Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 914
Growing up in Miami, Donald Rodney Justice studied piano and then composition. After graduation from the University of Miami, he concentrated on literature and writing at the universities of North Carolina, Stanford, and Iowa. He taught for many years in the graduate writing programs of Iowa, Syracuse, and Florida.
Justice describes his early years in the poem “Childhood,” which was first published with marginalia on facing pages. In New and Selected Poems those notes appear at the end of the book, whereby the poem loses the antiphonal effect of a line such as “Forlorn suburbs, but with golden names!” being answered by “Sunny Isles, Golden Glades, Buena Vista, Opa-Locka, etc.” The poem is dedicated “to the poets of a mythical childhood,” and this mythical tonality is matched by orchestral richness in the language and cinematic sweep in the imagery. It begins with a child’s game of spinning a globe to see where one’s finger lands, after which the poem points to a particular place and time (Miami in the thirties), with images of reading comics, playing by a lily pond, going to the movies, getting a haircut, shopping in a department store, and looking through trays of eyeglasses at Woolworth’s. Justice’s “osteomyelitis-anesthesias,” noted in a gloss, becomes an image within the poem: “on my knee a small red sun-glow, setting.” In Justice’s oeuvre this is a long poem, although it contains just a few more than sixty lines of loose blank verse.
Justice is married to a fiction writer, Jean Ross; his sister-in-law is the poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, and his brother-in-law was the fiction writer Peter Taylor. Perhaps because of a natural reticence, not many details of his biography are known, and those that are revolve to an unusual degree around his work and the way it has developed from one collection to the next.
Since his first book, The Summer Anniversaries, Justice has devoted himself primarily to exploring and renewing traditional poetic forms. His sestinas, for example, contain several innovations such as short lines in “Here in Katmandu,” transformed end-words in “The Metamorphosis,” the omission of the envoi in both of those poems, the use of narrative in “A Dream Sestina,” and a borrowing of end-words in “Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees.” His subjects tend to be literary. Even poems that might seem autobiographical preserve a safe distance; “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” begins not with specific friends but with an oddly sad and comic observation: “We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven.”
Two poems about insanity are triumphs of order and recovery. “Counting the Mad” imitates the nursery rhyme “This little piggie”: “And this one cried No No No No/ All day long.” “On a Painting by Patient B of the Independence State Hospital for the Insane” uses a very loose iambic pentameter, perhaps to suggest how the patient and his painting have almost fallen apart, shaky and wobbly, “not at the expected angles.” These even-tempered views of madness contrast greatly with the confessional poems of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton.
In an interview in Platonic Scripts, Justice notes that his second full collection, Night Light, represents a loosening of the traditional forms included in his “apprentice” volume. Here he experiments with syllabic verse (“The Thin Man” and “The Tourist from Syracuse”), accentual verse (“Dreams of Water”), free verse (“The Missing Person”), and prose poetry (“Orpheus Opens His Morning Mail”).
In Departures, the one-time composer borrows explicitly from musical forms in two sonatinas, one “in Green” and one “in Yellow.” He explains that a sonatina has “two parts, two themes,” and is a relatively easy musical form to adapt to poetry. Many of the poems in this book begin as formal innovations. “Twenty Questions” borrows its twenty-line interrogative form from the party game. “The Assassination” uses chance methods, as in the experimental works of John Cage. “On the Night of the Departure by Bus” substitutes new words for the text of Rafael Alberti’s “On the Day of His Death by an Armed Hand,” so that “A queen has lost her crown” becomes “A passenger has lost his claim-check.” Similarly, “Variations on a Text by Vallejo” changes Vallejo’s “I will die in Paris, on a rainy day” to Justice’s “I will die in Miami in the sun.”
The Sunset Maker revolves around poems and prose about the study of music. Although this collection draws explicitly from the particulars of Justice’s own life, the treatment is reserved and measured, and traditional forms reinforce this cool detachment. There are villanelles (“In Memory of the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn” and “Villanelle at Sundown”), sonnets (“Cemetery,” “Epilogue: Coronado Beach, California,” and “Mrs. Snow”), two songs, and a ballad. There are also poems about piano teachers, an elegy for a bassoonist, a prose piece called “Little Elegy for Cello and Piano,” and a dramatic monologue, “The Sunset Maker,” spoken by “a friend of the dead composer, Eugene Bestor.” What is unmistakable in this list is that the overall theme of music is underscored by laments for the dead, a consciousness of loss, and an urge to preserve.
Justice’s New and Selected Poems includes fifteen new poems and resurrects three pieces from an unfinished long poem, Bad Dreams, “dreamed by the kinspeople gathered in the house of the family patriarch on the night he lies dying.” In poems such as “Pantoum of the Great Depression,” Justice continues to transform the traditional.
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