Wednesday 17 March 2021

Justice's Nostalgia

 Well, those two Donald Justice poems seemed to go down very well, so let's have a couple more. Justice is one of the great poets of nostalgia, which is perhaps why his works seem so resonant now, in this strange time when we are all painfully nostalgic for those simple amenities of life that we used to take for granted: dropping in to the pub, sitting in cafés, eating in restaurants, weekends away, holidays, open churches, going where we wanted with whomever we wanted to go with... Justice's nostalgia, particularly for his Miami boyhood, is a potent force in his work, setting the happy-sad emotional climate of many of his best poems. Sometimes it is more sad than happy, as in this late poem, titled 'Sadness' (though there is happiness there as well, as in stanza 5) – 

Dear ghosts, dear presences, O my dear parents, 
Why were you so sad on porches, whispering? 
What great melancholies were loosed among our swings! 
As before a storm one hears the leaves whispering 
And marks each small change in the atmosphere, 
So was it then to overhear and to fear. 

But all things then were oracle and secret. 
Remember the night when, lost, returning, we turned back 
Confused, and our headlights singled out the fox? 
Our thoughts went with it then, turning and turning back 
With the same terror, into the deep thicket 
Beside the highway, at home in the dark thicket. 

I say the wood within is the dark wood, 
Or wound no torn shirt can entirely bandage, 
But the sad hand returns to it in secret 
Repeatedly, encouraging the bandage 
To speak of that other world we might have borne, 
The lost world buried before it could be born. 

Burchfield describes the pinched white souls of violets 
Frothing the mouth of a derelict old mine 
Just as an evil August night comes down, 
All umber, but for one smudge of dusky carmine. 
It is the sky of a peculiar sadness— 
The other side perhaps of some rare gladness. 

What is it to be happy, after all? Think 
Of the first small joys. Think of how our parents 
Would whistle as they packed for the long summers, 
Or, busy about the usual tasks of parents, 
Smile down at us suddenly for some secret reason, 
Or simply smile, not needing any reason. 

But even in the summers we remember 
The forest had its eyes, the sea its voices, 
And there were roads no map would ever master, 
Lost roads and moonless nights and ancient voices— 
And night crept down with an awful slowness toward the water; 
And there were lanterns once, doubled in the water. 

Sadness has its own beauty, of course. Toward dusk, 
Let us say, the river darkens and look bruised, 
And we stand looking out at it through rain. 
It is as if life itself were somehow bruised 
And tender at this hour; and a few tears commence. 
Not that they are but that they feel immense. 

 Sadness has its own beauty indeed... The 'Burchfield' reference in stanza 4 is to the American watercolorist Charles Burchfield, an artist more famous in his native land than over here (as is Justice, though even in America he is regarded as a 'poet's poet'). Burchfield painted violets at the mouth of an abandoned mine at least twice, and those images top and tail this section. 

 And here is another fine Justice poem, one where nostalgia finds its way into the title – 'Nostalgia of the Lakefronts' 

Cities burn behind us; the lake glitters.
A tall loudspeaker is announcing prizes;
Another, by the lake, the times of cruises.
Childhood, once vast with terrors and surprises,
Is fading to a landscape deep with distance—
And always the sad piano in the distance,

Faintly in the distance, a ghostly tinkling
(O indecipherable blurred harmonies)
Or some far horn repeating over water
Its high lost note, cut loose from all harmonies.
At such times, wakeful, a child will dream the world,
And this is the world we run to from the world.

Or the two worlds come together and are one
On dark, sweet afternoons of storm and of rain,
And stereopticons brought out and dusted,
Stacks of old Geographics, or, through the rain,
A mad wet dash to the local movie palace
And the shriek, perhaps, of Kane’s white cockatoo.
(Would this have been summer, 1942?)

By June the city always seems neurotic.
But lakes are good all summer for reflection,
And ours is famed among painters for its blues,
Yet not entirely sad, upon reflection.
Why sad at all? Is their wish so unique—
To anthropomorphise the inanimate
With a love that masquerades as pure technique?

O art and the child were innocent together!
But landscapes grow abstract, like ageing parents.
Soon now the war will shutter the grand hotels,
And we, when we come back, will come as parents.
There are no lanterns now strung between pines—
Only, like history, the stark bare northern pines.

And after a time the lakefront disappears
Into the stubborn verses of its exiles
Or a few gifted sketches of old piers.
It rains perhaps on the other side of the heart;
Then we remember, whether we would or no.
—Nostalgia comes with the smell of rain, you know.


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