The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems, Ecco Books, Charles Bukowski, edited by John Martin.
When Charles Bukowski died in 1994, he left behind thousands of unpublished poems which Ecco Books has organized and
published over the years in a number of posthumous volumes. The latest of these is The Flash of Lightning Behind
the Mountain. In it, we find a mellower Bukowski than most people are used to—not the
skid-row-fight-everyone-with-both-fists Bukowski, but the house-in-the-suburbs Bukowski, with wife and child and
swimming pool, who knows his life is about to come to a close and is concerned about his literary legacy.
But, even with this newfound sedateness, many of the common criticisms of Charles Bukowski still apply—that he
wrote too much, and that he should have been more selective about what he published, paid more attention to the mechanics
of poetry, and spent more time crafting each poem. In several books, including this one, Bukowski brags about writing six
to seven poems a day. With that kind of productivity, not every poem is going to be a well-crafted masterpiece. To be
honest, most of the poems are really journal entries—little tales and stories, pieces of fantasy, and bits of
wisdom that were swirling through his mind on any given day; prose disguised as poetry. But, when the real poetry
appears, it is special as in the case of “the birds”, “the would-be horseplayer”, “tonight”, “my last winter”,
“feeling fairly good tonight”, and a few others. In fact, some of the most effective poems in the volume speak
with uncharacteristic nobility about his mortality during his final illness with terminal leukemia.
People coming to this book looking for the outsider, the rage, the booze, the bars, the women, the fights, the soul of
the poet mired in everyday grime and conflicted by his own artistry, may be disappointed. These elements are only
present in a most benign and subdued way. This is Bukowski, an elder statesman of writing, looking back on his own
career with satisfaction, assessing his accomplishments, the solitary drinker, the guy at the horse track spitting
out as much wheat as chaff. He sets no pretenses, makes no bones about what to expect, and then delivers what he has
to give with heart.
There is enough new and recast material here to satisfy the most devoted Bukowski-phile. However, those unfamiliar with
Buk and his alter ego, Henry Chinaski, are probably better served cutting their teeth on something published during his
lifetime such as Love is a Dog from Hell or Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers
Begin to Bleed a Bit.
Serious writers should read someone like Bukowski every now and then to get a dose of reality from the streets. But,
please don’t try to imitate the style or subject matter. It could only ever work for this one very unique individual.
Reviewed by Cornelius Vanvig.
© Cornelius Vanvig
Loch Raven Review Fall 2005 Vol. I, No. 1
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