To write about the poems of Denis Johnson, I’m inspired to quote Richard Howard on James Dickey on Randall Jarrell (skipping Emerson, who also gets cited in there somewhere) on the “yearning to transcend, by the flights and frauds of literature, literature itself, until the reader is separated from the writer by no more than his response to his own experience, and then united with that experience by a shared recognition of it.”
A belief in shared recognitions can be misplaced, but the idea of some intimate knowing does seem to describe the mystery of connection we feel when reading poetry that comes out of wholly other lives, and is partly about those lives. In Johnson’s The Incognito Lounge and The Veil, raw experience makes its way into language more directly than is usually possible. Where ground-holding restraint and sidestepping countertones count for so much, Johnson walks straight forward, often in pain, his mind afire with metaphor:
so that the hospitals opened like great vaults
for us and we stepped from bed to bed
on the faces of the diseased, the beloved,
moving like light over a necklace
of excruciations—I’ll tell you
the story of my life,
you’ll make a million . . .
this is what it means to be human,
to witness the heart of a moment like a photograph,
the present standing up through itself relentlessly like a fountain,
the clock showering the intersection with minutes
even as it gathers them to its face
in the so often alluded
to Kingdom of Heaven
As in some passages in Johnson’s fiction, especially in the stories in Jesus’ Son, the ground is there, but barely, and then gone. We get the sense of the poet in perpetual drift, never passing by but passing into and through, changed. In “Night,” the speaker, full of unnamed regret, leaves off drinking with a stranger and goes outside: “It is like stepping into the wake / of a tactless remark, the city’s stupid / chatter hurrying to cover up / the shocked lull.” In “Poem,” he passes through a mining town during a strike and again there’s the sense of sorry discovery. He witnesses “the hatred of the waitress breaking / a cup and kicking the shards across the café.” Leaving town, he sees the miners on the picket line:
their crystalline and indelible
faces in the hundred-degree
heat like the faces of slaughtered hogs,
and God forgive me,
I pulled over to the side of the road and wrote this poem.
So direct a self-reference is rare in these poems, but we are invited to hear the confessional, even when the confessions aren’t direct or in the voice we identify elsewhere as the poet’s. From “Talking Richard Wilson Blues, by Richard Clay Wilson”:
once I walked into the living room at my sister’s
and saw that the two of them, her and my sister,
had turned sometime behind my back not exactly
fatter, but heavy, or squalid, with cartoons
moving across the television in front of them,
and he leaves them there, “surrounded by laundry”:
I stepped out into the yard of bricks
and trash and watched the light light
up the blood inside each leaf,
and I asked myself, Now what is the rpm
on this mother? Where do you turn it on?
The perception seems to prepare the speaker for the drama to come, when he kills a man in a bar (“I opened him up with my red fishing knife”). He is speaking to us from prison, it turns out, where his days are spent in the laundry room, high on crystal meth, in denial of everyone he has ever loved. The poem ends with an address to Jesus:
I could say a million things about you
and never get that silence out of time
that happens when the blank muscle hangs
between its beats—that is what I mean
by darkness, the place where I kiss your mouth,
where nothing bad has happened.
I’m not anyone but I wish I could be told
when you will come to save us. I have written
several poems and several hymns, and one
has been performed on the religious
ultrahigh frequency station. And it goes like this.
As the title suggests, this could be the country blues—a bit sentimental, except for the irreducibles, the irony, the lack of self-glorification, the images, inspired rather than hackneyed desolation, and the overlay of the poet’s precision so that the voice doesn’t settle into one register (the colloquial mixed with words such as “squalid,” with a line such as “some nights were so / sensory I felt the starlight landing on my back”). And so we’re not simply listening to one of Johnson’s personae. The language and images incline toward some common voice, some common set of regrets drawn up from the same well of despair. The varieties of likeness in these poems place us in the incorruptible reaches of metaphor, in an essence most writers can’t find and many aren’t even aware of.
For all the poems in which the speaker passes through, others find him trapped like Richard Clay Wilson. “The Monk’s Insomnia” opens:
The monastery is quiet. Seconal
drifts down upon it from the moon.
I can see the lights
of the city I came from,
can remember how a boy sets out
like something thrown from the furnace
of a star.
But in the monastery, “where they have one day they play over / and over” the lives have stalled, suspended even in their syntax: “the yellow sap / of one particular race of cactus grows / tragic for the fascination in which / it imprisons Brother Toby.”
Johnson’s speaking subjects claim no authority over anything but the dime-precise winnings of word and figure. The lines are continually inventive but artless. The speaker is never coy and, if untrusting of language, has decided to call all its bluffs. When the poet means to express desire, he says “desire.” When he means war and love, he says them. When he means terror, he says “the terror / of being just one person—one chance, one set of days.” Here are recognitions, after all. By their hearts, by our many truer names, the poems know us.
The Veil by Denis Johnson, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1987. The Incognito Lounge by Denis Johnson, published by Random House, New York, 1982.
Brick editor Michael Helm last appeared in our pages with his essay, “On Robert Stone,” in issue 95. His new novel, After James, was published in 2016.