A Bare Bodkin, Or: One Lunch, Naked, To Go

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Once in a millennium, it is an editor’s sacred privilege to play midwife to a writer of earthshaking significance and eye-rolling originality. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened to us yet, but until it does we are honored to introduce our readers to Richard Bodkin, or “the San Francisco Earthquake,” as he is known to intimates. Mr. Bodkin, our readers; readers, Mr. Bodkin.

For years, Mr. Bodkin has been jotting down odd thoughts at odd moments, using dinner napkins and playing cards for stationery, and then stuffing the scraps into his hatband and losing the hat. Such retiring habits are no boon in the rough-and-tumble arena of literary backslapping and backbiting. Bodkin has never sought after eminence; nor, up to now, has it shown any interest in him.

We hope to change all that. Below are printed, for the first time anywhere, the collected works of Richard Bodkin. Spanning the years 1944 to 1990 (“the prolific period”), they readily demonstrate why Robinson Jeffers referred to Bodkin as “that fat, slobbering stinkbug,” and why T.S. Eliot, upon meeting Bodkin for the first time, felt it was an act of simple Christian charity to smother him with a pillow. Luckily for Bodkin, Edna St. Vincent Millay was in the room at the time. After an impassioned argument, she convinced Eliot to give her the pillow, and was attempting to smother Bodkin herself when the police raided the joint.

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The Scum Also Rises (an excerpt)

Brad sat in the only café in the little Spanish town and drank a bottle of the local wine. He did this by pouring the wine into a soiled piece of gauze and wringing out the bandage over his face, catching the drops with his tongue as they fell. The gauze had been with him in the War. It was all he had left. That and some chewing tobacco.

“This is a good café,” he said in English to the waiter, “and good wine, and I am a very good boy.” The waiter smiled that childlike Spanish smile and emptied a pot of coffee into Brad’s lap. Brad laughed bitterly at the man’s quiet courage. He had been brave once. Now he was a coward. Worse than a coward. A fool. Worse than a fool. In love.

Lady Bitcherly walked in and took the waiter in her arms and kissed him and gave him her room number, saying it loudly and slowly in Spanish. The waiter began to smile that smile again but was interrupted by Brad’s wine bottle breaking over his head.

“Good bottle, that,” said Lady Bitcherly.

“Good waiter,” said Brad. “Why the hell don’t we take him up to your room and give him what for?”

“Why the hell not?” she said. He knocked her out and began to drag them both upstairs. This is what war is like, he thought.

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Bodkin’s first and only novel, of course, went unpublished during his lifetime, like all of his work. Still, he had the admiration of the critics. Edmund Wilson called this manuscript “the sort of thing a carnival pinhead might produce after drinking a gallon of rotgut and spending a weekend on a tilt-a-whirl.” It was praise like this that kept Bodkin writing until he was struck down several years ago by a trolley car going uphill. He wasn’t killed immediately, although the conductor went back over him several times to make sure. He was taken to a trauma center by a squad car, and pronounced dead on arrival by the doctor.

“No, I’m not,” he said weakly.

“We’ll soon take care of that,” replied the doctor, at heart a kind man who couldn’t stand the sight of suffering. He administered a dose of strychnine to Bodkin and waited for the results. Bodkin asked for a sheet of paper and a pencil, and in a few moments had composed his only known book of poetry, To Hell in a Handbasket.

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A Poem

I think that I shall never see

A thing as lovely as me.

This somewhat stilted poem was Bodkin’s first attempt at verse, and as such is understandably traditional in its rhyme scheme. In his later poems (about three minutes later) Bodkin abandoned rhyme for a verse structure so free as to be promiscuous. As Robert Frost once said of Bodkin’s prose works, “If Bodkin’s blood could but be spilled/And his mewling forever stilled!” This heartfelt comment applies equally to Bodkin’s verse output.

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Another Poem

Ha ha! Fooled you, didn’t I?

Bodkin rarely showed his sense of humor, and the above poem reveals why. In it, Bodkin anticipated the Beatnik writers, but in typical fashion he was 35 years too late. Because of this literary historians seldom class him with the Beats, and he is most often classed with the nematodes (in the words of Daniel Webster, “any of a class or phylum of elongated cylindrical worms parasitic in animals or plants or free-living in soil or water”).

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Yet Another Poem

This time I’m going to write one if it kills m–

Of this last of Bodkin’s works, what can be said? Sic transit gloria mundi.

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