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.

Life after Dying? Absolutely

I and many – not all – of the people I know feel quite sure that life ends at death. And yet we rely on an afterlife of a natural kind: other people’s lives will continue after we have gone. If people did not believe that was so, life would lose much of its meaning.

So argued philosophy professor Samuel Scheffler in “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously” in the New York Times back on September 21, 2013.

Because we take this belief [that the human race will survive after we are gone] for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths—even that of complete strangers—matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.

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To make his point, Scheffler offers this doomsday scenario.  “Suppose you knew that although you yourself would live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect you?” It is reasonable, he says, to imagine people losing the motivation to research cancer, to reform society, to compose music, and perhaps even to have children.

Scheffler’s discussion has personal relevance for me. I’ve written about my occasional flashes of panic that when I die, not only will my life cease but so will my past, along with the lives of everyone I know and perhaps the entire universe. I described the fear thus:

These flashes of annihilation come at me seemingly out of nowhere. My gut tightens and there is an instant of blur and panic until I catch something else to think about. The suddenness is like the flash of some frightening memory from childhood or like the imagining of a car crash. The odd thing is that the sudden blankness sometimes includes my surroundings along with me.

I compared my experience to that of the child who closes his eyes and thinks that because he can’t see anyone, no one can see him. Except that my reaction is fear, not delight.

Lives (legacy.com)

I haven’t had such panicky moments now for several years. A couple of thought streams have helped. The first I mentioned in the  early post. I bring my attention to all the significant people – from family members to national leaders – who have died without the world ending. In fact, I wrote, “Every year we are surrounded by the deaths of plants and animals of every description and beyond counting, death on such a scale there might well be reason to fear an apocalypse. Yet none occurs.” And among the benefits of a funeral, I suggested, is the opportunity for the living to be reassured that the death of one of their own will not jeopardize the existence of the others.

I’ve also been reading about how the activities of any organism, even a bacterium, consist of refueling, protecting, repairing, and reproducing itself. Each living thing is alive by virtue of the fact that it – we all – try to avoid harm, seek out energy sources, reproduce. So it is not just that organisms prepare for the future. It is that being alive in the first place is to be a mechanism for continuity.

Learning about such basics of biology puts the existence of life on a solid ground that I hadn’t quite felt before. And it helps me understand why believers in traditional religions seem so confident about their afterlives.