Where there is art, there is no hell.

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“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
– Andre Gide

Yesterday, I watched a documentary. And while that, in and of itself, is about as interesting as peanut butter, what I watched was interesting, Born Into This, a documentary about Charles Bukowski.

I first discovered Charles Bukowski from the script he wrote for the Barbet Schroeder film Barfly, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. To be fair, it’s been a long time since I have seen it and I can’t recall what I thought of it but given my pathetic attempt at being a film snob and my man crush on Mickey Rourke at the time, I am sure I LOVED it. But I have never seen it again, so I guess that says something.

Thanks to The Red Hot Chilli Peppers I got reintroduced to Bukowski a few years later and read in quick succession Women, Factotum, Hollywood and Post Office. I muscled through those four books and frankly, I hated them. It wasn’t the writing that I hated so much as his characters. They were repellant. I mean seriously horrible people. As misanthropic as I was back then, even I found these people awful.

My contempt for poetry kept me away from the Bukowski poetry cannon. Based on his fiction, I wasn’t keen to dive into a genre I didn’t like with I writer I didn’t like. To be honest though, and to avoid offending any poetry readers/writers, it’s not contempt for poetry I have so much as I just don’t have that kind of brain. I’ve read a lot of it, and even written some horrible teen angst verse, but as a whole I don’t “get it”. And I’m not a good enough bullshitter to pretend to “get it”. For whatever reason, poetry doesn’t have any emotional impact on me…and yet song lyrics do, go figure.

After watching Born Into This, I walked away with a new found respect and appreciation for Charles Bukowski. So much so that on my way home from work I stopped off to purchase a book of his poetry, The Last Night of the Earth Poems. I have to say, so far, his verse is breathtaking.

Admittedly, I’ve grown up a lot since those first introductions and with that growth comes life and experiences, good and bad alike, along with some gray hair. In the process, I’ve come to see the world through a different lens then the one when I first read those books. And as distorted as my lens was then and may be now, it’s not even close to the Bukowski lens. However, in growing up and with experiences, you can begin to see the world for what it is. A fucked up place. With fucked up people. Doing fucked up things. To each other.

Bukowski characters, as deplorable as they are, are real characters. Underneath all that depravity though, are just people trying to do what we’re all trying to do. Get by and find a way to slice off a little piece of happiness pie for ourselves. Sure, they may find happiness in places we don’t understand and can’t respect, but Bukowski shows us time and time again that their journey is our journey.

Clearly, this is an over simplification (I’ll leave the more robust literary analysis to the folks behind the ivy walls with thicker and grayer beards, who study this professionally) but as Longfellow said, and Bukowski shows us, “..the supreme excellence is simplicity.”

Obviously, the legacy of any artist is their work. True art, real art, will speak for years and years, as Bukowski’s does. In Born Into This there is a scene where he is reciting his poem Dinosaur, We (written in 1993) and these lines screamed out to me:

Born into this
Into hospitals which are so expensive that it’s cheaper to die
Into lawyers who charge so much it’s cheaper to plead guilty
Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
Born into this
Walking and living through this
Dying because of this
Muted because of this

To dismiss Charles Bukowski as a simple and misogynistic drunk writer is to diminish not only his artistic contribution but also his message. His was a message for those of us not birthed into any entitlement. It was a message from the underside saying “We’re here too. We exist.” In between all the despicable characters, the women, the booze and the shitty behavior is the one thing that transcends everything, even entitlement, the human condition.

Where there is art, there is no hell, only our own journey. That journey may be hell, and who we seek for armistice and guidance can make that journey easier. Thankfully, we have the work of Charles Bukowski, and so many others, to help us find our own way, creatively or otherwise. And that ain’t a bad thing baby.

DInosaur, We
by Charles Bukowski

Born like this
Into this
As the chalk faces smile
As Mrs. Death laughs
As the elevators break
As political landscapes dissolve
As the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree
As the oily fish spit out their oily prey
As the sun is masked
We are
Born like this
Into this
Into these carefully mad wars
Into the sight of broken factory windows of emptiness
Into bars where people no longer speak to each other
Into fist fights that end as shootings and knifings
Born into this
Into hospitals which are so expensive that it’s cheaper to die
Into lawyers who charge so much it’s cheaper to plead guilty
Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
Born into this
Walking and living through this
Dying because of this
Muted because of this
Castrated
Debauched
Disinherited
Because of this
Fooled by this
Used by this
Pissed on by this
Made crazy and sick by this
Made violent
Made inhuman
By this
The heart is blackened
The fingers reach for the throat
The gun
The knife
The bomb
The fingers reach toward an unresponsive god
The fingers reach for the bottle
The pill
The powder
We are born into this sorrowful deadliness
We are born into a government 60 years in debt
That soon will be unable to even pay the interest on that debt
And the banks will burn
Money will be useless
There will be open and unpunished murder in the streets
It will be guns and roving mobs
Land will be useless
Food will become a diminishing return
Nuclear power will be taken over by the many
Explosions will continually shake the earth
Radiated robot men will stalk each other
The rich and the chosen will watch from space platforms
Dante’s Inferno will be made to look like a children’s playground
The sun will not be seen and it will always be night
Trees will die
All vegetation will die
Radiated men will eat the flesh of radiated men
The sea will be poisoned
The lakes and rivers will vanish
Rain will be the new gold
The rotting bodies of men and animals will stink in the dark wind
The last few survivors will be overtaken by new and hideous diseases
And the space platforms will be destroyed by attrition
The petering out of supplies
The natural effect of general decay
And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard
Born out of that.
The sun still hidden there
Awaiting the next chapter.

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