Dead Solid Perfect: Gerald Locklin Verifies Bukowski’s Praise of John Thomas

Dead Solid Perfect: Gerald Locklin’s memoir poem about John Thomas and Charles Bukowski (or, From Beef Tongue to Tip of the Tongue: An Homage to Bukowski’s Friend, John Thomas, by Another of Bukowski’s Friends, Gerald Locklin)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On the verge of turning 24 years old, in the early autumn of 1971, I was asked to become the first poetry editor of a magazine its founder and publisher, Ted Reidel, intended to call Bachy. The name was meant to be a diminutive of his bookstore, Papa Bach Paperbacks. He put an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times announcing his new magazine and submissions started arriving. He gave me a desk in the upstairs loft and I worked there in the evenings after finishing my shift as a blueprint machine operator. I myself was an unpublished poet, and cannot account for Ted’s decision to entrust me with this role other than he must have had a great deal of faith in his one of his employee’s opinions. I had gone into the store to buy some poetry books in the late summer and had struck up a conversation with William (“Koki”) Iwamoto, who was working behind the counter. He invited me to read at an upcoming open reading at Papa Bach, and it was in the week after this reading that Koki said that Ted wanted to talk with me. He said he couldn’t pay me to work as the poetry editor, but that he would be happy to offer me a job at the store. I was making twice as much money as a blueprint machine operator, however, and overtime was helping me accumulate some savings, and so I remained strictly a volunteer presence at the store. Koki left within six months to start his own store, Chatterton’s, on Vermont Avenue. He, too, offered me a job, but that would have meant moving to the other side of Los Angeles and made visiting the Beyond Baroque workshop a long trek.

One day, the pile of submissions included a fairly large number of poems from Charles Bukowski, whose poems I was not particularly enamored with. I did not own any books by Bukowski, but there were plenty of copies of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame for sale at Papa Bach, and since I had heard other older poets at Beyond Baroque talk about his poetry, I spent some time with the book in the Papa Bach loft. His use of enjambment seemed far too arbitrary to suit my preferences for Hart Crane and John Berryman. On the other hand, I had seen some of his poems in the early issues of INVISIBLE CITY, and liked those poems much more. I was both excited and nervous as I read Bukowski’s submission. I knew that if I did not like the poems, I would face my first big challenge in writing a rejection note.

Fortunately, I liked several of Bukowski’s poems much more than I anticipated and ended up including his poetry in the first issue of Bachy along with the work of several young poets I knew from San Diego State College as well as some young poets (David St. John and Roberta Spear) to whom Phil Levine had mentioned my magazine after I had visited him in his office at Fresno State. It was Bukowski’s close friend, John Thomas, however, who ended up having a more profound influence on my development as a poet and editor. His first eponymous collection of poems was a spiral-bound publication that I reviewed in the second issue of Bachy. It was the general consensus in the community that Thomas was one of the best poets living in Los Angeles. He had stopped writing, however. Whenever a poem showed up in a magazine back then, it was simply a reprint of an earlier poem. No one seemed to mind. His poems were always worth rereading, and the respectful enthusiasm that Lee Hickman and Paul Vangelisti accorded Thomas gave his maverick aura a palpable voltage.

Recently, Gerald Locklin sent me a poem that reminisces about spending some time with Thomas. As anyone knows who has studied Bukowski’s career at all, Locklin is one of the few poets Bukowski retained any respectful affection for over any significant stretch of reading. Locklin has often admitted that the secret of their friendship was to limit the amount of time they spent together, and especially the amount of time that they spent drinking together. Thomas was not anywhere near as interested in alcohol as Bukowski, nor was he inclined (or so he once said) to indulge in marijuana. He liked to read, and he claimed to abstain from anything that would impede that pleasure. As testified to by Locklin’s poem, Thomas obviously retained much of what he read.

Once Again Bukowski Was Right On

In a poem called “Beef Tongue,”
About his old drinking buddy and fellow poet,
John Thomas, Buk speaks of his enormous
Intelligence: how he knew just about everything,
Had read just about everything,
And could discuss just about everything.
I’d met Big John (a pseudonym) a few times
And had taken a liking to him,
But I’d never gotten to know him well enough
To tell whether he was really as smart as
Buk claimed he was, or that maybe he had once been,
But had washed some of it away with the beer,
A substance that we had all consumed in quantity,

Then I was in a room with John once
When a bunch of other pretty bright people
Were displaying their erudition,
So I sprang on them, “What language is Welsh
Closest to? (because I had spent a semester there
On a teaching exchange), and, after a brief silence,
John answered, correctly, “Breton,”
And a few minutes later, John said something about
Byron having had a terrible voice, and someone asked him,
How he could possibly know that, and John said,
“Only from Trelawny, and the Countess Guiccioli,”
And he also cited the title of Trelawny’s masterpiece,
Which, frankly, I don’t remember myself anymore,
Now that I’m retired from teaching Brit Lit Survey Courses,
And thus have even less reason to carry relatively
Arcane knowledge on the tip of that tongue that has
Floated to the back of my brain. But when I looked
It up the next morning, John Thomas had gotten it
Dead Solid Perfect. So Charles Bukowski may not
Have had an encyclopedic memory himself, but he
Could sure spot the rare autodidactic friend
Who did.

For those who are curious about one of the poems by Bukowski that I selected for the first issue of Bachy magazine, here’s a link:
http://bukowskiforum.com/threads/purple-and-black-1972.1210/