Thanks for visiting my blog.

I'm posting my photos, poems and other writings here, along with news about my readings and publications.

I also plan to make available the sound files of my radio show, Across the Borderline, which has aired for six years on WBCR-lp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Stay tuned,

Phil Johnson

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Smoke Cries


I run when I see the smoke
in your eyes—it’s the run
in your stocking that seems
like a nylon starting to cry.
And just when I begin to care
I’m smothered in your underwear.


On the clothesline the underwear
dances in chorus, I smoke
sitting here, trying not to care.
I can’t get up to run.
The bloody sun makes me cry.
Things aren’t what they seem.


Wind tearing open the seam
of the hillside.  My underwear
is in tatters.  One small cry
from the forest, a wisp of smoke
trembles where the tree line runs,         
birds on high without a care.


“So long,” she says, “take care.”
“You’re more sensitive than you seem.”
What’s that mean?  I want to run
out from under the face I wear.
It’s all illusion, just the smoke
of a dream, a staircase of cries.


What happened to the newsboy’s cry?
He felt as lost as a care
package.  Watching the actors smoke
in noir movies, they seem
to move through lives where underwear
is abandoned.  Along the sunset boulevard she runs.


I’ve forgotten how to run.
At the beach the seagulls cry,
missing their long underwear
in winter.  Don’t their mothers care?
In fog the streetlamps seem
like UFOs floating in smoke

Don’t forget to smoke and run.
Let them seem to see you cry.
No underwear?  No one will care.

©  2009   Phil Johnson

Saturday, November 26, 2011

My friend and former college roomy, Jon Quitslund, told me that jazz drummer Paul Motian had died. Another piece of our era breaking off and slipping downstream . . .

Paul Motian is inescapably linked for me with the pianist Bill Evans. And it was Jon who introduced me to the music of Bill Evans. It was on a day when we were washing our clothes in the machines in the basement of the New Men's Dorm at Reed College. We had brought my portable record player down to listen to jazz albums while we processed the laundry. Jon had an album by clarinetist Tony Scott, and he told me to check out the pianist on the session, an up and coming player named Bill Evans who was attracting a lot of attention on the NY City scene. I listened and liked what I heard—fast single note runs a la Tristano.

After my sophomore year, I returned to San Diego, and that summer I bought a recently released Bill Evans trio album, Explorations. I loved everything about it, especially the interpretation of a Miles Davis tune, "Nardis" and the tune"Israel," which I had heard on Miles' Birth of the Cool album. I saw that the bass player was Scott LeFaro and the drummer Paul Motian. I hadn't heard of either of them, but I liked the fluid way the trio worked together and LeFaro and Evans wove in and out and sometimes became co-soloists. I thought Motian's style was interesting and a little idiosyncratic, not at all like the drummers I was listening to—Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones.

Then three years later I made my first trip to NY City. I went to the Village Vanguard on Seventh Avenue South with friends of mine to hear the Bill Evans trio. Motian was on drums, but LeFaro had died in an auto crash and been replaced by Chuck Israels. Hearing the trio live was an amazing experience. It was a weeknight with a relatively light crowd, and during a break between sets I was surprised to see Evans sitting by himself at a table. I went over and sat down across from him. I told him how much I loved his music and how much I was enjoying it that evening. He was quiet and very agreeable; he didn't say anything, he just looked kind of blissed out. (I didn't know about his heroin habit at that time.)

Fast forward to forty years later. My daughter Colomba and I arrived at the Vanguard early and got a front row seat to hear Motian, guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxist Joe Lovano. When Frisell took his place on the bandstand, we were right under his guitar. It was a beautiful musical evening. I was watching the social and musical interplay between the musicians. Lovano and Motian exchanged smiles when Frisell went off into one of his spacey solos. During a break I told Motian that I had seen him play with Evans at this club. He just nodded.

Then in February 2010, I took my partner Karen to the Blue Note in NY to hear Frisell leading a group with Ron Carter on bass and Motian. We stayed for two sets, getting great seats for the second set, up by the bandstand in front of Motian's drums. That night I really heard everything he was doing and realized what an incredible drummer he was. Karen and I were blown away by the sheer musicianship of the trio.

After the last set was over, we were walking through the club in a cluster with Frisell, and I realized I needed to go to the bathroom. As I went up the stairs, Motian was coming down. He was energized and moving quickly. I said to him, "You were great!"

Motian smiled and answered without skipping a beat, "I was, wasn't I."

That is the last image I have of Paul Motian.

Friday, November 11, 2011

On November 17 Karen and I went down to the city to Gallery Henoch in Chelsea to the opening of a show by our friend and neighbor, painter Janet Rickus.  Her work was beautifully displayed and lighted.  Timeless still lives of vegetables and ceramics.  Incredibly vibrant colors.

Gallery Henoch is located at 555 West 25th Street.  The show will run through December 10. 

Memory revises reality. As I reflect more on her words, what Bernadette said was, "Write a poem that doesn't mean anything." My first try didn't pass, so I went back and did it again.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In one of her workshops Bernadette told us to write a poem about nothing. So I wrote this—




They’re having a pow-wow in Poway. While David Byrnes

his britches behind him, sits out on a limb,

brewing coffee thru conical filters,

random driplets, splash arrays, operations?


The lonesome cowpoke clutched his bedroll,

wishing real hard

it was a woman. Only make believe,

he humped as he sang—a humpback whale

beached on low topographical relief.

You get so alone (thank you, Buk)

at night on the prairie

even the prairie dogs

get scary.


He blundered into a clearing where the brush was cut back—

there he was, facing his wife. He spun back around

quick like, into the forest

looking for the grizzly who was chasing him.


Hare Krishna, I follow the Mishna into the Tora Bora caves.

Make mine Michelangelo. Lying on his back

under the beamer, maneuvering

on a three wheeled creeper,

he was touched by the Divine Creator,

the differential in his greasy hands.


This poem ends here. We’ve reached the end time,

end of the line on this train to the sublime

boneyard. Aliens are fallen angels,

ancient progenitors, breathing

our history. Believe this bright lie,

and the radiant antichrist

shines like a searchlight

from his luminous throne

in the windshield sky.

© 2007 Phil Johnson


Bernadette looked at it and said, “That’s not about nothing.” She told me to go back and do it again. So I splattered the first poem against the wall, and I put the pieces back together. This is the result—


Sublime Boneyard

Aliens are fallen Michelangelos, they shine in the brush.

Lonely cowboy at night on his bedroll, wishing real hard it was all rolled back and he was facing Phoenix.

You get so alone, lonesome cowpoke (thank you, Buk). Maneuvers on his back, under the beamer, luminous throne, bright flotations.

So alone (thank you bright lie). Aliens are falling angels. Ancient progenitors, breathing in celestial realms. Only make believe, at the end of the prairie, chance events, operations, only make no sense, spun back like fictions.

I’ll show you operations. See the difference in his bright lie. And the captain says: I can sail it.

I’m sucking this scary shiver me timbers, random drops above the prairie, even the tailing plane? goes down my chest.

Scatter this sand where the ship falls searching for prairie dogs, scars down a cactus. Shunt shines like a searchlight.

Flash flood, follow this flight to the end time, end time. Dial the Divine space line.

Then the crash, luminous three where we smash arrays, quick like, sucking light out a cactus. Into the clearing—Krishna, Krishna.

Boots on, he blunders into the radiant. The lonesome cowpoke ends, clutching flotation. We’ve reached his bright see-through desert.

We beached his britches behind him, sitting on history. Bequeath his bedroll to the humpback whale, wishing away, facing the differential, facing the phosphorescent throne.

The lonesome cowpoke clutching his bedroll falling from poem ends here. We’ve reached the bright lie, and a straw. Roll out the three wheeled creeper.

Hare Krishna to the brush he cleared.

Hare Krishna to the windshield sky.

© 2007 Phil Johnson


The floor covering—marbled pattern I measured, cut, laid down

15 years ago in our bathroom: sepia clouds inside squares.

One section now a strange glaring red where sun radiated

through the skylight.

If you look at it like a child seeking visions in a cumulus sky,

there's a fish lying on its side, no longer undulating

through the river—caught and beached, its weight

pressing a fragile, scaled image into the sand.

Outside the frame, the angler is already casting his line

back into the bubbling waters running through the morning.

Here's a human face, cumulo nimbus forehead, shadowy

indentation at the temple, the nose a hazy triangle, the mouth caught between opening and closing. The eyes impossible to decipher. Emptied of feeling after some terrible conflict with wife or lover? Hearts shredded by rage?

Or does he anticipate a crossroads, gazing through the heavens

to divine what steps he should take? He and she

living in parallel layers as they shear apart. Knowing

he may need to make an irreversible decision.

I glance in the mirror. When I look back at the sepia sky,

the face is gone.

© 1997 Phil Johnson

Here is the link to Trembling Pillow Press, where good buddy Dave Brinks holds forth: http://tremblingpillowpress.com/

On November 17 Bernadette will be reading from her recently released book Ethics of Sleep. Go to http://tremblingpillowpress.com/ethicsofsleep.html

On the same date Phil will be reading from his new book.

Go to http://tremblingpillowpress.com/untitledwritings.html

I got an email from Bernadette Mayer’s partner, Phil Good. He said his longtime friend from Jersey Bill DeNoyelles had written a great review of Bernadette’s recently published Studying Hunger Journals. I could find it on the Exquisite Corpse web site:


After the book was released, I had invited Bernadette and Phil to be on my radio show, Across the Borderline, on WBCR-lp, where we talked and then read some of the book’s incredible passages.

I called Bill and told him I loved his essay. I told Phil G that Karen and I wanted to have a celebratory dinner for Bernadette at our place in Great Barrington. On November 5, Bernadette, Phil, and Brenda Coultas and her partner Atticus came over. We called Bill DeNoyelles and everyone had a chance to gab with him.

At the table I said how gratifying it was to have my two teachers at there (I took Brenda’s workshop at the Poetry Project and Bernadette’s workshops at her home). Two writers whose work I love and respect. We toasted Bernadette.

Then we ate the delicious dinner that Karen had prepared, and the conversations wound their way from the Occupy Wall Street movement—with Atticus and Brenda recounting their visits to Liberty Square—to Area 51, Roswell, and the possible presence of aliens and UFOs.

It was noted that Trembling Pillow Press in New Orleans is releasing Phil G’s new book of poems Untitled Writings from a Member of the Blank Generation. Bernadette and Phil are going down to NO to do a reading.

Eventually the guests toddled on out to their cars, heading home to Woodstock and East Nassau.

For my October 17 birthday my partner Karen and I took the train down to the city and got together with my daughter Colomba. We went to an amazing four hour play by one of my favorite off-off Broadway experimental theater companies, Elevator Repair Service. They presented a deconstruction of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which they called The Select.

I have loved the work of ERS since 2002, when Richard Foreman’s production manager Josh Briggs told me about their production of Room Tone at P.S. 122. Since then I’ve seen their versions of Gatz, No Great Society, and The Sound and the Fury.

After the play we went to a delightful little restaurant called Home on Cornelia Street in the West Village for a birthday dinner.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hope in Space

Bob Hope in senile dementia, attached to life support
by a high tech umbilical cord
                                                      floats from a NASA space ship

On a portable computer hanging by a strap from his neck
he writes his autobiography, last will & testament
without the slightest clue about the text strings he types

& he feels like a mosquito in space—distracted
                                                                                                            by a mosquito in space

                                 In the memory bank he makes his last withdrawal
falling back
to his buddies in Cleveland
                                         when the city was smaller
& you knew your neighbors

                                                          racing down to the lake,
amber bottles & a bald tire in mud,
                                                                              the sun
rip rippling their eyelids
                                                                                    first mosquito
                                lights on the wrinkled water

  as they flash
                    into wet holes & roll like buoys
                            to be Buck Rodgers in Lake Erie
                                    in the glassy womb

1999/2008   Phil Johnson

whiling through blue
shell dreams          
                        flicker from sleeves

a clue a kind of

can ache
like muscle
                  and the pier         is rolling

             .   one grain
on a splinter
             just above
the water line
the next dark swell

                        Who'll remember
how many times
                                 I've floated
         in this sea

© 1973/2007   Phil Johnson

Where are you tonight
                                                 flying over
California shore lines
where we
jumped the rocks
at low tide,
battled black murky
January surf

      (I didn't
         mean to hit you
with a rock once
                    in the head

your brother's car
without a license
rolling it out
waiting to pop
the clutch
at the bottom
of the hill
where we thought
your mother
wouldn’t hear us

                  Where will we go now  :   out to Bird Rock?
climb past the wind wet promontory
dark windowed rock house
haunted by the sea
each last wave
sucked back
from the smooth stoned shore
a long moist breath
taken in through the teeth

No stock car races
to sneak into
 : I'm through
         the barbed wire
     Catch me
            when I fall

No ties or striped belts
left to shoplift
at the buckle
out my pant leg

                                The corner cop!
knew nothing

                           So cool
         checking records on the racks
we walked out
                               with 10 or 12 lps
under my baggy jacket   
                                             went home
to be bombarded
                                    by Bird  Bach
Beethoven's 5th

Then why did you die
         from the sky
                  in that Navy jet
they loaned you
for your life

                                    3 days before
we would have been

                           Chet Baker
sounding his gold horn
still caught
in the slow motion haze of the 50s    can't

bring you back

© 1968  Philip Johnson

Tuesday, November 8, 2011