Most of Denis Johnson's fans
discovered him through his 1992
collection of short fiction,
Jesus' Son. His trademark
down & dirty style, paired with
slim, grim stories of
drug-addled 70's drifters drew
critical acclaim, a movie deal,
and a cult following. But before
all that came four novels and at
least two collections of poetry,
the first published in 1969
while Johnson was studying with
Raymond Carver at The University
of Iowa. The pervasive themes of
Denis Johnson's work are all
there in his poems: loneliness,
otherness, and the possibility
of grace in a world gone bad.
But here, the power of his
writing is stripped bare,
revealing an immediate
tenderness that softens the
edges of his fiction.
Raymond Carver once said, "Denis Johnson's poems are driven by a ravening desire to make sense out of the life lived. The subject matter is harrowingly convincing, is nothing less than a close examination of the darker side of human conduct. Why do we act this way? Johnson asks. How should we act?"
There's a sadness about looking back when you get to the end:
a sadness that waits at the end of the street,
a cigarette that glows with the glow of sadness
and a cop in a yellow raincoat who says It's late,
it's late, it's sadness.
And it's a sadness what they've done to the women I loved:
they turned Julie into her own mother, and Ruthe--
and Ruthe I understand has been turned
into a sadness...
And when it comes time
for all of humanity to witness what it's done
and every television is trained on the first people to see God and
we have ignition,
they won't have ignition.
They'll have a music of wet streets
and lonely bars where piano notes
follow themselves into a forest of pity and are lost.
They'll have sadness.
sadness, sadness, sadness.
- Denis Johnson, from The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New by Denis Johnson
This article was originally published in September 2007, and has been updated for the
September 2008 paperback release.
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