Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions
from a Writing Life by Kim Addonizio
Penguin Books, 2016; 224 PP
Reviewed by Caitlin Pryor
Where to begin with a poet like Kim Addonizio, or a book like her take-no-prisoners memoir, Bukowski in a Sundress? One could begin by enumerating Addonizio’s myriad accolades and accomplishments: eleven books of poetry, three works of fiction, four collections of non-fiction, two NEA Fellowships, a Guggenheim, a Pushcart Prize… the list goes on. Also relevant would be a consideration of the book’s organization, replete with brief essays and provocative titles such as “What Writers Do All Day, “All Manner of Obscene Things,” and “Penis by Penis (not to mention a slew of how-to sections, including “How to Try to Stop Drinking So Much,” “How to Fall for a Younger Man, and “How to Be a Dirty, Dirty Whore”).
In searching for a beginning, one finds the true end of Addonizio’s book in her discussion of the writing life—or rather, when we reconsider the book’s subtitle, a writing life. From the opening pages of Bukowski, Addonizio fearlessly roasts and exults her life of words in equal measure, but is careful to avoid egotistical grandstanding, or an inflated sense that her own experiences as a writer are universal or even noteworthy. In short, she talks about what it means to write in a more nuanced way than many male writers, including Bukowski himself, have been known to do.
For Addonizio—once described by a National Book Critics Circle Award committee member as “Charles Bukowski in a sundress,” an epithet the titular essay by turns applauds and reviles—writing can be lonely. “What Writers Do All Day” enumerates the solitude and procrastination in which many writers indulge (“Wrote a lengthy e-mail, in my head, to the editor of my latest book. Did some yoga stretches. Wandered to the windows and stared out, thinking about how much garbage there is in New York”) when they ought to be working instead. Writing can also be surprisingly populated, for better or worse, as in the section “Are You Insane?” Here we find our plucky poet-protagonist fending off the advances of much younger men after leading a poetry workshop out of her living room in Oakland.
No matter what the subject or situation, Addonizio’s no-bullshit recollections and ruminations make this book feel like it was written by the cool aunt you never had: the one who gets wasted at writing conferences and holds your head in her lap when your manuscript gets rejected for the seventy-fifth time.
This powerful passage from “How I Write” is one of many moments in the memoir where Addonizio’s prose approaches the glory of her lush yet clear-eyed poetry, where her witty, tough exterior slips just a bit, revealing the foolish, wonderful belief in words that keeps her, and us, going in the face of apathy, uncertainty, and failure:
I go back to writing over and over, the irresistible lover I have known for most of my life, the monster that controls me, the jabbering creature on my back, the mother who wounds me with grace. I persist. There is a road that doesn’t end until I end, and then there is another road, and another I, trying again to tell you something true.