What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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The Incognito Lounge
by Denis Johnson

Field-Tested by Wendy McClure

in Chicago, Illinois

It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, and I was working as an office temp in Chicago. Every day, for weeks at a time, I rode the Lake Street El from my parents' house in Oak Park to a blue glass building in the west Loop, what is now called the CitiCorp Center. I wore dismal outfits I'd bought at an outlet store, and I carried my own lunch. I did everything I thought an office employee would do, though I knew I didn't ever want to wind up as one. I wanted to be a poet, and as if to remind myself, I carried a notebook and also a book of poems, The Incognito Lounge, by Denis Johnson. The book was out of print at the time, but I'd found it at the public library, wrapped in the same smudgy protective plastic as all the other library books. I read it diligently while I ate my sandwich in the food court in the blue glass building.

I can remember bits and phrases. I remember that practically every person in every poem in The Incognito Lounge was either badly lit or else squinting in relentless sunlight. They shuffled out of bars or through parking lots. Sometimes, overhead, they heard news helicopters, “going whatwhat whatwhatwhat.” (Oh God, I loved that line). They rode elevators or wearily boarded buses; they said words into the telephone (“smaller and smaller words,” I remember). Their spirits exhaled in short lines, half a sentence or so at a time — except for a sonnet called “White, White Collars,” which, when I read it, flared up in my head like a struck match. When I got to the last line, I was almost afraid to look up from the book. And as for the notebook, I forgot to write in it.

Wendy McClure is a columnist at BUST Magazine and the author of the memoir, I'm Not the New Me. You can find her at her website.

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