here in the electric dusk your naked lover tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her…

The terminal flopped out
around us like a dirty hankie,
surrounded by the future population
of death row in their disguises–high
school truant, bewildered Korean refugee–


Denis Johnson’s poetry outstrips the efforts of all other contemporary American poets to capture in verse the failure of the American dream—indeed, far more than the work of the much more popular and less sophisticated Charles Bukowski. Johnson is the chief verse and prose imaginer of the broken lives and seedy environs of marginalized Americans. At times surreal, often lyrical and occasionally rooted in a discernible narrative, Johnson’s poems—with their death-dealing imagery and arresting metaphors—at times very nearly convince us that we’re witnessing the hidden world of bounced rent cheques and cheap liquor, dead-end jobs and petty crimes… a world shot through with an overwhelming sense of failure and a terrible loneliness that can nothing can assuage…


Happy New Year!



The manager lady of this

apartment dwelling has a face

like a baseball with glasses and pathetically

repeats herself. The man next door

has a dog with a face that talks

of stupidity to the night, the swimming pool

has an empty, empty face.

My neighbor has his underwear on

tonight, standing among the parking spaces

advising his friend never to show

his face around here again.

I go everywhere with my eyes closed and two

eyeballs painted on my face. There is a woman

across the court with no face at all.



They’re perfectly visible this evening,

about as unobtrusive as a storm of meteors,

these questions of happiness

plaguing the world.

My neighbor has sent his child to Utah

to be raised by the relatives of friends.

He’s out on the generous lawn

again, looking like he’s made

out of phosphorus.



The manager lady has just returned

from the nearby graveyard, the last

ceremony for a crushed paramedic.

All day, news helicopters cruised aloft,

going whatwhatwhatwhatwhat.

She pours me some boiled

coffee that tastes like noise,

warning me, once and for all,

to pack up my troubles in an old kit bag

and weep until the stones float away.

How will I ever be able to turn

from the window and feel love for her?—

to see her and stop seeing

this neighborhood, the towns of earth,

these tables at which the saints

sit down to the meal of temptations?




And so on—nap, soup, window,

say a few words into the telephone,

smaller and smaller words.

Some TV or maybe, I don’t know, a brisk

rubber with cards nobody knows

how many there are of.

Couple of miserable gerbils

in a tiny white cage, hysterical

friends rodomontading about goals

as if having them liquefied death.

Maybe invite the lady with no face

over here to explain all these elections:

life. Liberty. Pursuit.



Maybe invite the lady with no face

over here to read my palm,

sit out on the porch here in Arizona

while she touches me.

Last night, some kind

of alarm went off up the street

that nobody responded to.

Small darling, it rang for you.

Everything suffers invisibly,

nothing is possible, in your face.



The center of the world is closed.

The Beehive, the 8-Ball, the Yo-Yo,

the Granite and the Lightning and the Melody.

Only the Incognito Lounge is open.

My neighbor arrives.

They have the television on.


It’s a show about

my neighbor in a loneliness, a light,

walking the hour when every bed is a mouth.

Alleys of dark trash, exhaustion

shaped into residences—and what are the dogs

so sure of that they shout like citizens

driven from their minds in a stadium?

In his fist he holds a note

in his own handwriting,

the same message everyone carries

from place to place in the secret night,

the one that nobody asks you for

when you finally arrive, and the faces

turn to you playing the national anthem

and go blank, that’s

what the show is about, that message.



I was raised up from tiny

childhood in those purple hills,

right slam on the brink of language,

and I claim it’s just as if

you can’t do anything to this moment,
that’s how inextinguishable
it all is. Sunset,
Arizona, everybody waiting
to get arrested, all very
much an honor, I assure you.
Maybe invite the lady with no face
to plead my cause, to get
me off the hook or name
me one good reason.
The air is full of megawatts


and the megawatts are full of silence.

She reaches to the radio like St. Theresa.



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 toward 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…



Every bus ride is like this one,

in the back the same two uniformed boy scouts

de-pantsing a little girl, up front

the woman whose mission is to tell the driver

over and over to shut up.

Maybe you permit yourself to find

it beautiful on this bus as it wafts

like a dirigible toward suburbia

over a continent of saloons,

over the robot desert that now turns

purple and comes slowly through the dust.


This is the moment you’ll seek

the words for over the imitation

and actual wood of successive

tabletops indefatigably,

when you watched a baby child

catch a bee against the tinted glass

and were married to a deep

comprehension and terror.





We work in this building and we are hideous

in the fluorescent light, you know our clothes

woke up this morning and swallowed us like jewels

and ride up and down the elevators, filled with us,

turning and returning like the spray of light that goes

around dance-halls among the dancing fools.

My office smells like a theory, but here one weeps

to see the goodness of the world laid bare

and rising with the government on its lips,

the alphabet congealing in the air

around our heads. But in my belly’s flames

someone is dancing, calling me by many names

that are secret and filled with light and rise

and break, and I see my previous lives.




The terminal flopped out

around us like a dirty hankie,
surrounded by the future population
of death row in their disguises–high
school truant, bewildered Korean refugee–
we complained that bus 18 will never arrive,
when it arrives complain what an injury
is this bus again today, venerable
and destined to stall. When it stalls

at 16th and McDowell most of us get out
to eat ourselves alive in a 24-hour diner
that promises not to carry us beyond
this angry dream of grease and the cries
of spoons, that swears our homes
are invisible and we never lived in them,
that a bus hasn’t passed here in years.
Sometime 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.


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 the sunset,
talking with unmanageable
excitement about the weather.
The sky and huge waters turn
vermilion as the cheap-drink hour ends.
We part with a 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
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.




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?





One of these days under the white

clouds onto the white

lines of the goddamn PED

X-ING I shall be flattened,

and I shall spill my bag of discount

medicines upon the avenue,

and an abruptly materializing bouquet

of bums, retirees, and Mexican

street-gangers will see all what

kinds of diseases are enjoying me

and what kind of underwear and my little

old lady’s legs spidery with veins.

So Mr. Young and Lovely Negro Bus

Driver I care exactly this: zero,

that you see these things

now as I fling my shopping

up by your seat, putting

this left-hand foot way up

on the step so this dress rides up,

grabbing this metal pole like

a beam of silver falling down

from Heaven to my aid, thank-you,

hollering, “Watch det my medicine

one second for me will you dolling,

I’m four feet and det’s a tall bus

you got and it’s hot and I got

every disease they are making

these days, my God, Jesus Christ,

I’m telling you out of my soul.”




The small, high wailing
that envelops us here,
distant, indistinct,

yet, too, immediate,
we take to be only
the utterances of loose fan

belts in the refrigerating
system, or the shocked hum
that issues from the darkness

of telephone receivers;
but it speaks to us
so deeply we think it

may well be the beseeching
of the stars, the shameless
weeping of coyotes

out on the Mohave
Please, stop listening

to this sound, which
is actually the terrible
keening of the ones

whose hearts have been broken
by lives spent in search
of its source,

by our lives of failure,
spent looking everywhere
for someone to say these words.





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.

Living one: you move among many

dancers and don’t know which

you are the shadow of;

you want to kiss your own face in the mirror

but do not approach,

knowing you must not touch one

like that. Living

one, while Venus flares

O set the cereal afire,

O the refrigerator harboring things

that live on into death unchanged."


They know all about us on Andromeda,

they peek at us, they see us

in this world illumined and pasteled

phonily like a bus station,

they are with us when the streets fall down fraught

with laundromats and each of us

closes himself in his small

San Francisco without recourse.

They see you with your face of fingerprints

carrying your instructions in gloved hands

trying to touch things, and know you

for one despairing, trying to touch the curtains,

trying to get your reflection mired in alarm tape

past the window of this then that dark

closed business establishment.

The Andromedans hear your voice like distant amusement park music

converged on by ambulance sirens

and they understand everything.

They’re on your side. They forgive you.


I want to turn for a moment to those my heart loves,

who are as diamonds to the Andromedans,

who shimmer for them, lovely and useless, like diamonds:

namely, those who take their meals at soda fountains,

their expressions lodged among the drugs

and sunglasses, each gazing down too long

into the coffee as though from a ruined balcony.

O Andromedansthey don’t know what to do

with themselves and so they sit there

until they go home where they lie down

until they get up, and you beyond the light years know

that if sleeping is dying, then waking

is birth, and a life

is many lives. I love them because they know how

to manipulate change

in the pockets musically, these whose faces the seasons

never give a kiss, these

who are always courteous to the faces

of presumptions, the presuming streets,

the hotels, the presumption of rain in the streets.

I’m telling you it’s cold inside the body that is not the body,

lonesome behind the face

that is certainly not the face

of the person one meant to become.



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