IF YOU READ WIDELY in contemporary American poetry, you will discover some poems that do not appear to have been written by human beings at all, poems of such obscure construction that they defy any penetration by the reader and offer no evidence of their author's intelligence, emotions or experience. (I do not mean to denigrate here the many serious and dedicated poets in America whose work might give the casual reader difficulty; on the contrary, the volume of good, "experimental" writing being published regularly in this country is positively impressive.) There are other poets, too, who produce poems direct from experience, which show little or no concern with the formal aspects of verse, poems which serve as a vehicle for "self-expression." Between these two extremes one can locate the nicely balanced work of Donald Justice, who leans in neither direction.
Donald Justice is a conservative poet. He works within the established boundaries of modern poetry and makes no attempt to extend those boundaries. He is also a very literary, academic poet: you do not need to be familiar with The Tempest to understand or take pleasure from Justice's poem, "Last Days of Prospero," but such a familiarity will deepen your understanding and increase your pleasure; a reading of the poem may even strengthen your appreciation of Shakespeare's play. Selected poems contains many literary references, but previous knowledge of the works to which Justice refers is more of a bonus than a necessity, when it comes to understanding and enjoying his poems. At no point in this book will you be confounded by your inability to interpret a Chinese ideogram or to translate from the original Greek. Donald Justice is even an old-fashioned poet, equally as willing to give a new twist to an old form (the sonnet, the sestina, the sonatina), as he is to find a new form to fit the materials at hand.
This latter aspect is the key to an appreciation of his value. Justice's concern with form is really a concern with experience being committed to an appropriate arrangement of words. Some of the forms he finds are very direct and simple. Take, for example, "The Stray Dog by the Summerhouse," and compare it with Richard Eberhart's well known poem, "The Groundhog." The two poems are thematically similar: in both cases the poet reflects on the discovery of a dead animal. In doing so, Eberhart invokes Alexander the Great, Saint Teresa, Montaigne, and the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, while using his description of the gradual disintegration of a groundhog's corpse to comment on the passage of time as it affects human life. Justice's poem is quite minimal. He describes the dog lying dead in the sun: j All brown with a white Mark on his head. His eyes were bright And open wide, Bright, open eyes With worms inside, giving a vivid impression of both the dog's corpse and the unpleasant experience of seeing it. He compares the smell with that of an overripe pear that Had dropped to the ground And with the heat Was turning black. And the scent came back And it was sweet. By staying with the essentials, Justice manages to give us a strong physical sense of what the experience he is describing might be like. This allows us to respond with our own thoughts and feelings, whereas Eberhart's thematic elaborations tend to impress us more with his own. Justice gives each poem structure according to its own weight and he shows great versatility in the process. As an example of the more complex and poetic side of him, here are the opening lines of "The Evening Of The Mind". Now comes the evening of the mind. Here are the fireflies twitching in the blood; Here is the shadow moving down the page Where you sit reading by the garden wall.
Here one has the sense of a poem coming from a particular set of cadences, rather than from a specific experience, and so the whole feeling is different. This variation of form and feeling is sustained as Justice writes about suicides, about grandfathers, about the hopelessly insance, about a dressmaker's dummy, and as he takes us with him to Kansas and to Katmandu. What one gets is a sense of a continuing drama, with each independent episode reported in appropriate language, and with the whole united by Justice's highly visible sensibility. He is as American as Edward Hopper and he gives us a sense of American life that is as unique and as strong as the one that Hopper's paintings gave us.
Selected Poems contains work from the three previous collections with which Donald Justice made his reputation, plus 17 new poems. Justice's output has been sparse enough so that a collection might have been more to the point than a selection; and there are some surprising omissions here, most particularly that of "The Metamorphosis," which Richard Howard, in referring to Justice's early sestinas, called "perhaps the most astonishing and original of them all." Even with its shortcomings, however, this selection does bring to light Justice's strengths as a poet, and therefore is significant.
A lesser, but notable event is the initiation of Knopf's new poetry series, one which will publish three or more books a year. Unfortunately, the first two books in the series are mediocre. Cynthia Macdonald's previous publications, Transplants and Amputations, revealed an intense fascination with the grotesque, which is sustained in the current work, (W)holes. This book is in two parts, the first containing 21 poems, most of them attending to one kind of human aberration or another, and ranging in tone from the dramatic -- "The Secrets Of E. Munch," for example -- to the rhetorical -- "Celebrating the Freak" -- and the whimsical -- "The World's Fattest Dancer": Whoever dances with her, she is The biggest attraction.
If the central purpose here is to examine what we see as normality by drawing attention to deviations, that purpose is undermined by such flippancy. One would need the bleak and desolate humor of William Burroughs or the magical goofy wit of Ron Padgett to pull it off. The world of pain and isolation and grief with which this poet is concerned is far too heavy for such flimsy attitudes.
The second section of the book contains a single 28 page poem -- "Burying the Babies" -- for which Macdonald has invented a fairly ambitious form: a personal narrative interspersed with quotations from Leonardo da Vinci, Tennyson, Gertrude Stein, Rollo May, a Spanish phrase book, 101 Elephant Jokes and various other sources. The separate parts do not cohere, however, except as references to the personality of the poet. And this is the problem: where Donald Justice brings to each instance an intelligence capable of recognizing the specific nature of an experience, which then sets the wheels in motion towards an exact form for a poem dealing with the experience, Cynthia Macdonald brings an intelligence that is already informed by a set of concerns which reduces that experience to fit a preconceived pattern. It is not that she cannot write or does not have the necessary equipment; it is simply a matter of focus.
The problem with Robert Mazzocco's first book, Trader, is that its author's concern with narrative and with images is greater than his concern with writing. There is a kind of slackness in all these poems, a lack of that bite that gives power and vividness. So that even when the images are strong -- a bride and groom in a lost boat, or The door of an asylum Against which the broken girl rests her brow -- their impact is lost because of Mazzocco's failure to create strong poetic contexts. The potential power of his imagination would be served better by prose or film or photography. Anyone who can start an ambitious poem (titled "Flesh") with lines as banal as the following is not yet ready to publish a first book: The first time I made love to a woman I dreamed that my mother died