One of them has a discarded
half-pint milk carton
by its pinched top
and is banging it on the sidewalk.
Hopping with it, dragging it along,
he hefts it with his beak
and swings it against the concrete.
Then he pauses to inspect his work,
to adjust his grip before
picking up the carton
and smacking it down again.
Every time he hits the sidewalk
with the empty box
it makes a flat, satisfying plop.
Perhaps that’s all the crow wants,
the hollow report
he gets for his labor
confirming its emptiness.
As for me, I have stopped
on the way back to my office
to watch a crow’s involvement
with a milk carton. Sunlight,
filtering through bare trees,
stains the bird a dark blue
that slips to black
like secret ink and makes sense
only as his feathers move.
What could possibly be
more important than this?
I have no further excuses.
“The Business of Crows” by Joseph Green from What Water Does at a Time Like This. © Moon Path Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
On this date in 1896, gold was discovered in the Yukon Territory in Canada, sparking the Klondike Gold Rush.
Today is the birthday of the writer that The Washington Post called “the poet laureate of sour alleys and dark bars, of racetracks and long shots”: Charles Bukowski (books by this author), born in Andernach, Germany (1920). He wrote more than 45 books of poetry and prose, including It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963), Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), Post Office (1971), Love Is a Dog from Hell (1977), Ham on Rye (1982), and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992).
His American father had been stationed in Germany during World War I, and Bukowski was the product of the man’s affair with a German girl, whom he later married. The family moved to Los Angeles when Charles was a toddler, and that’s where he grew up. He was picked on for his small size and his German accent, and when he was a teenager, he had such bad acne that it left permanent scars. His father had a violent temper and used to beat him. Bukowski was 13 when a friend gave him his first drink, and he, Bukowski, said, “This is going to help me for a very long time.” He studied journalism in college for a couple of years, but then dropped out when World War II started, and he moved to New York to become a writer.
He published his first story when he was 24; the story was called “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip.” The rejection slip in the story reads, “Dear Mr. Bukowski: Again, this is a conglomeration of extremely good stuff and other stuff so full of idolized prostitutes, morning-after vomiting scenes, misanthropy, praise for suicide etc. that it is not quite for a magazine of any circulation at all. This is, however, pretty much a saga of a certain type of person and in it I think you’ve done an honest job. Possibly we will print you sometime, but I don’t know exactly when. That depends on you.” Bukowski would later estimate that his work was 93 percent autobiographical.
He published one more story after that but then received rejection after rejection, and he gave up writing for 10 years. He drank his way from New York to L.A., and wound up in a hospital, half dead from a bleeding ulcer. The doctor told him, “If you have another drink, it will kill you.” Bukowski kept drinking, and he worked a series of odd jobs — at a pickle factory, a dog biscuit factory, a slaughterhouse, and at the post office — and then, when he was 35, he started writing poetry. His first collection was called Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (1959). Ten years later, when he was 49, Bukowski accepted a job offer from John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press. Martin idolized Bukowski, and had started Black Sparrow with the sole aim of publishing his work. Martin was sure he was the next Walt Whitman, and he offered him $100 a month to quit his job and write. “I have one of two choices — stay in the post office and go crazy ... or stay out here and play at writer and starve,” Bukowski wrote in a letter. “I have decided to starve.” In return for Martin’s faith and support, Bukowski published almost all of his major work through Black Sparrow from then on.
Bukowski summed up his philosophy in a letter he wrote in 1963: “Somebody [...] asked me: ‘What do you do? How do you write, create?’ You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”
It’s the birthday of novelist and editor William Maxwell (1908) (books by this author). He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, and his writing features small-town, middle-American life in the early 20th century. He joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1936, and he worked there for 40 years, first in the art department and later as a fiction editor. He was beloved by such contributors as John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Updike. Working with their manuscripts had a side benefit: “I came, as a result of being an editor, to look for whatever was unnecessary in my own writing,” he said in a 1995 interview. “After 40 years, what I came to care about most was not style, but the breath of life.”
And it’s the birthday of “Lawrence of Arabia,” T.E. Lawrence (1888) (books by this author), born in Tremadoc, Wales. Thomas Edward was the second of five sons born to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner. The problem was that Sarah was not Sir Thomas’s wife; he was married to someone else and she had been his daughters’ governess. The two began an affair and then ran off together, moving to Wales from Ireland and living together as “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence.” T.E., as he liked to be called, was an archaeologist and scholar and military strategist. His book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) was an account of his exploits as a military advisor to Arabs in their revolt against the Turks, and was the basis for the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962).