy of the leaves,
the dead ferns, the dead plants;
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
and screaming
screaming for rent
because the world had failed us

Bukowski wrote regularly about work, even just the act of going to work is like going to battle:

Saying Goodbye to Love

no more stalling,
the war torch is lit
and all over the neighborhood
men rattle in their irons,
flares kite the sky
somebody rushes past,
a confused cock crows
and I strike up
a cigarette.

it is difficult to decide
where the enemy is:

I go inside
to wife and hound
both fat and soft
as peaches
under the

I shave by candlefat and lightning,
I shave by their holy silence
in a shattered mirror.

I put on my hat
and hug them both
like two jellychildren
lost in smoke;
then outside I go,
searching the West
(dim and hilly
I’m told)
with bright
mean eyes.

“Winter Comes to a Lot of Places in August” also represents the march of the common worker:

when we come over the bridge,
hundreds of us,
workers, like cattle
like Hannibal victorious, over the Mountain
winter comes in Rome, winter comes in Paris
and Miami
and we come
over the silver bridge,
carrying our olive lunch pails
with the good fat wives’ coffee
and 2 bologna sandwiches
and oh, just a tidbit found somewhere
to warm our gross man-bones
and prove to us that love
is not clipped out like a coupon

Artists create to keep the demons at bay and for Bukowski, the act of writing was no exception. It’s what helped him keep his lips above water. His dream of an empowered life can be read in


I own the ticks on a horse
I own his belly and balls
I own this
the way his eyes roll
the way he eats hay
and shits and
stands up asleep

he is mine
this machine
like a blue train I used to play with
when my hands were smaller
and my mind better

I own this horse,
someday I will ride my horse
down all the streets
past the trees we will go
up the mountain
down the valley

ticks and eyes and balls
the both of us
we will go to where kings eat
in the giant sea
where thinking is not terror
where eyes do not go out
like Saturday night children

the horse I own and the myself I own
will become blue and nice and clean

and I will get off and
wait for you.

Too few of Bukowski’s poems speak of the reprieve he would like from the daily grind of life’s despair, but possible moments exist. Here’s an excerpt from “for the little one”:

I hear her singing
now it’s
very late night
and from here
I can see the
lights of the city
and they are sweet as
ripe garden fruits
and this room is
so strange
as if magic had
become normal.

The possibilities exist but never quite manifest as seen here in this beautiful bit from the poem, “Verdi”

then too
I sometimes think of a
less stressful kind of
it can and should be so
like falling asleep
in a chair or
like a church full of

sad enough,
I wish only for that careless love
which is sweet
and which is
this light
over my head)
there only to serve me
while I
smoke smoke smoke
out of a certain center dressed
in an old brown shirt.

but I am caught under a pile of
poetry is shot in the head
and walks down the alley
pissing on its legs.

friends, stop writing of
in this sky of fire.

Bukowski had an underground notoriety first, and then was given the title, “Outsider of the Year” in 1963 by Loujon Press, putting an end to, as you might guess, being an outsider. By 1970 he was famous, popular especially in Europe. Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window sold over 50,000 copies in Germany alone.  His prolific writing life meant that he published, on average, a book a year until his death in 1994. When he lived in poverty, he wrote about that. Once the fame, money, and BMWs came, he wrote about that, with no less candor:

pull a string, a puppet moves

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 …

Every decade of his writing life, Bukowski spent a significant amount of time contemplating death and this poem, an epitaph really, is a good example:

Old Man, Dead in a Room

this thing upon me is not
death but it’s as real and as
landlords full of maggots
pound for rent I eat walnuts
in the sheath of my privacy
and listen for more
important drummers; it’s as
real, it’s as real as the
broken-boned sparrow
cat-mouthed, uttering more
than mere miserable
argument; between my toes I
stare at clouds, at seas of
gaunt sepulcher…and
scratch my back and form a
vowel as all my lovely women
(wives and lovers) break like
engines into steam of sorrow to be
blown into eclipse; bone is
bone but this thing upon me as
I tear the window shades and
walked caged rugs, this thing
upon me like a flower and a
feast, believe me is not death
and is not glory and like
Quixote’s windmills makes a
foe turned by the heavens
against one man;…this thing
upon me, great god, this thing
upon me crawling like snake,
terrifying my love of
commonness, some
call Art some call
Poetry; it’s not death
but dying will solve its power
and as my grey hands
drop a last desperate pen
in some cheap room
they will find me there
and never know
my name

There are a number of biographies out there on Bukowski. Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes, and Bukowski: A Life, by Neeli Cherkovski are two of the best, I think. They dissect the man, the myth, and the persona that became Bukowski’s stamp, and  I’ll leave that to them, and focus on the fact that, despite the profanity, the black-comedy, and bleakness, I like the shoes some of his poetry puts me in. He’s a social critic, a romantic, a recluse, an aggressive observer, and a conduit. There’s randomness and dislocation broken up by long bouts of nothingness. Yet, as he rummages through the lives of misfits and his own jagged existence, he clutches at something like hope that he’ll actually find a human being intact.

Sometimes he and his followers are referred to as the Meat School poets, poets whose writing is rough, tough, blunt, and confessional. Whether Bukowski intended it or not, his poems are culturally symbolic of working people, meaninglessness in day-to-day living, and a people not knowing what they want. People trapped in each other’s compulsions. Not committing themselves to life in order to avoid desolation. Like the people in Joyce’s Ulysses, they’re born, they go to work, reproduce, and die. Both writers allow the spectacle of being and decay to pursue its course. Critics be damned. Both recognize that the artist must have complete freedom to write about the world they’re born into, live in, or work in. Even if it’s the armpit of your home town.

“Dirty realism” will on some level, I think, exist indefinite in American poetry. Too many people are wasting the best years of their lives in the trenches of the workplace. Too many people have failing relationships and dismal bank accounts. “The basic realities of the everyman existence are seldom mentioned in the poetry of the centuries,” he said. Bukowski also believed that “as the spirit wanes the form appears.” He believed it’s what poets do when they’re not writing from the heart and try to hide that fact in formal, stiff structure.

I don’t know. I once hastily picked up a copy of Bukowski’s book, Notes from a Dirty Old Man at a garage sale. I don’t know what part of that title I didn’t believe, but it is by far the most obscene thing I have ever come across. Trust me. Don’t bother with it. Here are three of his poetry books I do recommend however: Dangling in the Tournefortia, Love is a Dog from Hell, and You Get so Alone at Times That is Just Makes Sense.

The nuns in my life didn’t get this, but it’s his blatant, unwavering honesty done up in some pretty insightful poetry that people like. It’s the way he reminds readers that connecting through books and music and art keeps us all a little more sane while we’re down here together on the planet. It’s the way he lets his tired heart cry out like some harpooned cat, and the way he blessedly finds temporary peace by listening to classical music and glimpsing women in gingham dresses that people like.  The way he can’t help admit there’s some good in the world and he lets it show through, though he’s subtle about it and if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it. One of his most optimistic poems, “one for the shoeshine man” carries these tender lines:

I am bitter sometimes
but the taste has often been
sweet. it’s only that I’ve
feared to say it. it’s like
when your woman says,
‘tell me you love me,’ and
you can’t.

Near the end of his life, Bukowski was plagued by concerns of incompleteness which, I think, may haunt the even the most successful in any field. Near the end, his poetry becomes even more skeletal looking. His sparse style reflects and supports the incompleteness he feels. The visual appeal for me of all that white space on the page is electric. It is space that acknowledges him as incomplete, as if language has abandoned him and he disappears altogether into the whiteness:

no help for that

there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled

a space

and even during the
best moments
the greatest times

we will know it

we will know it
more than

there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled

we will wait

in that


Pat Dennis Live in Concert: Hotdish to Die For (laugh ’til you hurl!)

Ah, sweet, sweet summer solstice. The time of year here in Minnesota when the thumb-long zucchini in your garden grow into something the size of baseball bats overnight. The time of year when the pretty college student working at the movie theatre lets her friends in for free when no one’s looking. Your son loses yet another Little League game, mosquitoes descend upon you like a biblical plague, and neighbors up and down the block exchange batches of homemade wine, the kind of wine that takes the enamel off teeth. After a swig of it, you’re afraid to exhale for fear of starting somebody’s garage on fire.

For Pat Dennis, mystery writer and stand-up comedienne extraordinaire, summer is great, but in Minnesota, hotdish is a year-round phenomenon. Tuesday night she performed at Once Upon A Crime bookstore for KSMQ, southern Minnesota’s PBS channel, in town filming a documentary tentatively called, Minnesota Hotdish: A Love Story.

Pat hails from Chicago but has lived in Minnesota for 28 years. “Which makes me a newcomer,” she says and we laugh.

“Do you trust me?”

“No!” we shout.

Pat hadn’t heard of the term hotdish until she arrived in Minnesota. By her estimation, the heartland word for casserole contains a can of soup, a can of veggies, I-got-it-on-sale meat, and rice. It’s then baked until all the moisture’s been sucked out of it.

“Hotdish is the sensible shoes of fine cuisine,” she states. This from a woman who uses a leaf blower to clean her house.

She has also been a hotdish judge where she once had to taste 80 different hotdishes. Besides deciding which one tasted best, she wanted to give out awards for, among other things, most dry, most burnt, and most calories, but thought better of it.

After her very funny performance, KSMQ wanted to get more laughter from another camera angle, so there was this magical moment where we’re all laughing on purpose while they’re filming us and it got so ridiculous we sincerely could hardly stop. The hotdish documentary is scheduled to come out on PBS sometime this fall.

In Pat’s collection of mystery short stories, Hotdish to Die For,  the weapon of choice is of course hotdish. The book has sold well everywhere except in Grand Rapids where it has been banned for containing cuss words. Knowing that, whether it’s winter, spring, summer or fall, how can anyone NOT want to live here?

You Have Given Me the Light

Across the decades, dozens of interviewers have tried to get a grasp on the source of Bob Dylan’s far-out creativity, his lyrics, music, poetry, and his art. The guy is at once tender, topical, absurd, romantic, and profound. Everyone wants to know what his influences are, who he reads, who he talks to, listens to, and who he admires. Whether or not he’s always walking around out of his mind with inspiration.

In her 1978 Rock Express interview with Dylan, Karen Hughes, still looking for a satisfying clue to explain his breadth and depth, asks him, “Do you find that most things come from within?” and Dylan, in one of his usual wandering-shaman moods, simply replies, “Most things come from taking chances.”

Dylan’s philosophy comes up now and then at our Open Voices writing group. We admire writers who take chances with their work. We admire how they explore a difficult subject, try a new vantage point, a new style or genre.

I recently saw my old friend Bart Sutter at the Laurel Poetry Collective Reading, giving his hearty applause to every poet standing at the microphone. He would agree that Dylan takes a lot more chances than the average bloke, but Bart has flung himself into many a new territory with his own writing. He’s an essayist, poet, short-story writer, and playwright. He is the only author to win a Minnesota Book Award in three separate categories.

Wait a minute here.

Some of us mere mortals may not be ready to take the chances Bart or Dylan do. Not this red-hot minute anyway. Shoot, most of the members in my writing group won’t even take a chance and sit in a different chair when we meet. They gotta sit in the same spot month after month. I like murder mysteries and poetry, but I can’t even fathom where I chucked the car keys last night never mind suddenly conjuring up the inspiration to write Bovine Hoof Trimming for Dummies or something, and I certainly don’t hear myself saying, whoa. I feel a screenplay coming on.

As writers, however, I do think we are always taking the chance–regardless of where we are with our writing–that readers will not dismiss our words but be moved by them, and that we’ll reveal a truth or two as Bart does in his poem,


My senior year we did Jane Eyre.
Rita Johannsen was Jane,
And I was Rochester.

The way the story goes
I’ve got this crazy wife,
And I keep her locked away
In a distant wing of the house
Because I’m rich as hell.
In the end she burns the house
And burns herself, as well.
That’s how I get to be blind
And marry the governess.

Of all the lines I memorized
I only remember one.
It’s at the end, I’m blind,
And I turn to Jane and say:
“You have given me the light.”
Blackout. Pause.
Thunderous applause.

When I think about it now, I feel
Rochester was cheated, kind of
Castrated, you know? I mean
At first he’s sort of ornery
And makes these sharp remarks,
But in the end he’s whipped
And tied up with his governess.

The audience just loved it,
The way that he was tamed.
I get so mad to think of it
That I’ve thought up
This version of my own
In which, I call it Rochester,
What happens is Jane Eyre
Dies of influenza. Rochester
Is forced to learn to love his ugly wife,
And they’re unhappy ever after

Because women think we’re dumb.
They think we can’t feel anything.

They think that we can’t see
The sneaky way they run things.
But I can see, and I
Don’t hesitate to lie. Say
Some woman lights my cigarette?
I’ll use that line, I’ll tell her:
“You have given me the light.”
She laughs but half believes it,
And half is good enough.

Or say she wonders how she looks,
And I see grey and wrinkles
And feel for both of us.
You think I tell her that?
I tell her: “You
Just look terrific.”

They like to think we’re blind.
That audience believed I was
When I was Rochester,
But I was just pretending,
And they were in the dark,
Applauding and applauding.

This was years ago,
But I can close my eyes
And still see everything:
My parents, sitting separately,
The faces of my friends.
I’m Rochester,
And Rochester sees everything:
Rita’s mouth and teeth,
Delicious little ears,
And how the silver sweat runs
Trickling down her neck.


Bart will be reading from his new poetry collection, The Reindeer Camps Friday, June 1st, 7pm at the Loft.

The Great God Pan is (never) Dead

An ancient story tells of a couple of fishermen on the Ionian Sea. The wind suddenly drops, the air thickens, and their boat sits in odd stillness all day long. Finally, toward evening, an omnipotent voice calls out to them: “The great god Pan is dead!”

From the hills and the streams, from little valleys, temples, and holy groves, from mountain pastures, and ferny cliffs, there rises a cry of lament, a vast wave of wailing and weeping, anguish and keening. It echoes across the land. Pan is gone.

After this day, the oracles no longer prophesy accurately. The old gods and goddesses of the classical world, nymphs of sacred sites, fauns and satyrs, the centaurs and all the other wild beasts fall silent. The Lord of the Wood is dead, and the new god’s domain is not of this earth, but of heaven. Spread by the followers of Christ.

A statue of Pan in my garden

A statue of Pan in my garden

Pan’s features included the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. With his uncertain parentage, he was the god of the wild, of shepherds and their flocks, nature, overgrown mountains, and the dark. He was connected to fertility, the season of spring, and romantic imagination. He lived in that untamed zone of forest and rock, always just beyond the village boundary. Despite Pan’s affection for beautiful nymphs, his greatest passion was for Selene, a lunar deity.

All the greats new Pan–Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and Whitman. And so did all the 19th-century American landscape painters, especially those belonging to the Hudson River School–Cole, Durand, Church, and Kensett. They were eager to tell the world, Pan isn’t dead. He just moved to America!

Have you ever gone past the city limits to that place, a remote brambly hillside say, near rushing water, stood there in wonder until it hit you, the breathless sense that something lovely and terrifying could happen? That’s Pan.

Let’s pledge together, you and I, this spring, to find Pan. In our yards let’s grow more trees, bushes, vines, ferns, and flowers. Let’s NEVER mow the grass, and then, on some moonlit night, we’ll bushwhack thirty or forty feet into the holy thicket and call to him. We won’t worry because we know he will appear.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

For my brother, Mike, on his birthday:

When I say I wish you were here I do not mean it in the non-sincere sense that often exists with correspondence on the internet. I wish means not only do I hope that you will come back to Minnesota, I wish means we are in this world together and let us wish together for the success of the risk we take at being alive.

Happy Birthday, Mike.



It was a Dark and Sleepless Night

I roll over and look at the clock. The neon-green digits stand like property tax assessors at the door. 2:44. I wish I hadn’t looked. I’m wide awake and suffering through my third head cold of the season. I’ve taken enough medication to give myself a two-digit IQ and no feeling in my feet. I look at my husband next to me sleeping in childlike repose, sleeping deeply. Who will without a doubt, sleep until his alarm goes off hours from now.

I listen to a siren in the distance. I listen to the furnace running. I listen to the cat jump off the end of the bed, scratch itself at the collar, and then proceed to lick the cord of the humidifier.  I go to the bathroom. When I come back, the cat–a vague and  dark circular shape–has taken my spot, laying claim to the warmth I gave it.

We share. I turn on my lamp and grab the book I’ve been reading since November ’09: Moby-Dick. Yeah, I know. It’s taking me longer to read it than it took Melville to write it. Still, the book is a classic for many reasons and every page I turn seems to embody some message that’s eternally applicable. Take these lines for example, which Melville specifically wrote for me:

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

I might as well get up and work on my novel. The thing isn’t going to write itself is it now. I make coffee in the dark and, while it’s brewing, I look at the urban sky through the windows.  I look at the silhouettes of the trees, the houses, the shops. I look at the cars lined in the street, full of winter crust. I haven’t washed my own car in weeks. I should have while the weather was warmer of course. Now it’s too cold. Now I might as well drive the thing into some woods and let the deer use it as a salt lick.

At last, the coffee is done and my unfinished novel waiting. For all those writers awake with me here in the dark, I’ll leave you with another fine and heartening quote by Melville:

“But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.”

An Incomplete List of People I Wish I Were Having Christmas Dinner With:

Bob Dylan
Charles Dickens
Don Quixote
William Shakespeare
Amelia Earhart
Monty Python
Philip Glass
Tom Waits
Joan of Arc
Pablo Neruda
Salvador Dali
Willa Cather
Jacques Cousteau
Mary Magdalene
Sherlock Holmes
Ben Franklin
James Earl Jones
Umberto Eco
Van Morrison
Crazy Horse
Lynda Barry
Hua Mulan
Iron Man
inventor of the wheel
Roald Dahl
Bill Bryson
Oscar Wilde

Why I Love Saint Paul

I come from a place where people assume that T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has something to do with ditch drainage. Here in the Sixth Chamber used bookstore, I am darn near overwhelmed with the subjects and titles carried by James Williams, owner of the bookshop. Sixth Chamber has such a literary atmosphere you can’t help but lose your penchant for ignorance.

Sixth Chamber Used Bookstore at 1332 Grand Avenue, St. Paul

Not only are there the expected literary classics, but books on taxidermy, metaphysics, brontology, government ideologies, toponymics, and philosophy. Subjects that can make your palms sweat. Titles like Serita Stevens’ Book of Poisons, The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, Lady Gregory’s Journals from 1916-1930, Athanassakis’ Homeric Hymns—hymns like this one that leaves you swooning:

“Sing to me, O Muse, of Hermes’ dear child, the goat-footed, two-horned, din-loving one who roams over wooded glades together with dance-loving nymphs; they tread on the peaks of sheer cliffs, calling upon Pan, the splendid-haired and unkempt god of shepherds, to whose domain all the snowy hills and mountain peaks and rocky paths fall.”

Hymns written 800 years before the birth of Christ that would probably make a good country music song:

“For my part, O Far-Shooter, I will graze the roving cattle on the pastures of the mountain and the horse-nurturing plain, where the cows are mounted by the bulls to give birth to males and females at random.”

 Not only will you find chest-thumping books by Poe, Twain, and Dickens, but the novels by Russian writers will weep to you from the bookshelves with their Russian souls. Zoo, or Letters Not about Love by Viktor Shklovsky, is an epistolary novel written while he was in exile in Berlin.

You’ll find books by Rimbaud, Maupassant, Günter Grass, Jules Verne, Ovid and a twenty-volume set called the International Library of Famous Literature, published in 1898. Open up Volume VI and read Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia and its Customs.” It’ll make you shake your head and say, man, I don’t believe it.

There are books on the nature of Wiccan cooking and how Brian Boru, the Irish king, got stabbed by a wicked Dane while giving thanks to God. Endless shelves of books. Books on the spirituality of fly fishing, and why God is Red. There are art books on architecture, photography, Brazilian pottery, and German Impressionism–which sings in a completely different choir than American Impressionism, I can tell you that.

By opening other books in the Sixth Chamber, you can learn that Byron had a clubfoot, that Saint Theresa of Ávila was a Spanish mystic who gave Martin Luther a piece of her mind, and that Joe Hill wants his ashes scattered anyplace but Utah. The poetry found in Tiepolo’s Hound will make you think those lines like “a slash of pink on the inner thigh” came spewing out of a granite hillside. Unfussy, uncrushable consolations.

You can get biographies about people like Emma Goldman, the mad anarchist who lost any charm she might have had sitting in prison for two years because she opposed conscription during World War I. She was the kind of woman who came out of nowhere and went right back into it. The non-homemaker type.

Or you can get autobiographies like In Me Own Words, by Bigfoot. Okay yeah, it’s a work of illustrated fiction conjured up by Graham Roumieu out of Canada, but it is hilarious.

 You can get books on philosophers in every hue and tint. Philosophers who stay up all night writing about how important sleep is, philosophers who look at a hard-boiled egg and wonder, what kind of symbolism is that? Philosophers who see bats dangling like broken hearts from their attic ceilings, centipedes crawling backwards, and candles burning faster on one side than the other and wonder, what’s it all mean? I don’t know about you, but philosophers crack me up.

The Sixth Chamber used bookstore is a fifteen-minute walk from my house. Its name comes from nothing sinister but is a reference to William Blake and his mythology of books. It’s a good place to duck into out of the now approaching winter. It’s the kind of place where they want you to “Sit down. Read up.” So do it. The chairs are comfortable and the lamps are always lit.

Ballad for a Friend

The weather couldn’t be more perfect. My mother is in town for the day and I take her to Nina’s Cafe for lunch. We have our sandwiches and coffee and we find the last table for two outside. This is city living the way I want it to be. The way I want my mother to see it. Easy-going and laid back. Autumn trees with the sun shining through. People chatting. People walking their dogs. Everyone friendly.

My mother is giving me an update of the people I grew up with–former friends, aging relatives. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a down-and-out man approaching. He looks like he’s here to beg for money. There might be a story about how he lost his job or how he needs bus fare to get back to Green Bay for his cousin’s funeral.

I try to ignore him but he’s getting closer. I’m about to tell him that I’m sorry. I don’t have any change. It’s then I realize that he is not bowing like a beggar, but crouching, like a cougar about to pounce, and his eyes are fixed on my mother. He lets out a cry and jumps magnificently. I am up out of my chair and push him away before he can reach her.

Now his crazed stare is fixed on me. He lets loose a long string of foul words as we circle each other. I’m scared like I’ve never been scared before and I’m wondering if some of the other cafe patrons are going to step in to help me, but they keep eating their lunches, looking on as if they’re watching some old rerun of a Jerry Springer show.

He takes a couple of swings at me which I avoid. I don’t know what to do. I think about the semester of karate I had back in college as a phy-ed requirement but remember nothing. I could employ my skills as a student of Bashido–the way of the Samurai–but man, I am nothing without my sword. Besides, it would take me fifteen minutes to warm up, bow, and say hello.

As quickly as he came unglued, he becomes subdued. All the madness and crazy light in his eyes has changed. I am no longer his personal demon. He turns  away. I go inside the cafe to have them call the police. They tell me they already have. Within minutes the squawking police car arrives. The man sees it and turns around. Puts his hands behind his back. He’s been through this before.

I can only imagine what will happen to him. Someone will write up a report at the station. They’ll add it to his records. He’ll go through another evaluation. They still won’t be able to assess him properly so he won’t get the treatment he needs. He’ll be released. He’ll perpetually go through our government’s revolving door. That’s the real madness.

Song of the Sauna

I have only been in a sauna twice before, both times suspicious of their authenticity—the fiberglass rocks that needed to be plugged in were a big clue. But I’m in Finland where taking a sauna is an art form. This is my chance to do it right.

After shedding my clothes, I open the sauna door and startle the naked woman lying across the lower bench. I shut the door behind me and apologize for the interruption. She lies down again. In the low light I climb to the top bench with all the poise I can muster, and stretch myself out long and languorously, as if I sauna often. But as soon as I close my eyes, I feel the heat lay on top of me and hold me down. I try not to panic. Besides, there’s a cold plunge pool waiting for me down the hallway when I’m through.

I try to relax. The woman on the bottom bench exhales. Usually I would be scrambling over myself to talk to someone from another country but I am jet lagged and too hot.  I wonder how long she has been in this sauna. For no reason at all, I decide she knows twenty-four languages and that her English is better than mine. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to blink. If I said anything now, it would only come out as drool.

I look at the clock. I’ve been in here exactly ninety seconds and I want to get out but my competitive nature, normally reserved for men, absurdly kicks in and I am determined to stay until she leaves first.

Two minutes later, she stands up thank God and I do mean GOD, but she doesn’t leave.

“May I increase the heat a little?” she asks in a sultry voice, gesturing toward the water bucket. Her blond hair, wild from sweat, makes her look like a Nordic Medusa.

Despite the fact it’s hotter than I can stand it already, I urge her on as if the place were feeling drafty.  “Oh yes please,” I say. “Absolutely.” This, I am certain, is the crucial rule of the sauna: always say yes to more heat. It can never be too hot. To say no would be like sending a drink back for being too strong.

She snatches the ladle and douses the rocks with two big scoops of water, causing a flair-up like an out-of-control grease fire at the St. Clair Broiler. I turn my head away in anticipation of the coming heat. The wave of it breaks over me—my face, my breasts, my hips, and settles at my feet.

“That is better, don’t you think?” she asks.

Trying not to pass out, I agree.

“You are American,” she confirms, settling herself back on her bench.


So now, me staying in here longer than she does is not only a matter of personal pride, but one of patriotism. The United States, known for its unwavering fortitude, is relying on me to maintain this reputation. I cannot let my country down. It’s my duty to ignore the feeling that I’m lying in a house fire.

I decide other things about the Nordic woman. I decide she is a musician of orchestra stature. A first chair violinist. She and I have zilch in common, but maybe her Scandinavian relatives and my Moravian forefathers do. Nothing comes to mind though, except the Black Plague and goat cheese. It’s been exactly four minutes. Not only are the sweaty toxins running out of my pores, so is my resolve.

I try to imagine the healing powers of the sauna. I try to think poetic thoughts, I try to form stirring odes to people I love or once loved, but I can’t. My brain is rising like a Bundt cake and I can only think of the people in my life who made me cry: my high school math teacher, my freshman year roommate, the gate agent who left me stranded in Frankfurt for three days, the guy who tried to tow my car in 1998. Bastards, every one of them.

Another minute passes. I can’t stand it in here any more. I smell the cedar wood, I taste the sweat on my lips, I feel it roll down my jaw and along my neck. I can hear my heart begging me to be reasonable and quit this foolishness. And when the heart speaks, a person ought to listen.

I think of the cold plunge pool, a six-by-six sea of salvation, and I get up. The Nordic Medusa wins. The U.S. will have to reign glorious without me. I fly out of there, run down the hall, and jump in the pool. The cold water is deep. I’ve been slapped awake like a newborn. There is no greater reminder that I am alive, and that’s what matters.