I moved to California at an age when my knees were soft, my sleeps long, my biggest challenge: to see how far I could swim underwater without breathing. Summers were slurped from hot green garden hoses, the taste of iron and rubber, then a burst of chill.
The adult world was a cloud cover for us then, for my brothers, my friends, and me; we knew it was there by its atmospheric pressure.
We regarded the world and learned to mimic it. Rode our bikes like choppers. Arc’d our skyhooks like Kareem, dropped our r’s like tough guys. We got too big for these games and ran everywhere, because why not?
Movement felt good. As it did when we borrowed cars or bought our own. Hours piled up at ice cream stands turned into wheels, windows open. The toasted Central Valley air blowing through a vehicle at speed was the feeling of freedom.
I recall one afternoon squeezing into a V8-powered Mustang and driving out to an air force base access road. Summer afternoons, they’d test-fire jet engines at full thrust, going nowhere. The rumble could slide a glass across a countertop 20 miles away.
So, picture four of us in the car, windows rolled down, accelerating to 142 miles per hour, my friend R driving one-handed. The mile markers flicking by. Hear us laughing.
He’s dead now, my friend who was driving. He died in the hospital a decade ago of a staph infection. He wasn’t the first one of us. There was S, my track teammate, who died in a fire at a crack house. N, my best friend at age 13, who got high and jumped off a cliff in Truckee, a love note folded in his backpack.
The girl in my math class I once dated, who had put her brother away for sexual abuse, then turned out by her dealer, and then fading.
And then a name in the newspaper.
D, who disappeared from freshman year at Harvard, just walked off into the woods, one month a number-one student, the golden boy, the next an inpatient and, the rest of his life, controlled by Thorazine.
He disappeared in plain sight.
B, who stepped on the trigger of a shotgun pointed into his mouth.
K, of the 92-mile-an-hour fastball and training camp, suddenly old in the face, sitting down on a curb outside a party looking up like…
One day we were invincible, and the next we were mortal. We were not just mortal, we were prematurely old. We were standing outside funerals and meetings in church basements, smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee, hands shaking, thinking we were too young to feel this old.
If we were angels, we had leapt upward out of heaven.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
It’s hard to think of a poet who was as old as Denis Johnson at age 19, the year he published The Man Among the Seals, his 1969 debut. He was a student then at the University of Iowa, but he sounded more like a beat-down Baudelaire, already exhausted by life. In the collection’s opening poem, “Quickly Aging Here,” he writes:
nothing to drink in
the refrigerator but juice from
the pickles come back
long dead, or thin
catsup. i feel i am old
now, though surely i
am young enough? i feel that i have had
winters, too many heaped cold
and dry as reptiles into my slack skin.
All the poems in The Man Among the Seals begin in the middle of the scene, their spare punctuation—there are as many question marks as commas, no capitalizations—lends them the feel of final dispatches, hastily put to paper before the poet collapses. Especially when he needs the force required to acknowledge love. “[A]nother / poem begins,” Johnson writes in “Upon Waking,” “slumped over // the typewriter i must get this / exactly, i want to make it / clear this morning that your // face, as it opens / from its shadow, is more / perfect than yesterday.”
“More perfect than yesterday” is too flat to be good, but “your face, as it opens from its shadow”… That’s beautiful. Across his career, Johnson was rightly admired for his uncanny imagery. He studied English, but it’s hard not to wonder whether he simply knew some of his technique because of how he saw the world. Even as a teenager, he realized the way a face in sleep or thought, unavailable, does not surface from shadow, but opens. Like a book.
Throughout this volume, first editions so rare now that it’s possible to imagine only his friends have copies, we watch Johnson reorient the world, as if moving from horizontal to vertical. Flip a poem inside out and where once he is the watcher, he becomes the watched. This is not the poetics of inebriation—but the inebriation of poetics.
In his own bent way, Johnson in later poems would move on to describe the moon as “the gigantic yellow warrant / for my arrest”; he heard that harbor-y sound you get near water as “the tiny / agonies of old boats”; he knew a fight between a couple went like this: “The two work their hatred / till it is like a star reduced // to the dimensions of a jewel.”
This is the poetic register of revelation. Is what I see a delirium or a dream? It’s not clear to Johnson’s speakers, their poetic consciousness surfacing amid fatigue, hangovers, and a shame born of self-destruction, “debts nuzzling / at my door.” In many ways, The Man Among the Seals is a book about a man just beginning to register these visions.
And even if he is hounded by a too-young marriage, the self-abuse of an addict, and the indignity of both, his eyes are turned out, regarding—a little—his fellow travelers. His sorrow and solitude do not totally imprison him. He sees a woman “swimming through this wealth / of solitude,” he walks “the freezing, quiet alleys,” he thinks of people like him “in dim, / stifled rooms,” and turns to “the wintry faces of pedestrians” not unlike Pound’s faces in the Paris metro.
“[I] have wondered how much of this / is crazy,” Johnson writes, “and how much is real.”
“I Dreamt a Dream!” William Blake wrote in 1794 in his poem “The Angel.” “[W]hat can it mean?”
And that I was a maiden Queen:
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe, was ne’er beguil’d!
To Blake, born in England in 1757, in an era when the church dealt from a deck primarily of two cards, sin and shame, a guardian angel came to protect innocence, first, and then to console. The joy of this consolation caused the poet to manufacture heartache, to keep the angel close.
Blake wasn’t speaking of friends, though; he had lifelong encounters with angels. He believed in them. At around age 10, he said he saw “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” Upon returning home, as Peter Ackroyd writes in his magisterial biography, Blake was almost beaten by his father for reporting this sighting, but once he became an artist, he refused to stop communing with and painting these angels.
“I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye,” Blake wrote, describing his “Vision of the Last Judgment,” “any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look thro it & not with it.”
For the rest of his life, even when he was being heretical, Blake took pains to describe in his poems and paintings and illuminated manuscripts his interactions with angels. To Blake, they were emissaries, intermediaries between a wrathful, vengeful God and the complex and flawed humankind that he believed Jesus Christ came to redeem.
A political radical, Blake often deployed angels in his work in defense of the weak and the poor. In one of the poems in Songs of Innocence, he depicted a wretched chimney sweep—one of the most dangerous jobs in London at the time, often performed by poor children—being rescued by an angel:
And by came an Angel who had a bright key
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free.
Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Do not let the poem’s alternating end rhymes fool you, in our age of disassembled forms. Blake’s syntax was radical—its associative style and almost-spoken rhythms were precursors to the work of Walt Whitman and Angelina Weld Grimké in the 19th and early 20th centuries, later still Anne Sexton, and Johnson, too. The political statement of being against the idea that only certain people count as full human beings is sadly as relevant as ever.
In an era of religious fervor, when more than half of the United States’ residents identify as Christian, many of them endorsing ideas of fractional humanity that are at the root of this nation’s racism, when a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping tears of blood can send mobs flocking to an obscure Italian town, it may seem beside the point, to put it mildly, to think about the role angels may play in our life today.
If we tilt Blake’s mysticism a bit, though, I think we can begin to see where the genius of Denis Johnson’s poetry lies. Where it picks up from Blake’s example and develops a mysticism of—and respect for—pain. It is a mysticism of pain that the great pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified with characteristic precision:
Pain is a holy angel who shows us treasures that would otherwise remain forever hidden; through him men and women have become greater than through all the joys of the world. It must be so and I tell myself this in my present situation over and over again. The pain of suffering and of longing, which can often be felt even physically, must be there, and we cannot and need not talk it away. But it needs to be overcome every time, and thus there is an even holier angel than the one of pain; that is, the one of joy in God.
Something happened between Denis Johnson’s first and second books. Time passed, seven years since The Man Among the Seals, but there was something else, a sense that his poems were last wills that had evolved into a practice of worship, of searching for grace, of appealing to his better self so he could relinquish his self-pity. In Inner Weather, published in 1976 by Graywolf Press, when that outfit was based on the water in Port Townsend, Washington, Johnson was no longer simply cataloging pain, but beginning to believe it could be survived and looking around him at what redeemed it.
One immediate difference was the observation that even if the suffering of existence was experienced alone, this private clench happened adjacent to everyone else’s. In the poem “Commuting,” Johnson turns a simple ride to work into the tense, provisional, life-and-death trip it often feels like when so much can turn on the acceptance of a job application, a slipup return to a bar, the angle at which the light enters a moving vehicle:
We understand well that we must hold
our lives up in our arms like the victims
of solitary, terrible accidents,
that we must still hold our lives to their promises
and hold ourselves up to our lives
to be sure always they are larger,
wholer, realer than we ourselves, though we
must carry them.
We on this train with our lives in our laps
The snake of Johnson’s lines, with their sudden enjambments—mid-sentence leaps into new stanzas—and unexpected imagery, creates a portent that feels like precariousness. Anyone who has ever become clean and is holding on desperately to dailiness as a mantra knows that within that mantra also lies the abyss. A day is but an assembly of moments, any one of which—not faced head-on—could lead back to oblivion.
The poems in Inner Weather walk a fine line between resilience and submission to this awareness. Their passengers are often just that. Walkers, commuters, airport travelers. Cars, buses, and even the night itself have far more freedom of movement than mere people in Johnson’s poems. “The night is very tall / coming down the street,” he writes in “An Evening with the Evening.” “…The city has an expression / on its face like that of someone hoping // he will not be noticed.”
There is a yoked, sprung poetry unleashed through collectively weathered mundane life. A violence bearable because it is witnessed by others, tolerable because it is not suffered in solitude, even if simple proximity is all that can be asked for. In Johnson’s “Winter,” a group of people stand in the cold outside a bar, clinging to their sanity:
excluded in great
clouds, turning from the wind
and laugh horribly
at the life standing up inside them
with such pain as
loneliness permits, and the weather,
turning to each other
with jokes and lies, with the baggage
and garbage of their humanness as if one
they held it toward would
take it and thank them
is us, all of us, all dragged by the legs upstream
like poor stooges sunk to drowning
for a living.
On Clinton St. the bars explode
with the salt smell of us like the sea, and the tide
of rock and roll music, live
humans floating on it
out over the crimes of the night.
Johnson’s work, like that of some recovering addicts, swings between bars and the churchly, neither canceling the other out, never endorsing a rigid binary of these states of being—holy or ravaged. Maybe it is only by being ravaged that we can imagine what is holy? Inner Weather pulses with this question. Some poems seethe with the violent quietude of a man clinging to routine. “It is simple / to be with the shovel, / thoughtless, inhabited / by this divorce, / it is good,” Johnson writes in “Working Outside at Night,” a poem of such poise and stillness, its ending feels like a blow:
When I return home to
7:45 the lithe
young girls will be going
to high school, pulling
to their mouths stark
These last few months
have been awful, and when
around five the roosters
alone on neighboring
small farms begin
to scream like humans
my heart just lies down,
Poem by poem, Inner Weather begs us to come with Johnson, to not forget him as he refuses to forget others and himself and begins to pray. (One of the poems is, in fact, called a prayer.) In a poem recalling getting fired, “Falling,” Johnson begins, “There is a part / of this poem where you must / say it with me, so / be ready, together we will make / it truthful, as there is gracefulness / even in the motioning of those / leafless trees, even in // such motion as descent.”
This is not churchliness, but something else. Recall Blake and the orbit of his eye. Johnson, too, sees visions. He sees a world on the brink of despair, because he feels it. He lives on that edge. He sways back toward us, asks us to catch him. He does in these poems what a character in his 1983 debut novel, Angels, would do:
He got right down in the dark between heartbeats, and rested there. And then he saw that another one wasn’t going to come. That’s it. That’s the last. He looked at the dark. I would like to take this opportunity, he said, to pray for another human being.
I remember my younger brother using the word angel once. Twenty years after he’d started going to NA meetings, 10 years after he’d had a final breaking down, 5 years after he’d finally become sober, 1 year after my mother had died and he had become homeless, sleeping on ferries, in shelters, in a bus station bathroom in Albany, New York.
“A woman came and left me a blanket in my sleep,” he told me once, writing from a library computer terminal, probably the guy whose stink turned people away. “I think she was an angel.”
He logged off before I could tell him I thought he was the angel, that his suffering—horrible, unnecessary, sometimes impossible to stop—maybe it had brought out what we might call holy in a person, or maybe it simply revealed what has always been there.
If you are like me, an atheist who believes there are things beyond perception, impossible to conceive, a part of you might be shifting in your seat. But it is not possible to read Denis Johnson the poet without addressing his Christianity and how his poems assembled a system of belief in fellow human beings, however abject or decrepit; the more invisible their suffering, the more essential it was to acknowledge. Identifying such people’s pain and honoring it: this was the great project of his novels. Admitting how hard this was to do. In Johnson’s universe, the angel does not descend to protect any of us in these situations. Unlike Blake, Johnson would say we are all fallen, especially the poet—and that is OK, because angels are all around us, in the form of the fallen. The angels are us.
When my younger brother climbed a tree in 1992 because he had seen the face of a demon, my parents—social workers raised in blue-blooded families amid the khaki’d unmysticism of Presbyterian faith and religious cocktail hours—had a powerful, secular diagnostic tool kit to deal with what was happening. They had not smelled the marijuana coming from beneath his door. They had watched the falling angels among my friends with relief that they had raised a house of drug-free children. As white parents, in those Sacramento suburbs, they had not had to attend other children’s funerals, at least not yet, or to tell us how to be safe on the street because simply jogging or walking or sitting down or existing would make us a threat. They would not have been able to identify the difference between a tab of LSD and an errant price tag of a banana. They loved us, but they had other emergencies to manage—those of their clients, many of whom were dying. We, of course, were going to live.
So they called 911. An ambulance and a fire truck drove to our neighborhood, sirens on silent, the first of what would be many visits, the EMTs and fire personnel trained only through experience in how to coax a person in the midst of a psychotic break out of a tree. All this happened while I was nearly 3,000 miles away at college, studying Chaucer and astronomy. I am reassembling now what was told to me down the line of a pay phone in a university dorm. I entered that phone booth as myself, and I emerged as the person I have been ever since: an impersonator of a person who shares my name.
What I can tell you from experience is what it did to me to witness the pain of someone I loved more than air itself. Three weeks after that phone call, my family journeyed to my grandmother’s home upon a scalloped shale-stone beach in upstate New York. I cannot remember what we ate, or whether it snowed, or whether, when I fell asleep, if I was aware, as I had always been, of the constant swallowing sound of the lake’s tiny wavelets along that shale-stone beach. What I do remember as vividly as if it were yesterday is the pale bewilderment that shone from my mother and father, their swollen-faced sleeplessness, the spikes of rage and grief, the strange sound of my little brother—now buried within 30 pounds of himself, courtesy of his medication—laughing at angels only he could see.
I say this now because I want you to know the reasons I struggle with God and redemption—and why Denis Johnson’s alchemy of redemption and suffering in paying homage to the angels all around us means so much to me. But if I am to tell you why these poems mean something, full stop, I need you to understand what I mean by the meaning of pain. Maybe I mean its weight: as in, from that day on I have carried a stone in my pocket, polished from fret and work. On some days it is heavy; on other days it weighs no more than a dime. It is never not there. And if I were to tell you the minerals in that stone, they would include guilt and shame and love. I knew it was nothing more than an accident that I was not also buried in my body like my brother, peering at the world from a fractured mind. To call this awareness guilt only begins to describe what witnessing pain inspires: this flatness—he was lost, I survived—is the guilt of the survivor. Shame gets closer. Shame asks the question over and over. Shame understands there is no answer.
The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems, Johnson’s third collection of poetry, is the last book he published before he began writing fiction. You see in its pages the mind of a writer sliding away from refraction to the power of narrative. Of characterization. “The manager lady of this / apartment dwelling has a face / like a baseball with glasses,” the title poem begins, “and pathetically / repeats herself. The man next door / has a dog with a face that talks / of stupidity to the night.” If Johnson’s poems in general assemble a theology of the fallen, from “The Incognito Lounge” onward, the poems begin to see how moving from room to room, from life to life, illuminates human living—and, by definition, human suffering—like a show. Even in a world of capitalism and purchased identities:
Here at the center of the world
each wonderful store cherishes
in its mind undeflowerable
mannequins in a pale, electric light.
The parking lot is full,
everyone having the same dream
of shopping and shopping
through an afternoon
that changes like a face.
But these shoppers of America—
carrying their hearts towards the bluffs
of the counters like thoughtless purchases,
walking home under the sea,
standing in a dark house at midnight
before the open refrigerator, completely
transformed in the light...
“Completely transformed in the light…” Has there ever been such a potent double assessment of the ennobling power of fiction and the ennobling power of regard? The kind of witnessing that grows in “The Incognito Lounge” is a novelist’s gaze, at once warm and loving, proprietary—these are his people. Out of this camaraderie emerges, for the first time in Johnson’s work as a poet, a mirthless dark humor. And from “Enough”: “Sometimes the closest I get to loving // the others is hating all of us / for drinking coffee in this stationary sadness / where nobody’s dull venereal joking breaks / into words that say it for the last time, / as if we held in the heavens of our arms / not cherishable things, but only the strength / it takes to leave home and then go back again.”
Johnson moved from Port Townsend to his parents’ home in Arizona to get sober in 1978. In 1983, the year after The Incognito Lounge was out, when Angels was published, he quit drugs. There is no sudden sternness in these poems, but a rather Blakean surge in a belief in desire and love—and sheer energy—to be far more than replacements for drugs. In their being everything that can redeem us from our fallen nature, as in “The White Fires of Venus”:
We mourn this senseless planet of regret,
droughts, rust, rain, cadavers
that can’t tell us, but I promise
you one day the white fires
of Venus shall rage: the dead,
feeling that power, shall be lifted, and each
of us will have his resurrected one to tell him,
“Greetings. You will recover
or die. The simple cure
for everything is to destroy
all the stethoscopes that will transmit
silence occasionally. The remedy for loneliness
is in learning to admit
solitude as one admits
the bayonet: gracefully,
now that already
it pierces the heart.
Yes, the associative logic here is profound, even humorous, swinging and enjoying its power. But the visions of Johnson’s poetry in this collection are less splenetic, the forms calmer. Now the poems are often shaped into blocks of text, carved only here and there by steeper enjambments, as if mimicking a greater sense of hold. The effort to keep it together is not overwhelming the result. He was even keenly enough together as a literary persona to chisel out a declaration of purpose, of arrival, in “Now”:
Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson,
and I am almost ready to
confess it is not some awful
misunderstanding that has carried
me here, my arms full of the ghosts
of flowers, to kneel at your feet;
almost ready to see
how at each turning I chose
this way, this place and this verging
of ocean on earth with the horns claiming
I can keep on if only I step
where I cannot breathe.
Amid still and beautiful elegies, terrifying depictions of a house fire, what’s remarkable about The Incognito Lounge is how much it begins to develop the voices of others. One of the book’s longest poems, “The Confession of St. Jim-Ralph,” leaves its author behind—a precursor to one of Johnson’s great deployable skills of disappearing into a character. In this case, that of a Vietnam War veteran who sounds an awful lot like one of the men haunted by that conflict in Johnson’s National Book Award–winning novel, Tree of Smoke. “Brothers,” he writes, as if to them, “I reached you, and you took me in. / You saw me when I was invisible…you thanked me when I was a secret, / and how will I make of myself something / at this hour when I am already made?”
Johnson’s great achievement was to realize that as time tilted on its mysterious axis, the people inside him, the man he had been, the people next to him, fellow travelers and utter strangers—they did not simply vanish. Time did not swallow them the way a lake receives rain. Maybe there would even be a return, if he was attentive: a chance, perhaps, to offer atonement. To do more than simply imagine the pain of another. In his final book, a story collection called The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, he draws from his experience as a hospice volunteer and from caring for a friend dying of liver cancer, which would later take Johnson, too, from this planet. What emerges is a powerful glimpse of the foreverness of death; the need of his characters to define themselves before it through attentiveness to another is vast, powerful, unsentimental.
To read Johnson’s poetry is to witness a writer awakening to possibilities of care within himself by first seeing his own pain, then dedicating himself to being ready for the moments when he might see the arc of time bending back toward him and he could return light to another. “I mean, sure, something’s happening over and over, but what?” one character asks the other in “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” from Johnson’s final book. “Maybe it’s just the breath in and out of our lungs.” Writing, it seems, was not an attempt to find the divine, for Johnson, but a way of turning awareness into a respiratory system so constant it does not need to be activated, called to our attention. To exist, by definition, is for it to be working. Seeing the pain of others. Who can deny its necessity. We all fall upward in the end. Meanwhile, the world is illuminated by people on fire. It is never dark.•
(Note: To protect my friends’ privacy, I refer to them by letter instead of name and have also changed some details about them for this essay.)