Stanzas: Donald Justice

Jennifer Habel

02/2019

For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of poetic lines. For the second Stanzas feature, poet Jennifer Habel, whose poems appear in our Winter 2019,  Winter 2017, and Spring 2017 issues, examines a stanza by one of her favorite poets, Donald Justice. 



Donald Justice’s calmly beautiful poem “There Is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings” is composed of three numbered stanzas that are united by their unusual form, a form that Justice invented. Here is the third and final stanza:

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.

In this stanza Justice reimagines Sonya’s final speech in Uncle Vanya, secularizing her vision of a future in which she and Vanya, both of whom have been grievously disappointed, can be at peace. The word “dusty” in line one is Justice’s, not Chekhov’s, and I love it. Although suffering and existence are inextricably linked in the stanza, the world is not “evil” or “doomed.” It is dusty. And in that dusty world we can work. The work is communal, ours.

Stephen Dunn once said that he thinks this is a poem “that desperately wishes to be affirmative, and it keeps on taking back a little bit its claims.” To what extent do the final two lines of this stanza take back the affirmations of the preceding three? For a time I thought they did so, and found it paradoxical that I could find consoling lines that suggest that our experiences will be thoroughly forgotten. Now, though, I find the lines less attenuating. How much, after all, do we want to be remembered for what we suffered? Would we not rather, like Justice, be remembered for our work, for what we made?

A few years ago I placed a framed broadside of Justice’s poem in my house. It hangs there as proof of the enduring worth of work. Sometimes I say the end words of the final stanza to myself: work good guitar good existed existed.

Jennifer Habel is the author of Good Reason, winner of the Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. Her poems have appeared in the Believer, Gulf Coast, the Massachusetts Review, the Southeast Review, and elsewhere.

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