She calls herself FrancEyE, writes poetry and lives alone in a small apartment in Venice. Well, not totally alone, because there are Charles Bukowski posters on the wall and enough memories of him to fill anyone's room. Even in death, he's somehow as strong and present today as he was back then, when he was drinking, brawling and whoring his way up and down L.A.'s seedier streets.
FrancEyE, whose last name is Smith, lived with Buk, as he called himself, for almost three years, and bore his child, Marina. They separated, she says, because "two crazy people just can't live together." At 80, she doesn't seem crazy, sitting in a rocking chair and peering out through oversized glasses, as pert and snappy as an early spring. Well, yes, there are those fairly long chin hairs she's let grow, but that's just her stamp of individuality, a declaration of self. She's a poet, after all, and you know how they are.
I came across her name in a Bukowski biography by Howard Sounes. There aren't too many FrancEyEs in the world, and when you see the name, it just kind of jumps out at you. I realized that someone named FrancEyE had been sending me poetry over the years. I discovered it was her, Buk's woman, which is why I went to see her.
I'm a Bukowski fan, and was even before he died of leukemia in 1994. When I read of his death, I felt like throwing myself from a high window or something. Not in grief, because he drank enough to have died long before he did, but because I had always wanted to meet the man and just never got around to it. My life is composed of things I've intended to do but haven't, and people I've wanted to meet but haven't. Damn me.
Bukowski was a poet of the street and of the people who still inhabit that world. He wrote poems so powerful, one admirer said, that they constituted "the spoken voice nailed to paper." Some poets whisper, but he roared and growled his verse, daring anyone who read it not to remember its potency. It was filled with black-and-white imagery and visions of sadness that seemed to regard the world not with scorn but with the frustration of a man whose questions were never answered.
FrancEyE remembers him as a guy who could be, as she puts it, "a decent citizen who dressed up to go to work at the post office every day" when he was sober, but became a confrontational drunk on weekends when he'd hit the booze. Then, she says, he got stupid and verbally abusive, insulting even those he liked or admired and sometimes getting into bar fights. "He used to say that he needed me to explain things to him, about how to get along in life."
She met Bukowski through an exchange of letters and began living with him in 1963 in a place on Mariposa Street that someone said smelled like cabbage and rats. "He wrote every day after dinner and before going to work at night at the post office," she says, remembering him. "He always wrote one poem. He had a huge head. I'd look at him and wonder what it would be like to have so much in my head."
FrancEyE was drawn to Bukowski by his poetry. Her real name was Frances, but she changed it when a friend said that Frances sounded plural. She was writing her own verse, but didn't know whether she was really a poet. "I didn't have a role model for my work," she says. "Then I read Buk and he just put it out there." They stayed together until their differences split them apart. "He wanted a happy woman singing in the kitchen," she says. "That wasn't me." And yet
Afterward she wrote: " ... and all I want to do is kiss you and stay with you forever. / Forget I have tiny pig eyes and like to go to workshops / and never sweep the floor. / Forget you called me a whore, / puked in the bushes, / always passed out and had to be dragged to bed...."
Bukowski used to say that his poetry came easy. "The wine does most of my writing," he told an interviewer. "I just open a bottle and turn on the radio, and it comes pouring out." But it's the place it comes pouring from, words and imagery on fire, that makes the difference. It's that place in the soul where life and talent merge that produces greatness.
Well, there. I never got to meet Bukowski or drink with him or share stories and lies with him. But I got to meet someone who knew him and loved him and could never really figure him out, even though she slept with him and had his baby. I got around to meeting FrancEyE, anyhow. That's something.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at email@example.com.