The Memory of Donald Justice

By Yezzi, David | New Criterion, November 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Memory of Donald Justice

Yezzi, David, New Criterion

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 Thorn 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. (1) 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

   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. 

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