Donald Justice is a poet whose spare style belies a respectful melancholy for things long past, for memories of childhood tinted by the inability to truly revisit those times and places. A poem I consider to be the quintessential Donald Justice, one that carries with it the weight of the past, is his brief piece entitled "On the Death of Friends in Childhood," first published in The Summer Anniversaries (1960).
We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands,
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.
Justice began his college career studying piano, but eventually switched to poetry. He taught at several universities, including the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. He was even known as an accomplished painter who created what I consider to be brilliant pieces reminiscent in tone and atmosphere of Edward Hopper. The cover of Justice's final book, Collected Poems, is decorated with 4 small slides of paintings by Justice.
What Justice is also known for is the way he took traditional forms such as the sonnet or villanelle and worked with them in such a way that they are fresh and often not easily recognizable as specific forms. A great deal of his work concerns an America and American landscape that I think many of us can identify with in one way or another.
"Bus Stop" (Collected Poems, 2004) is only five stanzas with most lines containing no more than three words. Justice describes standing in the rain and, as the bus pulls up and they prepare to enter, passengers close their umbrellas like "black flowers."
Even the titles of a few of his poems are rife with old bones: "Children walking home from school through good neighborhood", "The small white churches of the small white towns", and "To the unknown lady who wrote the letters found in the hatbox."
I'll end this entry with the images from one of my favorites by Justice. These lines remind me very much of my own weekends and summers spent on my paternal grandparents' small ranch. The following is from "Vague memory from childhood" (Night Light, 1967)
A lamp came on indoors,
Printing a frail gold geometry
on the dust.
Shadows came engulfing
the great charmed sycamore.
It was the end of day.
Shadows came engulfing.