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Getting Things Right

Strange Relation

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

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 of transforming itself from yellow to honey-gold within memory’s hive, and many of the evocations of Justice’s southern childhood—the dusty stoops, the wooden escalators, the pocket watches, the insect-ridden fields, the reedy estuaries, the engravings in the “cultured” parlors—are bathed in a warm and dulcified glow. Consider the opening lines of the three-part “Memories of the Depression Years”:

…in the kitchen, as she bends to serve,
Aunt Babe’s too finely thin, upgathered hair,
Filters the sunlight coming through behind
(Which is how Griffith lights his heroines).
Moth wings cling to the door screen; dust motes whirl.
There is such a light!

The poem’s second part begins with the line “The tin roofs catch the slanting sunlight,” and its final section concludes in a marriage of the blazing and the crepuscular:

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.

What was true of the hypothetical Justice concordance is valid for his poem titles as well: you can hear his voice even before the poems themselves are read. Few poets, ever, have assembled a table of contents that so faithfully records not merely the subject matter but the distinctive flavor of their work—“The Miami of Other Days,” “Vague Memory from Childhood,” “On a Woman of Spirit Who Taught Both Piano and Dance,” “Dance Lessons of the Thirties,” “Tales from a Family Album,” “Ladies by Their Windows,” “A Winter Ode to the Old Men of Lummus Park, Miami, Florida,” “Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy,” “American Scenes (1904- 1905),” “Cinema and Ballad of the Great Depression.”

What no concordance, and no table of contents, could ever manifest are the many pleasures of his music. Although his lines are clean and spare, there’s nothing thin or minimalistic about his sonorities, which characteristically are a neat interlacing of dissonance and euphony, of exact and off-rhyme. And he can be a master of pacing. A poem like “Men at Forty” provides a memorable example:

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

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret,

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

The line breaks are quietly propulsive—more like nudges than prods—and the verse swings gracefully down the page, coming heavily to rest in that ponderous line (“They are more fathers than sons themselves now”) which, as a full sentence, is the poem’s only self-contained unit; everything halts in deference to the weight of the transfiguration the poet contemplates. Meanwhile, Justice plays something of a teasing game with rhyme. As the poem progresses it’s hard to tell whether each stanza’s first and second lines are meant to ring the faintest of off-rhymes. This “problem” isn’t resolved until the penultimate quatrain, when father/lather unmistakably affirms the connection. And yet, once established, this musical tie collapses in the final stanza. Or you might say it’s subsumed by the far larger music of the crickets—by that clocklike ticking which, for all its delicacy, is destined to outlast the man and his house.

As “Men at Forty” suggests, Justice is fond of that weedy, vigorous terrain where the garden of formal poetry grades into the woods of free verse; many of his poems inhabit a halfway, hybrid ground, where you can’t always tell what is intended to rhyme with what. To be sure, he can be consummately polished when he wishes, and a number of his poems (“Sonnet to My Father,” “Pantoum of the Great Depression”) are formal tours de force. But he is commonly at his most effective when a casual note intrudes, as in the winsome “Here in Katmandu,” one of the few sestinas I’ve ever read in which I was able to look beyond the poem’s form. (To read a sestina is usually like watching The Nutcracker performed in the Ice Capades: you lose all sense of story—to say nothing of dance—in your unshakable awareness of the sliding mechanics of the thing.) Here are its closing lines:

It might be possible to live in the valley,
To bury oneself among flowers,
If one could forget the mountain,
How, never once looking down,
Stiff, blinded with snow,
One knew what to do.

Meanwhile it is not easy here in Katmandu,
Especially when to the valley
That wind which means snow
Elsewhere, but here means flowers,
Comes down,
As soon it must, from the mountain.

Justice is sometimes at his weakest when he turns grand or hortatory. Too many lines in New and Selected Poems march forth holding aloft the banner of an exclamation point. Eight of the poems finish with an exclamatory note, or with a pair of exclamations:

O, the teeth of their branches!

*

O little lost Bohemias of the suburbs!
*

Ah, oh, my banjo dog!
*

To lean on you so hard, so long!
*

What Sunday prisons they recall!
And what miraculous escapes!
*

O the saintly forbearance of these mirrors!
The acceptingness of the washbowls, in which we absolve ourselves!
*

Forlorn suburbs, but with golden names!
*

Saying to one another: Live, we must try to live, my
   friend!

Often the result is that the poem suddenly goes rocketing into the air—but the reader isn’t aboard. (These days, admittedly, it may be unwise to criticize any poet for overusing a device as rare as the exclamation mark. For we seem overrun by deadpan poets who, abandoning the traditional armory of punctuational tools, produce great haunches of text sliced up only by commas—the poetic equivalent of a death by a thousand cuts.)

Justice is frequently at his best when a sense of mature reservation tempers the excitement and irrepressibility of youth: he’s a natural chronicler of disillusionment. In a number of his finest poems (“Another Song,” “In Bertram’s Garden”), the rhythms or imagery of children’s verse are filtered through an adult sensibility acutely attuned to human frailty. “Counting the Mad” draws on the nursery rhyme “This little piggy went to market…” But what brings glee and exultation to the toddler—the tallying of fingers or toes—here subsides into terror and tragedy:

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.

New and Selected Poems is a little book. Even with its ample typography and generous margins, it runs well under two hundred pages. If Justice has worked slowly over the years, he has worked reliably. His career has never been marred by an insincere or bogus stretch; there is no phase of his work you’d wish he hadn’t included. And the “new” in this New and Selected are poems as rewarding as anything he has done. The outcome is a handsome volume in every sense: an attractive book and an attractive piece of bookmaking (with a striking, sunny painting by the poet, “Courtyard at the Biltmore, Coral Gables,” adorning the dust jacket). For decades now, Justice has sought to capture the quality of a farflung, subsiding sunlight, and the best of his poems should—like chased metal in a museum case—hold their gleam for a very long while. Gold, copper, bronze: the old object continues to seize and bend the light in accordance with its maker’s mallet.

Daniel Hall’s first book, Hermit with Landscape, was selected by James Merrill for the Yale Series of Younger Poets and published in 1990. Although I know nothing about the circumstances of Merrill’s selection, it’s tempting to suppose he knew he’d found his winner when he read the manuscript’s first poem, “Dusting.” By my lights, it’s one of the few wholly successful sonnets written since the Second World War, something to set beside Seamus Heaney’s “For the Croppies,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet,” Philip Larkin’s “The Card-Players,” Howard Nemerov’s “A Primer of the Daily Round”:

DUSTING

Beautiful, visitors used to say
absentmindedly, glimpsing the figurine
(courtesan, bronze) ensconced in the fine
bay window. And it was, in a way
that the irises swaying outside
would never be, multitudes driven
unresisting from season to season,
year after year. When the old man died,
his favorite weathered the neglect
indifferently. The pose she held
had taken a lifetime to perfect,
would take a life, at last, to comprehend.
Dust fell, and her hand was filled,
awaiting the touch of a human hand.

Although no single poem in Hall’s second collection, Strange Relation, shows the concentrated perfection of “Dusting,” the book in various ways marks an advance over its predecessor. Hall, like Justice, has set up his homestead in the middle ground between formal and free verse. Some poems rhyme and some don’t; some carry an insistent meter and others have a muted beat. Generally, his lines in Strange Relation have loosened without going slack, and there are moments of great power. Hall revels in the raw and fleeting, producing passages of extraordinary kinetic energy, as in this sighting of a whale from the rail of a “pitching and coughing” little boat:

…Camaraderie had worn thin,
and we kept to ourselves, alone or in pairs,
the silence broken by outbursts and warnings
(“Young man, let’s not get carried away!”)
—the threshold of astonishment drifting back
so far that when it happened, when the waters
parted, and the dark tonnage was shouldered aside
not ten yards from the boat, we simply turned
with schooled precision, and stared. And there was time
for the little boy to cry, “His tail!” before
the flukes loomed in the air, architectonic,
a submarine colorlessness gashed a vivid
bone-white (though by what none of us could imagine).
And with Time itself taking its time, a mass
grander than the vessel, us, and all our lives
resumed its element with as little swash
as a man might raise.

Some of the new poems wander far afield—notably to Asia, where Hall spent a year as an Amy Lowell Traveling Scholar. Strange Relation is a narrow volume that covers a lot of ground.

The book begins by sounding a charmingly muffled note. With the exception perhaps of a blast of trumpets, it would be impossible to greet a reader with greater fanfare than a show of fireworks, as Hall does in a poem born in a patriotic celebration, “A Fifties 4th.” On this Fourth of July, though, fog has set in—obscuring all the exploding lights and leaving only doom-like detonations. The poem opens:

Word came down: the show
would go on, in spite of fog
thick as water. Then the initial
stumpf, and a rocket rose

to a dead-center, rib-
rattling concussion, like a fist
of the sea balked in granite
underfoot.

It closes:

   …In the meantime,
we slipped under a nightlong spell
of lulling, gut-thrumming tones
too deep to trace the source,
and my mother and father, my brother
and I—we all slept like children.

In between, the fireworks, although invisible, work their magic just the same. Out of their booming ferocity (“violence stripped of imagery,/resounding to the sternum struck/like a tuning fork”) a strange familial peace evolves—ultimately akin to the bonds of community that unite our strife-torn nation.

All the poems in the first section of this three-part book are concerned with family, and all are, on the metaphorical level, beset by fog: these are tales of affectionate but misplaced gestures of conciliation, of failures to gauge the motives of those closest to you, of drunkenness and Alzheimer’s. Stray pieces of an autobiography emerge: a New England boyhood, a blue-collar father who occasionally worked the night shift, many visits to hospitals and nursing homes. A strong narrative impulse runs throughout this section, informed by a born fiction writer’s avid appetite for the incisive human detail. At times, though, there are simply not enough details and the reader winds up wanting more—more physical descriptions, more speech and dress, more bric-a-brac, even. The limbs of the family tree, too, disappear in fog.

It’s in the poems of the third and final section, many of them set in Asia, that the book comes fully into its own. “Chez Nguyen” is an adroit study of multiple, well-intended little clumsinesses—those resulting when an American is invited to dine in the California home of a transplanted Vietnamese family. “Salvage,” set in Beijing, is a clever blend of fairy tale and morality tale, in which a struggling poet’s failed attempts are redeemed by a practical-minded soul who couldn’t begin to read what he writes; the abandoned drafts may not be worth the paper they’re written on, but the paper is to be husbanded anyway, as fuel against an impoverished, bone-chilling Asian winter. And “Mangosteens,” perhaps the most beautiful poem in the book, succeeds in combining regal presumption (“I’d read that Queen Victoria/(no voluptuary) once offered a reward/for an edible mangosteen”) with a humble bounty (“Inside, snug/as a brain in its cranium/half a dozen/plump white segments…”), museums, and a holocaust, all as embellishments to a poem about a homosexual affair between an American and a Chinese man.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed W.H. Auden was constantly being praised for the “universality” of his love poems. When he urged, “Lay your sleeping head, my love,/Human on my faithless arm…” he could have been speaking equally to man or woman. Well, universality is a virtue not to be dismissed (any more than is Auden’s imperishable “Lullaby”), but surely there’s something to be said for the poet who gives carnality a local habitation and a name. While some of Hall’s love lyrics are of the universal variety, a few others specifically re-create homosexual experiences. These are poems, though seldom graphic, that have the pungency of lovingly recalled passion, displaying a vividness that should leave gay male readers grateful with a sense of familiarity and others grateful for a glimpse into another world.

In either case, gratitude seems an appropriate response, for it’s an emotion pervading Strange Relation. Although this is a book darkened by its share of ghastliness and tragedy (its pages colored by the loss of a mother and the threat of another loss: “a hard death, and another one gathering”), the poems are free of both self-pity and its often tough-talking cousin, self-congratulation. There’s a deep moral attractiveness at work in Strange Relation, a tenderness that refuses to go softhearted or soft-eyed.

This tenderness extends from the human realm to the wider reaches of flora and fauna. The book is especially keen in its scrutiny of animals (like the pair of rare black squirrels that “retrace their double helix/up and down a tree,” or the cat “sitting underneath the flowers/long enough for a scurf of pollen to gather/on her yellow haunches”). Daniel Hall’s work reminds us that—in regard to the natural world, anyway—a poet’s sharpsightedness, the whole business of “getting things right,” is a matter of far more than accuracy. It’s a matter of—inescapably—thanksgiving.

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