Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson 1949-2017

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fear

We were afraid of everything: earthquakes,
strangers, smoke above the canyon, the fire
that would come running and eat up our house,
the Claymore girls, big-boned, rough, razor blades
tucked in their ratted hair. We were terrified

of polio, tuberculosis, being found out, the tent
full of boys two blocks over, the kick ball, the asphalt,
the pain-filled rocks, the glass-littered canyon, the deep
cave gouged in its side, the wheelbarrow crammed
with dirty magazines, beer cans, spit-laced butts.

We were afraid of hands, screen doors slammed
by angry mothers, abandoned cars, their slumped
back seats, the chain-link fence we couldn't climb
fast enough, electrical storms, blackouts, girlfights
behind the pancake house, Original Sin, sidewalk
cracks and the corner crematorium, loose brakes
on the handlebars of our bikes. It came alive

behind our eyes: ant mounds, wasp nests, the bird
half-eaten on the scratchy grass, chained dogs,
the boggy creekbed, the sewer main that fed it,
the game where you had to hold your breath
until you passed out. We were afraid of being

poor, dumb, yelled at, ignored, invisible
as the nuclear dust we were told to wipe from lids
before we opened them in the kitchen,
the fat roll of meat that slid into the pot, sleep,
dreams, the soundless swing of the father's
ringed fist, the mother's face turned away, the wet
bed, anything red, the slow leak, the stain
on the driveway, oily gears
soaking in a shallow pan, busted chairs stuffed
in the rafters of the neighbor's garage, the Chevy's
twisted undersides jacked up on blocks, wrenches
left scattered in the dirt.

It was what we knew best, understood least,
it whipped through our bodies like fire or sleet.
We were lured by the Dumpster behind the liquor store,
fissures in the baked earth, the smell of singed hair,
the brassy hum of high-tension towers, train tracks,
buzzards over a ditch, black widows, the cat
with one eye, the red spot on the back of the skirt,
the fallout shelter's metal door hinged to the rusty
grass, the back way, the wrong path, the night's
wide back, the coiled bedsprings of the sister's
top bunk, the wheezing, the cousin in the next room
tapping on the wall, anything small.

We were afraid of clothesline, curtain rods, the worn
hairbrush, the good-for-nothings we were about to become,
reform school, the long ride to the ocean on the bus,
the man at the back of the bus, the underpass.

We were afraid of fingers of pickleweed crawling
over the embankment, the French Kiss, the profound
silence of dead fish, burning sand, rotting elastic
in the waistbands of our underpants, jellyfish, riptides,
eucalyptus bark unraveling, the pink flesh beneath,
the stink of seaweed, seagulls landing near our feet,
their hateful eyes, their orange-tipped beaks stabbing
the sand, the crumbling edge of the continent we stood on,
waiting to be saved, the endless, wind-driven waves.

Dorianne Laux

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

Excerpt from "Tamalpais Walking" by Gary Snyder

"inch by inch, little snail climb Mt Fuji" —Issa

—and this is how you go to the top of any mountain, or around any mountain, or on any
long road—to get to a good camp by dark, and lay this body down for a rest. But
that’s not exactly the destination. We don’t play music to get to the end of it. Or
make love to go to sleep (I hope). Or meditate and study to become enlightened.
Realization or somesuch might come along, but suppose it doesn’t? So what? Basho
said, “The journey is home.” Before venturing off trail, we need to learn to follow
the path.

Back in 1948 off the trail, taking Mount Tamalpais’s lessons in grateful blessed
ignorance, not really looking at the landscape but totally aware of being beside my
(teenage) lady, walking almost in harmony but different, talking, glancing, hoping;
taking the easiest way through the chaparral like a pair of little god and goddess
critters, our souls as big as the sky; did we make up that great space, or did it make
us up?

May we all find the Bay Mountain that gives us a crystal moment of being and a breath of
the sky, and only asks us to hold the whole world dear."

Gary Snyder

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