The Confession of St. Jim-Ralph

by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson


I used to sneak into the movies without paying.
I watched the stories but I failed to see the dark.
I went to college and drank everything they gave me,
and I never paid for any of that water
on which I drifted as if by grace until
after the drownings, when in the diamond light
of seven-something A.M., as the spring was tearing
me up in Cartajena, only praying
on my knees before the magnifying ark
of the Seventh St. Hotel could possibly save me,
until falling on my face before the daughter
of money while the world poured from the till
brought the moment’s length against the moment’s height,
and paying was what I was earning and eating and wearing.
This to the best of my recollection
my uncle said in 1956,
moving against my father like a bear
on fire as the evening of his visit
killed the rum. He’d come from Alaska
or some place like that, the Antarctic, maybe,
and he left in a hot rage, screaming by the door
that nothing would save me from my awful father,
just as he, my uncle, had been saved
by nothing. Thirteen weeks from then, he died.
“This family’s full of the dead,” my father told me.
I was eight. I used to make excuses
to join him in the washroom as he bathed
in the mornings, soaping himself carefully
so as not to splash the automatic pistol
wrapped in plastic he rested near to hand.
At a certain point, the sun came through the blinds
and shafted the toilet bowl, filling it with light
as he spoke of killing everyone, often taking
the pistol from its wrap and holding its mouth
against his breast, explaining that no safety
lay anywhere, unless he should shoot the fear
that stood up on its hind legs in his heart.
Such things were always on TV—I thought
that one world merged in the next, and I resolved
to win the great Congressional Medal of Honor,
to make a name on the stage, and die a priest.

In the war the bullets yanked the fronds
from palms and the earth ate them up like acid
before our eyes. When dead men hit the ground
they came alive, they spoke in tongues, holding
babies that came from nowhere in their arms.
We were all afraid of the earth. My father’s fear
turned it like a plow, delivering
dogs and bugs, bright music, and a feminine
whispering of our names. My comrades fled,
but I was healed by everything that happened,
the midnight Rapid Transit stations
of hand grenades made moonlight as I moved
from life to life, getting off and shouting
whatever the signs said, getting on again,
received like lightning, changing everything.
My body disappeared. The enemy
knew me as a ghost who dropped a shadow
the size of night and turned the air to edges.
I am your grand companion of surprise,
big-time harbinger canceling everyone’s
business in a constant dream of all
the starring roles and franchises the great
Congressional Medal of Honor winners win.
Wounded twice, then decorated more
than any other in my regiment,
I stood at home plate, vomit on my blouse
and whiskey in my blood, and heard the dirt
of my home town falling grain by grain
out of the afternoon, while everyone’s
rahrahrahs affected me like silence.
The mayor handed me a four-by-four-
inch cardboard box a colonel handed him;
I threw it at the vast face of the crowd,
screaming I wanted only the Medal of Honor …
I lose the thread of my existence here.
I see me strange and drugged against my will,
telling my life story to a room,
traveling the aisles of an asylum
out there in Maine, among the aborigines.
They must have set me loose, or I escaped:
I see myself in a forest-bordered field,
unchanged and wearing my uniform—
free; yet somehow jailed by old desires
and saying what a soldier says: For home,
nothing. Comrades, for you, these hoarded rations.

With four monstrosities in uniforms
like mine, I pulverized guitars and wept
for the merriment of many. Brothers,
when shadows lengthen, and they lower down
the American flag and close our government,
another country rises like a mist
by garbagey coliseums on the warehouse
side of town to listen to that rock
and roll: God speaking with the Devil’s voice,
unbreathable air of manacles, a storm
to bless your multicolored lips with sperm.
We sundered them until they brought their bones
forth from the flesh and laid them at our feet,
screaming their lungs shut tight as fists,
shedding their homes forever, leaving name
and tongue and mind and sending us their heads
through the mails in the night. We ran it past the edge,
we gave them something everyone could dance to—
whatever is most terrible is most real—
the Bible fights, the fetuses burning in light-bulbs,
the cunnilingual, intravenous
swamp of love. Three times I died on stage,
and the show went on while doctors snatched
me back from Chinatown with their machines.
We struck it rich. Without a repertoire,
without a name or theme, we toured the land
and eighty thousand perished. We were real,
but not one company recorded us:
everywhere we went they passed a law.
We toured the land—sweet, burning Texacos,
the adrenaline darkness palpitates frantically,
the highway eats itself all night, the radio’s
wheedling bebop fails in the galactic
soup near dawn; the Winnebago shimmers,
everything tastes like puke, the eight-ball
bursts, nobody
knows how to drink in this fuckin town …
One night I heard our music end
abruptly in the middle of a number
and looked around me at a gigantic silence.
I felt the pounding, saw the screams, but all
was like the long erasure of a wind
calming and disturbing everything
on its route through stunned fields of hay.
My bodyguards tried with huge gentleness to lead
me off, but I threw myself outside, rolling
through a part of town I’d never seen—
the flat gray streets looked Hebrew, and the windows
held out the paraphernalia of old age,
porcelain Jesuses gesturing from the shadows
of porcelain vases, surrounded by medicines.
A rain began. I strained myself to hear
the trashcans say their miserable names,
but nothing. At the brink
of stardom high over the United States,
untouchable as God but better known,
I stumbled over streets that might’ve been rubber,
deaf as a cockroach, finished as a singer.

Brothers, I spilled myself along the roads.
Mold grew on me as I dampened in alleys.
I began in ignorance. How could I know
that whoever is grinding up his soul is making
himself afresh? That the ones who run away
get nearer all the time? Look here or there,
it’s always the horizon, the dull edge
of earth dicing your plan like a potato.
Does water break the light, or light the water?
Which do you choose: what is or what is?
I painted myself black and let that color
ride through virgins like the penises
they dream of while their fathers sleep. I lied.
I cheated like a shark. I robbed the dead.
Nothing healed me, just as nothing healed
my uncle of himself—but he was healed,
while I grew phosphorescent with a kind
of cancer that I carried like a domino,
a tiny badge discovering me …
Oh please my love I want to rock and roll with you
Feel it feel it
feel it all night like a shoe …
Ten years I wasted all I had, and then
ten years I lived correctly—held a job
in a factory that made explosions,
where deafness was an asset. I did well,
I never missed a day, I polished late,
honed my skills, received promotions—in the end
I built explosions for atomic bombs,
forty-three I built myself, which one of these
days will deafen you, as I am deafened.
I wrenched the fraternal orders with my tale
of sorrowful delinquency—the Elks,
the Lions, Moose; those animals, they loved
the crippled rock’n’roller with the heart
wrung out as empty as his former mind,
and variously and often they cited me.
I walked the malls with an expanded chest,
took my sips with my pinkie cocked,
firing dry martinis at my larynx
and yearning for the strength of soul it takes
to suck a bullet from an actual
pistol, hating my own drained face
as I intimidated mirrors, or stood
in a jail of lies before the Eagle Scouts,
an alarm clock going off inside an alarm clock
in a lump of iron inside a lump of iron:
hating myself for having become my father.
At night I prayed aloud to God and Jesus
to place me on a spaceship to the moon—
leaven, I told Them constantly, my mind
is tired of me, and I would like to die.
Take me to ground zero take me to ground zero
where in the midst of detonation it is useless
to demonstrate quod erat demonstrandum,
this was my ceaseless prayer, until my lips
were muscles and my heart could talk,
telling it over and over to itself;
until they fired me and drove me to the edge
of things, and dumped my prayer into the desert.
Drinking cactus milk and eating sand,
I wandered until I saw the monastery
standing higher and higher, at first a loose
mirage, but soon more real than I was.
There I fell on my face, and let light carry
me into the world—just as my uncle told it
nine million years ago when I was eight—
and the prison of my human shape exploded,
my heart cracked open and the blood poured out
over stones that got up and walked when it touched them.
High in the noon, some kind of jet plane winked
like a dime; I saw it also flashed
over the vast, perfumed, commercial places
filled with stupid but well-intentioned people,
the wreckages and ambushes of love
putting themselves across, making it pay
in the margins of the fire, in the calm spaces,
taken across the dance-floor by a last romance,
kissing softly in a hallucination strewn
with bus tickets and an originless music—
and now death comes to them, a little boy
in a baseball cap and pyjamas, doing things
to the locks of the heart … This was my vision.
Here I saw the truth of the horizon,
the way of coming and going in this life.
I never drifted up from my beginning:
I rose as inexorably as heat.

Brothers, I reached you, and you took me in.
You saw me when I was invisible,
you spoke to me when I was deaf,
you thanked me when I was a secret,
and how will I make of myself something
at this hour when I am already made?
Never a famous hero, a star, a priest—
my mind decides a little faster than
the world can talk, and what I dreamed was only
the darker sketch of what I would become.
It’s 1996. I’m forty-eight.
I am a monk who never prays. I am
a prayer. The pilgrim comes to hear me;
the banker comes, the bald janitors arrive,
the mothers lift their wicked children up—
they wait for me as if I were a bus,
with or without hope, what’s the difference?
One guy manipulates a little calculator,
speaking to it as to a friend. Sweat
is delivered from its mascara,
sad women read about houses …
and now the deaf approach, trailing the dark smoke
of their infirmity behind them as they leave it
and move toward the prayer that everything
is praying: the summer evening a held bubble,
every gesture riveting the love,
the swaying of waitresses, the eleven television
sets in a storefront broadcasting a murderer’s face—
these things speak the clear promise of Heaven.

Last updated March 15, 2023