Essay

My Denis Johnson

Adept across genres, Johnson made a lasting contribution to poetry.
Image of the author Denis Johnson.

I was at home trying to write when a friend let me know that Denis Johnson had died. I immediately returned to several pages of his work—pages I’ve recited to myself hundreds of times—and as the words left my lips, I began to cry. Johnson was one of the great writers of his generation, known for his National Book Award–winning Tree of Smoke and the epoch-making story collection Jesus’ Son. But in the wake of his death at 67, I realized I had been coming to terms with this loss for years, perhaps selfishly, because my Denis Johnson is the poet Denis Johnson, who ceased to publish poems more than 20 years ago.

While Johnson was adept across genres, writing plays and searing war reportage in addition to fiction, one finds a distinctive voice in his four short books of poems. He turned away from poetry once his novels began to take off, but his contribution to American poetry is a singular one, echoing through the work of poets as diverse as Bianca Stone, Matt Hart, and Lucie Brock-Broido. Others are very conscious of what they’ve drawn from him. “Lord knows I couldn’t have written without Denis Johnson’s The Incognito Lounge,” Jorie Graham told Smartish Pace, referring to the 1983 volume that Mark Strand selected for the National Poetry Series. Jason Shinder quotes lines from the book verbatim in his Among Women, echoing Johnson’s vulnerable masculinity.

Johnson’s poetry is ranging, accessible, full of bright piques of emotion and poignant characters. My first book, Love the Stranger, is filled with slant homages to Johnson and poems written in conversation with his own—likely because I have memorized more of his verse than that of any other poet. But when I heard about Johnson’s death, what came to mind were his sonnets.

To be clear, Johnson was by no means a formalist. Most of his poems are free verse; whether writing lyric or narrative, he was not one for leaning heavily on literary convention. But in the sonnet, he found a home for both his maverick tendencies and his attachment to tradition: He even made practiced, dedicated use of rhyme. Johnson published 15 sonnets, and each is a crystalline example of what he gave to American letters.

A Denis Johnson sonnet is worth reading for sheer pyrotechnics: watching him build and then maneuver his way through rhyme schemes and a muscular, variable use of iambic pentameter is thrilling in its own right. What’s more, his sonnets spin extremities of human emotion into powerful, intensified moments. Like many of the great masters of the sonnet, he mustered rich rhetoric to make his point and turned the particulars of a romantic profession into a gutting, universal truth that far exceeds the bounds of the love poem. (Take the sonnet “Sway,” which presents the fundamental formula of love: “the story that begins / I did not know who she was / and ends I did not know who she was.” His great innovation, though, was making the sonnet frame a moment of awe that surpasses understanding.

Consider Johnson’s poem “Heat.” This sonnet, published in The Incognito Lounge, wraps an erotic scene with a sudden lyric profession of wonder and fury. It calls upon Johnson’s surprising narrative economy, using only the briefest fragment to evoke an intensified post-coital tableau:

Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.

The sonnet uses a consistent rhyme scheme (built in two sestets with a couplet in the middle), makes pentameter its rhythmic baseline, and employs an overt turn, or volta, to pivot from the first part of the poem to the second. But one signature of Johnson’s sonnet work is that the poem upends its own formal arrangements, subverting and sabotaging them in risky, titillating ways. Once he brings readers in, seducing us with the image of the “naked lover” and rhyming it with an arch, evocative epithet (“Our Lady of Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover”), Johnson begins to tear down his construction. First, we discover that “beautiful Susan” is in fact “streaming with hatred.” Then, at the volta, the speaker breaks out of the descriptive mode, declaring his own fury at the impossibility of human intimacy and desire.

August,
                you’re just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious?

“Are you serious?” is not a question one expects to encounter in a lyric poem. A sonnet’s artifice is usually based on an idea that we don’t question it too closely. (After all, who ever spoke naturally in the sonnet form?) Johnson’s rhetorical question has an almost explosive effect. Suddenly, readers can’t tell whether they should take the poem seriously or if the poem will sustain itself. With characteristic brazenness, Johnson breaks the fourth wall, reaching out to readers as he sabotages the integrity of his construction.

What makes him do this? The poem’s question calls us to strict attention. Just when we might think the poem is about to go on autopilot, painting its erotic scene, Johnson yanks us back. Additionally, this moment of rupture makes the poem’s resolution all the more satisfying. The last four lines employ greater lyricism, devoting themselves to new ways of naming this fertile moment in time—as an “oven,” as “exhaustion mutilated,” and as “the bogus moon,” now turned into an offering. This repeated naming is a more soothing rhetoric than what precedes it, reassuring readers of the wholeness of the poem—and the author’s virtuosity. But it ramifies, and the poem’s crazed questions stay with you long after it has left your lips. By the end, Johnson has broken apart and then saved his creation, like an airshow pilot gamely taking the nosedive for the salvific pleasure when he levels out. It’s an ingenious move that Johnson uses again and again.

Heat” is critical in Johnson’s body of work because it opens the possibilities for what rupture can do to the sonnet. There are certainly those who hobble the sonnet more extremely—I think of Bernadette Mayer and Nick Demske as examples—but none do so with such an adherence to the form’s traditional strictures. Johnson knows when to follow the rules for maximal effect, when to stay within the lines; his careful use of rhyme makes this clear. But his sonnets are energized by the elegant, violent ways they break out of form.

A big part of the joy in reading Johnson is seeing what he gets away with. He has an exceptional ear for the kind of language that warps the poetic line to its breaking point (“The Andromedans hear your voice like distant amusement park music,” from “The White Fires of Venus”) or plays on the boundary between high lyric and conventional speech.

In some cases, the manipulation isn’t quite so loud. “Vespers” paints a scene of dejection, in which the speaker castigates everything from the linens to the weather to the darkening evening air—all “because I’ll never get to kiss / your famous knees again in a room made / vague by throwing a scarf over a lamp.” The poem then lands on the quiet rhetorical detonation at its center:

Things get pretty radical in the dark:
the sailboats on the inlet sail away;
the provinces of actuality
crawl on the sea;

It might not look like much at first blush, but “Things get pretty radical in the dark” is, to my mind, one of the most haunting lines in poetry of the last 50 years. In part that’s because it has a defiantly bland quality (I think of all the poetry teachers who reminded me to avoid words like things), but that’s also what makes it plainspoken and immediate. In addition, radical is a slippery, brilliant word: it’s demotic surfer slang, scientific, and ecclesiastical, all at once. And pairing it with the intensifier pretty shocks the statement into chatty colloquialism, a far remove from the dejected speech of the first seven lines. It feels ethereal too, especially considering what comes next—that casting eye across the scenery, a vision of the end of the day that’s carefully matched to the evening prayers of the poem’s title.

One of Johnson’s gifts is the visionary element in his voice—an almost oracular ability to see the world in toto even as he paints the particulars of an encounter. This is especially on display in his most expansive use of the sonnet, a sequence titled “Sonnets Called ‘On the Sacredness’” from Johnson’s 1987 collection, The Veil. In this poem, composed of four 14-line sections, Johnson presents a scene of American public loneliness in the post-Vietnam era. Within the sonnets, Johnson plays all his roles at once. He is a storyteller; documenter of violence; an open, terrified heart; and a master of the twisted lines that threaten to break the poem apart. And it is here that we can see the full force of Johnson’s contribution to American letters.

The first sonnet in the sequence is Petrarchan in character, with a stanza break between the octave and the sestet. As in “Heat,” Johnson ratchets up the rhetorical energy at the volta by turning to questions: “how many gamblers have broke down // on this highway? How many princesses of ice?” Johnson knows the power of this musical variation, and the questions open a new space for the sonnet to shift focus (painfully, incriminatingly) toward the speaker:

I know I’m suburban, I’ve got a shitty whiskey in my hand,
I work a job like eating a knife …
Everyone’s sperm all over my life,
the sad waiting. Here’s to the simple and endless
desperate person lifting this glass.

Johnson’s fingerprints are omnipresent here. There’s the risky use of the ellipsis, the shock of “sperm” (and “everyone’s” at that) appearing without anticipation, and the final gesture of the toast, which echoes the last lines of “Heat”: “the bogus moon of tenderness and magic / you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light.”

These moves function as an entry-point for the scene that Johnson builds in the following section, beginning with a daring hypothetical:

       If you imagine you’re at the base of a cross coming out of your
chest,
           that its vertical beam is a café

Looking up at the TV in the café, the speaker catches a familiar image: Eddie Adams’s “Saigon Execution” photograph, showing “the Vietnamese man getting a bullet shot into his ear.” As the speaker reacts to the violence and emptiness of the scene, Johnson builds the sonnet to an unexpected culmination:

         I started to cry.
         Susan tried to make
         some gesture, baby
         playing in front of the cobra’s den,
         and it was enough: I was lodged in the moment, we were the
treasure.

This realization comes as a particular surprise. The grand, all-inclusive it ensnares us in a puzzling, human instance. Out of an experience that is bathetic and deeply troubling, Johnson finds the means to connect fundamentally with an expansive, collective we, holding humanity in its beauty and awe through a moment of pain. To have traversed the ground from a bullet in the ear to this enlightened empathy so quickly is a sign of Johnson’s extraordinary abilities—abilities that extend beyond mere mastery of a poetic form to display an exquisite, expansive heart.

This discovery, that being “lodged in the moment” might reveal “the treasure” in itself, undergirds Johnson’s approach to the sonnet overall. The particularities of a sudden instant—facing violence or being alone with a lover—become somehow universal, and the poem carries readers to a moment of “deep comprehension and terror,” as Johnson says at the conclusion of “The Incognito Lounge.” This ineffable understanding stays with us after the poem ends and makes of the sonnet a kind of sacred space where the unspeakable truth lasts in perpetuity.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Johnson sonnet that gives me the most pause. The first three lines of “Passengers” establish its credo:

The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus

This poem appears on the last page of The Incognito Lounge. Johnson grounds it in his characteristic sense of lonely movement, observing an America that tilts toward apocalypse. The sureness and totalizing statement here is the whole game: he creates a universal truth out of a violent, mystifying vision, repeating “always” to augment that sense of eternal return.

always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always these definite jails of light in the sky

This growing, millennial vision of a world ever at the point of cataclysm leads the sonnet in its last six lines to turn inward, suddenly caught by a brief remembered vision:

where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die.

To end a sonnet—much less a book of poems—with a profession of immortality is an act of bravado, a preposterous grandiosity. But the impact of these last words comes from the fact that this “never”-statement follows the three instances of “always” that push the poem forward. Together, these adverbs hold the poem to a profound, eternal instant. Johnson balances the sonnet on the head of a pin.

“Passengers” offers a momentary sublime in a particularly Johnsonian way. When I reread it, I can’t help thinking of Keats’s dedicatory “This living hand, now warm and capable,” which ends with a similarly shocking moment: “see here it is— / I hold it towards you.” In its final line, “Passengers” manages to step outside itself, acknowledging the small eternity within a poetic act. The sonnet is just such a work of artifice, one that can endure long past the lifetime of its maker. Johnson’s sonnets, then, become a strange form of elegy, memorializing not a specific life but the things that a life is made of—electric moments of realization, of the rising and falling of the soul as it is marked by emotional intensities.

If, as Wallace Stevens wrote, the poem is the cry of its occasion, then Johnson makes the sonnet into a monument—not just to his own life or the lives of those he loved but also to the arresting passions and epiphanic instances that stay gorgeously outside speech. Through the sonnet, what Johnson leaves to American letters is an enhanced vision of what a poem can be—prophetic, elastic, drenched in the intensity of its emotion, held out again and again like a cup of light.

Originally Published: August 7th, 2017

Jay Deshpande was born in Austin, Texas, and earned a BA from Harvard University and an MFA from Columbia University. He is the author of Love the Stranger (YesYes Books, 2015). His poetry has appeared in Narrative, Boston Review, Atlas Review, and elsewhere, and his essays and criticism have appeared...