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The poem “cancer” by Bukowski: A Critique and Personal Reflections by Peter Harris January 3, 2012

Posted by vscorpiozine in Favorite Poems.
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Bukowski’s cancer

When John Martin assembled what he regarded as the best of the best of Bukowski’s poetry in the collection The Pleasures of the Damned[i], he included a poem Bukowski had titled simply as cancer and which was written not long before Bukowski’s death from Leukaemia in March 1994:

 cancer

  half past nowhere
alone
in the crumbling
tower of myself

stumbling in this the
darkest
hour

the last gamble has been
lost

as I
reach
for

bone
silence.

Martin was absolutely right to include the poem for it presents two dreaded elements of life: a person’s sense of loneliness in the face of death and death’s termination of communication with those one loves. The narrator who is soon to slip out of time has in the confusion of suffering lost track of time for he[ii] is ‘half past nowhere’. Loneliness is profound for the word ‘alone’ occupies its own line. There is no one to share ‘the/darkest/hour’. The narrator’s death is his own to face: no one can die his death for him or join him in it. ‘The ‘last gamble’, or the last efforts to remain alive, ‘has been/lost’. All that remains is the finality of the grave’s ‘bone death’ where the narrator’s decomposing corpse will write, speak and hear no more words.

cancer possesses extraordinary power, not only because of its title and theme, but because of its concision that is so unlike much of what Bukowski wrote. A Bukowski poem will often, though not always, sprawl across the page with the loose informality and rhythmic drawl of the bar room raconteur confident of his or her audience’s rapt interest. Here, the lines have become taut and gushing fluency has been pruned to the minimum of words. The poem therefore does not overwhelm with words and images. It achieves its devastating effect through what it implies or leaves unsaid, for with such a diagnosis emotions can lie deep and are therefore not easily bridled to words. The poem is still in the form of Bukowski’s trade mark free verse, but is presented in the rhythm not of conversation plied with whiskey, but the terseness that comes from sober pain. It could be regarded too as a concrete poem, for it is thin like the corpses of cancer victims often are and thin as the bone the grave strips them too.

The poem is personally moving because it reminds me of my father who died of cancer in 1991. Not long before he died, I remember waking in the night and going downstairs to fetch a glass of water and finding him sitting on the sofa and staring through the parted curtains of the living room window into the dark. He was physically weak and no doubt had stumbled through ‘this the/darkest/hour’ to find somewhere to reflect on his past and his future, and to avoid waking my mother who had to leave for work early the next day. I asked him if he were okay, and he said yes and he told me to go back to bed and sleep for he did not want me to worry. Perhaps he did not want his meditations to be disrupted by me. Perhaps he found such sudden intimacy with me after a lifetime of polite distance uncomfortable. Though unlike Bukowski in so many ways (my father never drank, never gambled on horses and remained with one woman all his life­) my father too had become a ‘crumbling/tower’, and was reflecting during the lonely watches of the night on reaching ‘for/bone/silence.’ My father was also unlike Bukowski in that he was not a poet, found writing difficult and had at times a stammer. But he attained something akin to Bukowskian fluency when he spoke as his last words a beautiful image twice: plenty of water, plenty of water.

Writer Bio:

Peter Harris is a teacher of English and is studying for a PhD in the history of the First World War with De Montfort University in Leicester, England.


[i] Charles Bukowski, The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993, ed. John Martin (Canongate: Edinburgh, 2007).

[ii] My assumption is that this is an autobiographical poem and therefore regard it as appropriate to refer to the narrator as he rather than as s/he.

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