|Greg Simon's acquaintance with Donald Justice preceded mine by a couple of years. Having read Night Light, I was already an admirer of his work when I had the good fortune of drawing Don as teacher in my first workshop at the University of Iowa in 1972. Below, Greg writes: "The last time I saw him alive, at a writers' conference on the Columbia River in Portland, he was wearing a raincoat and sunglasses, inside the hotel." That was also the last time I saw Donald Justice alive. In "The Grandfathers," Don wrote: "Ask of the traveler how,/At road end, they will fix/You maybe with the cold/Eye of a snake or a bird/And answer not a word,/Only these blank, oracular/Headshakes or headnods." Yes, the oracular silence. - James Cervantes|
|Donald Justice: Memory and Rapture
Now the long silence. Now the beginning again.
I wasn't sad when I heard of the death of Don Justice, my former teacher and friend, because everything I had ever learned about the transitory nature of art, and those who create it, I had learned first of all from him. He didn't tell me I was going to die. When we first met, I was twenty-two, for heaven's sake. He showed me what I should try to do before I died. Of course I was sad about the circumstances of his death -- in a nursing home in Iowa City, of pneumonia following a stroke. It was an ending for one of the lonely men in Don's early poems, not the resolute, steely Don I knew, reed thin, owl-eyed and keen, eternally bemused and anxious to be amused. Don was a man who always seemed to me to be in control of time, and who once wrote of a friend: "Your life's a poem still,/ Broken iambs and all,/ Jazz, jails -- the complete works."
I attended a reading Don gave in Iowa City in the fall of 1970, to celebrate the publication of his masterpiece, Sixteen Poems, by Kim Merker's Stone Wall Press. (The poems in that slender, elegant, hand-printed book were later folded into Departures, Atheneum, 1973, a trade edition also designed by Merker.) The bookstore was a long rectangle with two doors, divided down the middle by a wall. Don stood so that by swaying slightly to the left or right, he could be alternately seen by the standing-room-only crowd in each half of the store.
Don, who was a very slow writer, sometimes taking twenty years to finish a poem, never had that much new writing on hand, and I don't believe he read many more than the sixteen poems in the book. (How I wish I had kept a list!) But that was o.k., because Don was a slow reader, too. Not methodical or forgetful, but musical and attentive, always wry and self-deprecating, but able to mesmerize nonetheless. His reading that night is one of the standards against which I have measured every other reading I have ever attended.
One of the first things Don did in his workshop class at Iowa, at least in the one I attended, was admonish his students against writing poetry about writing poetry. He looked around the table at us, several of whom were already ducking heads, and laughed quietly. "Perhaps you won't be able to resist," he said. Then he looked down at the table. "I never have."
Thank God for that. His "The Telephone Number of the Muse" from Departures certainly strikes me as one of the most memorable poems ever written on the subject. In it an aging poet complains that the muse no longer feels desire for him, no longer willingly takes his calls, and that when he does get through, he can hear the laughter of younger men in the background. I have always read this poem as more of a tongue-in-cheek warning (against the idea that finding a poem is as easy as picking up the telephone) than an actual complaint. After all, it was written when Don was turning out the incandescent poems in Departures. They were poems written in the free verse-based forms he was inventing and adapting from Lorca and the brilliant Rafael Alberti. I thought Don had a direct hotline to the muse.
Well, he had a hotline to something. When I studied his poems, I learned what it means to write poetry. And when I studied his prose, I also learned what it means to write poetry. I remember asking him about a poem that, unbeknownst to him, I had already taken through 15 or 20 drafts in a week. (What energy I had in those days!) When he told me he thought the poem needed a little more work, and I blurted out the sad tale of my graphomania, a sheepish, melancholy expression took over his face completely -- a look of complicity and perhaps shared sorrow that the fledgling we each held in our hands would never fly.
While I was reading Don's last book this week, his Collected Poems from Knopf, I came across a poem I hadn't realized he had written, but which I recognized with sudden and complete astonishment. "Invitation to a Ghost" is dedicated to his friend Henri Coulette, a poet who had died in 1988. Coulette is one of a triumvirate of poets who figure in one of Don's most accomplished and moving essays, "Oblivion," also the title of his last collection of prose. The essay speaks about art and dedication, and the obligations an artist must respond to in order to ensure that the works of the other artists who inspire him or her are saved from oblivion. I never met Coulette, although I have one of his books somewhere, nor am I very familiar with Weldon Kees or Robert Boardman Vaughn, the other poets whose lives and writings are discussed in the essay. No, what I recognized was the model Don had chosen for his elegy: Alberti's magnificent dark ode to his dead friend, García Lorca, called Retornos de un poeta asesinado ("The Coming Back of an Assassinated Poet"). I'd first seen it in 1973, translated by Don's lifelong friend and peer, Mark Strand, in his selection of Alberti's work, The Owl's Insomnia. Strand translated the end of Alberti's first stanza this way: "...just as if/ you lived out slowly in death/ the life you never had while you were alive." I'd like to think that at some point in time Don had seen that line from Alberti in manuscript (there are about 200 letters from Strand in Don's papers at the University of Delaware), and scribbled on it for his friend, and also put it into his own memory bank. Don's later interpretation, his posthumous wish for his friend Coulette, based on the same Spanish lines, is this: "Let it be as though a man could go backwards through death,/ Erasing the years that did not much count." Yes, to be able to take off the old years like shirts you are never going to wear again, and then appear once more as your younger, vibrant self! In Alberti's poem, the ever-dapper Lorca, who died before he was forty, appears to him wearing a yellow tie, and a fine, alpaca suit.
Don was one of the roughs. I never saw him in a tie, only in open-necked shirts, and with the promise of open time before us. The last time I saw him alive, at a writers' conference on the Columbia River in Portland, he was wearing a raincoat and sunglasses, inside the hotel. Was he afraid of the weather outside? No, he was always looking for the weather that went on inside. Poetry, he wrote in a translation from the French of Philippe Jaccottet, "is not given to any foreign place,/ although to waiting and to silence she may be,/ to one forgotten in the midst of praise,/ who simply tends his love, and secretly."
I fervently hope Donald Rodney Justice went to his grave knowing that he had written poetry that approached perfection despite the imperfect life he had to lead as a man, as a poet in twentieth century America. When I remember him, I will erase the years that did not count, the years I did not get to see him, did not write him letters, did not send my poems to him even though he was one of my ideal readers. But I think I have understood his work, taken it inside me, promised in return for the kindness he unfailingly showed me that I would remember it for as long as I am alive. It is the only promise I can give, the promise of my inner time. And today, in honor of his death as a man, I also recognize the perfection of his imperfections, the failure of his heart, but not of its intentions, and I do so in his own words, and swear to remain true to them:
And if it moves but haltingly down the scales,
It is the more moving just because it fails;
And is the lovelier because we know
It has gone beyond itself, as great things go.
- Greg Simon