Donald Justice’s “Unflushed Urinals,” set in a public bathroom in an Omaha bus station at 1 am, starts with this click of couplet:
Seeing them, I recognize the contempt
Some men have for themselves.
I love the severe enjambment, the further contempt of “contempt”; the alliteration (that m like the hum of unrelenting light at night) and assonance—the lines feel good in the mouth, even as the stench rises in the throat; the momentary benign obscurity of “them,” which is the urinals, and not the men; and just, well, the territorial stamp from the jump.
And the poem complicates itself as it lets in humanity, deepens and pulls away from this bold opening: the vanity of a “perfumed, undiscourageable” man fixing the last of his hair, the “saintly forbearance” of the mirror, even as that contempt is sprayed back on him—on us—like piss on trousers.
Justice is often misread (I think) as a mostly minor, sentimental chronicler of an idealized past, but his best work, even when in recollection, captures a moment that is furiously present and not at all ideal.
I fell in love with Donald Justice’s poems thirty years ago, when I was an undergrad; I’ve read his poems off the page, but these two lines are, perhaps, the ones I think about the most. Every time I step up to an old-school urinal, neither flushless nor infrared, filled with someone else’s yellow, I think about this couplet. Every time I zip up, it dares me not to flush.