Donald Justice’s Use of Memory

As I was working on the umpteenth revision of a poem, I came across Donald Justice’s poem “Absences.” Justice was at the University of Florida while I was there, but I never had him as a teacher. I once tried to get into his class on Hart Crane, but it was already overloaded. There was a poet-student at UF that Justice had championed. Joe Bolton, a young man in his twenties, blond and slender, he used to smoke before entering his class. I got to know Joe because he allowed me to study his poetry class—I was researching how students talk about writing in writing workshops. I interviewed him and recorded him and his students. Bolton was married at the time, and I recall he said his wife was working on a novel. He was more published than any of us, and went on to publish, I think, a book of poetry. Or I should say a book of his poetry was published posthumously: he killed himself a year or so later. Supposedly, he woke and put a gun in his mouth. Justice died in 2004, but during his life he wrote some beautiful poems. In “Absences,” he has this line: “Like the memory of scales descending the white keys/Of a childhood piano—outside the windows, palms!” It’s a nifty trick—taking the present tense and dipping back into an image of the past. In the poem I’ve been writing, I’ve been toying with compressing time in such a way—making the past present and vice versa. Which brings me to another Justice poem that I believe does this beautifully.

Memory of a Porch

Miami, 1942

What I remember
Is how the wind chime
Commenced to stir
As she spoke of her childhood.

As though the simple
Death of a pet cat,
Buried with flowers,

Had brought to the porch
A rumor of storms
Dying out over
Some dark Atlantic.

At least I heard
The thing begin—
A thin, skeletal music—

And in the deep silence
Below all memory
The sighing of ferns
Half asleep in their boxes.

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