A few years ago Christopher Kennedy introduced me to Denis Johnson’s poems in a graduate class at Syracuse, and I felt a connection with his work, not just on technical terms (like the way his sentences side-wind across the breaks), but with his griefed-out tone and the remove he’s able to toggle despite being in the middle of things.
Johnson’s famous for his fiction and non-fiction, but his third collection of poems, The Incognito Lounge, definitely holds its fair share of good, if not great, poems. My three favorite from the book are probably “Night,” “Now,” and “In a Light of Other Lives,” though almost every poem in the collection’s worth reading (which, as readers of poetry know, is rare). I’m gonna take a quick look at the poem, “Night,” because it’s stuck with me for years, and I’m fascinated by the way he’s able to render a moment, achieve verisimilitude, and leave me bowled over at the end, almost as desperate with my questions as the voice in the poem seemingly is with his. Here’s a recording of me reading the poem + the poem to follow along–(sorry if the recording is a little fast…I’m new to all this):
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 up
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
these things it now seems
I might have done
to have prevented his miserable
life. I am desolate.
What is happening to me.
I usually talk about poems chronologically, but I’m so floored by this ending that I want to start there. I didn’t know how to read the end at first–I’m not going to lie…lil bit slow sometimes–because the period instead of the question mark confused me. It just seemed more like a statement than a question. But then Chris Kennedy was gracious enough to explain how Johnson’s using that moment to effectively say “this is what ‘what’ is…and it’s happening to me.” The poem’s realization is chilling.
Back to the beginning: our speaker situates us clearly. We know we’re out looking on the waters during happy hour getting drunk with a total stranger. Johnson’s able to capture the weird atmosphere of the moment: the cheap-drink hour ending and night coming on, the ferry boats in between worlds, our speaker leaving the lounge-singer and going outside to talk to the moon. I can’t lie. I’m a little jealous. Anyone who can get away with a sentence like “I am desolate.” in a poem (and in the penultimate line no less!) earns not just my respect but a little of envy too. The mastery here though is how all the little details in the poem–hell the occasion of the poem–lead us to this feeling of desolation.
Another reason to admire this poem (that Chris Kennedy pointed out) is how it skillfully walks the tightrope of vulnerability without teetering over toward self-pity. Our speaker flat-out tells us he’s desolate, and somehow I don’t feel like he’s trying to drum up my sympathy. And if we weren’t sold, then he kills us with that last line–the unexpectedness of it, the way it seems to answer the why-did-this-story-happen-today question often see asked of short stories. Tonight’s the night our speaker, knee-deep in his drunk, comes to see his life with starling clarity.
One note: for years I was a little confused about the “he” at the end of the poem–whether the speaker’s referring back to the lounge-singer from earlier or the moon. It doesn’t make sense that the moon would be moving it’s mouth, but it also doesn’t make sense that someone he just walked away from would still be speaking to him. The way I read it: our speaker is drunk, and just at the moment where the surreal leans in, we reach a heightened state not only of awareness, but in that awareness, fright. Our speaker uses the moon to project his own words back at himself. It’s not the moon with the miserable life. And even if it is, why’s our speaker responsible for it?
Johnson’s ability to pinpoint, with such beautiful phrasings, the emotional center of this poem astounds me. Not only can we understand the situation, but we can understand how the speaker feels without even really knowing what’s what. When you find out, you might rather you hadn’t.