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Charles Bukowski's Odes to Los Angeles: A Selection of Poems

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Artbound presents a KCET flashback episode offering a rare, intimate look at iconoclastic writer and poet Charles Bukowski, whose gritty works have become an integral part of California's literary canon.

This episode features exclusive insights from the writer himself, including Bukowski performing passages that would be part of his work Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, and driving through 1970s Los Angeles, while he discusses the city's influence on his writing. In Southern California's liquor stores and sun-bleached streets, the documentary follows a day in the life of Bukowski, whose gnarled appearance and biting wit collides with unassuming Angelenos he encounters along the way. We meet the characters in his neighborhood, whose lives he chronicled in his uncompromising prose and poetry. Bukowski was a champion for the every man, the working class heroes that are the spine of the city. Bukowski knew them well, as he once worked as a mailman, pounding the pavement and exploring post-war Los Angeles, where homogeneity spread as suburbanization unrolled vast fields of houses.

He was a barfly on the wall, observing life, filtering it through his cantankerous worldview, then distilling it into his direct and evocative poems. His writing shed light on the darkened contours of the metropolis, revealing that life in the shadows is a life worth living, where beauty lies in imperfection and deferred dreams can yield unexpected opportunities. In the generations that bookended his life, America's manifest destiny spread across the West and into space, but for Bukowski, the unexplored territory was our own interior worlds.

In this episode, Bukowski recites a few poems to a San Francisco audience. Read them here:

ABBukowski2

the rat

with one punch, at the age of 16 and 1/2,
I knocked out my father,
a cruel shiny bastard with bad breath,
and I didn't go home for some time, only now and then
to try to get a dollar from
dear momma.
it was 1937 in Los Angeles and it was a hell of a
Vienna.
I ran with these older guys
but for them it was the same:
mostly breathing gasps of hard air
and robbing gas stations that didn't have any
money, and a few lucky among us
worked part-time as Western Union messenger
boys.
we slept in rented rooms that weren't rented
and we drank ale and wine
with the shades down
being quiet quiet
and then awakening the whole building
with a fistfight
breaking mirrors and chairs and lamps
and then running down the stairway
just before the police arrived
some of us soldiers of the future
running through the empty starving streets and alleys of
Los Angeles
and all of us
getting together later
in Pete's room
a small cube of space under a stairway, there we were,
packed in there
without women
without cigarettes
without anything to drink,
while the rich pawed away at their many
choices and the young girls let
them,
the same girls who spit at our shadows as we
walked past.
it was a hell of a
Vienna.
3 of us under that stairway
were killed in World War II.
another one is now manager of a mattress
company.
me? I'm 30 years older,
the town is 4 or 5 times as big
but just as rotten
and the girls still spit on my
shadow, another war is building for another
reason, and I can hardly get a job now
for the same reason I couldn't then:
I don't know anything, I can't do
anything.
sex? well, just the old ones knock on my door after
midnight. I can't sleep and they see the lights and are
curious.
the old ones. their husbands no longer want them,
their children are gone, and if they show me enough good
leg (the legs go last)
I go to bed with
them.
so the old women bring me love and I smoke their cigarettes
as they
talk talk talk
and then we go to bed again and
I bring them love
and they feel good and
talk
until the sun comes
up, then we
sleep.
it's a hell of a Paris.

ABBukowski3

Law

"Look," he told me,
"all those little children dying in the trees."
And I said, "What?"
He said, "look."
And I went to the window and sure enough, there they were hanging in the trees,
dead and dying.
And I said, "What does it mean?"
He said, "I don't know it's authorized."

The next day I got up and they had dogs in the trees,
hanging, dead, and dying.
I turned to my friend and I said, "What does it mean?"
And he said,
"Don't worry about it, it's the way of things. They took a vote. It was decided."
The next day it was cats.
I don't see how they caught all those cats so fast and hung them in the trees, but they did.
The next day it was horses,
and that wasn't so good because many bad branches broke.

And after bacon and eggs the next day,
my friend pulled his pistol on me across the coffee
and said,
"Let's go,"
and we went outside.
And here were all these men and women in the trees,
most of them dead or dying.
And he got the rope ready and I said,
"What does it mean?"
And he said, "It's authorized, constitutional, it past the majority,"
And he tied my hands behind my back then opened the noose.
"I don't know who's going to hang me," he said,
"When I get done with you.
I suppose when it finally works down
there will be just one left and he'll have to hang himself."
"Suppose he doesn't," I ask.
"He has to," he said,
"It's authorized."
"Oh," I said, "Well,
let's get on with it."

AB506_Bukowski_2

man mowing the lawn across the way from me

I watch you walking with your machine.
ah, you're too stupid to be cut like grass,
you're too stupid to let anything violate you-- the girls won't use their knives on you
they don't want to
their sharp edge is wasted on you,
you are interested only in baseball games and
western movies and grass blades.

can't you take just one of my knives?
here's an old one -- stuck into me in 1955,
she's dead now, it wouldn't hurt much.
I can't give you this last one--I can't pull it out yet,
but here's one from 1964, how about taking
this 1964 one from me?

man mowing the lawn across the way from me
don't you have a knife somewhere in your gut
where love left?

man mowing the lawn across the way from me
don't you have a knife somewhere deep in your heart
where love left?

man mowing the lawn across the way from me
don't you see the young girls walking down the sidewalks now
with knives in their purses?
don't you see their beautiful eyes and dresses and
hair?
don't you see their beautiful asses and knees and
ankles?

man mowing the lawn across the way from me
is that all you see-- those grass blades?
is that all you hear--the drone of the mower?

I can see all the way to Italy
to Japan
to the Honduras
I can see the young girls sharpening their knives
in the morning and at noon and at night, and
especially at night, oh,
especially at night.

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