The Progenitor

DONALD JUSTICE: Classic Poetry Series

Donald Justice (August 12, 1925 – August 6, 2004) was an American poet and teacher of writing. In summing up Justice’s career David Orr wrote, “In most ways, Justice was no different from any number of solid, quiet older writers devoted to traditional short poems. But he was different in one important sense: sometimes his poems weren’t just good; they were great.

A Birthday Candle

Thirty today, I saw
The trees flare briefly like
The candles on a cake,
As the sun went down the sky,
A momentary flash,
Yet there was time to wish

Donald Justice

A Dancer’s Life

The lights in the theater fail. The long racks
Of costumes abandoned by the other dancers
Trouble Celeste. The conductor asks
If she is sad because autumn is coming on,
But when autumn comes she is merely pregnant and bored.
On her way back from the holidays, a man
Who appears to have no face rattles the door
To her compartment. How disgusting, she thinks;
How disgusting it always must be to grow old.
Dusk falls, and a few drops of rain.
On the train window trembles the blurred
Reflection of her own transparent beauty,
And through this, beautiful ruined cities passing,
Dark forests, and people everywhere
Pacing on lighted platforms, some
Beating their children, some apparently dancing.
The costumes of the dancers sway in the chill darkness.
Now sinking into sleep is like sinking again
Into the lake of her youth. Her parents
Lean from the rail of a ferryboat waving, waving,
As the boat glides farther out across the waves.
No one, it seems, is meeting her at the station.
The city is frozen. She warms herself
In the pink and scented twilight of a bar.
The waiter who serves her is young. She nods assent.
The conversation dies in bed. Later,
She hurries off to rehearsal. In the lobby,
Dizzy still with the weight of her own body,
She waits, surrounded by huge stills of herself
And bright posters announcing events to come.
Her life—she feels it closing about her now
Like a small theater, empty, without lights.

Donald Justice

A Map Of Love

Your face more than others’ faces
Maps the half-remembered places
I have come to I while I slept—
Continents a dream had kept
Secret from all waking folk
Till to your face I awoke,
And remembered then the shore,
And the dark interior.

Donald Justice

Absences

It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote,
Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
Of a childhood piano- outside the window, palms!
And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
Soon to let down its white or yellow-white.

Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
Like the memory of a white dress cast down…
So much has fallen.
And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.

Donald Justice

American Sketches

CROSSING KANSAS BY TRAIN

The telephone poles
Have been holding their
Arms out
A long time now
To birds
That will not
Settle there
But pass with
Strange cawings
Westward to
Where dark trees
Gather about a
Water hole this
Is Kansas the
Mountains start here
Just behind
The closed eyes
Of a farmer’s
Sons asleep
In their work clothes

POEM TO BE READ AT 3 A.M.

Excepting the diner
On the outskirts
The town of Ladora
At 3 A.M.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Where someone
Was sick or
Perhaps reading
As I drove past
At seventy
Not thinking
This poem
Is for whoever
Had the light on

Donald Justice

Anonymous Drawing

A delicate young Negro stands
With the reins of a horse clutched loosely in his hands;
So delicate, indeed, that we wonder if he can hold the spirited creature
beside him
Until the master shall arrive to ride him.
Already the animal’s nostrils widen with rage or fear.
But if we imagine him snorting, about to rear,
This boy, who should know about such things better than we,
Only stands smiling, passive and ornamental, in a fantastic livery
Of ruffles and puffed breeches,
Watching the artist, apparently, as he sketches.
Meanwhile the petty lord who must have paid
For the artist’s trip up from Perugia, for the horse, for the boy, for
everything here, in fact, has been delayed,
Kept too long by his steward, perhaps, discussing
Some business concerning the estate, or fussing
Over the details of his impeccable toilet
With a manservant whose opinion is that any alteration at all would spoil it.
However fast he should come hurrying now
Over this vast greensward, mopping his brow
Clear of the sweat of the fine Renaissance morning, it would be too late:
The artist will have had his revenge for being made to wait,
A revenge not only necessary but right and clever —
Simply to leave him out of the scene forever.

Donald Justice

Banjo Dog Variations

Tramps on the road: floating clouds. OLD CHINESE POEM
1

Agriculture and Industry
Embraced in public on a wall—
Heroes in shirt-sleeves! Next to them
The average man felt small.
2

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
By Vassar girls surrounded.
They harmonized expertly; oh,
Their little true hearts pounded.
Joe went on smiling.
3

I thought I saw what Trotsky saw,
A friendly cossack wink;
And then his friends brought down their clubs.
Christ, what would Trotsky think!
4

Train had just slowed for the crossing when
Out from the bushes jumped a hundred men.
With baseball bats and iron bars
They persuaded us back onto the cars.
5

And out of dirty fists sometimes
Would bloom the melancholy harp.
Then low-low-low on the gon-doh-lah
We swayed beneath our tarp.
And far lights moving in and out of rain.
6

What you do with the Sunday news
Oh, citizens of the great riffraff,
Is you put the funny papers in your shoes.
It gives the feet a laugh.
7

We read our brothers’ shirts for lice
And moved around with the fruit,
Went north to Billings for the beets
And had three good days in the jail at Butte.
8

We chalked our names on red cliffsides,
High up, where only eagles dwelled.
Each time a big truck went by below,
The earth trembled like a woman held.
9

And we passed fields of smoking stumps
Where goats sometimes or ponies grazed.
Abandoned tractors stood against the sky
Like giant fists upraised.
10

But if we bent our knees it was
To drink from a creek’s rust-colored slime,
And splash our chests with it, and rub our eyes,
And wake into another world and time.
11

Let us go then, you and me,
While the neon bubbles upward ceaselessly
To lure us down back streets and alleyways,
Where we may wander and be lost for days.
Many days and many hours.
12

I miss the smell of the ratty furs
And saturday night cologne and beer,
And I miss the juke and the sign that read:
NO POLICE SERVED HERE.
13

Off Mission, wasn’t it? The old
White Angel Breadline, where we met?
You had just come west from Arkansas,
But the rest of it I forget.
A cup of coffee; afterwards a hymn.
14

Once we stood on a high bluff,
Lights fanning out across the bay.
A little ragged band of Christs we were,
And tempted—but we turned away.
15

And didn’t I see you Saturday night,
After the paycheck from the mill,
Bearing a pot of store-bought lilies home,
One budding still?
Ah, oh, my banjo dog!

Donald Justice

Bus Stop

Lights are burning
In quiet rooms
Where lives go on
Resembling ours.

The quiet lives
That follow us—
These lives we lead
But do not own—

Stand in the rain
So quietly
When we are gone,
So quietly . . .
And the last bus
Comes letting dark
Umbrellas out—
Black flowers, black flowers.

And lives go on.
And lives go on
Like sudden lights
At street corners

Or like the lights
In quiet rooms
Left on for hours,
Burning, burning.

Donald Justice

Counting The Mad

This one was put in a jacket,
This one was sent home,
This one was given bread and meat
But would eat none,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.

This one looked at the window
As though it were a wall,
This one saw things that were not there,
This one things that were,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.

This one thought himself a bird,
This one a dog,
And this one thought himself a man,
An ordinary man,
And cried and cried No No No No
All day long.

Donald Justice

Extraits

The Man Closing Up,’ from Night Light’ (1967),

would make his bed,
If he could sleep on it.
He would make his bed with white sheets
And disappear into the white,
Like a man diving,
If he could be certain
That the light
Would not keep him awake,
The light that reaches
To the bottom.

dour vision of life’s journey: from ‘Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees’

There is no way to ease the burden.
The voyage leads on from harm to harm,
A land of others and of silence.

‘The Miami of Other Days’

The winter streets an orchestra of horns
And gods slept under tabernacle tents
That sprang up overnight on circus grounds
Like giant toadstools yearning for respectability.

In a portrait of himself at age seven he writes :

sometimes he would squat among the foul weeds of the vacant lot,
Waiting for dusk and someone dear to come
And whip him down the street, but gently, home.

‘Poem to Be Read at 3 A.M.’

Excepting the diner
On the outskirts
The town of Ladora
At 3 A.M.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second story room
A single light.

A more recent poem on the Great Depression shows his cynical side:

Agriculture embraced Industry,
Mammothly, on public walls.
Meanwhile we camped out underneath
Great smiles on billboards fading.

How shall I speak of Doom, and ours in special,
But as of something altogether common ?

Donald Justice

Hell

R. B. VAUGHN speaks:

“After so many years of pursuing the ideal
I came home. But I had caught sight of it.
You see it sometimes in the blue-silver wake
Of island schooners, bound for Anegada, say.
And it takes other forms. I saw it flickering once
In torches by the railroad tracks in Medellín.
When I was very young I thought that love would come
And seize and take me south and I would see the rose;
And that all ambiguities we knew would merge
Like orchids on a word. Say this:
I sought the immortal word.”
So saying he went on
To join those who preceded him;
and there were those that followed.

Donald Justice

Henry James At The Pacific

— Coronado Beach, California, March, 1905

In a hotel room by the sea, the Master
Sits brooding on the continent he has crossed.
Not that he foresees immediate disaster,
Only a sort of freshness being lost —
Or should he go on calling it Innocence?
The sad-faced monsters of the plains are gone;
Wall Street controls the wilderness. There’s an immense
Novel in all this waiting to be done.
But not, not — sadly enough — by him. His
talents,
Such as they may be, want a different theme,
Rather more civilized than this, on balance.
For him now always the recurring dream
Is just the mild, dear light of Lamb House falling
Beautifully down the pages of his calling.

Donald Justice

In Bertram’s Garden

Jane looks down at her organdy skirt
As if it somehow were the thing disgraced,
For being there, on the floor, in the dirt,
And she catches it up about her waist,
Smooths it out along one hip,
And pulls it over the crumpled slip.

On the porch, green-shuttered, cool,
Asleep is Bertram that bronze boy,
Who, having wound her around a spool,
Sends her spinning like a toy
Out to the garden, all alone,
To sit and weep on a bench of stone.

Soon the purple dark must bruise
Lily and bleeding-heart and rose,
And the little cupid lose
Eyes and ears and chin and nose,
And Jane lie down with others soon,
Naked to the naked moon.

Donald Justice