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Denis Johnson


Born in Munich on July 1, 1949, Denis Johnson was raised in Tokyo, Manila, and the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. He studied with Raymond Carver while earning his MFA from the University of Iowa. While still enrolled, his first collection of poetry, The Man Among the Seals (Stone Wall Press, 1969), was published.

During the next few years, Johnson published several collections of poetry, including Inner Weather (Graywolf, 1976); The Incognito Lounge (Random House, 1982), selected by Mark Strand for The National Poetry Series in 1982; and The Veil (Knopf, 1985); as well as four novels, including Angels (Knopf, 1983), which received the Sue Kauffman Prize for First Fiction from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

During this time he struggled with alcoholism and various other addictions. It was out of these experiences that he wrote his breakthrough volume of stories, Jesus' Son (Harper Perennial, 1992), which was later adapted for the screen.

Johnson's most recent book of poetry is The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New (Harper Perennial, 1995). Recent fiction titles include Tree of Smoke (FSG, 2007), winner of the National Book Award and and Nobody Move (FSG, 2009). In 2012, his novella, Train Dreams (FSG, 2011), was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

Johnson is also the author of several plays as well as a collection of essays, Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond (Harper Perennial, 2001).
About his poetry, the poet and fiction writer Raymond Carver said, "Denis Johnson's poems are driven by a ravening desire to make sense out of the life lived. The subject matter is harrowingly convincing, is nothing less than a close examination of the darker side of human conduct.”

Johnson's honors include the National Book Ward, Lannan Fellowship in Fiction, a Whiting Writer’s Award, National Poetry Series, and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review. A resident of Arizona and Idaho, he died on May 25, 2017.


Selected Bibliography


The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New (Harper Perennial, 1995)
The Veil (Knopf, 1987)
The Incognito Lounge (Random House, 1982)
Inner Weather (Graywolf, 1976)
The Man Among Seals (Stone Wall Press, 1969)


Train Dreams (FSG, 2011)
Nobody Move (FSG, 2009)
Tree of Smoke (FSG, 2007)
Jesus’ Son (Harper Perennial, 1992)


Seek: Reports from the Edges of American & Beyond (Harper Perennial, 2001)

By This Poet


The White Fires of Venus

We mourn this senseless planet of regret,
droughts, rust, rain, cadavers
that can't tell us, but I promise
you one day the white fires
of Venus shall rage: the dead,
feeling that power, shall be lifted, and each
of us will have his resurrected one to tell him,
"Greetings. You will recover
or die. The simple cure
for everything is to destroy
all the stethoscopes that will transmit
silence occasionally. The remedy for loneliness
is in learning to admit
solitude as one admits
the bayonet: gracefully,
now that already
it pierces the heart.
Living one: you move among many
dancers and don't know which
you are the shadow of;
you want to kiss your own face in the mirror
but do not approach,
knowing you must not touch one
like that. Living
one, while Venus flares
O set the cereal afire,
O the refrigerator harboring things
that live on into death unchanged."

They know all about us on Andromeda,
they peek at us, they see us
in this world illumined and pasteled
phonily like a bus station,
they are with us when the streets fall down fraught
with laundromats and each of us
closes himself in his small
San Francisco without recourse.
They see you with your face of fingerprints
carrying your instructions in gloved hands
trying to touch things, and know you
for one despairing, trying to touch the curtains,
trying to get your reflection mired in alarm tape
past the window of this then that dark
closed business establishment.
The Andromedans hear your voice like distant amusement park music
converged on by ambulance sirens
and they understand everything.
They're on your side. They forgive you.

I want to turn for a moment to those my heart loves,
who are as diamonds to the Andromedans,
who shimmer for them, lovely and useless, like diamonds:
namely, those who take their meals at soda fountains,
their expressions lodged among the drugs
and sunglasses, each gazing down too long
into the coffee as though from a ruined balcony.
O Andromedans they don't know what to do
with themselves and so they sit there
until they go home where they lie down
until they get up, and you beyond the light years know
that if sleeping is dying, then waking
is birth, and a life
is many lives. I love them because they know how
to manipulate change
in the pockets musically, these whose faces the seasons
never give a kiss, these
who are always courteous to the faces
of presumptions, the presuming streets,
the hotels, the presumption of rain in the streets.
I'm telling you it's cold inside the body that is not the body,
lonesome behind the face
that is certainly not the face
of the person one meant to become.


Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It's beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,
streaming with hatred in the heat
as the record falls and the snake-band chords begin
to break like terrible news from the Rolling Stones,
and such a last light—full of spheres and zones.
         you're just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious?—this large oven impersonating night,
this exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion,
the bogus moon of tenderness and magic
you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light?

Surreptitious Kissing

I want to say that
forgiveness keeps on

dividing, that hope
gives issue to hope,

and more, but of course I
am saying what is

said when in this dark
hallway one encounters

you, and paws and
assaults you—love

affairs, fast lies—and you
say it back and we

blunder deeper, as would
any pair of loosed

marionettes, any couple
of cadavers cut lately

from the scaffold,
in the secluded hallways

of whatever is
holding us up now.