The greatest confluence of all is that which makes up the human memory—the individual human memory… . The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.
—Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
Certain moments will never change nor stop being—
My mother’s face all smiles, all wrinkles soon;
The rock wall building, built, collapsed then, fallen;
Our upright loosening downward slowly out of tune—
All fixed into place now, all rhyming with each other.
—Donald Justice, “Thinking about the Past”
It has been a treacherous year for poetry, with the deaths of Thom Gunn, Czeslaw Milosz, and the American-born British poet Michael Donaghy. The news from Iowa City this past August brought further cause for dismay, as readers learned of the death, from pneumonia, of the American master Donald Justice. That same month, Justice had bequeathed to his readers a final, splendid volume of his collected poems—at once a paltry solace and an inheritance worthy of profound gratitude. Long illness forced him last year to decline the opportunity to serve as U.S. Poet Laureate. And now, with Justice’s passing, it is hard not to feel that a curtain has begun to descend over an eminent generation of American poets. From this uncertain vantage point at the outset of the century, one is hard pressed to imagine who might succeed them.
The poems that Justice handed down will not easily be forgotten. They compose a body of work that, though inimitable, younger writers would do well to study for its fluent musicality and gently blooming, almost ineffable melancholy. Justice’s own literary lineage, as a number of critics have observed, descends from certain strains in Stevens and even, perhaps, as Michael Ryan has suggested, from Flaubert. Yet Justice was more “American,” and specifically more Southern, than either of these forerunners suggests. As the poet Dana Gioia has observed, Justice was the kind of artist who confidently absorbed his influences until they were almost entirely obliterated: “Not only does one not sense any psychic wrestling with his three dominant early masters—Stevens, Baudelaire, and Auden,” Gioia writes, “one also doesn’t find much evidence of them in his poems outside of a few deliberate homages.” And if Justice is unlike any poet that preceded him, no poet writing today is quite like him either.
Born in Miami in 1925, Justice wrote nostalgically of his Floridian childhood, a fragile moment in time and place that, to his dismay, he found much altered when he returned to his home state as a professor in 1982. While Florida today, ludicrously cross-gartered with strip malls and retirement communities, hardly seems part of the American South, in Justice’s day Miami was, as described in his poems, cut very much from Southern cloth. “The city was not yet itself. It had/ In those days, the simplicity of dawn,” as he recalls in “The Miami of Other Days.”
Justice’s Florida of the Thirties boasted eternal summers punctuated by sudden storms, birdsong, and the twittering of omnipresent aunts, the aromas of Cuban coffee and dusty sofas, dance lessons, and music spilling out onto the lawn from a parlor piano, the streets streaked with the endlessly lengthening shadows of evening. Or, as such mementos became for Justice in his later life, the ghostly dream of all of these, as described in “Vague Memory from Childhood”:
It was the end of day—
Vast far clouds
In the zenith darkening
At the end of day.
The voices of my aunts
Sounded through an open window.
Bird-speech cantankerous in a high tree mingled
With the voices of my aunts.
I was playing alone,
Caught up in a sort of dream,
With sticks and twigs pretending,
Playing there alone
In the dust.
And a lamp came on indoors,
Printing a frail gold geometry
On the dust.
Shadows came engulfing
The great charmed sycamore.
It was the end of day.
Shadows came engulfing.
Justice’s career-long innovations with repetitive forms, beautifully managed here, correspond, I think, with his perennial fascination with the workings of memory. Early sestinas and modified villanelles give way to poems like his masterly “Pantoum of the Great Depression,” as well as to nonce forms that make use not only of refrains but also of the repetition of words and phrases within a line or stanza (“The clocks are sorry, the clocks are very sad./ One stops, one goes on striking the wrong hours”). Such returns, found everywhere in the poems, mimic memory as it bears the past back to the speaker in successive waves. The poems, then, work to fix these memories, however distant or vague they may be initially, by pressing them into a glittering and durable object.
Memory is Justice’s great subject, engendering the nostalgia and bittersweet tonalities for which he is known. His titles alone suggest as much: “Memory of a Porch,” “Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens,” “Memories of the Depression Years,” “Thinking about the Past,” “In Memory of My Friend, the Bassoonist, John Lenox,” “In Memory of the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn,” “The Piano Teachers: A Memoir of the Thirties.” This partial list could be expanded to include numerous other poems about childhood, family, and the South that enact similar feats of retrieval.
If Mnemosyne is mother to Justice’s muse, abetting him in recalling the vanished Florida of the Depression years, then perhaps Justice’s nearest kindred literary spirit is not a poet at all but a novelist and story writer also reared in the South in the early twentieth century—Eudora Welty. Prose writers and lyric poets resist easy pairing. One might identify, as Elizabeth Bishop did, a Jamesian strain in James Merrill’s poems, for instance (“liqueur de James,” she called them). Or Edwin Arlington Robinson could rightly be touted as a dab hand at situation and character, yet I would be at a loss to say which novelists he most recalls. Even the poetic side of Thomas Hardy, to my ear, did not hold extensive congress with that part of him that produced the novels—though both poems and prose are bound by the geography of his storied Wessex. Content on their native grounds, versifiers and fiction writers rarely tread each other’s turf.
Occasionally, however, a felicitous mingling of sensibilities does occur. In the case of Merrill, Bishop writes in a letter from Samambaia dated March 1, 1955, that “the poems kept reminding me of The Golden Bowl (without cracks) and then just now I thought they also reminded me of James’s short stories—only boiled down, or distilled… .” “Maybe I should leave James out of it,” Bishop immediately demurs, feeling perhaps she has overstepped or been needlessly reductive.
Still, she continues: “Your imagery, however, frequently does remind me of the imagery of the later Henry James, only with a paragraph or a page or two compressed into one or two lines.” The secret, of course, is in the compression; it’s what saves Merrill from simply rewriting James, and the flavor retained is a peculiarly intense sensation.
If Merrill’s true Penelope was James, then for Justice, who also managed a unique lyric distillation in his poems, it may well have been Welty. My hesitation in drawing the comparison, like Bishop’s I suspect, derives from a fear of diminishing Justice’s extraordinary achievement as a poet. It is not derivation, however, but affinity that I want to suggest. Welty’s work provides a lens through which to view Justice’s poems, revealing neither weakness nor fealty on Justice’s part but, rather, strength and originality. (If anything, the influence of a prose writer on a poet may be more salubrious by design, avoiding the pitfalls encountered when a poet falls too fully within the gravity of another poet, as early Larkin did with Yeats or Allen Tate with T. S. Eliot.)
The index of Donald Justice’s papers in the special collections department at the University of Delaware reveals a concrete connection between Justice’s writing and Welty’s. In 1977, Justice wrote a play, preserved in the library’s holdings, adapting “Eudora Welty’s short story [sic] ‘The Golden Apples.’” A letter from Welty concerning the adaptation accompanies the typescript. Also during the Seventies (the year is unspecified), Justice produced a further bit of adaptation—taking Welty’s own title “The Hitch-Hikers”—for the Reader’s Theater.
Justice’s connection to Welty’s writing, however, goes deeper than these instances of journeywork. It may be found woven inextricably into the fabric of his poems: in his music teachers and Victrolas, in his shaded lawns, his porches and weedy lots. What’s more, beyond any specific images the two writers may hold in common, Justice shares a way of seeing with Welty that can wring emotion from the visible world. A description of the light at a particular time of day, for instance, can suggest for both writers not only a powerful mood but also a compelling dramatic situation.
Reliance on natural description for the heavy lifting in poetry is extremely tricky, yet Justice succeeds again and again in poems like “Southern Gothic”:
Something of how the homing bee at dusk
Seems to inquire, perplexed, how there can be
No flowers here, not even withered stalks of flowers,
Conjures a garden where no garden is
And trellises too frail almost to bear
The memory of a rose, much less a rose.
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.
The quietude with which Justice evokes loss here is a far cry from, say, Hardy’s great poem “During Wind and Rain,” which treats a similar theme more clangorously. Justice’s refinement and subtlety have led certain of his critics astray; tin-eared, they find him too low-key and sleepy. Yet what has been said of Chekhov’s plays could be said of this poem: nothing much happens, except that one world ends and another begins. Concrete objects, deftly observed and presented, convey the real subject of the poem. Both the house and the nests are empty. The homing bee inquires at an abandoned home. The roses that once adorned the garden in better days are now found only on the peeling wallpaper, an image that captures the decline of the place (and by extension, we imagine, of the former inhabitants) with fierce economy.
Welty, like Justice, possesses a resonant command of the visual, which directly informs the emotional tone of her stories; memory, for her, enters through the eye: “I found the world out there revealing, because (as with my father now) memory had become attached to seeing.” Reminiscent of “Southern Gothic,” Welty’s description, in her story “June Recital” from The Golden Apples, makes similar use of a derelict house engulfed in shadow:
In the shade of the vacant house, though all looked still, there was agitation. Some life stirred through. It may have been old life.
Ever since the MacLains had moved away, the roof had stood (and leaked) over the heads of people who did not really stay, and a restless current seemed to flow dark and free around it.
Just as Justice repopulates the trellises of his abandoned house with flowers, Welty, through the eyes of a young boy named Loch, gradually repopulates the house next door with its one-time inhabitants—a girl who has snuck in to be alone with her boyfriend, and an old piano teacher, Miss Eckhart, who has come to burn the place down, beginning with the piano she used to teach on. The flowers in Justice’s poem come to represent the former life of the abandoned house, just as the sound of music emanating from the house in “June Recital” awakens for Loch’s sister memories of the lessons she used to attend there and of Miss Eckhart in her heyday.
To adapt Bishop’s phrase, Justice’s poems can read like liqueur de Welty. Their genius often lies in the way that they distill the trappings of memory to their most resonant and musical components. As Justice himself has written, this music, then, becomes a mnemonic device: “The emotion [in a poem] needs to be fixed,” he writes in “Meters and Memory,” “so that whatever has been temporarily recovered may become as nearly permanent as possible… . The audience is enabled [through meter and other devices] to call back the poem, or pieces of it, the poet to call back the thing itself, the subject, all that was to become the poem.”
It is the concision of verse that allows us to affix it in our minds, Justice understood: (Bishop again) “a paragraph or a page or two compressed into one or two lines.” But why compress? In order, Justice argues, to forestall forgetting. To create an object that will both be remembered in and of itself and that can assist the audience and the poet in the act of remembering.
As an example of Justice’s ability to distill and organize his material, consider first the following passage from Welty’s “Music from Spain,” which depicts Eugene MacLain as he, too, recalls Miss Eckhart:
He had even forgotten all about old Miss Eckhart in Mississippi, and the lessons he and not Ran had had on her piano, though perhaps it was natural that he should remember her now, within the aura of music. Experimentally he let down one by one the touchy, nimble fingers of his left hand on the table, then little finger and thumb see-sawed. … Eugene seemed to hear the extending cadence of “The Stubborn Rocking Horse,” a piece of his he always liked, and could play very well. He saw the window and the yard, with the very tree. The thousands of mimosa flowers, little puffs, blue at the base like flames, seemed not to hold quite steady in this heat and light. His “Stubborn Rocking Horse” was transformed into drops of light, plopping one, two, three, four, through sky and trees to earth, to lie there in the pattern opposite to the shade tree. He could feel his forehead bead with drops and the pleasure run like dripping juice through each plodding finger, at such an hour, on such a day, in such a place.
Music teachers and piano lessons crowd Justice’s poems, as well. His Miss Eckharts are referred to in “The Piano Teachers: A Memoir of the Thirties” as Mrs. Snow, Mrs. L., and Mrs. K. Justice praises the iconoclasm and quiet devotion of the teachers and unlikely art lovers of his childhood, whom he refers to elsewhere as “those brave ladies who taught us/ So much of art, and stepped off to their doom.” Justice’s recollections of these small-town bohemians, like Welty’s, seem fated and keenly aware of the losses they were forced to endure.
Now consider a couple of short passages from Justice. Where Welty uses multiple stories to elegize Miss Eckhart, Justice captures the melancholy decline of his mentors in a few lines:
On the piano top,
A nest of souvenirs:
Flowers, old programs, a broken fan,
Like a bird’s broken wing.
—And sometimes Mr. L. himself
Comes back, recurring, like a dream.
Real flowers. Thin,
Demanding, his voice soars after dark
In the old opera between them.
But no one sees the blows, only
An occasional powdered bruise,
And again in this passage from “Sonatina in Green”:
For them, what music? Only,
Distantly, through some door ajar,
Echoes, broken strains; and the garland
Crushed at the threshold.
We few with the old instruments,
Obstinate, sounding the one string—
For us what music? Only, at times,
The sunlight of late afternoon
That plays in the corner of a room,
Playing upon worn keys. At times,
Smells of decaying greenery, faint bouquets—
More than enough.
Welty’s need “to hold transient life in words,” as she puts it in her memoir One Writer’s Beginnings, is matched by Justice’s own need to do so in his poems. And there the comparison of the two may end. Where Welty took two pages, Justice took two lines, though both succeeded brilliantly without ever approaching the other’s chosen genre. Justice wrote elegant and insightful essays and illuminating memoirs that also attempt to “hold transient life” in various ways, but his real work was always in verse. His metrical poems display, like few others in recent memory, the particular powers of traditional prosody, and his free verse is similarly formed by an impeccable ear.
Perhaps it was his craftsman’s awareness of how verse, in the right hands, could produce astonishing effects that led him to stem the tide of fashion as it flowed toward prose. As Justice puts it in an interview with David Hamilton and Lowell Edwin Folsom in 1980, “I have to acknowledge that one of the afflictions of American verse at present is the prose poem, and one reason that it is an affliction instead of a salvation is that poets allow themselves all sorts of licenses regarding rhetoric, elevation, diction, and foolish ideas that they wouldn’t think of allowing themselves in their so-called verse.”
The affliction of prose poetry, as Justice saw it, may be merely a symptom of a wider malady to which the prevalence of free verse has led. Readers have begun to lose their ear for the verse line, without which, as Justice says, poetry might as well be prose. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that so few poets write free verse as well as Donald Justice. But then, if truth be told, few poets write as well, period.
- Collected Poems, by Donald Justice; Alfred A. Knopf, 289 pages, $25. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 3, on page 21
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