The Incognito Lounge
by Denis Johnson
Living with a poem—in a long-term relationship, I mean, that’s mostly internal and entirely one-sided—is a bit like periodically digging in a familiar spot, each time recovering a trove of shards of one’s own memories. The poem hasn’t changed, but the reader tracks his or her own progress (or, I suppose, decline) in relation to the act of the mind on the page. That’s how it has been between me and Denis Johnson’s “The Incognito Lounge,” the title poem of his collection originally published in 1981, reissued in the Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series five years ago. It’s a volume that a lot of writers my age (and a bit younger, and a bit older) can quote piecemeal to one another, sort of the way we play badminton with shibboleths from the Beastie Boys, or Richard Pryor, or Johnson’s other masterpiece, the story collection Jesus’ Son.
A poet friend of mine gave me The Incognito Lounge when I was still in college, and he was freshly out of it. We were both in a period one might politely now refer to as our checkered pasts. The details are mostly irrelevant, but they were generally un-picturesque. That poem seemed like reassurance that someone who understood the world the way we did, who was just as fucked up and just as hard-edged and merciless in writing his own experience, that someone like that could write something both sublimely beautiful and deeply, intimately personal. I don’t just mean personal for the author; I mean personal for us. It’s pretty rare that I find someone on the page thinking my thoughts for me, someone whose language’s rhythms become my own. But when it happened, I knew it, and I sorely needed it. It was color in the ruin.
One grows up. One moves along. One cleans up one’s act. Years passed—many of them—between that bleary time and this more lucid, productive, useful, happy one. I heard there had been a reprint. I bought a copy, opened it, and realized—having remembered my past affection for the poem, but forgotten its particulars of subject, texture, image, and elasticity—that in the interim, from roughly twenty to roughly forty, I had been trying to write this poem over and over again. It was as if I were returning to a part of my inner life that others knew about, but I didn’t. It was uncanny, and exhilarating, and sad. If I could re-meet the woman who was my lover in those days, and if she were still now the age she was then, I’d expect it to be about the same thing, emotionally. (I’d advise her to keep her distance—partly for her own good, partly for mine.)
I hadn’t known specifically about volta—the piece of vocabulary, or the concept that underlies it—until I got to know “The Incognito Lounge.” It was pretty early in my apprenticeship to the vocation, I guess. But when I think about it now, it seems quite clear to me that it’s the hinge, the leap, the turn, the vault that lets a reader—a reader who loves a text in its details, who opens wholeheartedly to a poem’s inferential logic—gain confidence, through the act of reading, that the idiomatic and associative way she or he receives the world is not as untrustworthy, not as lonesome, and not as banal as she or he might have feared.
“The Incognito Lounge” is set in an apartment complex and several bars of what I assume is probably Tucson, Arizona—where late one night in 1992, incidentally, I lost my copy of the book, or perhaps had it stolen by friends of the friend who had given it to me originally. Its speaker, with “my eyes closed and two / eyeballs painted on my face,” is both present and not present, expressing but not perceiving. The meteor shower he compares figuratively to “these questions of happiness / plaguing the world” is, accurately enough, empirically there, real, and brilliant, but remote, unreachable; like the meteors, the questions appear less violent when one perceives them from such an incomprehensible distance. The poem’s ambiguities mount as we get comfortable with its setting: the helicopter both asking and telling “whatwhatwhatwhatwhat,” the synaesthetic gesture of the “boiled / coffee that tastes like noise.”
By the time those ambiguities develop into uncertainty about the integrity of the poem’s speaker, though, we’re already in. His words are “smaller and smaller words,” and he plays “a brisk/ rubber / with cards nobody knows / how many there are of,” as though his dissociative outlook ought to make perfect sense to us. (Note: if it does, seek help. These are signs that one’s personality is deteriorating.) Then, out of the present, a quick memory from the short term (the speaker does not appear to have any long term memory, or perhaps no interest in it): “Last night, some kind / of alarm went off up the street / that nobody responded to.” We’re used to his prepositions at the ends of sentences, his enjambments that feel like teetering forward on our chair, but we’re unprepared for what comes next: “Small darling, it rang for you.” This moment—the first of the poem’s several voltas—introduces a darling, a you, who either desperately needs or uniquely can render assistance. It gives a sense that emotional commitment and attachment underlie each word and action of the poem thus far. That’s a surprise and a wholesale revision, since it had otherwise communicated itself as apart, isolated, remote, and damaged beyond the ability to desire or express warmth or closeness. It’s a reassurance. It’s a revelation.
After a section break, the poem continues with “[t]he center of the world,” by which Johnson means the local hopeless, black-hole-like bars. “Only the Incognito Lounge is open,” the bar whose name tells us one cannot be known there, can do whatever one wants without drawing attention or being found out. The faces of the people within become the faces of televisions, as—and this reference dates me, I realize, to the depths of history before cable—the broadcast day ends, the national anthem plays, and the screens all go deadly blank until the next morning’s resumption of programming. The section flirts with the prospect of intimacy, discards it, and resolves without closure: “The air is full of megawatts // and the megawatts are full of silence.” We’re in an atmosphere of energy transfer, but with no way to observe or draw sustenance from it.
This insulation between the real and the speaker’s ability to perceive it—or between his own inner life and the external world from which it feels so distant—animates the poem throughout. It provides a constant narrative and psychic tension, of which each volta is a partial release. Each one lets the reader know that we’re reading him right, and that, by extension, we’re reading our own experience right. Not rationally, since voltas don’t narrate logic, but intuitively, since they allow us to watch someone change the subject by necessity, by instinct. The last volta in the poem occurs nine lines before its ending, as evening descends over the desert; the speaker returns to direct address, admonishing the reader/darling that s/he will “indefatigably” seek words to describe the feeling of such a moment “over the imitation / and actual wood of successive / tabletops”—presumably, in “saloons”—and that that moment is the same of feeling terror for the certainty of pain someone else will feel, someone who has done nothing to deserve pain. In short, the voltas make the poem humane. They prevent it from being altogether about the speaker, or his problems, or those of the reader. They allow him, in a long series of strike-slip faults, to turn away from the self entirely, to let the internal focus resolve into a focus on one’s feelings for and about other people.
It was this understanding—that even the most numb, self-destructive, soluble personality could make itself compassionate through the act of poetic engagement—that so energized me as a young poet. I didn’t particularly want to write about my own life, although I often did. I wanted to write poems that would take into account that “baby child,” a little person Johnson describes with a redundancy that forces a Blake-like reckoning with innocence. In retrospect, I wanted, too, to have the permissive and imaginative powers that let Johnson make those precipitous leaps—to trust myself that much. So in some ways, I still see the poem as a charge, still admire its craft and nerve. It’s not a poem about survival—none of the good ones are—but it’s not content with defeat, either. Amen to that.
John Casteen’s Free Union (2009) and For the Mountain Laurel (2011) are part of the VQR Poetry Series from the University of Georgia Press. His poems have appeared recently in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and other magazines, and in Best American Poetry and The Rumpus Poetry Anthology. He lives in Earlysville, Virginia, and teaches poetry at Sweet Briar College.