Review: On Cats gathers Charles Bukowski's reflections on the creatures he loved most

The laureate of liquor reveals a seldom-seen softer side when he writes about his feline friends

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 12:01pm

American lowlife laureate Charles Bukowski is back from the dead. This new book by the boozy seer, who died in 1994, gathers some of his most telling reflections on the creature he loved - the cat.

"One of the finest things about cats is/ That when you're feeling bad, very bad/ If you just look at a cat cooling it/ The way they do/ It's a lesson in persevering against/ The odds, and/ If you can look at 5 cats, that's 5/ times better," Bukowski writes in Exactly Fine, which shows his rarely seen soft side.

Like him, the cats that grace the expletive-rich mash-up have many dents - the femur of one survivor, profiled in a poem titled Another Casualty, is held together by a silver screw.

Despite the brutality, the casualties who grace the pages of On Cats ooze tenacity, which Bukowski respects. "A cat is only itself, representative of the strong forces of life that won't let go," he writes.

In comparison, the people he analyses look shabby. Take the airhead veterinary receptionist featured in the poem Terminology, who goofs by asking if his admittedly frazzled cat is to be euthanised - the cultured grouch who worships cats is appalled.

In another poem, I Learn From My Cats, he praises his mewing muses' dignity, simplicity and even temper. How hard it must have been for his lady friends to compete with the strays he rescued from the rain and gave free rein.

However, the first contribution to this collection, which riffs on his lust for a hostess named Millie, is rambling - borderline boring. Another problem elsewhere is the strained run-ons. In one unnamed poem, the phrase "rose garden" is spread across two lines. In Exactly Fine, even more extremely, the word "conceited" is split in two.

Worse, another book with the same title, by the novelist Doris Lessing, already exists. The clash raises questions about why the publisher stuck with the pre-loved title, when it could have used a juicy quote such as "beautiful devil".

Another issue is just how much more Bukowski's ghost can be invoked: two other posthumous Bukowski volumes milk the themes of love and writing. Given his output, the sequels could continue indefinitely - his opinions on money or beer could be next.

Either way, although sometimes slow, On Cats is droll and touching. Here's hoping the author has been granted his wish of coming back in his next life as a cat that sleeps 20 hours a day.

On Cats by Charles Bukowski (Ecco)​