Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson 1949-2017

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

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