According to The Poetry Foundation, Donald Justice (1925 – 2004) was “one of the twentieth century’s most quietly influential poets.” He was a beloved teacher to many of the current greats, including Pulitzer Prize-winners Rita Dove and Mark Strand. A poet who can actually teach others is exceedingly rare because the task asks for a great deal of generosity, a trait that the very private métier often lacks.
His own work holds a quiet reverence without being dull or academic. Rather, it combines precision, heart and ease. Below is one of my favorite samples of his ability to make traditional form relevant and fun.
Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy
Papier-mache body; blue-and-black cotton jersey cover.
Metal stand. Instructions included. –Sears, Roebuck Catalogue
O my coy darling, still You wear for me the scent Of those long afternoons we spent, The two of us together, Safe in the attic from the jealous eyes Of household spies And the remote buffooneries of the weather; So high, Our sole remaining neighbor was the sky, Which, often enough, at dusk, Leaning its cloudy shoulders on the sill, Used to regard us with a bored and cynical eye. How like the terrified, Shy figure of a bride You stood there then, without your clothes, Drawn up into So classic and so strict a pose Almost, it seemed, our little attic grew Dark with the first charmed night of the honeymoon. Or was it only some obscure Shape of my mother’s youth I saw in you, There where the rude shadows of the afternoon Crept up your ankles and you stood Hiding your sex as best you could?-- Prim ghost the evening light shone through.