THE SUNSET MAKER By Donald Justice Atheneum. 73 pp. $16; paperback, $8.95 SELECTED POEMS 1957-1987 By W.D. Snodgrass Soho Press. 270 pp. $19.95 DISBELIEF By John Ash Carcanet. 127 pp. Paperback, $9.95
AS ITS opening poem, "Lines at the New Year," makes plain, The Sunset Maker -- Donald Justice's fifth collection in 28 years, and his first book since Selected Poems (1979) -- is preoccupied with the remembrance of things past: "The old year slips past / unseen, the way a snake goes. / Vanishes, / and the grass closes behind it." Suffusing most of the 24 poems, two stories and one prose memoir that compose this graceful volume are the author's affectionate memories of events and people -- including his own younger self -- that have vanished, with the lost years, into the high grass. Solemn and stately, taut and tender, these writings are nonetheless often startling in their raw response to the fact of mortality: "The dead," runs the old refrain in "Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents," "don't get around much anymore."
In another poem, "Nostalgia of the Lakefronts," Justice recalls a setting associated with his long-gone youth, and -- as he does continually in this book -- links natural phenomena to memory, to history: "Nostalgia comes with the smell of rain, you know." Time and again he contrasts the blithe naivete' of the young, in regard to their own mortality, and the sad knowledge that has come to him with age; in "Children Walking Home from School through Good Neighborhood," for instance, he compares a group of boys and girls to "figures held in some glass ball, / One of those in which, when shaken, snowstorms occur; / But this one is not yet shaken." Yet the youngsters are fated to go the way of all flesh; in a striking image, Justice describes them, running in their bright sweaters, as "a little swirl of colors,/ Like the leaves already blazing and falling farther north." Time holds them green and dying, though they sing in their chains like the sea.
Poems with titles like "Young Girls Growing Up (1911)" thus coexist in The Sunset Maker with poems entitled "Purgatory" and "Cemetery"; the poet shifts easily -- or, rather, with a sad unease -- from images of innocent youth to reflections upon death and decrepitude. In several poems he elegizes loved ones, including (in "Psalm and Lament") his mother, after whose passing "the yard chairs look empty, the sky looks empty. The sky looks vast and empty." The quietly insistent repetition is characteristic of the poems in this book, and seems designed to reflect the repetitiousness of the daily routines and natural events (e.g., sunsets) which persist despite a loved one's death:
Out on Red Road the traffic continues; everything continues.
Nor does memory sleep; it goes on. Out spring the butterflies of recollection,
And I think that for the first time I understand The beautiful ordinary light of this patio
And even perhaps the dark rich earth of a heart. . . . Let summer come now with its schoolboy trumpets and fountains.
But the years are gone, the years are finally over.
His mother's passing, then, has turned the poet's own existence into a sort of death-in-life. Yet this state is not without its consolations, bittersweet though they may be. For one thing, he now has a deeper understanding of life and a more profound appreciation of the simple beauties around him. He also has nature, which -- even as it seems to mock his mortality or, alternately, to grow old and weary itself -- can, with its ever-returning spring, awaken his long-dormant memories of other, happier springs. Finally, he has his art, by means of which he -- the sunset maker, the God-mimic -- can bring his affections, his memories, and his very self to life for those who choose to read him.
This is presuming, of course, that he continues to be read -- a score on which Justice is less sanguine than Emily Dickinson, who boasted in one famous poem that she could fashion two sunsets to the Almighty's one, and who ridiculed publication as "the Auction Of the Mind of Man." Unlike Dickinson, Justice considers an audience necessary to the artist. In one elegy, he memorializes "the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn"; in the title poem and a pendant story, "Little Elegy for Cello and Piano," the speaker notes that nobody but he remembers the works of his late composer friend Eugene Bestor -- and since he recalls only one six-note cello phrase from the entire oeuvre, he thinks of Eugene "as surviving through this fragment." He reflects that after his own death, "nobody will recall the sound / These six notes made once," and then Eugene will be truly dead. Unless, of course, the poem and story (in both of which those notes are preserved) continue to be read.
Music occupies an important place alongside poetry in this book; several poems, as well as the memoir, "Piano Lessons," recall Justice's boyhood music teachers. Two of the poems are subtitled "A Song," and indeed, whether Justice writes in prose, free verse, or form (this book includes two villanelles and several sonnets), his work has a manifest musical quality. Justice's ear is perfect: Much of one's joy in his poetry derives from his consistently delicate patterning of sounds, particularly from the wonderful half-rhymes that fill poem after poem -- for example, "Villanelle at Sundown" -- with a multitude of similar sounds that echo softly off each other:
Turn your head. Look. the light is turning yellow.
The river seems enriched thereby, not to say deepened.
Why this is, I'll never be able to tell you. Or are Americans half in love with failure?
One used to say so, reading Fitzgerald, as it happened.
(That Viking Portable, all water-spotted and yellow -- Remember?) Or does mere distance lend a value
To things? -- false, it may be, but the view is hardly cheapened.
Why this is, I'll never be able to tell you.
Justice's work is memorable not only for its music, though, but for its visual imagery. It does not seem to be a mere coincidence that the title poem mentions a painting by Bonnard, for many a Justice poem -- dense with words like "diaphanous," "vague," "wisps," "misty," "ghostly," "blurred," "hints," "glimmerings" -- sets a soft-focus, pastel-colored, Bonnard-like canvas before the mind's eye. Justice is a verse Impressionist, an Intimist of the written word.
If one has any reservations about The Sunset Maker, it is that the stories and memoir are not up to the poetry. Though it is interesting to see Justice rework a poem's material into prose (something he does twice in this book), it is very much a poet's prose: fastidiously composed and exquisitely contemplative, but structurally weak and short on action and conflict. Yet this is a minor cavil. On the whole, The Sunset Maker is a deeply affecting volume -- a beautiful, powerful meditation by a modern master upon the themes of aging, lost innocence, and the unalterable, terrifying pastness of the past.
BORN IN 1926 (a year after Justice), W. D. Snodgrass won fame as a confessional poet. His Pulitzer-winning first book, Heart's Needle (1957), influenced the colloquial, personal manner of the pivotal Life Studies (1959), whose author, Robert Lowell, wrote to Randall Jarrell that Snodgrass was "incomparably the best poet we've had since you started."
An auspicious beginning. Yet since then Snodgrass has settled into a marginal, ambiguous position on the poetry scene. He continues to be identified with Plath and Sexton; the Selected Poems 1957-1987 -- which contains a variety of work: nature poems, poems about famous paintings, poems in form and free verse -- seems intended to change all that. The poems from The Fuehrer Bunker (1977) and its two sequels concern the last days of the Third Reich and take the form of first-person testimony by Hitler, Goebbels and company; the most recent poems, in the section entitled "Kinder Capers," chronicle the adventures of a fanciful version of the poet, called W. D., and feature energetic rhythms, multiple rhymes and pert parodies ("My hat leaps up when I behold / a rhino in the sky") reminiscent of the later Delmore Schwartz.
Snodgrass' work is almost invariably readable and lucid, and often witty and touching; drawn to the extremes of human nature and emotion -- love and hatred, joy and horror, saintliness and evil -- he dwells with equal fascination upon moral corruption and children's innocence. His is an interesting mind, and an exuberantly original talent. Yet one cannot avoid the conclusion that this talent, at its strongest, lies squarely in the confessional realm, that Snodgrass' particular gift is for trapping a raging personal emotion within the confines of a rigorous form. Arguably, his best poems are those from Remains (1970), a sort of contemporary In Memoriam that charts the poet's reaction to a loved one's death. In "Disposal," for example, having distributed the deceased's good, never-worn clothes, he reflects that We don't dare burn those canceled patterns
And markdowns that she actually wore.
Yet who do we know so poor
They'd take them? Spared all need, all passion,
Saved from loss, she lies boxed in satins. Like a pair of party shoes
That seemed to never find a taker;
We send back to its maker
A life somehow gone out of fashion
But still too good to use.
JOHN ASH is over 20 years younger than Justice or Snodgrass, but he is already on his fifth book. Disbelief contains more than 50 poems and prose-poems by the Englishman-turned-New Yorker, and a wildly uneven batch it is. Ash doesn't seem to know a good poetic idea from a bad one, and follows both varieties up with equal enthusiasm and lack of discipline. The resulting poem's success depends on whether the original idea was valid, the inspirational energy unflagging, and the rhythm in his head strong and true, as in "Memories of Italy":
I loved the light of course
and the way the young men
flirted with each other.
I loved the light, -- the way it fell out of a sky like a painting,
or perhaps like the ground (if this
is not too paradoxical a way of
putting it) for a painting, and the way the young men stood in the station
wearing jeans that were the colour of the sky
or the sea in a painting . . .
And on it goes, the lines growing ever longer, like a spiral of words spinning out from the center of the poet's consciousness. These are indeed stream-of-consciousness poems, whose value is entirely dependent upon the swiftness and smoothness of the particular stream in which Ash happens to have found himself; the linebreaks, the diction and the details all patently came at once, and are either inspired or awful. Ash is out to shock (with daring forms, outlandish images and a matter-of-fact pansexuality), to impress (with his French, his knowledge of the cafe's and squares of foreign capitals, and his cosmopolitan ennui: "I am tired of Paris today"), and to be frightfully clever and frivolous ("There are still more hairs on my head / than there are croissant outlets in Seattle"); he is very much a Wildean poseur, a glib, condescending dandy, and the pose itself is a conscious part of his poetic strategy. Certain poems seem designed to show the boundlessness of his daring: in "A Lithuanian Mantilla" (one of his many exotic, Stevens-like titles) all 56 lines rhyme; in "The Sky My Husband," all 79 lines consist of the words "The sky my" followed by one or more common nouns, such as "piano" and "mother." Such poems are less tours de force than they are jeux d'esprit -- and vapid ones, at that.
There is, of course, a philosophy behind all this. Disbelief probes the consequences of disbelief in God, in the perfectibility of man, and in the ultimate significance of life, which Ash describes in one poem as "a festive marching to no purpose." If life means nothing, runs his implicit argument, one might as well forgo seriousness and have some fun -- be as superficial, sloppy and extravagant as one likes. And yet many of his poems strike one as acts of faith. One of his prose poems is called "Every Story Tells All," and Ash seems desperately to want to "tell all," to sum life up in a single piece of writing, to believe that poetic truth is arrived at not through labor but by means of inspirational flashes (more an American than an English notion, surely, which might help explain why Ash has relocated to these shores). The expectation that words might prove to be a principle of meaning and organization in a godless cosmos seems to inform poems like "Romanza" -- "Some days the whole of living / is like a phrase you overheard in the subway" -- and "Rooflines and Riverbells" -- "Some evenings / there are no other songs / that so open the possibility / of summing the whole thing up." Such poems as these, in which a genuine longing shines sweetly and affectingly through the mesh of tired flippancies, are by far Ash's most promising.
Bruce Bawer writes regularly about poetry and fiction for The New Criterion.