Growing up in San Diego, I thought I understood heat. Aside from the towns sprinkling the coast, Southern California is little more than a desert, after all. In July, August, and September, temps could easily top 100 degrees. In high school, we’d be dismissed early for heat days rather than snow days if temperatures were predicted over 90.
Despite all that, it wasn’t until I visited my grandparents in Florida for July and August one summer that I truly experienced heat. The dry heat of San Diego was nothing compared to the thick humidity that soaked into my lungs after stepping out of the air conditioned airport in Orlando. And yet somehow, my cousin and I, desperate for that summer glow, would tug on our bathing suits and lay out on our towels on the front lawn, blaring early 90’s hip hop on the radio to distract ourselves from the sweat that pricked at our teenage skin within seconds.
That felt like the heat, the “large oven impersonating night,” that Denis Johnson described in one of my favorite poems. I first read the poem in an Introduction to Creative Writing class at a local community college in 2001 as I waited to hear back from the MFA programs I applied to attend. At 23, the music and alcohol-fueled sexuality of the poem appealed to me. I could feel, see, hear, taste, and smell the poem as I read it. It made me ache in ways I was just beginning to understand. Looking back now, I see just how much influence this poem had on my own writing throughout grad school.
One week ago, Denis Johnson passed away. Reading “Heat” again, now, I still feel those aches, the desire to write and live and love. And like I did back then, I hope to capture those feelings, the neon buzz of anticipation and creation, and use them to inspire and incite me into writing and adventuring in the heat this summer. RIP, Denis Johnson. You will be missed “in the electric dusk.”
Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It’s beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,
streaming with hatred in the heat
as the record falls and the snake-band chords begin
to break like terrible news from the Rolling Stones,
and such a last light—full of spheres and zones.
you’re just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious?—this large oven impersonating night,
this exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion,
the bogus moon of tenderness and magic
you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light?
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