Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson 1949-2017

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Washing The Elephant

Isn’t it always the heart that wants to wash
the elephant, begging the body to do it
with soap and water, a ladder, hands,
in tree shade big enough for the vast savannas
of your sadness, the strangler fig of your guilt,
the cratered full moon’s light fuelling
the windy spooling memory of elephant?

What if Father Quinn had said, “Of course you’ll recognize
your parents in Heaven,” instead of
“Being one with God will make your mother and father
pointless.” That was back when I was young enough
to love them absolutely though still fear for their place
in Heaven, imagining their souls like sponges full
of something resembling street water after rain.

Still my mother sent me every Saturday to confess,
to wring the sins out of my small baffled soul, and I made up lies
about lying, disobeying, chewing gum in church, to offer them
as carefully as I handed over the knotted handkerchief of coins
to the grocer when my mother sent me for a loaf of Wonder,
Land of Lakes, and two Camels.

If guilt is the damage of childhood, then eros is the fall of adolescence.
Or the fall begins there, and never ends, desire after desire parading
through a lifetime like the Ringling Brothers elephants
made to walk through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel
and down Thirty-fourth Street to the Garden.
So much of our desire like their bulky, shadowy walking
after midnight, exiled from the wild and destined
for a circus with its tawdry gaudiness, its unspoken pathos.

It takes more than half a century to figure out who they were,
the few real loves-of-your-life, and how much of the rest—
the mad breaking-heart stickiness—falls away, slowly,
unnoticed, the way you lose your taste for things
like popsicles unthinkingly.
And though dailiness may have no place
for the ones who have etched themselves in the laugh lines
and frown lines on the face that’s harder and harder
to claim as your own, often one love-of-your-life
will appear in a dream, arriving
with the weight and certitude of an elephant,
and it’s always the heart that wants to go out and wash
the huge mysteriousness of what they meant, those memories
that have only memories to feed them, and only you to keep them clean.

Barbara Ras

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Oh Wind

Oh wind I see you how you sway
to the left and the right.
You always make me sleep.
Oh wind you always make me dance.
Your music is so beautiful
you sometimes make me laugh.
Your sways make me sway.

Micah Bernard (Age 8)

*********************

Lighting one candle
with another candle—
spring evening.

Yosa Buson

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

For My Niece Sidney, Age Six

Did you know that boiling to death
was once a common punishment
in England and parts of Europe?
It's true. In 1542 Margaret Davy,
a servant, was boiled for poisoning
her employer. So says the encyclopedia.
That's the way I like to start my day:
drinking hot black coffee and reading
the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Its pages are tissue thin and the covers
rub off on your hands in dirt colored
crumbs (the kind a rubber eraser
makes) but the prose voice is all knowing
and incurably sure of itself. My 1956
World Book runs to 18 volumes and has red
pebbly covers. It begins at "Aardvark"
and ends with "Zygote." I used to believe
you could learn everything you'd ever
need by reading encyclopedias. Who
was EB Browning? How many Buddhists
in Burma? What is Byzantine art? Where
do bluebells grow? These days, I own five
sets of encyclopedias from various
eras. None of them ever breathed
a word about the fact that this humming,
aromatic, acid flashback, pungent, tingly-
fingered world is acted out differently
for each one of us by the puppet theatre
of our senses. Some of us grow up doing
credible impressions of model citizens
(though sooner or later hairline
cracks appear in our facades). The rest
get dubbed eccentrics, unnerved and undone
by other people's company, for which we
nevertheless pine. Curses, outbursts
and distracting chants simmer all day
long in the crock-pots of our heads.
Encyclopedias contain no helpful entries
on conducting life's business while the ruckus
in your skull keeps competing for your
attention; or on the tyranny of the word
normal --its merciless sway over those
of us bedeviled and obsessed,
hopeless at school dances, repelled by
mothers' suffocating hugs, yet entranced
by foul smelling chemistry experiments,
or eager to pass sleepless nights seeking
rhymes for misspent and grimace.
Dear girl, your jolly blond one year old
brother, who adults adore, fits into
the happy category of souls mostly at home
in the world. He tosses a fully clothed doll
into the inflatable wading pool in your
backyard (splash!) and laughs maniacally
at his own comic genius. You sit alone,
twenty feet from everyone else, on a stone
bench under a commodious oak, reading aloud,
gripping your book like the steering wheel
of a race car you're learning to drive.
Complaints about you are already filtering
in. You're not big on eye contact or smiling.
You prefer to play by yourself. You pitch fits.
Last week you refused to cut out and paste
paper shapes with the rest of the kids.
You told the kindergarten teacher you were
going to howl like a wolf instead, which you did
till they hauled you off to the principal's
office. Ah, the undomesticated smell
of open rebellion! Your troublesome legacy,
and maybe part of your charm, is to shine
too hotly and brightly at times, to be lost
in the maze of your sensations, to have
trouble switching gears, to be socially
clueless, to love books as living things,
and therefore to be much alone. If you like,
when I die, I'll leave you my encyclopedias.
They're wonderful company. Watching you
read aloud in your father's garden, as if
declaiming a sermon for hedges, I recall
reading about Martin Luther this morning.
A religious reformer born in 1483, he nailed
his grievances, all 95 of them, to a German
church door. Fiery, impossible, untamable
girl, I bet you too post your grievances
in a prominent place someday. Anyway,
back to boiling. The encyclopedia says
the worst offenders were "boiled without
benefit of clergy" which I guess means
they were denied the right to speak
to a priest before being lowered into scalding
water and cooked like beets. Martin Luther
believed we human beings contain the "inpoured
grace of god," as though grace were lemonade,
and we are tumblers brim full of it. Is grace
what we hold in without spilling a drop,
or is it an outflooding, a gush of messy
befuddling loves? The encyclopedia never
explains why Margaret Davy poisoned her employer,
what harm he might have done her or whether
she dripped the fatal liquid on his pudding or sloshed
it into his sherry. Grievances and disagreements:
can they lead the way to grace? If our thoughts
and feelings were soup or stew, would they taste
of bile when we're defeated and be flavored
faintly with grace on better days? I await the time
and place when you can tell me, little butter pear,
screeching monkey mind, wolf cub, curious furrow
browed mammal what you think of all this.
Till then, your bookish old aunt sends you this missive,
a fumbling word of encouragement, a cockeyed letter
of welcome to the hallowed ranks of the nerds,
nailed up nowhere, and never sent, this written kiss.

Amy Gerstler

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In Early Spring

The fields were still matted,
and dirty snow huddled
in patches, but the swing
of the earth had taken place

and it tilted toward the sun’s
warmth that heated up
the back of my neck.
When I passed the horse

I pass every day on my walk,
it whinnied and tossed
its head back and forth –
perhaps a touch of sun

worship in him
or the need to shake off
months of cold, or maybe
to shake me from myself –

and for once it had
my undivided attention,
and it bent its long neck down
to a ball and ran, its head

moving the ball left then
right with the deft touch
of a soccer player. Again
and again, it cut and drove

the ball from one end
of its ring to the other,
Spring’s energy moving
through its body, flanks

and hooves taking form,
its tail and mane becoming
the single unbroken line
of a prehistoric horse

drawn on the muscled stone
of a cave wall. Standing there,
the soft animal of my body
roused itself, and I began to run –

not far and downhill mostly –
toward the pond where, bent over,
chest heaving, I stopped
to laugh at myself and catch

my breath. Six geese
skidded in, a towhee
and then a redwing blackbird
called out, and the light

on the water quickened
in a breeze, each thing
shaping itself to the shape
of the minute, the month,

the season, the turning earth.

Robert Cording