Why Is The World Like This? Guest Poetry Blog Series # 14 – Part Two – American Poet Christopher Locke Features American Poet Denis Johnson

American poet and novelist Denis Johnson (1949-2017). Photo Credit: Cindy Lee Johnson

Guest Blog Post by Christopher Locke, June 22nd, 2023


The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through these intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always these definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning—her languid flight of hair
traveling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die.

Denis Johnson from The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New, Harper Perennial, 1995

What I write about is really the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking: Why is it like this if there’s supposed to be a God?”—Denis Johnson from A Bookworm’s World, May 8th, 2009

Before American writer Denis Johnson went supernova with his cult classic short story collection Jesus’ Son, and years before his meditation on the Vietnam War, the novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, Johnson was a simple poet blowing his mind out with drugs and alcohol by the age of 19.

Johnson’s father was a State Department employee for the U.S. Government and Johnson had travelled the world throughout his youth, and this restlessness revealed itself in much of his poetry and prose: Johnson wrote and published his first book of poems at age 20 (The Man Among the Seals) in 1969 and went on to produce three subsequent collections of poetry: Inner Weather (1976), The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems (selected for the National Poetry Series, 1982), and The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New (1995).

Denis Johnson was in love with the helplessly dark—the fringe society that echoed danger and desperation as a way of life. But even though he felt a connection with suffering, his poems dichotomized this position by their use of surprising and beautiful images, their existential cries that made hope seem more than myth. You can see this so clearly in “Passengers”, featured above and in this poem below:

Quickly Aging Here


nothing to drink in
the refrigerator but juice from
the pickles come back
long dead, or thin
catsup. i feel i am old

now, though surely i
am young enough? i feel that i have had
winters, too many heaped cold

and dry as reptiles into my slack skin.
i am not the kind to win
and win.
no i am not that kind, i can hear

my wife yelling, “goddamnit, quit
running over,” talking to
the stove, yelling, “i
mean it, just stop,” and i am old and


i wonder about everything: birds
clamber south, your car
kaputs in a blazing, dusty
nowhere, things happen, and constantly you

wish for your slight home, for
your wife’s rusted
voice slamming around the kitchen. so few

of us wonder why
we crowded, as strange,
monstrous bodies, blindly into one
another till the bed

choked, and our range
of impossible maneuvers was gone,
but isn’t it because by dissolving like so
much dust into the sheets we are crowding

south, into the kitchen, into

Denis Johnson, ibid

Johnson erroneously believed in order to write about this hard world required that he live it; he was hospitalized several times for drugs and alcohol dependency and was married three times. Finally achieving sobriety in the 1980s, Johnson went on to produce some of his best and most distinguished work. Yet still, his vision of finding grace and giving voice to the marginalized and the broken remained. Denis Johnson died of liver cancer in 2017 at the age of 67; his poems remain as both testaments to loss and the possibility of life.


The towels rot and disgust me on this damp
peninsula where they invented mist
and drug abuse and taught the light to fade,
where my top-quality and rock-bottom heart
cried because I’ll never get to kiss
your famous knees again in a room made
vague by throwing a scarf over a lamp.
Things get pretty radical in the dark:
the sailboats on the inlet sail away;
the provinces of actuality
crawl on the sea; the dusk now tenderly
ministers to the fallen parking lots—
the sunset instantaneous on the fenders,
memory and peace . . . the grip of chaos . . .

Denis Johnson, ibid

By Christopher Locke, June, 2023

For more biographical details of Johnson’s remarkable life please click here.

One Comment

  1. Posted June 23, 2023 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    Another poet killing himself slowly. I recall John Lent talking about alcohol use among poets and how many were destroyed by their addictions.

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