Charles Bukowski’s Poem, ‘The Night I Was Going to Die’

Charles Bukowski.

Gems. I’m fond of finding gems, and there are two ways I classify gems: 1.) how it’s thought of in popular culture; that is, the “hidden gems.” I’ve always been fond of finding movies, music, poetry, books, etc. that are “hidden gems.” 2.) finding the gem among, well, otherwise not great work. Typically, this involves short stories or poems, where I find a particular line that stands out to me, even if the rest doesn’t resonate.

That’s sort of the second here, with a slight tweak since we’re talking about Charles Bukowski. I like the whole poem here! But there’s a particular “gem” of a line that stood out to me and made the whole thing worth doing a blog post about. If the rest of the poem after that line sucked — and it doesn’t! — I still would’ve done the blog post. Stories and poems are difficult, and they consist of line after line, with each line needing to be right. So, we’re (using “we” to mean authors) lucky when even one line in a work sticks with someone long after they read the piece. The line in this poem will. And that poem is, “The Night I Was Going to Die.”

Here it is in full, and here is the relevant excerpt:

the night I was going to die
I was sweating on the bed
and I could hear the crickets
and there was a cat fight outside
and I could feel my soul dropping down through the
and just before it hit the floor I jumped up

I was almost too weak to walk
but I walked around and turned on all the lights
and then I went back to bed
and dropped it down again and
I was up

The emphasis on the line is mine, “And I could feel my soul dropping down through the mattress.” If you’ve ever had sustained depression, that’s a rather succinct way to describe what it’s like. For one, it’s difficult to parse out a manifestation of depression from its connection to the mattress. Nobody is having major depression on a recliner. At least, I can’t picture that. It’s always the mattress. Maybe a futon? I could see a futon. A couch? Sure. But a mattress is what I picture, and this idea of feeling like your soul is dropping through the mattress captures what it feels like, and each moment of each day is having to accomplish the back end of that sentence, “and just before it hit the floor I jumped up.”

Otherwise, yeah, maybe it would drop all the way through, and then what? Well, in Bukowski’s telling, death would have occurred. Nothing was stopping it, except it turns out, the thought of his 7-year-old daughter, and how he was sure she wouldn’t want him dead. And again, depression is like that, to keep the darkness at bay, “I kept working at it/getting up and down.”

By the end, there’s something rejuvenating about the sun coming through the window, and at least for now, the “soul stayed inside.” That’s so powerful. And even Bukowski of all people, gives us optimism at that decision to keep his soul in his body and not die that night by talking about how he started getting people at his doors and ringing his phone, and sending him mail (even the hate mail is welcomed!), and “everything is the same again.”

I’m surprised by that. Bukowski offering the juxtaposition to maintaining being alive when death seems most imminent. That if we make it out to the other side (of life, that is), then we’ll realize that night wasn’t the night to die. It wasn’t our time.

But that image of the soul dropping through the mattress, like some black gunk or tar, an ugly thing really, and having to be almost slurped back into the body at every waking moment, will stick with me for a long time to come.

What do you make of this poem?

In my head, I’m picturing something gross like this as the stand-in for the soul.

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