this is a eulogy of sorts for the master Denis Johnson 5.26.17

A poem by Denis Johnson.


Night

I am looking out over

the bay at sundown and getting

lushed with a fifty-nine-

year-old heavily rouged cocktail

lounge singer; this total stranger.

We watch the pitiful little

ferry boats that ply between this world

and that other one touched

to flame by sunset,

talking with unmanageable

excitement about the weather.

The sky and huge waters turn

vermillion as the cheap-drink hour ends.

We part with grief as cutting

as that line between water and air.

I go downstairs and I go

outside. It is like stepping into the wake

of a tactless remark, the city’s stupid

chatter hurrying to cover up

the shocked lull. The moon’s

mouth is moving, and I am just

leaning forward to listen

for the eventual terrible

silence when he begins,

in the tones of a saddened

delinquent son returned

unrecognizable, naming

those things it now seems

I might have done

to have prevented his miserable

life. I am desolate.

What is happening to me.


Denis Johnson is the kind of writer that makes you want to unplug your computer and burn it in a huge pile along with all the rest of your books (except for his), all of your notes, manuscripts, essays, short stories, partial novels, or anything else you may have attempted to pass for decent fiction, while, at the same time, he gives you such a hard-on for writing, shows you in such an effortless way how beautifully it can be done, that you have to run to the nearest word processor like a crackhead, desperate for that quick fix, that one agonizing sentence that you may or may not be able to produce that sounds like something Denis Johnson might have, perhaps in his sleep or when he was a toddler, written himself. But his voice, of course, was inimitable. He had staggering talent and the ability to drill straight into your soul and dig out a permanent place for himself there. I can say with absolute certainty and no exaggeration that his work has made my life much, much better. Yesterday was tragic. At the news of his passing, I felt the kind sadness reserved for the death of family members, the almost beautiful sadness that breaks you so deeply you can do nothing but wonder at its strength. And this is coming from someone who openly mocked people who wept when Michael Jackson died. In part, this letter is an apology to those people because I understand now the confusing and ugly emptiness that afflicts the world once one of your heroes has left it. It seems sort of dishonest or hokey to call a writer a hero, but I can’t really think of a better word. Denis Johnson did mystical things with language. I have a smile on my face even as I write this, thinking of the last two lines of the above poem–“I am desolate. What is happening to me.” The absence of a question mark seems apt. We are all desolate. Things are happening to all of us and we just don’t know what they are. I look to Johnson for clues to the human condition. He seemed just as confused as all of us, but he had a gift for expressing the complex inner turbulence of human beings in a simple and comprehensible way, and even if it didn’t make our problems disappear, it made them easier to deal with. When I read Denis Johnson I understand that the joy of being alive is not having to do it alone. He will be missed. 

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