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Donald Justice's 'Collected Poems' Offer Refuge From The Rain

Mary Szybist's latest collection of poetry is called Incarnadine.

Donald Justice's Collected Poems, published less than two weeks after his death, is a slender volume for a life's work. At around 300 pages, it could easily be overlooked on a shelf beside the collected work of other poets. Justice wrote slowly. Trained as a pianist when he was young, he attended closely to the textures and music of words. He was a formalist who carried traditional poetic techniques like rhyme and meter forward into thoroughly modern poems that are not interested in making us feel comfortable or special. His poem "Poem" famously begins, "This poem is not addressed to you."

Yet there is something that I find profoundly consoling about his poetry. Justice once commented that meters "seem to propose that an emotion, however uncontrollable it may have appeared originally, was not, in fact, unmanageable." Justice's poems don't include the dark confessional secrets one finds easily enough in poetry of the late 20th century, but they offer language to carry us through experiences that threaten to overwhelm.

Perhaps this is why he is so good at writing in original ways about calamity. "The Assassination," his lyric poem about Robert Kennedy's death, becomes a brief meditation on how the new speeds and the repetitions of news distribution shape a new experience of tragedy; his "Pantoum of the Great Depression" speaks of that difficult era from the point of view of an updated Greek chorus implicitly challenging Aristotle's ideas about tragedy; and his sonnet "The Wall" suggests that the fall of Eden is not really a story of tragedy at all but a vision of humans choosing a more terrifying but also more beautiful world.

Justice's poems not only manage difficulty; they also make something new of it. Consider, for example, this passage from "There is a gold light in certain old paintings," one of Justice's late poems:

The quiet grandeur of these lines makes the prospect of being forgotten no longer feel so grim. What they say affirms the probability of this fate, but how they say it changes the way that I feel in relation to it. The fate of being forgotten becomes linked to a vision of a better future world, one without sickness or the memory of our particular suffering.

The beauty in Justice's work is never achieved by glossing over or minimizing difficulty. His great subject is memory, but he never indulges in simple nostalgia. Instead, he invites us to reflect on nostalgia's dangers, temptations and imaginative pleasures, as well as the way it, like poetry, can be "most beautiful in its erasures." "Think of the past," he instructs. "Think of forgetting the past."

His poems remind us that the ways we imagine the past are intimately connected to the ways we imagine and move into the future. However alienated we might feel from our pasts, or our lives, or ourselves, we have an imaginative relationship to them, one that can be changed, and that can change us. Justice's poem "Bus Stop" speaks of how:

These umbrellas, these "black flowers," offer a passing refuge from the rain, and Justice's poems offer similar refuge from worn-out ways of seeing and imagining. His understated, evocative lines charge the imagination and keep the mind moving toward richer connections.

Why read these poems? In the larger sense, the sense that counts, they are addressed to you.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Szybist
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