Love Is a Dog from Hell: Poems, 1974-1977 by Charles Bukowski (New York: Ecco, 2003; originally published in 1977. 312 pp)

Charles Bukowski is one of America’s best-known contemporary writers of poetry and prose. He was born in Andernach, Germany, to an American soldier father and a German mother in 1920, and he moved to the United States at the age of three. He was raised in Los Angeles and lived there for fifty years. He published his first story in 1944 when he was twenty-four and began writing poetry at the age of thirty-five. He died in San Pedro, California, on March 9, 1994, at the age of seventy-three.

For a Friend

I recently lost a friend of mine. This space is not the place to go into detail about it, sorry. But his passing has been difficult for me. Death is never an easy thing to grasp and it becomes much more difficult when it occurs closely to your orbit. I can’t even begin to process it. If my mind were a computer, it most certainly would be outputting an error message these days.

In the aftermath of these events, Charles Bukowski’s poem, “The Crunch,” buoyed me at a time where I felt anchorless. If you haven’t read “The Crunch,” go do it. The repetition of “people are not good to each other” is simply devastating. There truly is a loneliness in this world so great that you can see it in the slow movement of the hands of a clock.

This poem, among others, drew me to Bukowski’s collection of poems, Love Is a Dog from Hell. Upon these pages, I found a writer full of life, wit, astuteness, and depravity. Thank you, Charles Bukowski, for providing an anchor these last couple of months.

The themes in Love Is a Dog from Hell surround Bukowski’s licentious relationships with women, his witty sarcasm, his view of those on the lower rungs of the economic spectrum, and most importantly in my context, the nature of death. No matter the poem, Bukowski’s voice rings with uniqueness and vigor.

On Women

On women, Bukowski writes openly, often lewdly, and always interestingly. I recommend those unable or unwilling to encounter R- or X-rated material to steer clear of this book because Bukowski leaves nothing to the imagination.

No matter the description, Bukowski lives in a sort of hedonist paradox. On one side, he extols his liberty—the ability to deflower any person he chooses. At the same time, he mourns this freedom—he recognizes there’s nothing better than finding that someone.

Bukowski writes,

“I need a good woman. I need a good woman
more than I need this typewriter, more than
I need my automobile, more than I need
Mozart; I need a good woman so badly that I
can taste her in the air, I can feel her
at my fingertips, I can see sidewalks built
for her feet to walk upon,
I can see pillows for her head,
I can feel my waiting laughter,
I can see her petting a cat,
I can see her sleeping,
I can see her slippers on the floor” (74-75).

Love Is a Dog from Hell makes Bukowski’s yearning for the feminine form evident. But his ability to balance between lust and yearning is impressive.

On Sarcasm

Additionally, Bukowski often writes with a clear voice toward satire, irony, and humor. Whether he writes self-referentially about the absurdity of fame and includes his phone number in a poem, or he references publication rejections and the absurdity of poetry readings, Bukowski uses his life for humor’s sake.

For example, Bukowski’s nod to teaching a writing class is perhaps my most favorite portion of a poem geared toward the humorous side.

“and if you ever catch me
teaching a creative writing class
and you read this back to me
I’ll give you a straight A
right up the pickle
barrel” (234).

Not knowing Bukowski’s contributions to the academic world, I can only hope he taught a class at some point and experienced this result first-hand.

On Poverty

Migrant MotherOn a more touching side, Bukowski writes vividly of the poor and down-trodden people orbiting his world. His observations ring true for those unable to experience the benefits wealth provides. The life of the poor is difficult and annoying. Bukowski notes these subtleties often, like the communal aspect of poverty, where no money means thin walls and a front-row seat for the arguments of neighbors.

Bukowski’s poems about the poor and down-trodden are touching. Consider this threnody:

“these are the people who believe advertisements
these are the people who buy dentures on credit
these are the people who celebrate holidays
these are the people who have grandchildren
these are the people who vote
these are the people who have funerals

these are the dead
the smog
the stink in the air
the lepers” (110).

Bukowski does not write of the fame and fortune of Hollywood; he writes of the struggling janitor, the person waiting for the bus—the hoi polloi of our society.

On Death

Yet most therapeutically for me, given my circumstances and the loss of a friend, Bukowski writes of death. He stares suicide in the face and ponders it, instead of rejecting it a priori. He dares to ask questions society most often refuses to consider.

He notes,

“the hardest part of dying
is that they expect you
to go out
like a rocket shot into the
night sky” (270).

Death is the ultimate unknowable. We will never measure it. We can never share our experience of it. And so it remains the ultimate unprocessed event. Our brains refuse to comprehend it and when we encounter it, we don’t know how to respond.

I will miss my friend greatly. Thankfully, Charles Bukowski’s Love Is a Dog from Hell offers a modicum of meaning during a time of chaos. Go read these poems.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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