By Donald Justice. Knopf. 289 pp. $25Readers soon learn that each literary genre possesses its own particular rhythm, its characteristic feel or atmosphere. When we open a Golden Age mystery, whether by Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, we expect an air of commedia dell'arte: a period glow, some wit, the various puppets going through the familiar motions of murder, feint and discovery. Just as a thriller sucks us into its plot-driven frenzy, a romance novel creates the soft-focused wish-fulfillment of a dream.
To read a volume of poetry is to enter the world of the mesmerist. In a serious artist's collected poems, the single constant is usually his or her distinctive, increasingly hypnotic voice. Without relying on plot, dramatic action or a cast of characters, lyric poets, especially, must entrance us with their words until we cannot choose but hear. Eager for more, we turn page after page because we find ourselves in thrall to a particular diction.
Donald Justice -- who died August 6 at age 78 after a prolonged illness -- has sometimes been likened to that old magician Wallace Stevens. But he is plainer, more overtly personal, without the abundant flow and exhibitionism of Stevens. Most of Justice's poems require only a single page, and some feel as if they end just as they're getting started. His themes are the old reliables, the ones we never fail to respond to: memories of childhood and youth, elegies for the dead, portraits of the lonely, artistic and doomed, reflections on life's shadows and disappointments. Early in his career, Justice liked to play with traditional forms -- sestinas, above all -- and these poems can be marvelous contraptions, true sleights of fancy. Regrettably, some modern readers look suspiciously on fixed forms as mere exercises in linguistic or metric ingenuity, and so tend to prefer quieter, less obtrusively structured meditations.
These Justice supplies in abundance. He is surely, like his few peers (Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht), a deeply accomplished poet, without pretension or histrionic gesture, yet absolutely in command, able to bend syntax to his will or make us pause in wonder at the quiet rightness of a simile.
He can be delicately lovely, as in "Young Girls Growing Up (1911)" (which calls to mind John Crowe Ransom's classic "Vision by Sweetwater"):
No longer do they part and scatter so hopelessly before you,
But they will stop and put an elbow casually
On the piano top and look quite frankly at you,
Their pale reflections gliding there like swans.
The South, Justice has written "has only to be tragic to beguile," and many of his best poems look back on his school days, a long-vanished Florida, an elderly and "artistic" piano teacher, his parents and grandparents:
There stood my grandfather, Lincoln-tall and solemn,
Tapping his pipe out on a white-flaked column,
Carefully, carefully, as though it were his job.
Now and again, the poet will construct punning lines that sound almost aphoristic: "lakes are good all summer for reflection." At other times, his observations take on an urbane bitter-sweetness:
Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
Yet he can turn that same economy to comic effect:
Weep, all you girls
Who prize good looks and song.
Mack, the canary, is dead.
And how can anyone resist a poem that begins like this:
One spits on the sublime.
One lies in bed alone, reading
Yesterday's newspaper. One
Has composed a beginning, say,
A phrase or two. No more!
There has been traffic enough
In the boudoir of the muse.
Some of my favorite Justice poems tell stories. "Incident in a Rose Garden" proffers an unexpected variation on the celebrated theme of Death having an "appointment in Samarra." "A Dancer's Life" might be illustrated by Edward Gorey. At one point its protagonist, the pregnant, bored Celeste, stares out a train window in Europe and glimpses:
. . . beautiful ruined cities passing,
Dark forests, and people everywhere
Pacing on lighted platforms, some
Beating their children, some apparently dancing.
In "Ralph: A Love Story," set during the early days of movies, we learn an all too common tale: "Margot, the daughter, twenty and unmarried -- / To tell it all quickly -- seduced Ralph./ She let him think he was seducing her." Throughout these marvelous pages, Justice again and again employs stories, paintings and quotations as springboards: He even turns a phrase found in a spy novel into a wistful, one-line poem: "Maybe you knew Bliss by another name." Narrative conventions themselves serve as the subject for "But That Is Another Story":
I do not think the ending can be right.
How can they marry and live happily
Forever, these who were so passionate
At chapter's end? Once they are settled in
The quiet country house, what will they do,
So many miles from anywhere?
Being so attuned to the art of others, Justice -- not surprisingly -- is a terrific translator, whether from Hans Magnus Enzensberger ("Don't bother with odes, my son/ Timetables are more exact") or Baudelaire, as in a superb version of "The Metamorphoses of a Vampire":
The woman, meanwhile, from her strawberry mouth --
Twisting and turning like a snake on coals,
And kneading her breasts against her corset-stays --
Let flow these words, all interfused with musk:
'My lips are moist; and I know how to make
A man forget all conscience deep in bed. . . .'
Henry James, Kafka, D.H. Lawrence and even John D. MacDonald are among the other writers Justice alludes to or cites. He can hit off Wallace Stevens perfectly, balancing homage and parody -- "Mordancies of the armchair" -- or announce the third section of "Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens" with just the right sententious flourish: "The opera of the gods is finished."
Near the end of that poem Justice puts forth a strangely haunting question: "What has been good? What has been beautiful?/ The tuning up, or the being put away?" Could this be a comment on the poet's own career? Perhaps. Yet Justice concludes his collected poems with work as strong and masterly as anything he has ever written -- a meditation on a pair of old shoes, the description of a lonely fisherman dancing the lindy on a dock.
The last poem in the book "There is a gold light in certain old paintings" -- is appropriately stoic, valedictory and beautiful. Here is its end:
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.
This is a wonderful book, and anyone who cares for poetry will want to buy it and read it. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.