Saturday 6 August 2022

Justice's Farewell

It was on this day in 2004 that Donald Justice, one of America's finest poets, died. As David Orr wrote of him, 'sometimes his poems weren't just good; they were great. They were great in the way that Elizabeth Bishop's poems were great, or Thom Gunn's or Philip Larkin's. They were great in the way that tells us what poetry used to be, and is, and will be.' Quite so. 
Here is one of the last poems Justice wrote, and one of those that is indeed great. In painterly terms it is a triptych. The first panel is a Crucifixion scene, bathed in the even light of divine love (charity). The second is a scene from the Orpheus legend, expressing the pain of love and parting. And in the third, a direct paraphrase from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Sonya Alexandrovna paints a wishful vision of the life to come. The three six-line sections of this poem (with their ingenious whole-word rhyming) add up to something far larger than its parts – a poised and poignant farewell to the world.

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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