Erasures

Mark Ford

  • Collected Poems by Donald Justice
    Anvil, 289 pp, £15.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 85646 386 8

Donald Justice, who died in August 2004 at the age of 78, was one of the most subtle and enchanting American poets of his generation. In ‘Variations on a text by Vallejo’, a poem anticipating his own demise, but written some three decades before it, he pictured gravediggers burying him in Miami (his home town):

And one of them put his blade into the earth
To lift a few clods of dirt, the black marl of Miami,
And scattered the dirt, and spat,
Turning away abruptly, out of respect.

Justice was not prolific; like Elizabeth Bishop, with whom he has much in common, he devoted his life to the perfection of a small body of deceptively modest poems. His work exhibits little of the ostentatious virtuosity of better-known formalists such as Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, with whom he is so often, and rather unfortunately, grouped. Rather, Justice’s poems delicately induce the hypnotic state that Bishop described as her artistic ideal in a letter to Anne Stevenson: ‘What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.’

A tiny poem, ‘The Thin Man’, in Justice’s second collection, Night Light (1967), outlines a similar aesthetic credo:

I indulge myself
In rich refusals.
Nothing suffices.

I hone myself to
This edge. Asleep,
I Am a horizon.

Concentration, the honing to an edge, is what makes possible the dreamy expansiveness of the poem’s last sentence. Like Bishop’s Crusoe, marooned on his island and playing with names, christening his volcano Mont d’Espoir, Justice’s Thin Man is strung between antitheses that are fused in the opposite possible meanings of ‘Nothing suffices’. A minimalist conundrum in neat syllabics, ‘The Thin Man’ obliquely hymns the perfectly useless poetics of self-forgetful reverie.

Like Bishop, Justice delights in finding possibilities for poetry in minute fissures in the façade of the ordinary; a newspaper advert offering for sale a hatbox of old letters generates a poem to the unknown lady who wrote them, and a Sears, Roebuck catalogue entry an ode to a dressmaker’s dummy. Something of the faux-naif hovers above his diction, as it does Bishop’s, especially in poems that work up a single conceit, such as ‘On the Death of Friends in Childhood’:

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.

A crucial aspect of the charm of such poems is their refusal to be purposeful; they are poem all through, so to speak.

This may be one reason reviewers frequently called him ‘a poet’s poet’, that consoling phrase so many versifiers reach for while pondering their annual royalty statements. Certainly Justice never achieved widespread popularity, though he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, was co-awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1991 (with Laura Riding – as odd a pairing as it’s possible to imagine) and was offered the US poet laureateship the year before his death. He seems not to have minded the poet’s poet label, or at least, when asked in an interview of 1996 whom he wrote for, replied frankly, ‘Other poets, probably,’ then added: ‘For that matter, where could you find a better audience?’ The poems themselves are equally open about their literariness, often advertising their bookish origins in their titles: ‘Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees’, ‘Variations on a Theme from James’, ‘After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens’, ‘Variations on a Text by Vallejo’, ‘A Variation on Baudelaire’s “La Servante au grand coeur”’. ‘American Scenes (1904-1905)’ is quarried almost entirely from Henry James’s account of his return to his homeland and the notebook entries he made on that trip. Epigraphs and notes direct us to sources that include Rafael Alberti, Wang Wei, Catullus, Kafka, Laforgue, Rilke, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, John Peale Bishop, Attila József and the French poet Guillevic, with whose work Justice seems to have felt a special affinity.

Yet Justice’s poems are never allusive or disjunctive in the high Modernist style. His versions of French and Spanish poems make them wholly over into American. Consider, for instance, the third section of ‘Memories of the Depression Years’ (one of many poems on America in the 1930s). It is subtitled ‘Miami, Florida, c.1936’:

Our new house on the edge of town
Looks bare at first, and raw. A pink
Plaster flamingo on one leg
Stands preening by the lily pond.
And just as the sun begins to sink
Into the Everglades beyond,
It seems to shatter against the pane
In little asterisks of light,
And on our lids half-closed in prayer Over the clean blue willowware.

Its parent poem is Baudelaire’s ‘Je n’ai pas oublié . . .’

Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville,
Notre blanche maison, petite mais tranquille;
Sa Pomone de plâtre et sa vieille Vénus
Dans un bosquet chétif cachant leurs membres nus,
Et le soleil, le soir, ruisselant et superbe,
Qui, derrière la vitre où se brisait sa gerbe,
Semblait, grand œil ouvert dans le ciel curieux,
Contempler nos dîners longs et silencieux,
Répandant largement ses beaux reflets de cierge
Sur la nappe frugale et les rideaux de serge.

In Justice’s version Baudelaire’s tableau parisien has found its perfect twin: reading them against each other is like hearing in stereo a piece of music one had known only in mono.

Many poems evoke the provincial Miami of Justice’s early years, before the city fell victim to the ruthless developers of the postwar boom. ‘Forlorn suburbs,’ his wonderful ‘Childhood’ concludes, ‘but with golden names!’ – echoing again Baudelaire’s lonely banlieue irradiated by the setting sun. Justice studied the piano from an early age, and until his late teens intended to become a composer. At the University of Miami he was a pupil of the now largely forgotten Carl Ruggles, and a fragment from a piece he wrote for Ruggles is quoted in the title poem of his fourth collection, The Sunset Maker. There it is attributed to a fictional, not very successful composer called Eugene Bestor, whose papers the speaker has inherited. Is this phrase, he wonders, all that now survives of Bestor?

The hard early years of study, those still
Sequestered mornings in the studio,
The perfect ear, the technique, the great gift
All have come down to this one ghostly phrase.
And soon nobody will recall the sound
Those six notes made once or that there were six.

Justice always firmly repudiated the notion that there was anything more than a metaphorical connection between music and poetry. His poems, though, are full of characters practising, teaching or learning the piano, and musical imagery and references abound:

The poet practising his scales
Thinks of you as his thumbs slip clumsily under and under,
Avoiding the darker notes.

(‘Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens’)

Many also seem shadowed by the melancholy threat of oblivion, the fate that is about to overtake Bestor’s musical phrase:

Clouds out of the south, familiar clouds –
But I could not hold on to them, they were drifting away,
Everything going away in the night again and again.

(‘Presences’)

In 1993 Justice published an essay called ‘Oblivion’ urging a reconsideration of the work of three unjustly neglected poets, Weldon Kees, Henri Coulette and Robert Boardman Vaughn – though Vaughn can hardly be described as neglected since only three of his poems ever made their way into print. In a preamble to a discussion of their work he broods on the ‘slide or plunge into oblivion that awaits virtually everyone, and of which artists are painfully conscious’:

There is a sorrow deep down at the heart of things, we would, many of us, agree; for the artist some sense of disappointment and frustration, some rage for and at the absolute, seems inevitable. Persistence in the face of such certitude of oblivion is in its small way heroic, or so my romantic spirit commands me to believe.

Vital to this ‘small’ heroism is the refusal of heroics – of the grand gesture, the oracular pronouncement, the melodrama of confession. Justice may have felt, as this essay puts it, ‘a mysterious and hidden consciousness . . . of being other’, but poems such as ‘Orpheus Opens His Morning Mail’ or ‘Last Days of Prospero’ wittily undermine the idea of the poet as hero or mage. Prospero, for instance, returned to his island in old age, is figured pacing the beach,

Debating, as old men will, with himself
Or the waves, and still the waves kept coming
Back at him always with the same
Low chucklings or grand, indifferent sighs.

Justice’s poems aim at an impassive, at times even affectless anonymity, as if written by a missing person; searching for Donald Justice in these Collected Poems can seem almost as futile as the search for the first of his neglected poets, Weldon Kees, who disappeared in July 1955, having abandoned his car near the Golden Gate Bridge. Kees’s body was never recovered, and over the years rumours spread that he had been spotted on a boat in Sydney Harbour, in a cantina in Mexico, in a jazz club in New Orleans, in a bar in South Pasadena. Justice first came across Kees’s poetry while browsing in Miami Public Library a few months before the poet disappeared. The book he picked up was Kees’s extraordinary collection The Fall of the Magicians. ‘Once I opened it,’ Justice later recalled,

standing there somewhat uncomfortably between the tall shelves, I needed to read no more than a few lines to be hooked for life. This was the kind of poetry I had been wanting to write, hardly aware that such a thing was possible . . . This was for me the real thing, devoid of affectation and mannerism. The style was almost anonymous and therefore classical, as I saw it then, and still today see it. It may be hard for some readers now to imagine the impression of simple purity the Kees style could engender.

The first of Justice’s poems it engendered turned out to be uncannily prescient: the envoy to ‘Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees’ runs:

There is no way to ease the burden.
The voyage leads on from harm to harm,
A land of others and of silence.

When Kees’s father read this poem in Hudson Review, he was convinced it contained some clue to his son’s whereabouts, and was disappointed to be told by its author that the poem was just a poem. Justice was, however, eventually able to resurrect the body of Kees’s work, arranging the publication of the first edition of his Collected Poems in 1960.

Justice’s work is full of Keesian erasures and self-cancellations, of lost identities and incomprehensible acts of flight. ‘He has come to report himself/A missing person,’ ‘The Missing Person’ begins:

Afraid that he may not answer even
To his description of himself,

He asks for a mirror.
They reassure him

That he can be nowhere
But wherever he finds himself

From moment to moment,
Which, for the moment, is here.

And he might like to believe them.
But in the mirror

He sees what is missing.

Others in this gallery of explorations of the absent include ‘The Man Closing Up’, ‘For the Suicides of 1962’, ‘Anonymous Drawing’ and ‘Variations for Two Pianos’. And like the Kees of ‘The Scene of the Crime’ or ‘The crack is moving down the wall . . .’, Justice is adept at infusing domestic interiors with a muffled sense of the ghastly or ominous or abandoned:

And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.

(‘Absences’)

Perhaps most chilling is ‘The Tourist from Syracuse’, one of Justice’s many intertextual creations, conjured out of a sentence in a John D. MacDonald novel: ‘One of those men who can be a car salesman or a tourist from Syracuse or a hired assassin.’

My name is all names and none.
I am the used-car salesman,
The tourist from Syracuse,

The hired assassin, waiting.
I will stand here forever
Like one who has missed his bus –
Familiar, anonymous –

On my usual corner,
The corner at which you turn
To approach that place where now
You must not hope to arrive.

Justice was clearly fascinated by poètes maudits, though not himself one to seek vision through systematic deregulation of the senses. Among the most moving of his poems are those inspired by Robert Boardman Vaughn, who really survives only in Justice’s commemorations of him, rather as Richard Savage lives on only in Johnson’s Life of him. Boardman seems to have ended up a vagrant; his end, like that of Kees, was uncertain, but it seems likely that he was beaten to death in midwinter in an alley in Manhattan. This is how Justice presents the scene in a superb villanelle, ‘In Memory of the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn’:

I picture the snow as falling without hurry
To cover the cobbles and the toppled ashcans completely.
It was his story. It would always be his story.

Lately he had wandered between St Mark’s Place and the Bowery,
Already half a spirit, mumbling and muttering sadly.
O the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.

All done now. But I remember the fiery
Hypnotic eye and the raised voice blazing with poetry.

It was his story, and would always be his story –
The boredom, and the horror, and the glory.

In his discussion of Vaughn’s work in ‘Oblivion’, Justice broods on the disappearance of poems that had once seemed a revelation. One of his favourites, ‘Pilgrim’s Terrace’, survives only in his memory of its title: ‘After this, who will ever mention it again?’ A melancholy drifts across many of Justice’s evocations of the ‘pull and drag toward oblivion’, though against this moves an awareness that, like the missing person reporting himself missing, or the phrase of Bestor’s embedded in ‘The Sunset Maker’, the survival of a lament for what has been lost is itself a kind of preservation.

In his introduction to Against Oblivion, a selection of the work of 50 20th-century poets, Ian Hamilton quoted from Justice’s essay, in particular the section about the ‘mysterious and hidden consciousness within the artist of being other’, and asked: ‘What do we feel on reading this? Do we feel sorry for Justice, that he should be saddled with such strange convictions? Or do we feel admiring, as he, we suspect, would like us to?’ Either way, Justice didn’t make the cut. His case did, however, trigger in Hamilton poignant thoughts of ‘whole lifetimes given over to a vocation for which the world in general has so little use’.

Certainly there are no extra-poetic reasons which might help Justice’s cause. He lived quietly, a respected teacher of poetry, principally at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the ur-creative writing course which established the template for what is now a global industry, but also at the universities of Syracuse, California at Irvine, Virginia and Florida. He once saved John Berryman’s life, or at least when called on to watch over the older poet during one of his suicidal dark nights of the soul, Justice was made so ill by the sight of Berryman contemplating an open case of old-fashioned razors that he had to lie down, and Berryman spent the rest of the night ministering to him. He enjoyed ping-pong and days out at the races. Justice doesn’t figure much in poetic gossip, though he does make a cameo appearance – under his own name – in John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), where he inadvertently precipitates the suicide of the narrator’s sister, a would-be poet, who at one point exclaims in exasperation: ‘Damn that Donald Justice, anyway! He’s written all the good lines!’ If Justice’s work is to escape oblivion, it will have to be because he wrote so many good lines, so many limpid, exquisitely phrased poems.