On Bukowski's Birthday Weekend, His Ode to 'The Railroad Yard'

When an industrial landscape is as good as the sea

I read a lot of Charles Bukowski once upon a time, back during my Beat-reading phase, when the tragic strictures of the 1950s seemed to reflect my own pre-adult circumstances, and their abandon felt like the freedom I wanted.

Bukowski would have been 93 on Friday. This is his birthday weekend, which I'm sure he would have toasted. And so when I saw the tweets marking this minor occasion, I dug out the book of his that I remember best, a posthumous collection called, What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. I can even remember pulling it from the shelf at Powell's in Portland and walking all the way across town to the South Park Blocks. I read it in the sunshine (it must have been July?) and I marked the poems I liked with tape tabs. Reading through those favorites now, 14 years later, I mostly see the things in Bukowski that I loved then, but came to dislike. Stanzas like this:

how to break clear?
a .44 magnum?
a can of ale?
the museum of pain
doesn't charge admission,
it's free as skunkshit.

Being a writer (and person) of considerably sunnier disposition, I used to revel in darkness on the page. Depravity, desperation, depression: these things were heavy! And who doesn't want to be heavy at 17? My dad even wrote me an epic warning letter after I made him read some of my teenage poems warning me not to equate being messed up with being deep.

In any case, I do not have unalloyed admiration for Bukowski anymore.

But there was one poem I marked that still speaks to me. It's called "the railroad yard."

the feelings I get
driving past the railroad yard
(never on purpose but on my way to somewhere)
are the feelings other men have for other things.
I see the tracks and all the boxcars
the tank cars the flat cars
all of them motionless and so many of them
perfectly lined up and not an engine anywhere
(where are all the engines?).
I drive past looking sideways at it all
a wide, still railroad yard
not a human in sight
then I am past the yard
and it wasn't just the romance of it all
that gives me what I get
but something back there nameless
always making me feel better
as some men feel better looking at the open sea
or the mountains or at wild animals
or at a woman
I like those things too
especially the wild animals and the woman
but when I see those lovely old boxcars
with their faded painted lettering
and those flat cars and those fat round tankers
all lined up and waiting
I get quiet inside
I get what other men get from other things
I just feel better and it's good to feel better
whenever you can
not needing a reason.

I don't see the writer I became in a lot of what I read as a teenager, but here, I do. We can marvel at the landscapes we've built, their depths and ways can be as sublime and full of possibility as any natural system. But only if we look at them the right ways. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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