The Terrible Whispers of our Elders:
Remembering Donald Justice
By Steven Cramer



The classic landscapes of dreams are not
More pathless, though footprints leading nowhere
Would seem to prove that a people once
Survived for a little even here.

Fragments of a pathetic culture
Remain, the lost mittens of children,
And a single, bright, detasseled snow cap,
Evidence of some frantic migration.

The landmarks are gone.  Nevertheless,
There is something familiar about this country.
Slowly now we begin to recall

The terrible whispers of our elders
Falling softly about our ears
In childhood, never believed till now.

When I learned that my former teacher Donald Justice had died, I wanted to show a poem of his to a new friend—the Caribbean writer Wayne Brown—who was not familiar with his work.  I chose “The Snowfall,” one of my favorites of Don’s early poetry, but hardly one of his anthology pieces.  For me, it captures much that was fugitive, reticent, yet deeply affecting, about the art and the man.   Even his death had the quality of a rumor.  He died on August 6, 2004.  The next day, a friend informed me via email.  The first obituary I know of appeared on August 8 in The Miami Herald; the New York Times took two more days to report his death.  In Boston, the land of Bishop and Lowell, The Globe waited seven days before picking up an Associated Press obituaryI assume the citizens of Iowa City learned of his death first, and I imagine the news radiating out from that Midwestern poetry capital, like those concentric waves from the radio tower in the 1930s RKO Pictures logo, but in slow motion.  (I’d like to think that Don, a lifelong cinephile, would have appreciated that image; my guess is he’d have known the precise term, if there is one, for the frame that identifies a movie studio.)

American poetry is regional.  The South reveres James Dickey the way New England honors Lowell and Bishop.  Don’s life and work mostly took place in Florida and Iowa, and while he did not “die in Miami”—as he predicted in his “Variations on a Text by Vallejo”—it’s fitting that many of those most immediately affected by his death have, or had, close connections to one or the other of those states.  In another sense, however, geographical responses to Don’s death strike me as odd, considering that he won the Pulitzer Prize and that his legion of former students includes both widely scattered and widely honored American poets.  Perhaps his reputation will now begin to permeate the wider poetic culture, as did Bishop’s after her death—a poet he resembles in many ways.  Like her, he was often called a “poet’s poet,” his quiet precision appealing to those who read poetry for the way it behaves like no other verbal art.  Like her, his spare output had readers waiting, often for years, for a new example of his artistry. >>

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