Thanks to the influence of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, modern poets often approach the writing desk as if it were a confession vestibule. For Donald Justice, it was more like a garage where he went to tinker. The Miami-born Pulitzer Prize-winner was the gearhead of contemporary poetry. He'd take an idea, hoist it up on jacks, head off to the slagheap of poems past and return with just the right form to use.
Villanelles, sestinas, odes, dialogues -- Justice used just about every form he could during his long career, which sadly ended in July when he died of pneumonia. Readers can appreciate the full range of Justice's antic curiosity, though, with the release of his Collected Poems. What strikes one immediately is how fresh and unsentimental was Justice's sensibility. He was the master of the whippet-fast quip, the wry innuendo, the surprise rhyming couplet. In another life, Justice could have been a stand-up who parlayed wordplay into laughs. Here is "The Thin Man":
I indulge myself
In rich refusals.
I hone myself to
This edge. Asleep, I
Am a horizon.
These are poems that inspire not a guffaw, but an inward mental giggle. Like Paul Muldoon, who also won a Pulitzer for his linguistic virtuosity, Justice had a way of seeing every dimension of a word. His mind was a funhouse mirror that could stretch and expand the funnier ones, turning everyday items into monstrosities.
Poets tend to grow more serious with age -- they develop an ongoing thematic preoccupation, or a style that becomes their own -- but Collected Poems reveals the depth of Justice's playfulness, his painterly silliness. In "Self Portrait as Still Life," for example, he even imbues fruit with a righteous modesty.
The newspaper on the table,
Confessing its lies.
The melon beside it,
Trying to forget
That it was ever wrapped up
In anything so
Scandalous, so banal.
Nothing is too sacred to be written about -- and nothing is too low to have meaning. At a bus station bathroom in Omaha, Nebraska, Justice finds a quiet melancholy in the spectacle of unflushed urinals: "Seeing them, I recognize the contempt / Some men have for themselves."
Because his gaze was often directed outward, the moments when Justice pauses to invoke his own childhood are noteworthy and special. Collected Poems includes some of his best poems on the subject, including his cheeky remembrance of piano lessons, "The Pupil," which describes youth as that stage of life when "time was still harmony, not money."
There is real music in all of these poems, but especially in those driven by nostalgia. Even though he lived outside of Florida for a great part of his life, Miami of the old days was always inside Justice. He plays a tune here and there to these memories, like a jazz musician going off on a five-minute solo. "The Miami of Other Days" is probably the best of the lot, hipping and hawing from sense to sense and image to image.
The city was not yet itself. It had,
In those days, the simplicity of dawn.
As for the bonfires up and down the beach,
They were nostalgias for the lights of cities
Left behind; and often there would be
Dancing by firelight to the new white jazz
Of a Victrola on its town in the sand
Justice's flexibility of style and métier made him not just a sympathetic soul, but a good mimic as well. Throughout Collected Poems we find poem after poem in the spirit of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and others. He even recalls Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," but uses the modernist aesthetic to note the passage of time.
The old year slips past
unseen, the way a snake goes.
and the grass closes behind it.
If there was anything Justice seemed preoccupied with it was the passage of time. There was nothing ominous in this appreciation, merely a childlike fascination. "Certain moments will never change nor stop being," Justice wrote in "Thinking about the Past," as if he couldn't believe his luck for waking each day with his memory intact. For more than 50 years, Justice dedicated himself to making sure that these snapshots lived beyond himself through art. "I will die in Miami in the sun," he wrote in "Variations on a Text by Vallejo." In reality, he expired at a nursing home in Iowa City. He was 78.