Aug. 29, 2005


by Charles Bukowski

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Poem: "Dostoevsky," by Charles Bukowski, from Bone Palace Ballet © Black Sparrow Press. Reprinted with permission.


against the wall, the firing squad ready.
then he got a reprieve.
suppose they had shot Dostoevsky?
before he wrote all that?
I suppose it wouldn't have
not directly.
there are billions of people who have
never read him and never
but as a young man I know that he
got me through the factories,
past the whores,
lifted me high through the night
and put me down
in a better
even while in the bar
drinking with the other
I was glad they gave Dostoevsky a
it gave me one,
allowed me to look directly at those
rancid faces
in my world,
death pointing its finger,
I held fast,
an immaculate drunk
sharing the stinking dark with

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of choreographer Mark Morris, born in Seattle (1956). Early in his career he performed with many American dance companies, then at 24 formed the Mark Morris Dance Group (1980).

It's the birthday of children's writer Karen Hesse, born in Baltimore (1952). She is admired, in her historical novels, for her strong sense of place. Letters from Rifka (1992) takes young readers to Russia, Belgium, and the United States in the early 1900s; A Time of Angels (1995) is set in Boston and Vermont during the influenza epidemic of 1918; Out of the Dust (1997—Newbery Medal Award), told entirely in free verse, takes place in the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

On this day in 1930, the Marx Brothers' movie Animal Crackers opened in New York City. The farce, the brothers' second film, was directed by Victor Heerman and starred Harpo, Chico, Zeppo—and Groucho, this time playing an African explorer who manages, among other feats, to shoot an elephant while wearing pajamas. He also performs the comic aria "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," in honor of himself. Margaret Dumont plays her familiar role as the long-suffering socialite, this time called Mrs. Rittenhouse.

It's the birthday of Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn, born in Gravesend, England (1929). Both his parents were journalists. Shortly after graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge (1953), he brought out his first book of poems, Fighting Terms (1954). That same year he went to Stanford on a fellowship and has lived in San Francisco ever since. His many collections of poetry combine early work, all written in iambic pentameter, and later poems in a variety of forms, including free verse. He was always interested in pop-culture topics, such as the Hell's Angels and LSD—and in all aspects of being homosexual. His collection The Man with Night Sweats (1992) deals with AIDS.

It's the birthday of alto sax player Charlie Parker (Charles Christopher Parker Jr.), born in Kansas City, Kansas (1920). The founder of bebop, he was known as "Yardbird" or "Bird," and was thought by many to be the greatest instrumental soloist in the history of jazz.

It's the birthday of psychoanalyst Dr. William Niederland, born in a village in East Prussia (1904), the son of a rabbi. After the war, he studied former death-camp inmates and in 1961 described the "survivor syndrome," based not only on Holocaust survivors but on others who had lived through natural disasters and car accidents. The symptoms of this "survivor syndrome," he said, were insomnia, nightmares, personality changes, chronic depressive states, disturbed memory, and psychosomatic ailments.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Preston Sturges (Edmond Preston Biden), born in Chicago (1898) to wealthy socialites. He was educated in France, Germany, and Switzerland, and in American prep schools. After serving in the Air Corps in WWI, he returned to work in the family business. In his late 20s he had his appendix removed; complications led to a long hospital stay, during which he wrote plays. His second one, Strictly Dishonorable, was not only produced—it was the biggest comedy hit of the 1929 Broadway season. He moved to Hollywood to try screenwriting, resulting in The Great McGinty (1940), which he wrote, and then talked Paramount into letting him direct. An unexpected hit, the movie propelled Sturges into one of the most meteoric careers—flashing, brilliant, but brief—in the history of Hollywood directors. His screwball comedies include The Lady Eve (1941), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and Unfaithfully Yours (1948).

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