March: and I think of a long ago other-March, in the course of which I heard for the first time the phrase “just like Jesus’ son.” The setting, a “rec room” in a friend’s house. I think I was 13. I know I was in love with his, my friend’s, older sister, P –. At 17, beautiful, distant, dazed supplier of our marijuana and tutor in the ways and bylaws of cool; many-bracelet-ed, bearer always of the scent of, yes, patchouli, possessor of a hundred plasticized Buddha’s. A figure as memorable to me now as she was utterly out of reach then. But, my smitten-ness aside, I think it was her role as musical guide that remains her truest legacy. And among her lessons that day, was the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” – which — here comes my point — includes the above-noted simile, and, truncated, serves as the name of the book that remains on my desk so many winters later –. Dennis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son. And for segue: Plume contributor Max Weber’s introduction of this month’s “secret poem” – Mr. Johnson’s “The Incognito Lounge,” below. You follow? I thought not. In any case, here you go – enjoy.
Max Weber on Dennis Johnson’s “The Incognito Lounge”
I could have written about a lot of poems.
What strikes me first about this one, and stays with me, is the humor of it. Humor runs throughout Johnson’s work, but it’s a kind of humor you have to be in a certain state of mind to appreciate: abstracted, alienated, somehow filtering out all that might make life logical. You might not always find the idea of a person with a face like a baseball funny, but if you’re me, it would be funny 90 percent of the time. The poem never really loses the outlandishness of its opening but it shifts. The outlandishness the speaker describes stems from being downtrodden, from living in a despondent community; notice the faintly derogatory word “lady” Johnson uses for one neighbor, juxtaposed against the word “woman” for a neighbor who has no face. The speaker is mired in an ooze of tormented memories combined with economic woes combined with psychic sickness, and yet he has the strength to reach out and wonder how he could show love for the woman with no face. The whole poem is a similar stretch, a reach across the uneven terrain of American life, and yet it is a stretch done slowly. When we reach the center of the poem, after a lonely address to a neighbor that could be an address to the human race—“everything suffers invisibly,/nothing is possible, in your face”—we learn what we have suspected from the outset: “The center of the world is closed.” We’re now in a bar, where customers can watch themselves on TV if they wish, and it is only the center of the world insofar as it is the center of American daily activity: shopping, driving, parking, despairing. We move through space in the poem, but by its rules, we are really enacting a shift in emotional position toward the present moment. Somehow, we end up on a bus, ostensibly going home, wherever that is, and in the image of a child capturing a bee in its hand, we learn about the two crucial emotions that have been driving the poem all along: “comprehension and terror.” Comprehension of the true nature of one’s surroundings, and terror at the thought that unless you do something, you might never transcend them, and the bee in your hand might sting you over and over again.
The Incognito Lounge
The manager lady of this
apartment dwelling has a face
like a baseball with glasses and pathetically
repeats herself. The man next door
has a dog with a face that talks
of stupidity to the night, the swimming pool
has an empty, empty face.
My neighbor has his underwear on
tonight, standing among the parking spaces
advising his friend never to show
his face around here again.
I go everywhere with my eyes closed and two
eyeballs painted on my face. There is a woman
across the court with no face at all.
✶ ✶ ✶
They’re perfectly visible this evening,
about as unobtrusive as a storm of meteors,
these questions of happiness plaguing the world.
My neighbor has sent his child to Utah
to be raised by the relatives of friends.
He’s out on the generous lawn
again, looking like he’s made out of phosphorus.
✶ ✶ ✶
The manager lady has just returned
from the nearby graveyard, the last
ceremony for a crushed paramedic.
All day, news helicopters cruised aloft
She pours me some boiled
coffee that tastes like noise,
warning me, once and for all,
to pack up my troubles in an old kit bag
and weep until the stones float away.
How will I ever be able to turn
from the window and feel love for her?—
to see her and stop seeing
this neighborhood, the towns of earth,
these tables at which the saints
sit down to the meal of temptations?
✶ ✶ ✶
And so on—nap, soup, window,
say a few words into the telephone,
smaller and smaller words.
Some TV or maybe, I don’t know, a brisk
rubber with cards nobody knows
how many there are of.
Couple of miserable gerbil
in a tiny, white cage, hysterical
friends rodomontading about goals
as if having them liquefied death.
Maybe invite the lady with no face
over here to explain all these elections:
life. Liberty. Pursuit.
✶ ✶ ✶
Maybe invite the lady with no face
over here to read my palm,
sit out on the porch here in Arizona
while she touches me.
Last night, some kind
of alarm went off up the street
that nobody responded to.
Small darling, it rang for you.
Everything suffers invisibly,
nothing is possible, in your face.
✶ ✶ ✶
The center of the world is closed.
The Beehive, the 8-Ball, the Yo-Yo,
the Granite and the Lightning and the Melody.
Only the Incognito Lounge is open.
My neighbor arrives.
They have the television on.
It’s a show about
my neighbor in a loneliness, a light,
walking the hour when every bed is a mouth.
Alleys of dark trash, exhaustion
shaped into residences—and what are the dogs
so sure of that they shout like citizens
driven from their minds in a stadium?
In his fist he holds a note
in his own handwriting,
the same message everyone carries
from place to place in the secret night,
the one that nobody asks you for
when you finally arrive, and the faces
turn to you playing the national anthem
and go blank, that’s
what the show is about, that message.
✶ ✶ ✶
I was raised up from tiny
childhood in those purple hills,
right slam on the brink of language,
and I claim it’s just as if
you can’t do anything to this moment,
that’s how inextinguishable
it all is. Sunset,
Arizona, everybody waiting
to get arrested, all very
much an honor, I assure you.
Maybe invite the lady with no face
to plead my cause, to get
me off the hook or name
me one good reason.
The air is full of megawatts
and the megawatts are full of silence.
She reaches to the radio like St. Theresa.
✶ ✶ ✶
Here at the center of the world
each wonderful store cherishes
in its mind undeflowerable
mannequins in a pale, electric light.
The parking lot is full,
everyone having the same dream
of shopping and shopping
through an afternoon
that changes like a face.
But these shoppers of America—
carrying their hearts toward the bluffs
of the counters like thoughtless purchases,
walking home under the sea,
standing in a dark house at midnight
before the open refrigerator, completely
transformed in the light…
✶ ✶ ✶
Every bus ride is like this one,
in the back the same two uniformed boy scouts
de-pantsing a little girl, up front
the woman whose mission is to tell the driver
over and over to shut up.
Maybe you permit yourself to find
it beautiful on this bus as it wafts
like a dirigible toward suburbia
over a continent of saloons,
over the robot desert that now turns
purple and comes slowly through the dust.
This is the moment you’ll seek
the words for over the imitation
and actual wood of successive
when you watched a baby child
catch a bee against the tinted glass
and were married to a deep
comprehension and terror.
Every bus ride is like this one, in the back the same two uniformed boy scouts de-pantsing a little girl, up front the woman whose mission is to tell the driver over and over to shut up.
A poem from which one can’t look away, no?
Max Winter is the author of The Pictures (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and Walking Among Them (Subpress). His reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and other publications. He co-edits the press Solid Objects and is one of the poetry editors of Fence. His illustrations have appeared in The Rumpus, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.
Poet, playwright and author Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany in 1949 and was raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington. He holds a masters’ degree from the University of Iowa and has received many awards including a Lannan Fellowship in Fiction in (1993), a Whiting Writer’s Award (1986) and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review for Train Dreams. He is best known for his collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son.
His first published writing was a collection of poetry, The Man Among The Seals, published in 1969 when he was 20 years old and enrolled at the University of Iowa, where he was mentored by Raymond Carver. At 21 he was first admitted to a psychiatry ward for alcohol addiction, having started a lengthy love affair with substance abuse at the age of 14 while living in the Philippines, where his father, a State Department employee, was stationed. This was followed by seven or eight years of on and off drug abuse and, often, homelessness. While struggling to get sober in 1978 Johnson says he had “a strong experience of the presence of God” in Phoenix, which he describes as “no talking” and “kind of blue”. A number of passages in Jesus’ Son appear to be based on this experience. The same year he started work on a novel that he had begun in college; Angels was published in 1983 and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. Between 1982 and 1986 he produced two books of poetry and three novels.
In 1988 he was in the Philippines, researching an article for Esquire. However, he came down with malaria and, on his return, felt too wrecked to finish the piece; added to which, his second wife was divorcing him so he had no place to stay. Recovering in a friend’s house near Mendocino he sent his agent a batch of stark, semi-autobiographical sketches that he’d written during his days as an addict, not expecting them to be published. However, Johnson’s former editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, had just taken over as editor of The New Yorker and, in Johnson’s words, “was ready to make some changes in the magazine, so he thought it’d be a laugh to publish some of these vulgar stories.” The New Yorker bought four of the stories and The Paris Review and Esquire bought a few others. Still, Johnson didn’t think much of the stories but, owing money to the IRS, he sent a collection to his editor, Jonathan Galassi, at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who published the eleven stark stories as Jesus’ Son, after a line from Heroin by Lou Reed.
Meanwhile, despite the unfinished Esquire article, Johnson developed a career in adventure journalism and spent the best part of the next 10 years exploring some of the most violent places on earth, including Liberia during one of its civil wars and Iraq during Desert Storm.
Much of his work carries a religious subtext. As Johnson says, “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?”
From 2006-2007 he held the Mitte Chair at Texas State University in San Marcos. He was also the resident playwright of Intersection for the Arts, based in San Francisco. He died in May 2017 of liver cancer, aged 67.
And, so: what else?
Finally, we have archived all of the Plume Newsletters, with their “secret poems” introduced, in the early days, by a Mr. Lawless, who eventually, thankfully, handed this appointment off to others far more qualified. You’ll find the link under Archives in the nav bar of each Plume issue. Many thanks to Sandy Solomon and Shannon Yan for all of their hard work!
Plume Poetry 7 is in hand! A beautiful cover, marvelous poems. Many thanks to all who had a hand in producing it — Kristen Weber, all the wonderful folks at Bookmobile, Mary Bisbee-Beek, and, of course the poets and translators. Contributors will receive their copies in due course, along with a special discount offer for additional copies. Here’s a look at Kris Weber’s cover:
Like its predecessors it will debut at AWP, this time in Portland in late March. Also as with its forbearers, there will be an off-site reading, with a stellar – if I may use that descriptor – roster of Plume poets. So – set the date:
Thursday, March 28, 2019 Plume Launch: Plume 7: New Poems 2018
6 to 8 PM (Come Early To Browse and Shop! – a short Uber/Lyft away from the convention center)
CARGO 81 SE Yamhill St, Portland, OR 97214
Readers include Annie Finch Alice Friman, Terese Svoboda, Patricia Clark, Scott Withiam, David Baker, Dennis Nurkse, Bruce Bond, Nancy Mitchell, Daniel Tobin, Mark Irwin, Carol Muske-Dukes, and Clare Rossini.
And here’s a flier:
The East Coast launch of the anthology is scheduled for a few weeks later; also with a splendid roster in the making – details shortly. Many thanks to Jo-Ann Mort, Stephanie Valdez, and Sally Bliumis-Dunn for putting this together.
Readers include Jo-Ann Mort, Frances Richey, Judy Katz, Sally Bluimis-Dunn, Timothy Donnelly, and T. R. Hummer.
Penultimately, again a request. As you will note, I try to highlight recent of soon to be published books by Plume contributors at the conclusion of this newsletter. My method for gathering these materials is haphazard, to say the least. Now, I want to rectify that to whatever degree that is possible. So – if you have a new book — or have won some award or grant or other, perhaps send me a quick email – I want to highlight your many wonderful achievements here. And a little PR never hurts, right?
Our cover art this month comes from Alec Soth, a photographer who is best known for photographing the Midwestern United States. He lives in Minneapolis, MN, which is also the city of his birth, although he relocated to Bronxville, NY, for his studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Soth’s early work include a self-published book of portrait and landscape photographs entitled Sleeping by the Mississippi, which was the result of his travels along the Mississippi River. This book won him much attention from art critics, who said that his photographs conveyed a strong sense of intimacy with the landscape. His photograph Charles, which shows a man standing on the roof of his house with a model airplane in each hand, was used as a poster for the 2004 Whitney Biennial show, in which Soth’s works were exhibited.
Soth, who was extremely shy during childhood and adolescence, was driven to start photographing people after being influenced by the work of portrait photographer Diane Arbus. He has said in interviews that he feels awkward approaching people and asking to take their photographs, and that he feels drawn to loners, hermits, and travelers as the subjects of his work. After his initial success with Sleeping by the Mississippi, Soth went on to publish a second photography book in 2006 entitled Niagara. For this work, he photographed people and places around Niagara Falls. He has since then produced two more books, Last Days of W and From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. He has also produced commissioned work for The New York Times Magazine.
Soth’s work is included in a number of permanent collections, including those at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He is represented by the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis.
And finally, per usual, a few new releases from Plume contributors: