Getting Things Right

Strange Relation

by Daniel Hall
Penguin Books, 68 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Donald Justice
Donald Justice; drawing by David Levine

We’re evidently approaching a time when concordances—those volumes that list and locate every word a writer ever employed—will be obtainable for most poets. Traditionally, such volumes have been reserved for the titans—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. But with more and more texts available, alternatively if not exclusively, on computer, we can envision a future where the tools of the concordance, enhanced by electronic flexibility, will be democratically extended to a multitude of writers.

What would a concordance reveal about Donald Justice, whose splendid New and Selected Poems draws on a half-century of work? In truth, one could formulate a number of sound judgments without actually reading his poems. Armed only with a compilation, including date and frequency, of his vocabulary choices, a critic might well remark how steadfast Justice has been in his imagery. Pianos, parlors, mountains, littorals, sunsets, snowstorms—the poet’s internal landscape has remained fixed. The word-tables would also uncover a striking density of terms connected with memory (nostalgia, past, remember, recollection, etc.), as befits an author who, obsessed with his earliest years, dedicated one of his poems to “the poets of a mythical childhood: Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Rilke, Hart Crane, Alberti.”

His own childhood was spent in Florida, as was much of his professional life; Justice recently retired from the University of Florida, in Gainesville. He is seventy-one. Although he appears to have had a rich life in academia, both as student (of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Yvor Winters) and teacher (of Mark Strand, Jorie Graham), those decades figure very little as the subject matter of his work. An extraordinarily high percentage of his poems are set in the Twenties and Thirties, when he was a child or a teen-ager.

Our hypothetical Justice concordance would also reveal surprisingly few verbs that could be called energetic or dynamic. A disproportionate number are terms of stasis; he is particularly partial to “stand,” and to its numerous variants. And when he does choose to speak of change or transformation, he tends to favor the relatively bland and softspoken “come” (“The estranging years that come,” “old ghosts/Come back to haunt our parks,” “Your neighbor in his undershirt/At dusk come out to mow his lawn,” “And the last bus/Comes letting dark/Umbrellas out—“). A kindred mildness tinges many of his pet words, which include fading, vanish, gradually, slowly, gently, dust, shadow, dim, sad. From such preferences, a resourceful critic might deduce, accurately, that Justice is a poet little bound up in flux and process. The creatures in his poems are rarely caught on the run, or on the wing; his automobiles and trains are likely to be traveling leisurely, if not halted altogether. He is a poet not of the lightning stroke but of the long reverberations after the thunder rumbles in.

A typical Justice poem is an object turned lustrous with the soft, laminated glazes that memory applies to a long-cherished object. Distant sunlight has a way…

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