Charles Bukowski, 1920-1994
Trapped don't undress my love you might find a mannequin: don't undress the mannequin you might find my love. she's long ago forgotten me. she's trying on a new hat and looks more the coquette than ever. she is a child and a mannequin and death. I can't hate that. she didn't do anything unusual. I only wanted her to.
Anyone familiar with Bukowski knows his often abrasive, raunchy, nihilistic style. However, this specific work is different in that it deals with themes of love in a more direct and clear way than he may have done in other pieces. Published in his collection Ham on Rye in 1982, towards the end of his life, Bukowski shows a more vulnerable side to his art that he hadn’t in earlier poetry.
This poem is told from the perspective of a
man in love with the model woman, akin to a mannequin, but she does not possess any more substance than a mannequin found in a department store. Her clothing is what gives her her characteristics, and she is not in charge of them. She must rely on her lovers to dress and undress her.
To say that the woman has “long ago forgotten” the speaker is to show how many lovers she has been through since him. It also reiterates that she does not have the capacity to remember due to her simpleness. The new hat is the start of a relationship that the speaker is watching her enter into; it’s not an entire outfit, but it certainly marks the beginning of one, especially considering how “coquette” she looks with it on. He can see that this hat does not go with the metaphorical “outfit” he has set out for her– but that no longer matters to her.
In the second stanza, the speaker goes through his thought process about his love, being a child, a mannequin, and death. It is unlikely that he is talking about an actual child, but rather referring to the fact that this woman has experienced no growth in her lifetime; she is the same woman as she was when she was brought into this world, manufactured. He reiterates that she is a mannequin because it is the one thing he cannot seem to shake about her character; she cannot grow, she remains a child, because she is not human.
Saying that his love is death could be interpreted in multiple ways, in my opinion. One way is that she represents what is it to be dead– empty, emotionless, simply a body. The interpretation I prefer, however, is an allusion to the age-old phrase “they will be the death of me.” This woman is not just the death of the speaker; she is the death of all her men. The speaker understands this, however, and does not judge her for it. This gives context to the following lines:
“she didn’t do anything unusual./ I only wanted her to.”
She does not treat the speaker differently than any other who has loved her. Of course the speaker wanted her to treat him differently, though, because he wanted her to love him back.
The piece, in a way, feels somewhat unfinished. For me, I envision Bukowski shaking his head, ashing his smoke, getting up and walking away from his typewriter after the final line. There’s simply a sense that he can’t go on; there is no more for him to say.