3.8 Poems: Charles Bukowski’s “Jam”

Charles Bukowski’s “Jam” details the miseries of a driver in clogged highway traffic. The experience sounds thoroughly familiar until the final image. The poem originally appeared in 1992 in Bukowski’s collection The Last Night of Earth Poems (Harper Collins).

Jam

that Harbor Freeway south through the downtown

area—I mean, it can simply become

unbelievable.

last Friday evening I was sitting there

motionless behind a wall of red taillights,

there wasn’t even first gear movement

as masses of exhaust fumes

greyed the evening air, engines overheated

and there was the smell of a clutch

burning out

somewhere—

it seemed to come from ahead of me—

from that long slow rise of freeway where

the cars were working

from first gear to neutral

again and again

and from neutral back to

first gear.

on the radio I heard the news

of that day

at least 6 times, I was

well versed in world

affairs.

the remainder of the stations played a

thin, sick music.

the classical stations refused to come in

clearly

and when they did

it was a stale repetition of standard and

tiresome works.

I turned the radio off.

a strange whirling began in my

head—it circled behind the forehead, clockwise, went past the ears and around to the

back of the head, then back to the forehead

and around

again.

I began to wonder, is this what happens

when one goes

mad?

I considered getting out of my car.

I was in the so-called fast

lane.

I could see myself out there

out of my car

leaning against the freeway divider,

arms folded.

then I would slide down to a sitting

position, putting my head between

my legs.

I stayed in the car, bit my tongue, turned

the radio back on, willed the whirling to

stop

as I wondered if any of the others had to

battle against their

compulsions

as I did?

then the car ahead of me

MOVED

a foot, 2 feet, 3 feet!

I shifted to first gear…

there was MOVEMENT!

then I was back in neutral

BUT

we had moved from 7 to

ten feet.

hearing the world news for the

7thtime,

it was still all bad

but all of us listening,

we could handle that too

because we knew

that there was nothing worse than

looking at

that same license plate

that same dumb head sticking up

from behind the headrest

in the car ahead of you

as time dissolved

as the temperature gauge leaned more

to the right

as the gas gauge leaned

more to the left

as we wondered

whose clutch was burning

out?

we were like some last, vast

final dinosaur

crawling feebly home somewhere,

somehow, maybe

to

die.

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