Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books by Donald Justice and Allison Benis White

A Second Look at Second Books of poetry by Donald Justice and Allison Benis White.

By Lisa Russ SpaarAugust 17, 2013

    Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books by Donald Justice and Allison Benis White

    Night Light by Donald Justice. Wesleyan University Press. 78 pages.Small Porcelain Head by Allison Benis White. Four Way Books. 56 pages.

    IN 1967, THE BEATLES' newly released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was providing a renegade soundtrack for the Summer of Love. On stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, Jimi Hendrix set his black Fender Stratocaster afire. Newark burned in six days of racial rioting; for six days of strife in June, the Middle East raged. In Vietnam, the war escalated. Hordes marched on Washington to protest it, and Allen Ginsberg chanted to “levitate” the Pentagon. Langston Hughes, Alice B. Toklas, and John Coltrane died; Dave Matthews, Pamela Anderson, and Will Ferrell were born. In the world of American poetry, John Berryman’s Sonnets appeared from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Ted Berrigan’s Many Happy Returns, Robert Creeley’s Words, James Wright’s Shall We Gather at the River, Gwendolyn Brooks’s the bitch, Robert Lowell’s Near the Ocean, and a collaborative text called Bean Spasms (Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Joe Brainard) that helped to define the New York literary/pop scene, were all published.

    On January 1 of that turbulent year, Wesleyan University Press brought out Night Light, the second full-length collection of poetry by Donald Justice (1925–2004), then in his early 40s (a slightly revised edition of this book appeared from the University Press of New England in 1981). Characterized by poems like “Men at Forty” (which talks back to Wallace Stevens’s “Le Monacle de Mon Oncle” — “If men at forty will be painting lakes / The ephemeral blues must merge for them in one, / The basic slate, the universal hue”):

    Men at forty
    Learn to close softly
    The doors to rooms they will not be
    Coming back to.

    At rest on a stair landing,
    They feel it moving
    Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
    Though the swell is gentle

    Night Light is a book more suffused with elegiac, elegant grief than with the ardent grievances of its historical and cultural moment. In lyrics more formal than “free,” more restrained than confessional, and animated as much by European antecedents as by trends in American tastes, the poems in Night Light are nonetheless stylistically original and, in their way, experimental — all in a manner that demonstrates Justice’s exquisite craft, his signature combination of irony and nostalgia, and which shows him already to be in possession by his second book of the poetic gifts that have made him not only one of the most quietly important poets of his generation, but also an influence on poets as diverse as Jorie Graham, Charles Wright, Robert Mezey, Mary Szybist, John Ashbery, James Tate, Patrick Phillips, Mark Jarman, Neil Perry, Tom Andrews, Deborah Garrison, and Carol Muske-Dukes.

    Yet when I ask my current poetry students if they know the poems, essays, translations, or edited works of Donald Justice, whose major awards include a Pulitzer Prize, many — most — do not. It occurs to me, then, that an important reason to excavate and revisit second books by any poet is to ameliorate the often devastating winnowing effect anthologies can have on our poetic inheritance. Anthologies play a huge role in determining which poets from the past are passed along to current and future readers of poetry, and which are not. In recent Oxford and Norton anthologies, Justice is still fairly well represented among his cohort. But in other collections his work is scantily present or omitted entirely, as it is in the controversial Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011). And despite the fact that Night Light contains several of the poems for which Justice is best known (“Men at Forty,” “To Waken a Small Person,” “The Tourist from Syracuse”), even our very fine library at the University of Virginia (where Donald Justice taught as a visiting professor in the early 1980s, and where it was my good fortune to be his graduate student in a workshop that included Franz Wright and Susan Mitchell) does not hold a copy of the 1967 edition of the text.

    Why should we continue to read the poems of Donald Justice? In particular, what are the pleasures and lessons of this second book? One reason to read early Justice, of course, is that the poems are just so good. Justice is a patient, careful poet; he once confessed to me that he felt lucky to write just one or two poems a year. I have had graduate students who despair if they’ve not published their second or even third books by the age of 30, but that is not how Justice rolled. By the time Night Light appeared, Justice had been long apprenticing, and it shows. Each poem in the collection, even the slightest, is a formal and stylistic gem. Published in a decade whose poetries seem, in retrospect, rife with ire and protest, a rash throwing-off of received forms, and a fearless, often confessional subjectivity, Justice’s poems might now strike the early 21st-century reader (as they did some of his contemporaries in the 1960s) as reserved and mannered. But in fact, they are stirred by a provocative awareness — of themselves, of other sensibilities, and of language: of the music of what happens. Here are the last two stanzas from “For the Suicides of 1962,” a poem whose syllabics rein in the poem’s current of mourning and rue in a way that heightens the eerie, almost surreal darkness of self-murder:

    The masks by which we knew you
    have been torn from you. Even
    those mirrors, to which always

    you must have turned to confide,
    cannot have recognized you,
    stripped, as you were, finally.

    At the end of your shadow
    there sat another, waiting,
    whose back was always to us.

                        *     *     *

    When the last door had been closed,
    you watched, inwardly raging,
    for the first glimpse of your selves
    approaching, jangling their keys.

    Musicians of the dark keys,
    At last you composed yourselves.
    We hear the music raging
    under the lids we have closed.

    Justice (who was a serious, life-long student of the piano) is himself a consummate musician of the “dark keys,” — of the lost world of the past, of the realm of beauty impossible to bear “without some taint of suffering.” In this respect, he owes much to his ancestors — Weldon Kees, E.A. Robinson, Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Thomas Hardy, and others. Another reason to read him, then, is for the way he balances detachment and feeling — which is a difficult blue, “worried” note to strike in any text.

    There is very little use of the first-person in these poems, which may be one way in which Justice pulls off his dance of profound nostalgia and refused sentiment. When an “I” does appear, it is often in persona (“Orpheus Opens His Morning Mail,” “The Thin Man,” “The Tourist from Syracuse,” “Memo from the Desk of X”). A great pleasure of this second book resides in its Hardy-esque invention of new forms that derive from Justice’s sense of tradition inherited, in part, from a host of European writers (“How fashionably sad those early poems are! / On their clipped lawns and hedges the snows fall,” he writes in “Early Poems”) even as they move into hybrid texts — scripts, proems, memos, mottoes, timetables — that resound always with “the mouth of the world” (from “To the Hawks”). The “masks” in these poems, in relation to point of view and form, allow Justice to pull off a discerning irony that is more than game or stance or surface. It is an irony that is charged with the loneliness and longing of “your own blood / And empty spaces in the throat,” as he writes, in “The Evening of the Mind.”

    Consider these lines from “Narcissus at Home,” which are as fresh in their cinematic, script-haunted interior monologue-ing as passages from Hamlet, or as what Philippe Soupault called the “cinematographic poems” and Benjamin Fondate the “unfilmable scenarios” of the surrealists, or even, at times, the “screenplays,” essays, and operas of Anne Carson. The poem is preceded by a short stage direction: “A room composed entirely of mirrors. NARCISSUS, on a divan, a simple hand mirror clutched to his bosom, into which he gazes languidly from time to time,” and then begins:

    Alone at last! But I am forgetting myself …

    To that other — to him I imagine crouched on the far side of the glass, that spy, condemned forever to his vain search for the promised peephole — to him, indeed, it might appear that I was alone.

    But you and I, my dear, know better.

    Only you can guess what comfort it brings me to see you in there, ever agreeable, nodding your head just as I nod mine — and which of us greets the other first, who shall say?

    And you as well. And you.

    Don was unflaggingly modest, brutally honest, and at times a bit cranky, and I can see him shaking his head at me as I compare his verse to those of Shakespeare and Anne Carson. Okay, I wink back at him, be that way, and I recall a Hopkins line he so delighted in (“thrush’s eggs look little low heavens”) that, reading it aloud to us in a class on British poetry, he literally skipped across the room.

    Re-reading through Night Light for this essay,

    Lights are burning
    In quiet rooms
    Where lives go on
    Resembling ours.

    The quiet lives
    That follow us —
    These lives we lead
    But do not own —  

                            (from “Bus Stop”),

    I am reminded of Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth’s short masterpiece, The Perfect Human, which coincidentally also appeared in 1967. Stylized, elegant, spare, beautiful, and saturated with understated melancholy, it is a film that would inspire Leth’s admirer Lars Von Trier to engage in a film project called The Five Obstructions (2004), in which Von Trier (well known for his sadistic streak) invites Leth to re-make his 1967 film five times, each time with several newly pitched “obstructions” — restrictions and terms designed to force Leth, as von Trier puts it, to be more self-revealing, less artful, more raw. I don’t want to give away the endgame of the film because I recommend it to everyone, especially poets, but the upshot is that each time Leth is forced to re-envision the original film, it becomes more and more beautiful. He’s incapable of making a bad film. Leth is so like Donald Justice (both in this second book and across his oeuvre) because, as both artists experiment, they never once abandon their urbane reserve, their dark humor, their impeccable craft, or their essential humanity.


    In an essay on dolls, poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

    [W]ith [a doll] we had to assert ourselves, because if we surrendered to it there was nobody there. It made no response, so we got into the habit of doing things for it, splitting our own slowly expanding nature into opposing parts and to some extent using the doll to establish distance between ourselves and the amorphous world pouring into us. […] [T]he doll was the first to make us aware of that silence larger than life which later breathed on us again and again out of space whenever we came at any point to the border of our existence.

    Allison Benis White’s second poetry collection, Small Porcelain Head (2013), winner of the Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry, is a series of untitled prose poems that, among other marvelous motions and intricacies, uses the silence, mysteries, and mechanics of dolls and doll-play, history, and culture to articulate the speaker’s implacable grief in the wake of the suicide of a beloved female friend. Like the prose poems in her debut collection, Self-Portrait with Crayon, which received the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, the proems in Small Porcelain Head possess a power that is at once mythically, even atavistically childlike, and also unsettlingly adult in its post-Lapsarian consciousness. As with Justice’s poems, the pieces are deceptively calm and aware of their “arguments” and constructs even as these forms and their logic (if, when, then, although, because) fragment and fail under the pressure of the griefs they attempt to speak. Here is “What is left but obsession,” a poem of girl-like gestures, but one that is suffused, as well, with erotic rue and a terrible mourning:

    What is left but obsession, handling the
    object over and over? My hands fit around
    her waist.

    Unbuttoning, I wanted nothing to happen
    or the same thing to happen forever in the
    same place.

    Although it is better, it is impossible to
    miss one thing or when you go, to miss

    Soon the object must grow or become
    invisible, so familiar it is so hollow you are

    I have lost all hope for myself, she wrote,
    meaning there is one coat left which has

    We have already undressed. Once I thought
    what could happen was only what I could

    If Justice’s personae (the tourist, the thin man, the characters from mythology) allow him to project and personify personal emotional states, the various dolls in White’s long poem — some with talk-strings and little voice-boxes, some moving automations, others wooden, some with leather fingers, some made of cloth or paper, some stuffed with cotton or with woolen wigs, others joined to other dolls, yet others that give birth and urinate and feed — permit the speaker to “objectify” the lost beloved friend, and to explore the reaches and limits of the mind, of imagination, in conjuring and recouping the irreparably lost or broken. “What makes the object alive,” she writes, “is desire without relief.” The dolls, of course, provide a way of writing about God, nada — whatever it is that does not talk back even to our most violent wishing — and to explore what the speakers can/must make of that brokenness. “If description is a living thing,” White writes, “dark cherry hair and glass eyes, tilted away — I want to say something that will look at me.” And if in “Cutting her black hair” the speaker confronts mortality,

    Cutting her black hair into a jagged bob
    with utility scissors when I was five. And
    afterward, when I wanted it back, I thought
    it would take weeks, months. But then,
    unevenly framed around her face, I under-
    stood time was done, 

    the opening poem also suggests that writing, poetry, the resulting words, “dark shapes, / […] dried, glistening,” constitute one by-product of, if not a recompense for, this searing illumination:

    If pain is only weakness leaving the body,
    black curls, still wet, painted on her fore-

    If pain is a desire for dark shapes, even
    when dried, glistening, if you are reading

    “The Brain,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “is wider than the sky,” and the poems in this book resemble the “small porcelain heads” of dolls, which are, when engaged in play, as limited but also as teeming (like poems) as the minds of their makers. “If death is a failure of imagination,” White writes, “we are alive.” A toy, asserts Charles Baudelaire in “The Philosophy of Toys” (1853), “is the child’s first initiation into art, or rather it is the first concrete example of art […] it is the first metaphysical stirring.” White’s use of dolls to meditate on the broken heart and the severed faith resulting from adult grief — like Donald Justice’s formally masked and measured forays into the lonely regions of nostalgia and close-lidded loss — are ruses by which these two poets suggest that the pain of living can offer its own uncanny aesthetic, and even emotional sustenance.


     Lisa Russ Spaar's  collection of essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations on Contemporary Poetry, is due out from Drunken Boat Media in 2013.

    LARB Contributor

    Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.


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