Donald Justice

Donald Justice (August 12, 1925 – August 6, 2004)
Donald Justice would be 91 were he alive today.  His name has never permeated the culture as it should.  Not just a good poet, he is a great poet with his devastating pieces that stab the emotions.  He’s a poet of death and nostalgia and aging; to read a Justice poem is to come to terms with the inevitabilities  of one’s own life.
“On the Death of Friends in Childhood”Donald_Justice
We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.
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This poem can be almost unbearable to read if you think of those who died too young.  “She just turned over and fell asleep,” my mother explained away the death of leukemia of my very best friend.  She was 7.  Zanna Ziegler, who attempted to dig to China with me.  Who looked at a strange passing man and wondered if his name might be Walter.  Who told me the story of Peter Pan and explained what a “stroke” was to me.  She named a cat “Indiana,” who was picked up on a high-way there.  And when my family found a wandering stray on a road in “Oklahoma” what else could his name be but Oklahoma?  We called each other “Tweet”.
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Using a Malaysian form, the pantoum, Justice wrote:

Pantoum of the Great Depression

Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don’t remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don’t remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows
Thank god no one said anything in verse.
The neighbors were our only chorus,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.

At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story.

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us.
We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
What audience would ever know our story?
Beyond our windows shone the actual world.

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
We did not ourselves know what the end was.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.

But we did not ourselves know what the end was.
People like us simply go on.
We have our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,
But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.

And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.

My parents and many others could testify to the cyclical circular rotation of each passing day of the American Depression.  The repetition of lines is a brilliant way to depict the claustrophobic time and the befogged souls of the people.

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“Men at Forty” evokes the elegiac sense of loss that shoots through our lives:

Men at Forty

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
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.

What is the “it” they feel?  I think it’s the loss of time, the shortening of a future, the sense that shaking things up is no longer a possibility.  It’s the knowing that most likely one has passed the mid-point of a life and that one has become, impossibly, one’s parent in many ways.  Filled with the immensity of the intimation of mortality, people at forty are aware of the shut doors behind them.
In the poem “Incident in a Rose Garden”, Death is personified as a Spanish waiter:
“And there stood Death in the garden,
Dressed like a Spanish waiter.
He had the air of someone
Who, because he likes arriving
At all appointments early,
Learns to think himself patient.
I watched him pinch one bloom off
And hold it to his nose–
A connoisseur of roses–
One bloom and then another.
They strewed the earth around him.”
Death is a patient “connoisseur” of roses, a figure who is overly punctual.   In this poem he has a Spanish flair (which reminds me of the “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” by Robert Browning).  This image of Death is unsettling, even shocking, because literature and out imaginations have treated him as a skull, as a grim reaper (reaping, not luxuriating in the aroma of flowers).
Justice deserves to be better read and read more often.  He is one of those excellent poets who offer us a “vade mecum” through life and its losses and our procession towards death.   Other excellent poems include “A Dancer’s Life,”  (Her life–she feels it closing about her now / Like a small theater, empty, wihout lights); “Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents” (“the dead don’t get around much any more”), the brilliant pastiche, “Banjo Dog Variations” with its tribute to Prufrock,  “Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy” (“O my coy darling” — how it evokes and upends Marvell).
“Sadness has its own beauty, of course” Justice assures us and he can prove it.  Part of the amazing group of poets born in the 1920’s (Wilbur, Nemerov, Hecht, Hollander, Hall, Creeley, O’Hara, Merwin–to mention only a few), Justice is well-worth reading.  As Father Hopkins says, “The just man justices”.   Donald Justice remind sus that “Thirty years and more go by / In the blinking of an eye” and also that “Certain moments will never change, not stop being—“