BOOK: APPRECIATING CONTEMPORARY ART

Charles Bukowski: Nirvana

Great poems #5

Jakob Zaaiman
5 min readDec 6, 2022

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Collage of cafe in North Carolina by Jakob Zaaiman.
Collage artwork of a cafe in North Carolina (by Jakob Zaaiman).

(‘Nirvana’ reproduced in full at the end.)

If you travel hopefully, and interestedly, and observantly, and look out of the window — many people can’t be bothered (phones, sleep, earbuds, etc) — you will, sooner rather than later, get to see glimpses — snapshots — of other people’s lives, and they’re framed for you as passing and momentary imagery. You get to see people in their houses, or in other buildings, doing all kinds of things; and it’s almost impossible not to take the bait and, in the instant, to imagine the lives that might go with the scenes you are presented with. People cleaning, reading, watching television, cooking; people shopping, working, eating, queuing; the list is endless.

What Buk has done in this poem is capture one such moment in the life of an anonymous — but very likely Buk himself, in his youth — ‘young man riding a bus through North Carolina’, and then, very gently, let the scene play itself out. And what makes this a great poem is that its presentation is utterly artless and transparent — not a single word or image requiring a second thought, or the least interpretation — yet it finds a way to haunt you with its simple wistfulness; and ever more so on a second, or third or tenth reading. Would that some of other big names in poetry (most of them repetitively flatulent wordsmiths) were able to do the same.

Buk’s line breaks propel you quickly towards the poem’s end — which turns out to be somewhat anti-climactic — and you might well wonder what the fuss was about. Nothing really happened; it’s just some loser lost briefly in his thoughts. But there’s more to it than that: had our drifter made the mistake of joining the scene as if it were real, he would surely have found out the sad truth: that you should never meet the people you admire in the flesh— as well as never visit the ‘Paris’ of your dreams — because disappointment is sure to follow.

So Buk tells us at the outset that our young man has ‘not much chance’ and is ‘completely cut loose from purpose’, though he’s obviously — as we discover from the way he is seduced by the life of the cafe — full of imaginative expectation. He soon loses himself in the food, the coffee, the chatter, the…

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