Charles Bukowski’s Poem “Nirvana” Presented in Three Creative Videos

I’ve rid­den a lot of busses–back and forth from city to city, tak­ing the cheap­est tick­ets, which meant trav­el­ing overnight, and eat­ing cheap and greasy food at hur­ried stops along the way. I remem­ber think­ing some­times that I might nev­er come back, that I might lose myself in some small south­ern town and dis­ap­pear. I remem­ber those times now as I read Charles Bukowski’s poem “Nir­vana,” a poem about a lost young man who finds in the quaint strange­ness of a din­er in North Car­oli­na a respite from the con­fu­sion of his life.

Then he boards his bus again, and the moment is gone, the moment of the poem, that is, which is all there is, since we don’t know where he came from or where he’s bound. We’re only told he’s “on the way to some­where,” and the omis­sion means it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter. The poem is “about” its details: the snow, the lit­tle café in the hills, the unaf­fect­ed wait­ress with her “nat­ur­al humor.” The way these famil­iar things are made strange by the pres­ence of a stranger. While I may relate to the aim­less young man in the poem, it real­ly isn’t about him so much as about that estrange­ment, which for him becomes a tem­po­rary home. Then before he gets too com­fort­able, he’s out again and on the road to “some­where.”

Bukows­ki had a way with these small scenes, a way of estrang­ing the ordi­nary. The short film above, from Lights Down Low pro­duc­tions, offers one inter­pre­ta­tion of what the moment of Bukowski’s poem might look like. The film has the slow, med­i­ta­tive pac­ing of a Ter­rence Mal­ick film, the same kind of obses­sive dwelling on the details of a lost mid-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. An apple pie, the slow-motion sway of the leg­gy wait­ress’ sky-blue dress as she walks toward a snow-cov­ered window—none of these details bear the slight­est trace of kitsch. Instead they are objects of wabi sabi, the Japan­ese term for imper­ma­nence. Nir­vana is for­ev­er, life is tem­po­rary.

While the film above draws on Malick’s Amer­i­cana, Tom Waits’ read­ing of “Nir­vana” (below) comes clos­est, per­haps, to the world-weary Bukowski’s voice, and the images and music that accom­pa­ny Waits’ griz­zled sigh con­vey the drea­ry grit of the real world of bus trav­el, not as it looks in the movies, but as it looks from the road: the bleak same­ness of high­ways and the way the snow is oily and speck­led with black min­utes after it falls.

A third inter­pre­ta­tion of Bukowski’s poem (below) is read by a man who calls him­self Tom O’Bedlam, and who sounds a bit like Richard Bur­ton. How­ev­er, his read­ing is the least dra­mat­ic of the three; his lack of affect draws atten­tion to the words, which appear in stark black and white text on the screen as he intones them like a mass. This one comes cour­tesy of Roger Ebert, who rec­om­mends O’Bedlam’s Spo­ken Verse YouTube page as one of his favorite places on the web.

It’s hard for me to choose a favorite of the three. Each one draws atten­tion to the poem in dif­fer­ent ways, some­times, per­haps, turn­ing it into a script, and some­times get­ting out of its way and let­ting it do all the work. Nei­ther approach strikes me as a bad one; each one has its mer­its. But tell me, read­ers, what do you think?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charles Bukows­ki: Depres­sion and Three Days in Bed Can Restore Your Cre­ative Juices (NSFW)

The Last Faxed Poem of Charles Bukows­ki

Charles Bukows­ki Tells the Sto­ry of His Worst Hang­over Ever

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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Comments (9)
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  • Zozie says:

    I like the short film and the inter­pre­ta­tion of Tom Waits.

  • Mike Dwyer says:

    The last one is the clos­est to how it sounds in my head, but I think all three, as well as the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the poem as melan­choly, is a lit­tle off. I think it’s more trag­ic, that thread of man­ic joy that slith­ers through a lot of Bukows­ki uncon­sum­mat­ed once again.

  • Humppa-Joe says:

    The first one could have been great-if only they had the good sense to leave out the actu­al poem.
    The music and visu­als deliv­er the con­tent of the poem real­ly nice­ly, the voiceover turns it almost into a mock­ery.

  • G Davis says:

    The last one sounds like a poem being read. He paus­es at line ends which dis­turbs me.
    The oth­er two sound like sto­ries being told. They are both won­de­ful, but I pre­fer the first because it seems to cap­ture the feel­ing in the young man’s mind best. For me any­way.


    I bought a piece of apple pie after the meal in the cafe. I did stay a few extra min­utes.


    I stayed for the apple pie.

  • Adriene says:

    There’s a school of thought that there should be the slight­est of paus­es at the ends of lines when read­ing poet­ry even if there is no punc­tu­a­tion, as was done in the last read­ing here. That way, you hear the rhythm that the poet intend­ed. In the writing,lots of thought goes into the line breaks …

  • Josh says:

    I liked the first one a great deal.

  • Anna R says:

    Nice oppor­tu­ni­ty to think more about this poem. Thank you.

    BTW, “wabi sabi” most def­i­nite­ly is not the Japan­ese term for imper­ma­nence. Click through to the page you’ve hyper­linked and read the good (and accu­rate) expla­na­tion of the con­cept, please: “…find­ing beau­ty in imper­fec­tion and pro­fun­di­ty in nature, of accept­ing the nat­ur­al cycle of growth, decay, and death.” Imper­fec­tion is its keynote, not imper­ma­nence.

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