On beauty and Denis Johnson

When I was 22, I picked up Jesus’ Son at my favorite bookstore in Seattle. It was a slight book on a recommended table in the middle of the store. I read the first few stories standing there and realized afterward that I was holding my breath. That the slight book felt like redemption.

Denis Johnson read from that collection at the first literary festival we held at my graduate school. We weren’t calling it Get Lit! yet, but eventually we would. He read the short story, Emergency, and we all laughed and laughed and it felt like crying. By then I’d read his poetry, too, and been unraveled and kicked by it.

Johnson writes about people who keep failing. People who are difficult to love. And in their pills and alcohol and frantic, messy attempts to understand one another, there is so much beauty that it hurts you. The way real human interactions do. The way you hurt yourself with your hopeful efforts to live a little better and truer with the people in your orbit.

When he died last year, I immediately read Jesus’ Son again. And cried. Both at the girl I had been when I first discovered him, and the man he had been reading to us from that podium years and years ago. And the stories themselves, held together almost effortlessly like a fine black suit.

This week, I discovered that his final short story collection, finished before his death, has been published. And like David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen, his final work, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is filled with the end. The end is everywhere.

What if we are lucky for the difficulty of our lives? What if the fact that I spent most of December and January so sick that I couldn’t think is why this week I am happier than I have been in a long time? Not because suffering is good for us but because staunching our injuries is the entire fucking point. I held myself together and kept walking until I could jog a little bit. Until I could enjoy these overcast days where we’re all inside too much. When I finally remembered that winter is a season and not my fucking life.

There’s beauty in the mess because there’s beauty and mess. The both at once and sometimes just the one that stretches on so long we can’t remember that there was anything before it. Until there is. Beauty again. Beauty over and over. The way you are kissed sometimes in your sleep, and the kiss draws you up into waking and you are unaccountably grateful, as you remember the kiss bringing you to consciousness, and then immediately wonder if the kiss was real, or just a story you told yourself to make waking feel like love.


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