Poetry in Review
Poetry in Review
On the Collected Poems of Donald Justice (2004)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter criticizes American poet Donald Justice book Collected Poems. It explains that Justice spoke more fluently on behalf of nostalgia as a primary human emotion than any other poet of his generation and that tracing how that nostalgia works and has changed over time is one means of calculating the changes in Justice's art. This chapter argues that the last line of Justice's last poem in Collected Poems requires the readers to realize that suffering does exist and cannot be wished away, and that some kind of recompense for it will be allotted.
I wonder whether Donald Justice, before his death two months ago, was able to look at his Collected Poems and to cast himself back in time bya half century and into the place of his septuagenarian precursor who saw his own collected works and decided that “he was glad he had written his poems. / They were of a remembered time / Or of something seen that he liked.” The Ariel of Wallace Stevens’s “The Planet on the Table” can say somewhat cavalierly, or with faux naïveté, that “it was not important that they survive.” Rather, he commits himself to a doctrine of authenticity, to the true voice of feeling and of witness: “What mattered was that they should bear / Some lineament or character…Of the planet of which they werepart.” When considering their legacy and its possible permanence in the face of human mortality, artists exhibit a range of responses, from the assertive to the nonchalant. On one hand, we have Horace and Shakespeare, building their monuments that time will not efface. On the other, George Balanchine, who went even further than Stevens and told his choreographic heirs that he didn’t care whether his ballets survived because he knew they would inevitably change over time and that dance notation could never preserve in amber the essence of his work. But whereas dance lives only in the moment of its happening, words remain imprinted on the page and in the mind of the reading survivor. What does or should a poet expect and demand of the “secondary world” (W. H. Auden’s phrase), the planet on the table that he has amassed during a lifetime of word-crafting? Any Collected Poems encourages us to take the measure of its author; this particular planet (p.176) on the reviewer’s table establishes once more Justice as a major modest poet, a man who never published a bad poem. In this regard he is different from Robert Lowell, James Merrill, and John Ashbery, whose works—greater in length and in range—are often vitiated by poetic missteps, self-indulgence, or tonal excesses. Justice has stuck to his last in both subjects (childhood and nostalgia predominantly) and tones (melancholy, quiet contemplation, and authorial reticence). In addition, his insistent revision and his stylistic variety mark him as a craftsman as careful as Elizabeth Bishop and as experimental (compare Stevens again: “All poetry is experimental poetry”), as fluid and open to new gestures as Lowell and Ashbery. Quiet thoughtfulness does not preclude evolutionary transformation.
My association of Stevens and Justice is not merely fanciful. Justice always claimed Stevens, along with Charles Baudelaire, as one of his major influences. “The Planet on the Table” is, one might say, an exercise in proleptic nostalgia—the poet confronts the future but simultaneously knows that his readers will absorb his stoic grace as they look backward—and as such it suits the moods and subjects Donald Justice made his own over almost a half century. Although there have been others of his generation with similar concerns (James Merrill on childhood; Merrill and Richard Howard on art, artists, and the entire realm of the aesthetic), and although Charles Wright vies with him as a master of melancholy, Justice spoke more fluently on behalf of nostalgia as a primary human emotion than any other poet of his generation. Tracing how that nostalgia works and has changed over time is one means of calculating the changes in Justice’s art.
By comparison to despair, angst, rage, and libidinal surgings, nostalgia suffers form negligence or condescension among postmodern intellectuals, who tend to prefer raw openness, existential fear, or self-laceration in their art. In her suggestive study On Longing, poet-critic Susan Stewart calls it a disease. She allies it with still life, the much-maligned form that traditionally occupies the lowest rung on the ladder of painting’s genres and that, “by concealing history and temporality,…engages in an illusion of timelessness.” Like illusion and still life, nostalgia seems a matter of bad faith becauseit allows, indeed encourages, us to evade or ignore reality. For Stewart, suchforgetfulness and evasion are apparently themselves to be avoided. But just as still life as a genre for literary contemplation has undergone transformations at the hands of such stern modernist masters as Walter Benjamin, Vladimir Nabokov, and W. G. Sebald, so also nostalgia must undergo an upward revision. More than mere escapism, it, too, engages and connects us to reality rather than distances us from it. Justice, both an anatomist and a practitioner of nostalgia, deserves sympathy, respect, and attention. It is time to render both him and his subject greater justice.
(p.177) What’s wrong with nostalgia, anyway? It does not invariably meanregret for a better time. For someone like Justice, who lived through the Depression, the equation of melancholy, rather than simple dreamy longing, and “homesickness” (the literal sense of nostalgia) seems both naturaland defensible. He was not always happy in an Edenic childhood; rather, both past and present seem imbued with inexplicable low-grade depression. I am reminded of a question posed to the late novelist Laurie Colwin, who was accused of being too New Yorker-ish, of writing interior-decoratedfiction about well-educated, well-bred, good-looking people with a sufficiency of income and an abundance of taste and talent. Why did shewrite only about “rich” people? She replied to the interviewer that, having once been poor herself, she didn’t find the condition very interesting;that she would rather write about a cast of characters somewhat higher on the income scale. Who could deny her that? Why would anyone object toJustice’s combination of longing for, and anxiety about, a past whose factuality he could neither deny nor wish away? In many cases (Justice’s is one) an artist’s subjects seem less chosen than given; they constitute a kind ofgenetic material or poker hand that he has been dealt and must, in turn, dosomething with.
All of Justice’s reviewers and readers bring up the melancholy, nostalgia, and sadness in his poems. Few of them record how melancholy masks terror in his work. In 1974 Jerome McGann compared him to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for “his poems about poetry and a life in art.” Reading the Selected Poems (1979) and thinking of its homogeneity of tone and subject matter, Vernon Young called him “more hedgehog than fox.” Edward Hirsch in a review of The Sunset Maker (1987) labeled him “the resident genius of nostalgia.” Joel Connaroe came closer to the full truth, observing in 1967 that the poet brings his “controlled, urbane intensity to his Chekhovian descriptions of loss and of the unlived life, of the solitary, empty, ‘sad’ world of those who receive no mail, have no urgent hungers—who, in short, lead their lives but do not own them.” This strikes me as accurate, except that there’s a difference between examining the lives of others and reflecting on oneself. Justice alwaysdid both. In his 1997 essay “Benign Obscurity” he writes eloquently about Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Eros Turannos,” that Jamesian masterpiece of unexplained domestic tragedy. And there are moments in his poetry when a move outward—to story-telling, to observation of others—allows him his own Robinsonsian or Chekhovian moments. By and large, however, the terrors of Justice are entirely internal ones. There’s an instructive comparison with the young Robert Lowell (“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow”), who looks at his family and says “unseen and all-seeing, I was Agrippina / in the Golden House of Nero.” Justice for the most part does (p.178) without heroic, mythic aspiration or pretense; the ordinary insecurities of childhood suffice for him.
The insecurities are chronic and therefore lend themselves to repeated iteration. Repetition signals obsession or at least concern, and it clearlyinspires this poet’s technique. Consider the effect of repetition in (to take two examples from many) “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” (published in the 1980s) and “Sadness” (in the 1990s). Both are (largely) constructed in six-line stanzas and both feature a device that Justice alone among contemporary poets has obsessively liked: repeating instead of rhyming words. (It’sfor this reason that he also likes the sestina, the villanelle, and the curtailed villanelle.) The first poem includes two longer middle stanzas (the third and fourth, of six, have seven lines apiece); the variation both breaks the sameness and adds a certain symmetry to the whole. Here are the first two:
Cities burn behind us; the lake glitters.
A tall loudspeaker is announcing prizes;
Another, by the lake, the times of cruises.
Childhood, once vast with terrors and surprises,
Is fading to a landscape deep with distance —
And always the sad piano in the distance,
Faintly, in the distance, a ghostly tinkling
(O indecipherable blurred harmonies)
Or some far horn repeating over water
Its high lost note, cut loose from all harmonies.
At such times, wakeful, a child will dream the world.
And this is the world we run to from the world.
Unlike William Wordsworth, who also grew up “fostered alike by beauty andby fear,” Justice tends not to single out spots of time but to merge his memories into gestures and pictures that typify a chronic condition. Such typifying can easily seduce us into thinking that the pictures are mere washes of color, aquarelles or miniatures. “Blurred harmonies,” “dark sweet afternoons of storm and rain” (stanza 3), and a local lake “famed among painters for its blues” (stanza 4) cannot entirely erase the thudding horror of words that rhyme only with themselves. “Distance,”“distance,”“distance”: it’s a tocsin of alienation. It is as though the principle of all verbal repetition—whether of sounds, as in rhymes, or of whole words—must counter the effects of historical and personal change. Justice tries to fix the past by limiting the number of words at his disposal. Time makes its erasures. After the middle stanzas, enriched with their added lines, the final (again, six-line) stanzas return us (p.179) to a stylistic diminution as proof of time’s inexorable destructiveness, against which Justice offers us, not the self-confident pronouncements of Horace or Shakespeare on his immortality, but a muted, saddened, sotto voce despair. After the war (after childhood), when the grand hotels have been shuttered, when “we come back…as parents,” when there are no “lanterns now strung between pines—/ Only, like history, the stark bare northern pines,” the poet has only memories, some modest pictures, and Proustian associations:
And after a time the lakefront disappears
Into the stubborn verses of its exiles
Or a few gifted sketches of old piers.
It rains perhaps on the other side of the heart;
Then we remember, whether we would or no.
—Nostalgia comes with the smell of rain, you know.
The homonymic repetitions register subtle tonal shifts. Because things have vanished, the clean balance of “harmonies” with “harmonies” or “world” with “world” must also go. So we are left with “disappears” and a muted but hopeful reappearing “piers.” The poem ends with its only second-person pronoun, which brings us into the poet’s confidence, and makes a small community (as in Stevens: “Where being there together is enough”). We have the satisfactions of nostalgia, but they are braced against the threat of undoing: “know” goes with “no,” and recollection is an involuntary process. It is as though Justice wants to combat, or at least resist, the inevitable. This is hardly a disease or the “illusion of timelessness.” Justice heard the winged chariot more emphatically than most of his contemporaries.
The later “Sadness” sounds a similar tone but with some variations. It starts by trying to identify what was never spoken, only intimated:
Dear ghosts, dear presences, O my dear parents,
Why were you so sad on porches, whispering?
What great melancholies were loosed among our swings!
As before a storm one hears the leaves whispering
And marks each small change in the atmosphere,
So was it then to overhear and to fear.
What distinguishes Justice’s melancholy from that of Alfred, LordTennyson or Charles Wright—to pick two examples from the past and the present—is that for all of his interest in both music and painting, he tends to eschew Tennyson’s mellifluousness (“The moan of doves in immemorial elms / And murmur of innumerable bees”) and Wright’s gorgeous pictures. He substitutes an almost discursive language, as in the fourth stanza, in which the very (p.180) verb “describes” and some concluding abstractions move us away from the physical world to its effects on the psyche:
Burchfield describes the pinched white souls of violets
Frothing the mouth of a derelict old mine
Just as evil August night comes down,
All umber, but for one smudge of dusky carmine.
It is the sky of a peculiar sadness —
The other side perhaps of some rare gladness.
The strongest, because the most clearly antithetical rhymed couplet in the poem comes in the pairing of “sadness” and “gladness” (with the echo of Wordsworth’s “We poets in our youth begin in gladness, / but thereof come in the end despondency and madness”). Auden’s definition of poetry as the “clear definition of mixed feelings” comes to mind.
Justice concludes the poem on another Romantic note: “Sadness has its own beauty, of course,” begins the seventh stanza. He is thinking of John Keats’s Melancholy, who “dwells with Beauty, Beauty that must die.” The colloquialism “of course” is no flat filler. Like the modified and repeatedend words, it deliberately keeps tragedy and despair at arm’s length. The river darkens at dusk, and “we stand looking out at it through rain.” The conclusion humanizes life itself, echoes the tears at the end of the Intimations Ode, and, most touchingly, modestly joins endings and beginnings, factuality and figuration:
It is as if life itself were somehow bruised
And tender at this hour; and a few tears commence.
Not that they are but that they feel immense.
Like Bishop at the end of “One Art,” trying to pretend that she feels no pain at her loss, Justice keeps passion under the control of art, without whose asbestos gloves he would be left with an unstoppable outpouring. Not, for him, a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” But this self-restraint makes us well aware of the turbulence within.
One of the compelling aspects of Justice’s poetry is its reticence, clearlyon display in these poems of sadness. He was not one of the “foudroyant” masters whom Auden (in “The Horatians”) dismisses in favor of the moremod est tones of Horace and his companionable followers. Although wecome to know details of the poet’s life—the Florida childhood, the music lessons, the friends who died early and late—Justice was perhaps the least open of contemporary poets. By this I do not merely mean that the spared usmuch of his inner life or that he evaded the “confessional” mode once made popular by poets like Lowell, who disavowed the very term. I mean that the (p.181) first-person pronoun seems less prevalent in Justice’s work than in anyone’ssince Stevens’s. Just as Stevens projects himself into the “he” of the Snow Man, the Canon Aspirin, Crispin the Comedian, Professor Eucalyptus, or of any third-person subject in his verse, so Justice, too, could register fluctuations of feeling and personal observation without necessarily calling our attention to his own self. It is as though Justice throughout his work wished to harness the concerns of the British Romantics to the restraint of (at least one side of ) Stevens, but with the discursive ease and clarity of Bishop or his own student and somewhat younger contemporary Mark Strand.
Compare, for example, Justice’s “Fragment: to a Mirror” to James Merrill’s early “Mirror.” Neither gives what we might initially expect: an occasion for self-examination and scrutiny that leads to understanding. With its obliquely rhymed couplets (a stressed penultimate syllable in an odd-numbered line rhymes with the last syllable of its partner in the following, even one: “arrangement” and “change,” “superficial” and “fish”), its arch diction characteristic of the youthful aesthete, its tired speaker (the mirror itself ), Merrill’s poem concerns the nature of looking. The mirror records the glances of family members, who are regarding and measuring themselves, and it then adresses the window—that complementary framer of a scene—on the opposite wall. Looking out, looking across, looking in; Narcissus and the whole principle of self-knowledge are not far from the poet’s mind, nor is Echo, present in the rhymes, and in the mirror’s last acknowledgment:“to a faceless will, / Echo of mine, I am amenable.” For his part, Justice addresses a mirror but (and here is his distinctiveness) does not involve the self: even more than Merrill’s, his poem is typically not an exercise in human self-knowledge or reflection. A series of questions, the poem demands what exists “Beyond that bland façade of yours” and what before it, as well. The final question figures a world with no people, no questioners, therefore no function for the mirror and no human self-knowledge:
Is this the promised absence I foresee
In you, when no breath anymore shall stir
The milky surface of the sleeping pond,
And you shall have back your rest at last,
Your half of nothingness?
Justice never wrote about Edward Hopper, but he should have. Hopper’s pictures of existential loneliness either with or without human beings give us an appropriate analogy to poems in which people, even when they are together, are invariably alone. Justice’s stylistic reticence derives from his unflinching sense of not belonging. The warm and fuzzy feelings we normally associate with nostalgia have been largely replaced by the chiseled (p.182) coldness that accompanies an acceptance of alienation and that (in Justice’s mid-career) found a stylistic equivalent in experimental free verse and a surrealism that connected him for a while with Mark Strand and painters like Giorgio De Chirico.
The icy ars poetica “Poem” ignores both speaker and reader: “This poem is not addressed to you. / You may come into it briefly, / But no one will find you here, no one. / You will have changed before the poem will.” This is as close as Justice comes to Horace’s “monumentum aere perennius,” but it offers little consolation. He has taken the New Critical ideal of a poem as an autotelic phenomenon and pushed it to its horrifyingly logical conclusion. And he turns his back on the kind of consolations Wallace Stevens might have offered; his poem “comes without guitar, / Neither in rags nor any purple fashion. / And there is nothing in it to comfort you.” Exeunt both Hoon and the Man on the Dump. Exeunt, in fact, all human beings, as well as their wonted emotional satisfactions: “Nostalgias were peeled from it long ago.” Stripped-down, bare, prosaic and uncaring, the poem of “Poem” will certainly not help us either to enjoy life or to endure it.
Justice’s readjustment to his sense of identity coincided, as it always does in poets of the greatest scrupulousness, with the constant revision of his work. (“You didn’t write; you re-wrote,” says the ghost of Randall Jarrell to Robert Lowell in one of Lowell’s sonnets.) From the same time as “Poem,”“Self-Portrait as Still Life” has undergone a transformation of its own as the poet wavered between versions: from an initial appearance, to a revision in the New and Selected Poems (1995), to a final return here to the original version. Far from representing what Stewart calls “an illusion of timelessness,” Justice’s tinkering with his poem proves that self-portraiture and even painted still lifes undergo constant change; poem and painting are both, in Paul Valéry’s famous pronouncement, never completed, merely abandoned. In addition to changes in the incidental details of the picture in the poem, the most important fluctuation is the degree of Justice’s self-involvement. In both versions (of six unrhymed quatrains) he makes his brief appearance only in the second half. Here are lines 16–24 of the 1995 version:
And where am I? I don’t
Come into the picture.
Poets, O fellow exiles,
Lisping your pure Spanish,
It’s your scene now, and welcome.
You take up the guitar.
You cut up the melon.
Disturb the composition.
But the poet obviously had second thoughts about his modest evasions, his refusal to disturb or even to enter his picture, his insistence on rendering a self-portrait through gestures of absence. The original version, which now reappears in the Collected Poems, involved its creator to an even smaller degree. Here are lines 13–18:
[…] On the wall,
A guitar, in shadow,
I don’t come in to the picture.
Poets, O fellow exiles,
It’s your scene now, and welcome.
As an exile himself, Justice now prefers even less of himself. From three“I”s he moves back to a single one. It’s as if he realizes that even a modest increase in the number of his self-denials puts too much of himself into his poem. Can there ever have been a less revealing self-portrait? Hopkins observed that “the just man justices”; in this poem Justice “justices” or absolves himself by means of his exit strategies. The clearest proof of such absolution is the unique appearance of the poet’s name in his “Variations on a Text byVallejo”:“Donald Justice is dead.” This is Justice’sversion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “You are an I; you are an Elizabeth” in “In the Waiting Room”: a single act of self-naming in a writer’s oeuvre, in her case associated with a moment of hallucinating and loss of consciousness, in his with death itself.
Inveterate fussing, sometimes at the level of single words, minor substitutions, or even changes of punctuation, occurred throughout Justice’s career. “The Poet at Seven,” a sonnet from his award-winning first book, The Summer Anniversaries (1960), contains the line “And summer evenings he would whirl around,” which he later changed to “he would spin around,” to change, I suppose, the alliteration. Subtle details like this abound, but the change of even a single world might produce major effects. For example, another poem, originally called “Sonnet,” deals with Adam and Eve. After its first appearance, Justice retitled it “The Wall,” not only for greater specificity but also for greater menace, the menace of omission. This miniaturized account of life in the Garden until the moment of exile ends:
They had been told and told about the wall.
They saw it now; the gate was standing open.
As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.
One can go on. Start at the very beginning with “The Anniversaries,” the first poem in The Summer Anniversaries. In four twelve-line stanzas it traces the poet’s life from his birth, at which “Great Leo roared,” to his thirtieth birthday, when he “saw / The trees flare briefly like / The candles upon a cake / As the sun went down the sky.” Subsequently, through the 1995 Selected Poems, a revised poem called “The Summer Anniversaries” eliminated the original first stanza, began with the poet at ten, and inserted a new stanza about the twenty-one-year-old poet, now on the Lower East Side listening to a melancholy tugboat’s blast, which “reminded me I was lost.” Flash forward to 2004: the original poem has been restored, the revised one eliminated. Usually Justice preferred the latest versions of his poems; in this case he returned to the earliest one. Why? Surely a Variorum edition will be needed—as it will be for Lowell—so that future readers can make their own assessments. Until then we won’t be able to figure out whether Justice’s tamperings constitute improvements, uncertainties and doubts, nostalgia for first thoughts, or simply second (and third) thoughts. We might also ask ourselves why the poet could not simply combine the two versions, making a five-stanza poem that marks different points along the path of his first thirtyyears. This volume omits the first version, a narrative, of “Incident in a Rose Garden” from Night Light (1967), preferring a second version, in dialogue form, even though each of Justice’s previous collections included both poems. A “Collected” Poems is never the same as a “Complete” one (which is generally posthumous), but I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s ironic decision to title her volume of 1969 The Complete Poems, meaning of course “complete up until this point.” In Justice’s case, the current collection will stand until someone does for him what Frank Bidart did, albeit incompletely, for Lowell.
Whether we take Justice’s revisions as compulsive impatience, nervous discontent, or neurotic hesitation, these small gestures point to the craftsman’s tinkerings as evidence of a high degree of self-consciousness. A self-abnegating poet can still assert himself through means other than overt proclamations. “Learn to be anonymous,” he advises in “For a Freshman Reader.” Less trumpeting and self-promoting than Robert Lowell, Justice always took surprising turns in his negotiations with poetic form and language. Like Lowell he began as a “formal” poet, preferring the tried and true rhythms and genres of English verse. Although Lowell manipulated or wrenched the sonnet in the hundreds of pages of Notebook, History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin, his poetry from Life Studies onward became increasingly relaxed. Justice experimented with free verse (as with surrealism) in his middle volumes but has come back in the poems of the past fifteen (p.185) years to many of his earlier, traditional choices. A poet’s style rather than his subject matter might offer us the surest guide to his self-transforming. Because Justice’s subjects stayed the same, the formal variety of his presentations becomes that much more powerful a means of appreciating him.
I have already glanced at Justice’s rhymes, especially the repeated words, and the homonyms or “rime riche,” that he used throughout his career. As a principle of sound, repetition becomes a cause of effects, a constituent of meaning. Even with a preponderance of laconic diction (as in the characteristic epitaphic early poem “On the Death of Friends in Childhood”) and straightforward syntax, a Justice poem like the early, arch “Southern Gothic” can create an effect of thickness—appropriate to the landscape—through repetition of key words even when they are not placed in end positions. The last eight lines read:
Great oaks, more monumentally great oaks now
Than ever when the living rose was new,
Cast shade that is the more completely shade
Upon a house of broken windows merely
And empty nests up under broken eaves.
No damask any more prevents the moon,
But it unravels, peeling from a wall,
Red roses within roses within roses.
It sounds as if the Robert Frost of “Directive” and the Stevens of “The Plain Sense of Things” had moved for a moment to the Deep South. Later on, Justice looked back at his “Early Poems” with self-correcting, self-satirizing awareness: “How fashionably sad those early poems are! /…/ The rhymes, the meters, how they paralyze!” But it’s not always lush sadness. Justice renders his grim sense of human decline and deprivation with half rhymes to characterize the half-knowledge of “Men at Forty” (whose very title he famously borrowed from the very un-laconic “Comedian as the Letter C”). The beginning and end of the poem:
Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
Something is filling them, something…
That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.
(p.186) “Forty” and “softly” begin the soft music that becomes the “twilight sound” of progressively threatening crickets. A mixed, simultaneous diminuendo and sforzando accompanies further half-rhymes (“woods” and “foot”) as musicitself develops a symbolic power to complement the clear suggestion of“slippery” in “slope” and the jarring final adjective, which puts us in mind of the “death” that belongs linguistically to any “mortgage.”
Thus, Justice in midlife, chaste, sad, anonymous, fond of free verse or syllabics in his schemes and of synecdoche in his tropes. The man who earlier addressed a mirror still has no reflection, as in “The Missing Person” (“He sees what is missing. / It is himself ”) or begins his shut-down as in “The Man Closing Up” (“Like a deserted beach, / The man closing up”). Simple declaration accompanies the use of parts for wholes: “No longer do the hands know / The happiness of pockets” (“Hands”). The “twilight sound” has an internal component: “Now comes the evening of the mind. / Here are the fireflies twitching in the blood” (“The Evening of the Mind”). And in a minor mode:
If we recall your voices
As softer now, it’s only
That they must have drifted back
A long way to have reached us
Here, and upon such a wind
As crosses the high passes.
[“For the Suicides of 1962”]
And in Hopperesque reflections:
Lights are burning
In quiet rooms
Where lives go on
The reflections, revenants, and other reminders of a common mortality deliver their sense of acceptance all the more powerfully for being written in the present tense, and seldom in the first-person singular.
The poems of the last decade—both those included in the 1995 New and Selected and the ten new ones at the end of this collection—advance and repeat Justice’s ability to find new bottles for old wine, new music for his old congenial themes. “Vague Memory from Childhood” moves nostalgia to the edge of apocalypse, enclosing its imagery of sound and sight within quatrains that themselves offer verbal containment. Here is the first stanza:
Vast far clouds
In the zenith darkening
At the end of day.
The voices of the poet’s aunts mingle with the sound of “bird-speech” as evening gradually comes upon the child who, playing alone outdoors, notices a light indoors “printing a frail gold geometry / On the dust.” The last of fivestanzas:
Shadows came engulfing
The great charmed sycamore.
It was the end of day.
Shadows came engulfing.
The syntax is completely paratactic throughout; there is not a single dependent clause. The middle stanza is enjambed into the fourth; otherwise, each stanzaic room is self-contained by both its final period and the word that recurs at the end of its first and fourth lines (or, rather, variations on the phrase that boxes in the entire stanza). The last stanza is the only one with three sentences, which signal a deliberate slow-down. Darkness, endings, and the final ominous italicized repetition are heightened by the most specific extension and deepening of the “vague” threat present since the beginning: the initial verb (“came engulfing”) is transitive, affecting a single object (“the great charmed sycamore”). Now, the shadows come engulfing…what? Nothing specific and therefore everything in the world. Justice applies utter clarity of method to the articulation of a vague, intransitive horror. Consequently, we respond to the poem with a shiver of dread and a smile of aesthetic satisfaction.
Repetition, repetition, repetition: the new poems are filled with it. “At the Young Composers’ Concert” makes rhyme the connecting link between, rather than within, its couplets, in order to produce a chain of sameness and difference. Thus:
The melancholy of these young composers
Impresses me. There will be time for joy.
Meanwhile, one can’t help noticing the boy
Who bends down to his violin as if
To comfort it in its too early grief.
It is his composition, confused and sad,
Made out of feelings he has not yet had […]
Have I not waited with a numbed impatience
In polite pale rooms with polite anonymous patients?
Applying Yeats’s “polite meaningless words” (“Easter, 1916”) to (presumably) the poet himself in a hospital waiting room, Justice moves to scenes of greater impersonality, concluding his quintet of couplets with a bleak meteorological vignette:
The clouds, the vast white Saturday afternoon,
And the high mournful whistle crying, Nooon, Nooon.
Surely Justice intends “Nooon” not merely as an onomatopoeic transcription of a train whistle but also as a reminder of Stevens (“The Course of a Particular”), who gives us “the absence of fantasia” when at last the cry of the leaves “concerns no one at all.” The poem has moved from “I” to no one. Exeunt omnes, yet once more.
But not quite. The volume’s last poem—placed there deliberately, I am sure—is a three-stanza meditation (“There is a gold light in certain old paintings”) on the depiction of suffering or simple unhappiness through the mediums of pictures, music, and drama. Each stanza stands separate by virtue of its subject and by its vigorously emphatic repeated words. The gold light of old paintings “is like happines, when we are happy,” asserts the first stanza, even in scenes of the Crucifixion, when the soldiers “Share in its charity equally with the cross.” In stanza 2, Orpheus, having turned to see Eurydice, sings a song asking for the prolonging of his sorrow, “If that is all there is to prolong.” And, at the end, we have Justice’s non-Christian version of Sonia’s heartbreaking final speech in Uncle Vanya:
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.
The couplet moves away from the simple sentences and end-stopped lines that precede it. It also picks up a more lilting rhythm. Line 5, in my ear, getsfour stresses as opposed to the five in the others. Speed enters at the veryend. The couplet reminds us assertively of the goodness of our work and of our existence. Like God examining his creation at the beginning of Genesis, I hope that Donald Justice was able to take a retrospective glance and find (p.189) his own work “strong and clean and good.” The last line of Justice’s last poem requires us to realize both that suffering does exist and cannot be wished away, and that some kind of recompense for it will be allotted. The recompense comes metaphorically (“as though”) and through the witnessing of art. Donald Justice made himself into an impressive witness.