Donald Justice

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Justice, Donald (Vol. 6)

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Justice, Donald 1925–

Justice is a prize-winning American poet and short story writer. He has also edited books of poetry; and his musical compositions have been performed. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

In Departures, for only the third time in this quietest of poetic careers, Donald Justice just barely breaks the silence, uttering his delicate strong menaces into our welcoming ears. "There has been traffic enough/In the boudoir of the muse," he says in a poem for (sort of) his writing students:

         And still they come, demanding entrance,
         Noisy, and with ecstatic cries
         Catching the perfume, forcing their way—
         For them, what music? Only,
         Distantly, through some door ajar,
         Echoes, broken strains; and the garland
         Crushed at the threshold.

As for their elders and abetters,

       We few with the old instruments,
       Obstinate, sounding the one string—
       For us, what?…

       At times,
       Smells of decaying greenery, faint bouquets
       More than enough. And our cries
       Diminish behind us….

The grave sounds of this echoing song conclude:

   Closed are the grand boulevards,
   And closed those mouths that made the lesser songs,
   And the curtains drawn in the boudoir.

On Justice's own showing, of course, not quite.

Those who, standing on some mysterious principle, object to a poetry that is sometimes about poetry, poems that are about themselves, will find here much to enjoy deploring. This is a risk Justice seems to face willingly…. (pp. 115-16)

John N. Morris, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.

[The] theme that predominates [in Departures] … is that of loss, of departure not from place but from condition, from strength—physical, spiritual, social. Although the poems' settings range from Texas to Florida to … the Western Divide, geographical setting is rarely consequential: the place is the mind, and the mind in a curiously and terribly constricted life—one in which powers are failing, where everyone is, like the addressee of "A Letter," "Ten years older, tamed now, less mad, less beautiful," one where "Weeks have passed/Since first I lifted my hand/To set it down" (in a poem called "Lethargy"—the spirit of which casts itself over all), and in which, if a call comes, it will be in

              … this, your other voice,
              This whisper along the wires
              At night, like a dry wind,
              Like conscience, always collect.

Again and again that sort of quiet brilliance is driven straight through the heart. (p. 294)

[His] world seems thinned, remote, Jamesian. In part this is because he has nothing to do with public life. (Even, in his poem about it, the public event of assassination becomes an impact upon, a condition of, private life—the interior of our being where each of us lives alone.) But it is a matter of more than that, a matter of perception, of stance. A poem called "From a Notebook" (note the distancing disclaimer in that article: we're not to see this as Justice's own notebook, quite) ends:

                  After the overture,
                  The opera seemed brief.

So with almost everything. We are led to sense the past as a burdensome prelude that simply wore us out—and after which the entree was diminutive, disappointing. And true enough that is: middle age, save for those in the game of power (to which Justice gives no heed at all) must fail to romances of youth, which, whatever they anticipate, do not foresee their ends in limit and limit and limit.

The alarming thing about this vision in the book is the way Justice does, discreetly but steadily, take...

(This entire section contains 1313 words.)

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personal responsibility for it—as if the limits were his own, not by descent from Adam but by a personal failure of nerve or will. (pp. 294-95)

It is that reaching for, and excruciatingly felt inability…, the personal sense of a failure of passion, that most deeply touches and convinces. But it comes through such consummate craft we're forced to see the world's condition as its ground and cause, not personal limit—and to pray that Justice understands his own despair as well as he has revealed its constituents. Thus, almost paradoxically, given the air of remoteness so often hovering around them, these poems bring us into a peculiarly intimate relation with themselves. (p. 295)

They are sad, disturbing poems by a serious and learned man who, come to middle age, continues to honor his marriage vows to the Muse—even though, when he calls Her up ("… sometimes, long distance now") the wench is with the new boys in the neighborhood:

      … she still knows my voice, but I can hear,
      Always beyond the music of her phonograph,
      The laughter of the young men with their keys.

      I have the number written down somewhere.

As that is, so the entire book is touched with pain—and is first rate. (pp. 295-96)

Anthony Ostroff, in Western Humanities Review (copyright 1974, University of Utah), Summer, 1974.

Donald Justice … is an aesthete in the mould of Rossetti. Departures, like his earlier books, is filled with Rossettian apparatus: mirrors, hypnagogic landscapes, poems about poetry and a life in art…. [He has] an ability to speak, and see, clearly. Justice by now knows his poetic self so well that he seems incapable of self-deception. Many of his best poems emerge as nostalgic interior landscapes—empty, silent, and moving to a slow-motion clock. But, again like Rossetti, Justice recognizes that this is not an analytic but an erotic and performative personality. His interior poems are not confessions, or acts of questing and discovery; they are abstract maps offered to the reader, who is placed, momentarily, in a landscape of such purity and stillness that he is forcibly returned to an awareness of the importance of primitive resources. (pp. 45-6)

Justice is too busy attending to the needs of his audience and his subjects ever to get preoccupied with himself. So many times he could have fallen out of his abstraction into self-consciousness; but he almost never does, and the result is a series of splendid labyrinths.

In this place one is continually "shaken with premonitions". As Justice says in his wonderful ["Poem":] "You neither can nor should understand what it means…. And there is nothing in it to comfort you." The poem speaks like the voice of conscience. It has the clarity and crypticness of death. (p. 46)

Jerome J. McGann, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1974.

Justice recalls the music, elegance, and passion of Stevens, not his devotion to aesthetics. In Justice's latest book [Departures], certainly his best, the poet keeps his old attachment to the community of vulnerable creatures—lovers, children, the old, the weak. And he bestows on them the richness of sound and cadence, the depth of feeling and subtlety of language that he displayed in his earlier collections.

What draws him to such people is not their dependence but their openness to affection and fantasy, to strong emotions and wild thoughts. For Justice, the receptivity of the artist feeds both his creative imagination and his human sympathy, two aspects of one impulse. Conversely, what seems to matter most to him, in the labors of art, is the chance the imagination offers us to keep in touch with those who share our world but not our neighborhood: the dead, the remote, those imprisoned by their frailty or foolishness. (pp. 3-4)

Justice discarded some of his old traits. He has given up regular meters for free verse. He has enlarged his allotment of dreamlike images and veiled meanings. But his ear and his sense of design are so reliable that the poems remain seductive in sound and shape.

He has not reduced his most engaging feature, the mixture of gentleness with power. (p. 4)

Irvin Ehrenpreis, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), October 16, 1975.


Justice, Donald (Vol. 19)