It was September 2017 the first time I read "For Jane," a poem by Charles Bukowski written just after the death of his lover.
225 days under grass
and you know more than I.
they have long taken your blood,
you are a dry stick in a basket.
is this how it works?
in this room
the hours of love
still make shadows.
I read this stanza six times. I wanted to swallow it whole. Literally, I wanted to pour milk on top of it and eat the words like cereal.
when you left
you took almost
I kneel in the nights
that will not let me be.
Better yet, just lay a towel down right here in this line break, like a summer day at the beach, close to the water's edge, have myself a fancy picnic, and forever be hit with the wave of the following stanza:
what you were
will not happen again.
the tigers have found me
and I do not care.
I was useless. Paralyzed. It was perfect.
When I came up for air, I closed the book on my chest and exhaled. For years, I had been trying to understand how to visualize grief, but I never got it right. It felt just out of my reach. I couldn't put my finger on it. Charles Bukowski (despite kind of being a misogynistic womanizer) had just done it in 76 words. We lay there together, Bukowski and I, staring at the ceiling while the tigers licked our feet.
I presume this feeling is familiar to all self-proclaimed "obsessed" creatives. It's the way the painter sits in front of a Monet painting, lost for hours in his brushstrokes. It's the way the chef crinkles fresh herbs in his fingers and sticks them out beneath your nose, like a bridge to a heaven only he can see. It's the way my father puts his hand on his heart when he hears "Edelweiss," pledging allegiance to a previous life of listening to music with my mother. It's the feeling that someone else has just done it for you—pulled back The Curtain and revealed the whole world. Is there any greater relief?
What "For Jane" is to me is not what "For Jane" will be for everyone, just as the Monet painting, though I can appreciate it, does not exactly do for me what it does for the painter. Many people don't have a Jane of their own. They might try on Bukowski's offered experience of grief and see a tigerless room. But in reading his poem, I found understanding. I could finally see the beasts that had followed me into loss, and just in seeing them, just in being able to acknowledge their presence, just in finally putting my finger on them, they grew soft.
And isn't what all artists seek to do? Soften their own tigers, and (when it's good) soften ours a little, too?