Brow Beat

Daniel Johnson’s Sad, Beautiful Poem About His Friend James Foley

A parishioner holds a prayer card in memory of James Foley after a Catholic mass at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary parish Aug. 24, 2014, in Rochester, New Hampshire.

Photo by DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

Photojournalist James Foley, executed in Syria on Aug. 19 by the terrorist group ISIS, has been memorialized in a poem by his close friend, Daniel Johnson, a Boston-based writer whom he met during a three-year stint for Teach for America in Phoenix. The Academy of American Poets published the poem, “In the Absence of Sparrows,” Wednesday morning. It is as painful as you’d expect, but the pain shifts between sharp and dull, blade and ache, capturing both the acuity of embedded reporters’ experience overseas and the suffering of those left behind.

In an accompanying essay, Johnson unfolds his bond with his friend: “Jim stood up in my wedding. He’s the reason I met my wife in a record-setting New York City blizzard. … He’s godfather to Luka, my son, now a year-and-a-half, whom Jim will never meet. When I sit down to write these days, I look at a picture of Jim with a pen in his hand, a combat helmet cocked back on his head. I will miss him forever.”

“In the Absence of Sparrows” starts out hopeless, weary, and anxious. “We don’t know, Jim, where you are,” the speaker says, over and over. His voice is plain, spare, muted, and unlyrical. He sounds as if he is addressing a friend, not composing a poem. “Don’t get me wrong,” he tells Jim, “we expect you back. Skinny, feral, coffee eyes sunken but alive, you’ve always come back.”

There is an abrupt cut to a memory of the last time Foley returned from a war zone. “I wanted to break your fucking nose,” Johnson writes. In the next section, he relates the Syrian kidnapping in a remote newscaster’s tone, and the poem’s few elevated notes of surrealism creep in: “In the absence of sparrows: American journalist James Foley disappeared after being taken captive by armed gunmen near Aleppo, Syria on Thanksgiving Day. In the absence of sparrows: our house burns blue with news.”

Flashback to James recklessly driving a Chrysler across a frozen lake, to James and David marching on the Republican Convention in New York City to protest Bush’s presidency. (The cinematic quality of the interspliced scenes is an homage to Foley’s work as a photojournalist, and a grim intimation of his televised death.) When the pair is arrested, Johnson is released from jail after one day, but, he reminds Foley: “They held you and held you. You are missing still. I want to hold you. Beauty is in the streets, my brother. Beauty is in the streets.”

Beauty is an unexpected word in a poem that mourns a friend’s capture and eventual murder in a distant desert at the hands of a terrorist group. But it evokes everything that Foley was missing, locked in a New York City prison after the demonstration, and everything he risked and lost to truthfully document unrest in the Middle East. (He reported in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria.) Foley documented the streets and was a part of their beauty until he was snatched from them. I’m not sure if Johnson was thinking of Catullus’ dirge for his girlfriend Lesbia’s sparrow when he wrote “In the Absence of Sparrows,” but that lyric’s most emotionally heightened moment consists of the poet cursing the shadows of the Underworld “that devour everything of beauty.”

Then, from the presence of loveliness in the boulevards, Johnson brings us into Foley’s presence: “All of a sudden, you appear.” But something’s wrong: “standing before a cinder block wall, you’re holding a video camera with a boom mic and wearing a bulletproof vest.” Though the poet does not directly conjure his friend’s beheading, the violence is implied and the threat palpable. And just as quickly, Foley is gone again: “You simply wandered off, past the Sunoco, pockets stuffed.”

The poem ends in a key of hope—“the door to your apartment is open still”—that feels all the more poignant for what we know about the end of Foley’s life. The fact is that James Foley is no longer absent in the way he was when Johnson began this poem—the loss has acquired hardness and definition. Now, instead of expressing a friend’s anxiousness and longing, a lyric for Foley must be a monument—the most simultaneously present and absent thing of all—that, as Johnson writes in his essay, “reclaim[s] his image and memory.”