Surfing the Truth with Denis Johnson
A film adaptation of "The Stars at Noon" reminds me how much I miss my former teacher, not just his writing but his presence in this broken world.
By Michael Judge
I saw in the news recently that a film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel The Stars at Noon premiered last month at the Cannes Film Festival. My thoughts immediately traveled back to college and my first reading of the novel, a Graham Greene-like story of violence, depravity, and self-deception surrounding an American woman stranded in Central America during the 1984 Nicaraguan Revolution.
My second thought was how much I missed Denis, not just his writing but his presence in this broken world. A little over five years ago, on May 24, 2017, before I saw it in the news, an old friend informed me that Denis, our teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a quarter century ago, had died of liver cancer at his home near Gualala, Calif. He was 67.
I’m glad I heard it from a friend, not some distant tweeter, reporter or obituary writer. I thought of Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”:
Follow, poet, follow right To the bottom of the night, With your unconstraining voice Still persuade us to rejoice; With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse, Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress . . .
Denis’s subject was unsuccess. The characters in his 20-some books — novels, novellas, short stories, plays and poems — were punks and drug addicts, death-row inmates, lost soldiers, CIA agents and assassinated priests. From his early collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son, to his last novel, The Laughing Monsters, Denis sang in a rapture of distress, joy, guilt, shame, wonder — for the men who wage war on each other and themselves; the women who raise, love, suffer or abandon them.
But it was his poetry from his first books, The Man Among the Seals and The Incognito Lounge, that mesmerized me and so many students of poetry back in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s hard to overemphasize what an immense influence he was on young poets and writers back then.
Think of a theologian longing to meet the writers of the Book of Psalms. And when he does, it turns out it’s just one guy — an ex-heroin addict with a soft voice and gentle manner who doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke but loves downing bottles of Dr. Pepper one after the other and talking about the things that matter in this world: love, faith, hope, hopelessness.
The first time I really talked to Denis, during a one-on-one conference in his tiny office in the University of Iowa’s English and Philosophy Building, a hideous brick building on the Iowa River that one writer described as resembling a “stack of coffins,” he started out with a question:
“Have you ever killed a man?”
I was 25 and answered, “No, not that I’m aware of.”
Denis responded, “I think I may have. I was on a construction crew and we were working on the roof of a twelve-story building. I called out some guy’s name and distracted him. He fell to his death.”
He said this with a hollowness in his voice. As if he was far away and wanted me to shout “It’s not your fault” or “That didn’t happen.” I have no idea whether it was true or not, and I’m not sure it matters. Denis used language to pick the world around us apart, to uncover higher truths along with the lies we tell ourselves.
“His language was always precise, floating from mind to fingers to page like a Coltrane solo — grounded in this world but reaching inward and upward . . . for what? Redemption? Forgiveness? A way to live on this earth, alone among its shambles, with some semblance of grace?Another way of putting it might be: Words led him wherever they wanted to go, whenever they wanted to.”
That’s not to say he wasn’t in control. His language was always precise, floating from mind to fingers to page like a Coltrane solo — grounded in this world but reaching inward and upward . . . for what? Redemption? Forgiveness? A way to live on this earth, alone among its shambles, with some semblance of grace?
In his early poem, “The White Fires of Venus,” he explodes into a Revelations-like verse that leaves a sliver of hope for redemption:
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. . . .”
In Denis’s first novel, Angels, Bill Houston, an ex-Navy man and ex-con who winds up on death row, holds a Bic lighter upside down and tells the woman he’s trying to love: “The gas wants to go up . . . but then it has to go down before it can go up. It don’t know what to do.” As in response, the lighter explodes, tearing up his hand and bloodying the two of them.
This desire to rise while being pulled downward toward the things of this world, this need to watch the flame struggle for direction, this speaks to who Denis was, and lies, I believe, at the center of his work.
Years ago, he entered our lives. His words changed us. He came to our parties, sipped his Dr. Pepper, and watched us get deliriously drunk — on booze, poetry, his presence. I took his Whitman seminar, which consisted of about 12 students taking turns reading “Song of Myself.” Denis had us form a horseshoe with our desks so we could all see each other’s faces and hear Whitman’s words resurrected. Inevitably, hearing Whitman come alive in the voices of young poets, Denis would tear up, and say — in a voice overcome with wonder and emotion — “That’s enough. Let’s end it there.”
A classmate, the British poet Martin Corless-Smith, who now directs the creative writing program at Boise State University, said of Whitman’s soaring, fully American verse: “It’s as if he’s surfing the truth.”
The same could be said of Denis . . . and all the work he’s left us.
But it was Denis's big heart, and his capacity for and reliance on love—for the world and the words he used to describe it—that really set him apart as a teacher, a writer and a man. He really was, as a traveling salesman in his early short story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” exclaimed, “Gifted with love.”
One spring at the Workshop someone had the bright idea of having a “Seminar on Love.” About 80 young writers crowded into an ugly brick-walled conference room where Denis, Jorie Graham, Gerald Stern, and possibly a few other poets I can’t recall, read a favorite love poem and we discussed why this overwhelming emotion was so central to all poetry in all places, even in the bleakest times.
One particularly angular young man from the East Coast—a member of the “black turtleneck crowd,” as I and my fellow Midwestern writers liked to call them—interrupted Denis when he was talking about the great love he had for his wife, Cindy, and how he couldn’t imagine living in this world without her.
“But what if you had to live in this world without her?” the student asked. “What if she died and you were left in this world without her? What would become of your love then?”
To this, Denis—a truly gentle man whom the poet James Galvin has rightly described as “an innocent in the Blakeian sense”—nearly broke down. Tears pooled in his eyes and his body shook out these words: “Fuck you. Fuck you for even asking that. Fuck you for saying those things out loud. And fuck you for making me, however briefly, imagine her not in this world.”
For an instant we all feared Denis would rise from behind the table and kick the young man out of his chair, physically teaching him the lesson he deserved. But he didn’t. He wiped the tears from his face in silence, and, eventually, continued.
Thinking of Denis that day, his rage and broken-heartedness at even the notion of outliving his love, I’m reminded of a later, short poem of his that, like all his poetry, betrays an immense affection for the world—despite its wars, calamities, and arrogant, insensitive questions posed by arrogant, insensitive people:
The Heavens From mind to mind, I am acquainted with the struggles of these stars. The very same chemistry wages itself minutely in my person. It is all one intolerable war. I don’t care if we’re fugitives, we are ceaselessly exalted, rising like the drowned out of our shirts.