There are millions of poems out there. And by millions I likely mean billions. And out there means from bookstores and libraries and schools. From private collections with first-edition leather-bound Robert Browning, to rhyming engravings underneath middle school stairwells about anatomically disproportionate men from Nantucket. From a kindergartener bringing his first roses is red poem home to show mommy, to the drab-cloaked teen who writes odes to the supernatural. Poetry is ubiquitous.
And it’s really its escape value that gives poetry its allure. It will let you experience a shape and vantage you otherwise thought impossible, or at least highly improbable. I recently went to a nearby megabookstore to read some poems by an author who never fails to captivate and teleport his readers, Charles Bukowski. The business of my trip was to read from front to back one of Bukowski’s poetry collections, pick a poem, and write about it in what you are presently reading.
I chose Play the Piano Dunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit , a quaint collection celebrating the humor and sorrow of hard-living, published in 1979.
As I was experiencing Bukowski’s madness through his words, I was bemused by the fact that Bukowski’s world was opposite mine: people sipping cappuccinos, reading books, text-messaging, going up and down on the escalators, and all at the same time mind you. It was certainly a more sterile world and time than Bukowski would have condoned, but when you read his poems he lets you know that a little ordinary madness can slip into even the most serene of scenes, as I would discover later that trip.
After reading most of Bukowski’s long-titled collection, the poem that I was most drawn to was “the apple.” Its plain title has probably been used countless times by gradeschoolers making their foray into the poetic arts and falsely hints that its contents may be of a similar simplicity; but such is never the case with Bukowski.
Bukowski begins the poem with a refreshing look at his subject, “this is an experience/red green yellow/with underlying pits of white/wet with cold water.” At the height of his delight for the fruit he goes so far as to express a feeling of “waterfalls” and “a mixture of electricity and/hope.” Well, as the stories go, paradise is usually short-lived.
The mood of the poem significantly changes about midway through. He admits “depressive feelings” as he’s “working toward the core/afraid of seeds and stems.” Bukowski is showing us that something as simple and pure as an apple can morph into uneasiness and darkness. Bukowski delves deeper into this morbidity, telling of a “dark old man” who had “died after a lifetime of pain.”
His bleak thoughts finally get the better of him, and he smartly throws the remainder of the apple away, returning to a seemingly normal world, where he’s left staring “at a dirty/ashtray,” a common sight for him, but one far removed from the world of the fresh apple he had known not long ago.
Bukowski shares his apple tale with us to let us know that what may be true or happening in the present may not be so in the future. That a crisp bite into an apple, the piercing of that tart, waxy skin, the sweet pulp beyond, should be enjoyed for what it is. You can’t expect a piece of fruit to stay delicious. You can’t expect a child to stay small, and you can’t expect a megabookstore to always stay neon-white; the madness that amused Bukowski was alive and well and unfolding…
So I’m sitting on a wooden chair in a corner, when I notice a middle-aged white man, well-dressed yet disheveled, looks like the kind of guy who can never find his car keys, blankly browsing the World Affairs aisle. Without minding his surroundings he tripped over a low laying book display, and, oh man! You would have thought what happened to him! Amidst a slew of expletives, he circled and inspected the crime scene with the grace of a mackerel out of water. He canvassed the Paranormal Teen Romance section, eyeballing book-browsers, dare he should suspect them of taking his plight in jest. After some more flailing and pottymouthness, he was able to accost a store employee and demand movement of the book display.
The man lurked around the area thereafter, mumbling to himself, and I was so amusedly dumbfounded that I could no longer read or take anything else in my immediate future seriously, so I returned Bukowski to the shelf. I already had more notes on “the apple” than I needed anyway. I left the store with that sense of momentary escape and madness I originally desired, achieved through both carefully crafted verse and some poor shlub’s misadventure.
Bukowski’s “the apple” brought me to that unexpected place, and that’s all a reader can ask of an author. I channeled Bukowski’s spirit, and he okayed me adding the text of “the apple” at the end of this piece. Given what transpired, it just seems appropriate.
this is not just an apple
this is an experience
red green yellow
with underlying pits of white
wet with cold water
I bite into it
christ, a white doorway…
while thinking of an old witch
choking to death on an apple skin–
a childhood story.
I bite deeply
chew and swallow
there is a feeling of waterfalls
there is a mixture of electricity and
halfway through the apple
some depressive feelings begin
I’m working toward the core
afraid of seeds and stems
there’s a funeral march beginning in Venice,
a dark old man has died after a lifetime of pain
I throw away the apple early
as a girl in a white dress walks by my window
followed by a boy half her size
in blue pants and striped shirt
I leave off a small belch
and stare at a dirty
Bukowski, Charles. “the apple.” Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit. New York. Harper-Collins Publishers, 1979, 59-60.