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In Palo Alto by Denis Johnson

August 30, 1987

\o7 Every day I have to learn more about shame from the people in old photographs

in secondhand stores and from the people

in the photographic studies of damage and grief,

where the light assails a window and the figure's back

is all we see--or from the very faces

we never witness in these pictures, several of whom

I passed today in their windows, some hesitant,

some completely committed to worthlessness--

or even from my own face, handed up suddenly by the car's

mirror or a glass door. When I was waiting

for a bus, the man beside me

showed me a picture of a naked youth

with an erection, and the loneliness

in his face as he held this photograph

was like a light waking me from the dead.

I was more ashamed of it than I was of my own

a few days later--just tonight, in fact--

when solitude visited me on a residential street

where I stopped and waited for a woman to pass

again across her unshaded window, so that

I could see her naked.

line begins just after naked in previous line

As I stood there teaching

the night what I knew about this sort of thing,

a figure with the light coming from in front

while the axioms of the world one by one disowned me,

a private and hopeless figure, probably

somebody simply not worth the trouble of hating

it occurred to me it was better to be like this

than to be forced to look at a picture of it

happening to someone else. I walked on.

When I got back to the streets of noises and routines,

the places full of cries of one kind or another,

the motels of experience, a fool in every room,

all the people I've been talking about were there.

And we told one another we ought to be ashamed.

From "The Veil" (Alfred A. Knopf: $15.95, hardcover, $8.95, paperback; 84 pp.). Johnson, author of several previous volumes of poetry, notably "The Incognito Lounge" (1982), has more recently published three novels: "Angels" (1985), about a petty criminal in Chicago; "Fiskadoro" (1985), about primitive fishermen off the Florida coast at a time when the United States has become just a memory; and "The Stars at Noon" (1986), about a journalist-turned-prostitute in Central America. His poems often present, as this one does, painful, extremely private feelings in public, exposed, anonymous places. 1987, Denis Johnson, by permission.

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