Charles Bukowski used to be mine, but I gave him to my ex in the divorce. Funny thing, my love for Buk drew him to me. A chick who liked a dirty-old misogynist poet.
I got him back. He showed up in the middle of week three of Finding Water, the second book in the Artist’s Way trilogy – the week titled “uncovering a sense of support.”
The assignment was to list five deceased artists. Choose one to ask for help and guidance. Be still and scribe what I hear.
I chose eight.
Picasso – my high school Spanish teacher called me this during my pink hair, blue lips phase. “You look like a Picasso picture. Except your nose should be over here…” he would say, pointing far to the left, off of my face.
Marc Chagall – the Jewish artist I imagined might be my biological grandfather but wasn’t.
Jack Kerouac. Adrienne Rich. Sylvia Plath. My teacher and friend Rabbi Alan Lew.
Charles Bukowski and Anne Sexton.
I thought for certain I would hear from Sylvia – after all, hers was the name of my alter ego. My friend Teresa used to do a one-woman show in San Francisco in which she would channel me, smoking, speaking like an old, Jewish woman from Queens…”Men are not magical beings. They are people. With penises. And problems.” She called me Sylvia. I never really said those words. I wasn’t that wise.
But it wasn’t Sylvia who wrote to me. Nor Anne – who I knew little about except that she too took her own life. It was Bukowski. Buk.
I first became acquainted with Buk in college. My roommate Natalie and I were spending the night in a hallway, in line, trying to secure a coveted room in a popular dorm. A dorm where we spent so much time that everyone thought we lived there already. Where my best friend Brian lived, as well as my first lover, Bill, and my first boyfriend, Stu.
We brought pillows and blankets and snacks. A boom box. Natalie brought a copy of Bukowski’s Love is a Dog from Hell. She read to me. Poems of drunkenness, debauchery and oftentimes a redhead, which I was then. I was smitten.
My ex owned every Bukowski book published. He packed them up – along with his stereo, massage table, and a few pieces of clothing when he moved from New England to California. They soon landed on two entire bookshelves in my San Francisco garden apartment.
I didn’t love Buk the way he did. I preferred The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses, written for Jane, his first love. He preferred autobiographical Ham on Rye. He shared it with me. Gritty. Dismal. Difficult. Painful. I could barely make my way through it.
I put aside Buk. Besides, I had Philip Roth. Jason introduced me to him a few years prior. Jason – the horny, Jewish artist who told me he would marry me. He didn’t. Every once in a while he pops up on Facebook. With a single word he tells me everything I need to know. Usually it’s liver. Think Portnoy’s Complaint.
So imagine my surprise when Buk’s words came through me, to me – offering up what he knew about being a writer, what he knew about me.
He told me my story had value,that my experience mattered. He said the life of a writer isn’t always pretty. Made me promise I wouldn’t let anyone put me in a golden cage, like Tully, the wealthy book publisher, tried to do to him in BarFly.
“It can happen,” he said. “Especially to someone like you. ‘A beautiful subject.’ Just like your friend the photographer said.”
It could be a publisher or an editor. It could be a lover. Especially as I don’t so much like to be alone. He said that I believe more in what others say about me than in what I know about myself. Dangerous territory. “Makes you a victim. Beholden to. Dependent.”
He told me now is the time for writing. For growing my backbone. He wasn’t clear what would be my path to strength, but he was certain it wasn’t jumping into bed with someone. “Trust me, I know. Trust me because I love sex as much as you do. Probably more.”
He continued, “The sex won’t dry up but your mind, your creativity and your opportunities will. Your shelf life as a writer can and may. I know it seems like it should be the other way around but it’s not. Trust me…you won’t dry up.”
He told me to take this year and “do the fucking work. Take your ex’s money and make something out of it.” He said to quit worrying about the artists and to “be them.
“Actually, be you. And keep sharing you and your art with anyone and everyone who will pay attention.
“Oh and I thought you’d like to know…yes, the artists, they see you. But it doesn’t matter because they ain’t going to get you a book deal”
Then he surprised me, bringing greetings from the others on my list.
Sylvia says don’t ever stick your head in an oven. Seriously. And don’t ever be overshadowed by a man.
Rabbi Lew says he loves you, and to keep partnering with G-d. (Buk didn’t know what it meant, but I did. Referring to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Between God and Man, I asked Rabbi Lew, “What’s this partnership with G-d crap?” He replied, “Lesley, tell me about your father.” And I burst into tears.)
Picasso says do right by him, your namesake. Yes, you have been a muse. But it’s better to be the artist than the muse.
Chagall says he’s sorry he wasn’t your grandfather. That he liked your blog about him and your relationship with America Windows.
Kerouac says to read him again, especially as you get ready to go on the road again. Rich says to remember that you are a poet also.
Then he wished me luck. Called me kid. Told me to keep writing. To believe in what I have to say, because if I don’t, who will?
He let me know he was “right here…if you need me,” used the word “muse” as a verb and laughed. “Good one, kid.” And he signed off,
“XO – Uncle Buk.”