Charles Bukowski’s Poem, ‘Trashcan Lives’


For those who don’t live in the United States reading this, you probably are aware that we have a presidential election unfolding, and naturally, at the moment, I went searching for my poetry boy, Charles Bukowski, to soothe my soul with his grit and bite. [As an aside, I love to imagine that somehow, somewhere in the United States, there’s one person who has no idea what happened yesterday or what is happening today.] Fair warning, I use a lot of parentheses in this piece, and well, I’m brain fried and going with it.

The poem is titled, “Trashcan Lives.” At this link, it’s in full, but here’s an excerpt:

this is the way a democracy
you get what you can,
try to keep that
and add to it
if possible.
this is the way a dictatorship
works too
only they either enslave or
destroy their

You can see why it jumped out to me tonight. But the earlier part of the poem is something I’ve been trying to figure out: “and I think about/the boys on the row/I hope some of them have a bottle of/red.”

What’s “boys on the row” mean? My first thought was, given the mention of being owned and locks later, that Bukowski is talking about prisoners on death row (I also thought about rows of houses in the suburbs). But, upon thinking about it further, it occurred to me he likely means skid row, right? That’s a catch-all name given for homeless encampments in various cities, most notably Los Angeles. That also makes sense with his concern with them as the “wind blows hard tonight,” which, I love that opening. “The wind blows hard tonight,” is a simple, but direct opening that sets the stage for the rest of the poem. [Ha, I just noticed as I was putting this post together and posted the title and noticing again, more clearly, that it’s called, “Trashcan Lives,” which is an even further obvious hint that this is about those on skid row.]

But the vantage point of a homeless person looking upon everything owned (which you don’t own) and everything locked (from you) is potent, and then tying that into a larger critique (perhaps?) of democracy and how it works. Life or democracy, in Bukowski’s estimation, is about getting what you can (more stuff to put behind locks), and adding to it when you can. Meanwhile, the boys sit on the row, shivering from the hard wind, and drinking a bottle of red (which I assume to be red wine)?

There’s something particularly sad and depressing about the closing of the poem, where it’s almost a worse fate to be neglected and forgotten than it is to be enslaved or destroyed. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with Bukowski on that score, but it’s a potent point, all the same. And in a way, whether it’s a dictator or a democracy, whether you take that to be a metaphor for life or a literal point, in either case, Bukowski says, “it’s a hard cold wind.” Ah. My brain sings when we get nice bookends. I love that wraparound. But I also love the image. That whether you’ve living under a dictatorship or a democracy, whatever this life is we as humans are living, the “derelicts” among us, are bracing against the hard cold wind nonetheless. The wind doesn’t necessarily blow any different on the skin of the forgotten.

[Another late insert … This is why I love poetry because I can read it four times, think about it, and have a point circle back to my brain later. It only occurred to me now that he uses “derelicts.” That dictatorships kill their derelicts. A derelict is a homeless person. Which, again, makes his point of who the boys on the row are all the more obvious. Welp. I still like the interpretation of death row, too. Alas.]

My apologies again, as I’m feeling rather subpar in my analysis tonight, as you can see from how this poem took a few readings for its obviousness to hit me on the head, but well, *looks around*.

What do you make of this poem? It resonated with me more so tonight than usual, but overall, it’s a resonant message.

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