Photo Essay

Waiting for Denis Johnson

That's what we want from art: something that penetrates the material body, passes through it and into our mind.

By Mark Fenton
Published July 07, 2008

It seemed simple enough. Look it up in the catalogue. Check availability and branch. Go get it.

Most of my journeys are fraught with peril. I know that I'll end up somewhere a civilian has no business being with a camera. And that this will lead to the usual interrogation.

By comparison this tour should have been a breeze.

Here's what I wanted to do. I had just read a review of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, his 600 page Vietnam War novel.

Photograph of Denis Johnson (Photo Credit: Cindy Johnson)
Photograph of Denis Johnson (Photo Credit: Cindy Johnson)

I discovered that Johnson had also recently published a well-received short story called "Train Dreams." It was, so far, only available in the 2003 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories.

I keyed O. Henry Prize Stories into the Hamilton Public Library database. To my instant satisfaction they not only had a copy of the 2003 O. Henry Prize Stories, it was checked in!

I don't normally feel the need to explicate the artistry of my photos but when I took this one I deliberately composed the shot so that I captured the foreground drama while also allowing the shot to include a landscape in the top right hand corner.

I was trying to give depth and complexity to the picture plane; and on a more thematic level I liked how the intimacy of the interior subject was in contrast to a framed particle of exterior expanse. I title this photo "In the manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds".

Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Ladies Waldegrave.
Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Ladies Waldegrave.

I'm not saying you need to be familiar with Joshua Reynolds to appreciate my photo, I'm just not an elitist type who wants to exclude those who maybe haven't considered 18th Century British painting as closely as they'll now want to. Hey, I was late coming to Reynolds myself!

I can't quite figure out what these women are up to but they seem to be doing something collectively with textiles. If we moved them up to the present they'd be sitting around a desk watching a Radiohead video on Youtube, so the progression towards my photo is a natural one.

I raced to the library. This is as good as it gets for me. Discovering a new story by a favourite writer and having a near certainty of getting my hands on it and reading it for free. The anticipation is almost the best part. When a charismatic well-dressed guy heads out to pick up women in bars this must be how he feels.

I must say I experience a certain amount of guilt around my free use of published material. As you know there is much concern these days about downloading songs or copying movies.

But that's not my deal.

Me, I pirate TEXT.

Here's an example. The other day I was listening to "Taste of Cindy" from the debut Jesus and Mary Chain album.

Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy
Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy

Something in it struck a chord with a poem I'd read years ago in Christopher Logue's translation of Pablo Neruda. Now I'm not claiming that Jim and William Reid are enthusiasts of Hispanic love poetry (though how the hell would I know what kids from the Glasgow suburbs get up to?) I just felt that the kind of synchronicity Carl Jung finds in I Ching readings might be at work here.

Dudes, let me tell you. In the digital age, it's WAY easier to pull up a J&MC song on line than to find the translation of a Spanish poem done 50 years ago. All I could think of was going to Mills Library at McMaster University to check it out.

Now despite working at McMaster University for some years I was never employed in any academic capacity and am not an alumnus. (No, I wasn't paid to clean lavatories or chase raccoons off the grounds, I was a Hall Director responsible for the well being of residents, a job usually given to grad students and my abysmal lack of credentials made me a Rodney Dangerfield type absorbed into university life by some glitch in the cosmic order and desperately seeking respect). As a result I don't have an MU library card.

My tactic was to run quickly into Mills Library--it was summer and things would be quiet--find the book and photocopy the parts I wanted.

And there it was; the one with the pink spine, two books to the left of Ode to the Dodo.

Dodo-Skeleton (Raphus cucullatus), Natural History Museum, London, England
Dodo-Skeleton (Raphus cucullatus), Natural History Museum, London, England

For those of you who feel I'm really reaching for it with the photos this week I promise I'll make it up to you next time.

The book is enjoying its 50th anniversary this year. Might I suggest that this is ample excuse for a reissue? The publisher is hereby authorized to include my essay as a foreword or afterword without any further permissions being sought. How could I demand otherwise?

As I proceeded I became anxious. Due to camera-shake I had to photograph some of the pages several times which only added to my anxiety and made the camera-shake even worse. (Honestly, how do jewel thieves hold it together!) I eventually hit on the plan of propping up the book and shooting with a tripod. I know at this point that if I were able to step outside myself and look at what I'm doing there would be no mystery as to why I was never encouraged to pursue an academic career.

It's not as much like the J&MC's

She has me We twist the sun and sea Still she's talking to everyone Cindy's had her fun

as I'd remembered, but I don't feel my time was wasted. It is, for crying out loud, the greatest Latin American poet of the 20th Century rendered by a fine, dare I say undervalued, English poet! What's not to like?

Then again .. aI the only person who feels a bit creepy when I read a love poem about people I don't know? Think about it. A guy is obsessed with you and writes his passion for you from the depths of his soul, and then, exhausted from a night of wrestling with iambics and sonnet form he rushes it over to you as you're on the way to your 10:00 am Developmental Psychology class.

Fair enough. But if I'm standing here reading about his love for you, did he not, then, meet with his literary agent and did they not then decide, in tones of critical detachment perhaps affected by a good Scotch, that it was a fine enough specimen to include with his latest collection? Now picture him quibbling with his editor as to whether or not a conceit like "you were my eyelid's indigo madness/ the archangel's shadowplay" is somewhat overwrought.

Now ask yourself: "Is he REALLY infatuated with me? Isn't it maybe more about his career?"

And what the devil has gotten into ME!? It's not enough that I'm snooping into your erotic life. I'm doing so by entering a building semi-legally and taking photos of it. I'm not well! (They say that if you recognize you have a problem you've taken the first step to recovery.)

I paused from my thieving when a student passed and looked towards me suspiciously. I quickly turned the camera out the window as though I were a professional photographer hired to document the campus in its summer splendour. There was, in fact, a lovely little balcony below me at the next building. What a perfect spot for students to read or study or just meditate on life and learning, I thought. It was a good, wholesome place and a diversion from my own shady act of copyright infringement.

It was only when I got home and looked closely at the photo that I realized it was simply a designated smoking area.

I'm not making a comparison between the two forms of substance abuse, but it was similar to the reaction I had when I first saw this Larry Clark photo of a young pregnant woman. At first the photo was an oasis in his otherwise harrowing depictions of self-destructive youth in the late 60s. A glowing ideal of maternity and future promise.

Until I looked again and saw that she's tied her upper arm and is shooting up.

I escaped from Mills library without incident, but that night I had a dream. I was charging down the stairwell of Mills with my photos and was accosted by a Poetry Theft Enforcement Officer, looking much like the male officer in the photo at the top of this essay.

PTEO: Excuse me. I need to ask you a few questions.

MF: I'm not doing nothing. I'm just looking at some books.

PTEO: You seem a bit defensive. Are you currently a student or a faculty member at this University?

MF: I...uh...used to be a Hall Director at this university.

PTEO: Maybe you should enroll for an English course. It might teach you how to understand simple questions like "Are you currently a student or a faculty member at this University?"

In dream logic the scene moves to a small cinderblock room looking much like the one in the Denis Johnson photo second from the top of this essay. And I'm being brutalized by two new PTEOs.

MF: I demand a lawyer! This isn't justice!

PTEO 1: You got that right. This ain't justice. It's just us.--Do you know how hard a poet has to work to get published? Practicing all those assonant rhymes, those subtleties of enjambment, writing sestinas and pantoums to build up those badass verse muscles. After 20 years of THAT, just MAYBE your poet sells a book to a major press. And still barely gets by on grants and low level teaching jobs. And if that's not enough he's got guys like you stealing from him. Kind of scumbag takes money from a blind begger.

MF: It's just a few poems I needed. I went out and bought his selected poems and his translations of Homer.

PTEO 2: Big spender!

Some time later, I'm outside on the campus grounds letting my wounds scab over in the sun. The students are youthful and hopeful in a way I don't think I ever was. Some are sitting under trees reading, others are in love and in one another's arms.

I am approached by a thin, wearish old man.

CL: It wasn't my idea.

MF: --?

CL: I'm Christopher Logue. Sending the PTEO over. It wasn't my idea. Why, back in the day I used to sit in the library and copy Pablo Neruda into my notebook.

MF: That makes me feel a bit better.

(Mr. Logue glances around at the young and hopeful and seems to grow even more morose than I'm sure I look. Though he's less beaten up.)

CL: This is no country for old men.

MF: That's for damn sure.

CL: It always took me awhile, working by hand. I didn't have a camera.

MF: --

CL: I suppose it helped me get inside the Spanish originals. Once, when I was copying out Los Cantos d'Amores. I looked out the window and could have sworn I saw Neruda himself, for the briefest moment, distant, by some trees.

Image:Pablo Neruda.jpg" alt="" title="">

I think he was about to feed the birds with crumbs from a paper bag. But of course it's ridiculous. There's no way it could have been him.

So. As I enter the Hamilton Public Library I am determined that however short Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams" is I will NOT photograph it. I will take it out, read it, and return it, keeping only a residue of its events and those phrases that commit themselves automatically to memory. For surely it's no crime to have lines of literature running verbatim though one's head.

Though when I think of it, having something memorized is hardly different that having a photocopy of it. Is there a clause on the copyright page that forbids the committing of phrases and sentences to memory? I will have to check. And if so, is it a violation to simply have them in my head, or does it only become a copyright infringement if I type them into a Word document or recite them in someone's hearing. I'd say these are questions for a good lawyer.

I am confronted with a horrible setback! When I reach the bookstacks the 2003 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories is not there!

The years I'm not interested in ARE there. To confirm I'm in the right place and to taunt me.

I'm always interested in the things that I photograph by accident. I notice that two collections of the Short Stories of John O'Hara made it into the shot. Fantastic writer. Should be more widely read. Among other things he's the author to read if you want to know about prohibition-era speakeasy culture; and how difficult it was in those days to make your way in the American middle class as an Irish Catholic.

He's best at novels and novella length stories, as his strength is motive and character development over a reasonably lengthy plot. Can't recommend anything else on the shelf, though I'm intrigued at the title and font of Kenneth O'Hara's Nightmare's Nest, which looks cheesy enough to have been a '70s Grindhouse film and I'm half tempted to check it out just to see what genre depths it descends to.

Note that while volumes of The O. Henry Prize Stories are well represented I see no sign of any actual collections of O. Henry Stories. This is probably indicative of O. Henry's waning reputation. That's an interesting fate. You're popular enough and important enough to get a prize named after you and then when people start reading the prizewinners they stop wanting to read YOUR stories.

It's a bit like starting a business and ultimately being bought out by your younger partners, and being reminded of that everyday because the company is still incorporated under your name. Pretty depressing if you ask me. I know you can still buy the chocolate bar and I've never figured out the connection but there must be one.

First, I double-checked to make sure the book hadn't been checked out by some enthusiast of Denis Johnston or one of the other contributors or, worse, some casual reader who just wanted a collection of short stories for the bus ride and could just as easily have picked 2005, 2006 or 2007, but NOOOOOOOO he had to take the one I'D made a special trip out for.

But when I consulted the catalogue it was still CHECKED IN. Clearly the book had been misfiled.

I explained the situation to a librarian. He keyed the title into the data base. I suspected he was doing this because as an employee he had access to information that the general public didn't have. Something like a comments section that says. THIS ITEM IS CURRENT IN THE 3RD FLOOR DISPLAY AREA COMMEMORATING THE CENTENARY OF O. HENRY'S DEATH.

But his screen was exactly the same as the one I'd just looked at. The librarian then told me that it was checked in and asked me to follow him to the book stacks.

This was an exercise in utter futility and I knew it and I could do nothing about it. The Dewey Decimal System is NOT differential calculus. There's no possible way I could not have ascertained correctly that the book as a physical entity just wasn't there. The obvious way to circumvent this useless journey would be to pass him my camera cued to the picture of the books it should be integrated with but wasn't.

But I knew the look I would get if I did that. I even suspected he would gesture subtly to a co-worker and security would be called and I would be reprimanded for taking photographs of material under copyright, and of violating some ordinance against taking photographs on library property.

And I was pretty sure that a cheerful digression--to the effect that wasn't it interesting that I'd accidentally photographed the works of John O'Hara, and didn't he agree that O'Hara in 2007 was an unjustly neglected writer--wouldn't absolve me as a harmless lunatic.

So I had no choice but to follow him. This, I told myself, is how prisoners must feel when they're forced daily to walk circles in the yard.

After ascertaining that the book indeed wasn't there, we went to a back room. "Sometimes a book gets misplaced back here." I'm not sure what "back here" was but the room either for reasons of security or toxicity was only for employees and I stood outside for 15 minutes like a man waiting his turn to be ex-rayed.

When he came out he confirmed that the book was indeed completely and profoundly missing, but that I could place it on hold and I would be notified when it was found.

I'll admit I wasn't overconfident about the arrival of the book.

The months passed. During my wait I not only read all of Tree of Smoke (great in parts, disappointing as a whole.) I also read an early Denis Johnson novel called The Stars at Noon, which I'd owned for years but never gotten to. Set in Nicaragua during the Sandinista era, it's narrated by an American journalist turned prostitute who falls in love with her client, a British businessman on the lam for leaking info about the Nicaraguan oil supply to the Costa Ricans. The journalist ultimately sells him out to the Americans to save herself.

Imagine a bipolar Graham Greene delirious from heat and tropical illness and you've got the tone. (An example of Johnson's facility as a writer is that he never names the characters beyond the American, the Englishman, the Journalist, and this doesn't feel contrived) I'd quote from it but I managed to lose my copy as soon as I finished it. It's not an easy book to come by, so the only reference I have from it is the first stanza of "The Sprawl" by Sonic Youth, which is a collage of sentences plagiarized directly from the The Stars at Noon.

The months passed. I began to wonder if "Train Dreams" even existed. I knew of it only from a single web page. How could I be sure that the information was even correct? What if I finally got hold of the 2003 O. Henry Prize Stories and the story wasn't there? Stories we know only by their title are stories we write in our mind. They resemble the ocean chart in Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark

He had bought a large map representing the sea, Without the least vestige of land: And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be A map they could all understand.

Metaphorically this is the page Carroll writes his journey on, and which we then read.

Once, when my finances were at their lowest ebb ever, I was in a used bookstore and came across a copy of Waiting for Nothing, by Tom Kromer. It looked intriguing: the autobiographical novel and sole book-length work of a man who was homeless in the great depression. I'd never heard of it and didn't have the three dollar asking price. I went back a few days later after I'd gotten a paycheck, but the book had been sold. I've never seen another copy, and will probably never read it.

The book quickly came to represent a place I feared my own life could go if my financial situation didn't improve, even though my only tangible connection to it was a brief glimpse of the black and white cover photo depicting an anonymous man on the street clasping the lapels of his jacket together to stay warm.

Over the years I've imagined various places the narrative might go and I suspect I've written stories since then based on an idea of what that book might be. The material fact of books is powerful: their stubborn authors, idealistic publishers, optimistic sales reps and retailers holding out against the narrow margins, and finally the relegation of books to remainder bins and used bookstores. What a doomed and noble journey.

The months passed. Then, one day, to my amazement I went on line and there it was.

(At the risk of boasting about yet another of my photos, I've not only included a landscape at the top right this time, but also a picture WITHIN the picture, as the bottom left shows the corner of a picture my daughter did a few years back and which I've never taken down. Vermeer is an obvious precedent for the picture within the picture

Jan Vermeer van Delft
Jan Vermeer van Delft

and there are many such examples in his scanty back-catalogue. For me these pictures are a compelling and frustratingly unexplained mystery. I never thought about it before the Internet, but now that I expect to be able to know everything in a few seconds I have gone crazy trying to source these pictures.

It's the same way I get when I listen to hip-hop joints and hear riffs and snippets sampled from songs I know I've heard before and then I pull out all my records, tapes and CDs to find the source. It's a pathology I wouldn't wish on anyone.

I'll probably never know if Vermeer is sampling other great Dutch masters or if he just nailed up some tacky repros he bought at a Wal-Mart because they had the right scale and colour values and he knew they'd be spectacular when he integrated and transformed them.)

I didn't record the date I reserved the book or the date I was notified, but computers track these things for us. From the photo I can see that I booked it on September 11 07 and it came available on June 20 08. Pretty close to the gestation period for a human being. (I can't think of anywhere to push that parallel but maybe you can.)

I almost regret having such hard digital information. I think I would rather be dependant on the vagaries of the seasons to keep track of time (documented as they are by the corner of my photographs).

That's one of the things I find so powerful about Ezra Pound's translation of "The River Merchant's Wife," by ??, the great T'ang Dynasty poet. That the young wife has to rely on the seasons to document her sadness at how long her new husband has been gone.

By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses, Too deep to clear them away! The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind. The paired butterflies are already yellow with August Over the grass in the West garden; They hurt me. I grow older.

The book was said to be at Central branch, but I had been fooled before so I didn't get my hopes up. Let me tell you there was no spring in my step THIS time as I walked to the library.

But there it was,

amidst all those others, straight-jacketed by the people who want to read them. What an odd practice to wrap up the books with the identity of the consumer, as though we will let our author speak only when it pleases us to. I stood for a moment and scanned the whole alphabet's worth of names. All I can say is that we readers are a troubled and controlling bunch.

I got it home. I let my eye move carefully through the contents page, growing progressively more anxious.

No Johnson.

Oh ... of course. The last story in the book.

It's 50 pages long. I read it. Here's what happens.

Beginning in 1917 it describes the life of Robert Grainier, superficially a very ordinary young man living in the forests of Washington State. He could be described as a sensitive loner. The years pass. In his 30s he finally marries, and has children. Returning after a long stint as a lumberman, he finds his home and family lost to a forest fire.

Throughout the rest of his life he never completely gives up hope of finding them, but he is too overwhelmed by their loss and by the things in his past he's ashamed of to find happiness. He wanders from job to job, through British Columbia and into the Alaska panhandle, and dies an old man. That's about it. I don't believe this description of the story contains spoilers, since plot isn't what you'd go to this story for.

Johnson's uniqueness lies in the fabric of his prose; a fabric which delivers humour and transcendence in equal portion and in jarring ways.

Only Johnson is funny like this, in a description of Robert Granier rescuing a man who claims to have been shot by his dog.

"I don's see how a dog shoots a gun."

"Well, he did."

"Did he use a rifle?"

"It weren't a cannon. It weren't a pistol. It were a rifle."

"Well, that's pretty mysterious, Mr. Peterson. How did that happen?"


"...That dog knew things--because of what happened to him, which is what Kootenai Bob the Indian told me about him--that animal all of a sudden knew things. So I swung the rifle by the barrel and butt-ended him pretty quick. Then I'm laying back, and the sky is traveling away from me in the wrong direction. Mr. Granier, I'd been shot! Right here!" Peterson pointed to the bandages around his left shoulder and chest. "By my own dog!"

And only Johsnon can leap from nothing to the sublime in a single bound. As in this description of a variety show in a small community theatre in the Rocky Mountains. One of the performers is a "wolf-boy" who at first simply makes the audience laugh, but then astounds them with what seems to be a kind of throat singing, described by Johnson in a single sentence.

He laid his head back until his scalp contacted his spine, that far back, and opened his throat, and a sound rose in the auditorium like a wind coming from all four directions, low and terrifying, rumbling up from the ground beneath the floor, and it gathered into a roar that sucked at the hearing itself, and then coalesced into a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it, taking itself higher and higher, more and more awful and beautiful, the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made, of the foghorn and the ship's horn, the locomotive's lonesome whistle, of opera singing and the music of flutes and the continuous moan-music of bagpipes.

That's what we want from art: something that penetrates the material body, passes through it and into our mind. It's an experience beyond what the people at the Rocky Mountain theatre expected, and in truth beyond what most of us usually get even from very good artists.

I think it's something we need to hold out for. It's the longshot that makes us drive to another city to see a concert that we know will bring us home too late and too tired on a week night; that makes us drain our savings and fly to other countries to see the masterpieces of sculpture and painting; that makes us order obscure books, and wrap our names around them. "Train Dreams" justifies the longshot.

For your reference, it can be found in the 2003 collection of The O. Henry Prize Stories. For all I know there could be others in the same volume that pack an equal punch but I haven't read any of them yet. Go ahead and reserve the book. I'll try to get it done quickly and return it.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools