Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Charles Bukowski's apocalyptic vision: "Dinosauria, We"

Charles Bukowski was an antibody to American Optimism.

Through 50 years of poetry and prose, Bukowski focused most of his attention on quotidian matters—drinking, sex, work life—from the vantage point of someone on the margins of society. Though there were exceptions, such as “The Laughing Heart,” a poem that touches on self-empowerment, Bukowski generally portrayed life in blunt terms as sad, painful, and unforgiving. Resistance was futile; inscribed on his headstone were the words “DON’T TRY.”

The frequent razor strop beatings Bukowski suffered at his father’s hand as a teenager may in part explain this grim fatalism, but much of it was rooted in the personal observations he made over several decades spent in downscale areas of Los Angeles. Not only were human beings often needlessly cruel to one another, but the unprivileged masses were beaten down by a dehumanizing economic system which controlled postmodern life. We were all prisoners to the system, to bills and debt and full-time employment, an unnatural condition which made true freedom and human fulfillment elusive.

This larger framework of hypercapitalism’s spiritual poverty was often communicated through the microcosm of Bukowski’s firsthand experiences. Though he wasn’t known as a political writer, in the poem “Dinosauria, We” Bukowski brought the personal and political together.

The first thing one notices about the poem is its lack of order. Like life in Bukowski’s view, this poem is messy. The free verse spills out—there is no first stanza, second stanza, etc.—with no punctuation until the two periods at the end. It’s a shapeless poem which reads like a dirge.

From the opening lines (“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”) the reader is dropped into a

rapidly decaying world, the “Into this.” Bukowski also seems to suggest (with the words “Born like this”) that human beings are inherently corrupt, complicit in the horrors around them.

The next section continues the “Born like this/into this” refrain, but ramps up the despair by showing how humans project their pain onto others, which only reinforces the sadness of life (“Into these carefully mad wars/Into bars where people no longer speak to each other/Into fist fights that end as shootings and knifings”).

About a third of the way into the poem, Bukowski explores some of the ways in which the deck is stacked against us (“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”).

The final “Born into this” refrain shifts the emphasis of the poem from the larger, impersonal forces that poison our world to the effects of these forces on the individual (“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”).

Struggling to cope with the madness of the universe, humans lapse into self-destruction (“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”).

While “the rich and the chosen…watch from space platforms,” the forces of self-destruction that afflict common people manifest in the outer world, which careens toward apocalypse (“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 inner rot becomes the outer rot, changing our whole physical landscape (“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”).

Ultimately, the dark forces unleashed by capitalist greed and the crooked timber of humanity will cause the extinction of the human race (“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”).

One might expect an elegiac tone to accompany the end of human civilization at the poem’s close, but Bukowski offers serenity as the rest of the cosmos looks on indifferently to the flamed-out drama on the little blue ball (“And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard/Born out of that./The sun still hidden there/Awaiting the next chapter.)


The threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the human race during the Cold War (see: the

final scene in the film adaptation of “The Planet of the Apes”), but “Dinosauria, We” was published in 1992, three years after the Berlin Wall fell, in the final book of poetry published in Bukowski’s lifetime (“The Last Night of the Earth Poems”).

Seventy years of life in 20th Century America had convinced Bukowski that the American Dream was a grotesque illusion for most; “Dinosauria, We” appears to be an angry poet’s final howl of despair at human folly. Like the dinosaurs, human beings would become extinct. Unlike the dinosaurs, which were wiped out by a cataclysmic event outside of their control, human beings would die slowly, over many years, by their own hand.

The details of this dark vision were hyperbolic and metaphorical, but the increasingly grim climate change reports which have come out in the twenty years since Bukowski’s death hint that the main message of his alarmist cry may have been sober and prophetic.

                                               more Bukowski on Truth and Beauty:

                                                     Charles Bukowski: "Born into This" (full documentary)

Charles Bukowski's "The Laughing Heart"

                                      Charles Bukowski: So You Want to Be a Writer?

                                                Charles Bukowski Gets Life-Affirming

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