Men at forty

Derek Mahon

  • Selected Poems by Donald Justice
    Anvil, 137 pp, £3.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 85646 058 3
  • Exactions by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 80 pp, £2.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 85635 332 9

The first poem by Donald Justice I ever read was the much anthologised sestina, ‘Here in Katmandu’:

We have climbed the mountain,
There’s nothing more to do ...

It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a beautiful and mysterious object, resonant and yet resistant to paraphrase. It might be said that it is a poem of regret for the death of idealism, a poem about coming to terms with quotidian reality, and, therefore, in some sense about ‘the way we live now’. But these thoughts, although suggested by the poem, are not contained in the poem, which has a purely plastic quality, a quality emphasised by the highly artificial sestina form. It is, in Beckett’s words, an example of ‘light commenting bodies, and stillness motion, and silence sound, and comment comment’. It enjoys a Zen-like repose, and is at the same time mildly witty, as in the two variations Justice permits himself on the word ‘do’. One is ‘dew’, pronounced perhaps in the American way to rhyme with ‘do’, not ‘due’; the other is the ‘du’ in ‘Katmandu’:

Meanwhile it is not easy here in Katmandu.

Wit of this nature, based on word-play, reminds us that Justice was born and bred in the American South, and alerts us to the possibility that he might show signs of having been influenced by the Fugitives; indeed, the shades of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate seem to hover around many of the earlier poems in this volume, poems with titles like ‘Ladies by Their Windows’, ‘Landscape with Little Figures’, ‘Beyond the Hunting Woods’, ‘On the Death of Friends in Childhood’, ‘The Grandfathers’ and ‘Incident in a Rose Garden’. There are the same muted tones and gentle ironies beloved of the Fugitives; but there the resemblance ceases, for Justice has moved well away from their more limiting conventions and established a lucid, forceful manner of his own. Several of these poems, including ‘Here in Katmandu’, already have the status of minor contemporary classics of American poetry: not massive classics like Lowell’s greatest work, pregnant with private turmoil and public significance, but classics in a minor key and on a single instrument – spinet or tenor sax. ‘Counting the Mad’, apparently so simple, even naive, is to American poetry what Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is to English. Beneath the singsong, nursery-rhyme surface lies an infinity of pain:

This one was put in a jacket,
This one was sent home,
This one was given bread and meat
But would eat none,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.

Justice’s Southernness expresses itself in a formal, even slightly quaint diction and an evident respect – more common in the South than elsewhere in America – for the traditional English modes. In Justice’s case, this means that he works, as often as not, from a basic pentametric line, describes recognisable scenes, and frequently comments on some aspect of life as, say, Hardy would have done, or as Larkin generally does. ‘Time and the Weather’, ‘The Grandfathers’ and ‘Men at Forty’ are, in fact, strikingly Larkinesque. Justice’s ‘Ghostly furniture’, ‘Sunday prisons’ and ‘miraculous escapes’ are properties we often encounter in Larkin. Old men nod and spit on ‘ruined porches’; middle age becomes conscious of itself:

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

And in ‘Bus Stop’:

Lights are burning
In quiet rooms
Where life goes on
Resembling ours.

If there is a Hull in Georgia, this might be it. (There is even a sequence in praise of water.) But French influences are in evidence too, especially and explicitly that of Guillevic, whose mischievous obliquity and animism seem to appeal to one aspect of Justice, and some of whose elusive verse he translates or adapts. This is a varied and marvellously accomplished volume, and if it seems a little short on ambition – there is no major attempt at a comprehensive statement – at least he knows what he can and cannot do. Measuring the successes against the failures in these 130-plus pages, one is left in no doubt that here is a very fine poet indeed, and one who, on this side of the Atlantic at least, has yet to receive the attention he deserves.

Large claims are made by some for the work of C.H. Sisson, who has become something of a cult figure and is clearly a force to be reckoned with. (Aside from a great deal of original poetry, he has published a book on The Spirit of British Administration and a recent translation of The Divine Comedy.) Are the large claims made on behalf of the poetry, or on behalf of something he and his work are thought to embody? I suspect, in part at least, the latter: for he seems to offer, by precept and example, an alternative to the Movement and post-Movement ways of doing things, not least in his obvious faith in the importance of poetry as a social as well as an aesthetic force. Movement poets tended, and still tend, not always without reason, to pooh-pooh the value of their own poetic activity. Sisson, I think, would have none of this; and the great ‘seriousness’ which Donald Davie ascribes to him seems to share certain features with a great seriousness that dispersed itself somewhere around the middle years of the century. At this point I can no longer avoid mentioning the name of T.S. Eliot, to whom above all others Sisson appears to be indebted for his cultural frame of reference. Now, it’s well-known that, far from meeting the challenge posed by Eliot’s innovations, English poets as a whole nodded politely and went their own sweet way. But it’s that unanswered challenge which Sisson, in common with Davie and others, insists on meeting. So far so good, but what of the poems themselves? A long, ambitious piece begins:

This is the only place that I inhabit:
The desert.
No drop of water, no palm trees, nothing ...

Yes, yes, but didn’t we have that before in The Waste Land? Try something else. ‘Differently’:

If I had done differently I should have done well;
Differently is better, it could not have been worse.
I cannot stand, looking, as into a fire,
Into the past. There is only the charred wood.

Or consider ‘New World’:

New world, I see you dazzle,
Like the sun on a door-knocker
In a straight street inhabited
By people I do not know.

Sisson is at his best, I think, in his brief, suggestive lyrics that continue to revolve in the mind. With longer forms he is tedious and pretentious. He is possessed of a tin ear which does him great disservice; and he has a hectoring, lecturing tone that loves nothing better than to spell things out to you. Striving for cultural heroism, he achieves, at his best, a respectable fluency. I find myself reminded, in the end, not of Eliot, but of the less remarkable, though still impressive, figure of Edwin Muir, as in ‘Place’:

So we live nowhere, but somewhere there is a place
Where life is lived, a kingdom of the blest,
Perhaps, in which the programmes are prepared.