Wednesday 29 January 2014


I've been dipping again into Donald Justice's Collected Poems, and he seems to get better and better with every revisit. His is the kind of subtle, elegant and unshowy work that, I think, needs time to reveal itself fully - so little is up front, so much beneath the surface.
 The last poem in the collection - and the last he completed before he died - is an extraordinarily beautiful piece. Its three stanzas, rhyming by repetition (against all the rules, but it works perfectly here), were written across the space of 13 years, and each could stand alone as a poem in its own right. It surely is what it reads as - a resigned and unregretful farewell to the world, in all its mingled pain and sweetness, and a recognition of how little, and how infinitely much, our lives count for. The last stanza quotes directly from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. And why not?

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

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