denis johnson

2 posts

Denis Johnson Incognito


Death is the ultimate form of going incognito and Denis Johnson, the author of The Incognito Lounge, died and left his legacy in May of 2017.

Johnson was a writer equally at home in poetry, short stories, novels, and plays. A down-and-outer who struggled with alcohol and drug abuse issues in his lifetime, he started with poetry but is probably best known for the short stories collected in Jesus’ Son. Read it and you will quickly see both the poetic lineage in is prose and his debt to Raymond Carver, who he studied under while earning his (what else?) MFA at (where else?) the University of Iowa.

For whatever reason, when a writer of note dies, there’s renewed interest in his or her work. I still have Jesus’ Son on my shelf and reread some of the stories, including the magnificent opener “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which depicts one of the more surreal car accidents you’ll ever read about, but I also wanted to check out his poetry, remembering how richly rewarded I felt when I read short-story master Raymond Carver’s collection, All of Us.

Here, in honor of his life and his art, are a few of Johnson’s efforts, both from The Incognito Lounge and both included on’s website:

“Surreptitious Kissing” by Denis Johnson

I want to say that
forgiveness keeps on

dividing, that hope
gives issue to hope,

and more, but of course I
am saying what is

said when in this dark
hallway one encounters

you, and paws and
assaults you—love

affairs, fast lies—and you
say it back and we

blunder deeper, as would
any pair of loosed

marionettes, any couple
of cadavers cut lately

from the scaffold,
in the secluded hallways

of whatever is
holding us up now.

The Incognito Lounge was part of the National Poetry Series edited by Mark Strand. Here is another signature poem that reflects the world Johnson brought art and sympathy to, a poem that includes the memorable “Our Lady of Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,” a Catholic saint of some renown. I hope, after reading it, you check out at least one of Johnson’s works. I will be reading one of his earliest novels, Angels.:

“Heat” by Denis Johnson

Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It’s beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,
streaming with hatred in the heat
as the record falls and the snake-band chords begin
to break like terrible news from the Rolling Stones,
and such a last light—full of spheres and zones.
         you’re just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious?—this large oven impersonating night,
this exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion,
the bogus moon of tenderness and magic
you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light?

Ah, the Writer’s Life!


Reading Denis Johnson’s farewell story collection, Largesse of the Sea Maiden, last night, I came across this paragraph — in the short story “Triumph Over the Grave” (editor’s note: If only!) — about the writer’s life. Well, a fictional writer’s life, but you see what matches and what doesn’t:

“Writing. It’s easy work. The equipment isn’t expensive, and you can pursue this occupation anywhere. You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape. You don’t have to be high-functioning or even, for the most part, functioning at all. If I could drink liquor without being drunk all the time, I’d certainly drink enough to be drunk half the time, and production wouldn’t suffer. Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”


“Writing. It’s easy work.” (See “Irony” in your handbooks.)

Equipment inexpensive, pursue occupation anywhere. (See “True comma that.”)

“You… mess around the house in your pajamas.” (See “If you’re still 12, maybe.”)

“…listening to jazz recordings” (See “Jukebox selections may vary and DO….”)

“…and sipping coffee” (See “Amen!” and “Awomen!” to that!)

“If you could drink liquor without being drunk…” (See “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the Judy Garland Wing)

“…nothing lasts forever” (See the Buddha nodding sagely — the only way he can.)

“Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page…” (Or squire, or knight… no, just kidding. This is another way of saying “Write what you know,” but you can write what you don’t know just as easily.)

“…clouds can descend, take you up…” (See “Ali comma Baba” in carpeting on the mezzanine.)

I don’t know about you, but I like reading about reading, and I like reading about writing, so a final tip of the hat to Denis. Thanks for the memories, kid. You knew your way around a sentence. A paragraph, too. What more could a writer — or reader — ask for?