Mary Margaret Alvarado
A young Charles Wright once brought to Donald Justice “some ineptitude” that he thought was a poem. “Something, no doubt, about goddesses and the Aegean Sea,” Wright recalls in his essay “Jump Hog or Die.”“But Don, as was his manner, was taking it seriously, very seriously.” As Justice went over the poem, a fly did too. It circled and circled but did not distract the revered teacher and “poet’s poet” at all. That is, until he ate it. “He actually swallowed the damn thing, so intent was he on the poem at hand.” After some brief profanity, Justice returned to his reading. And there he is, the master. Or here he is, attending with equal fervor to pinball, tennis, poker, craps, or a famously ferocious game of Ping-Pong at the University of Iowa Student Union, back when the poetry workshop was some Quonset huts and he. His go-to bet at the Tampa Bay Downs was described by a friend as a “hedge against formlessness,” which could double as a description of his poetry.
Justice was courteous, long-married, and never confessional. He ordered milk at a bar. He found driving a taxi in Miami to be “not nearly as exciting as [he] thought it would be.” After John Berryman summoned his former student to the apartment where he was sitting before a case of razors, choosing the best one for a suicide, Justice did not write about that scene. He prized the life he called “tame,” the one that freed him to write.
He was similarly restrained in his tastes, claiming in an interview that, if “there were an election in November,” he’d side with Dickinson over Whitman, because she was “the one with the more modest scope.” In a notebook entry, he commends Constance Garnett’s translations of Russian literature for having “no style. . . . Is that not, after all, the ideal condition?” he asks.
Style is signature. Art without it is cave art, and folk art, and the beautiful oeuvre of Anon. Justice wrote in “Bus Stop” that he wanted to “join the broken small tangent” of his experience with what “might have been called the universal or archetypical.” That is precisely what he did in his poem “There is a gold light in certain old paintings,” the earliest published record of which appears as a fragment: three lines in a dedication to Jean and Nathaniel, his wife and son.
So this masterwork about the end of the world begins as it must, in love. “There is a gold light in certain old paintings” is the sort of poem that you could read to someone who is doing the hard work of dying, and it is in the ruins of death, that recurring apocalypse, that the poem is situated. Here is a world where to meet a love is to kill that love, as Orpheus and the soldiers do. Here is a world that is only undiluted and gold when rendered so. Where we live, it is “very dusty,” and loss is added to loss. The poem appears on the last page of Justice’s last book without a title, which only further impresses upon the reader the feeling that it was found—unearthed, or pulled down. “I write or try to write as if convinced that, prior to my attempt, there existed a true text, a sort of Platonic script, which I had been elected to transcribe or record,” Justice wrote in “Notes of an Outsider.” He gives invention no emphasis at all. The aim is to be a vessel (“transcribe,” he says, not “translate”) for what is fixed and immortal.
But how does a human do that? For Justice, who was both experimental and formal, one needs a rule. Here, his rule invents a form. The poem is built (like life, and triptychs, and Plato’s tripartite soul) on a series of threes—three numbered six-lined stanzas, with end rhymes in all but the first and third lines of each. The meter is five-beat accentual, which Justice noted can sound accentual-syllabic, as though hovering around blank verse. But accentual meter is freer than accentual-syllabic, and older, too. Mostly, it sounds like speech. The predominant rhythms are falling but rise when Orpheus sings and again when our work is “seen.” The sonnet informs the poem’s shape and movement; there’s a turn before each stanza’s final couplet, the last of which releases us forever and offers resolution. Though Justice might object to the idea—having argued that meter works more like a carpenter’s hammer than like waves to the shore—both the beat and his nonce form feel organic, as though they had been there all along, a received “true text.”
The first line is urgent and plain. Let me give this to you, the speaker seems to say. This is what I know: “There is a gold light in certain old paintings.” Imagine the question that might precede that. It is the question of a whole life. What can we know? Which way should we go? And where is the treasure we’re after? The answer is unironic (“gold” and “old”) and immediately epistemological. A reader might expect clarification in the second line—start with these paintings by Caravaggio, say—but is stymied. Then the scope widens. Art only “represents,” and the light is “sunlight” after all. You can’t own it; it’s not that sort of treasure. It is a “diffusion of sunlight,” a great and equal distribution—from to disperse, to pour forth, to scatter, and in every direction. This is how goodness and suffering (and it is suffering Justice makes an account of, not evil) appear throughout the poem—they are in the air. They move like the sibilance in that second line, and, later, like “the sickness.” Wanton and abundant, they come “from everywhere and nowhere at once.” That is not an oxymoron. It is a paradox, a truth you can move into, which leads to this even stranger one, a felix culpa:
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.
The o’s slow us, the s’s slur, and the crisp t’s place us there. Justice makes a parallel structure and breaks it. The soldiers aren’t paired with a person or people; they’re paired with the cross, which is both the particular cross of Christ and is also universal: it is all crosses, every cross. Could there be a more radical statement of equality? The soldiers, the powerful, are the “poor” and “sprawled” ones here. Both the torturer and the tortured are under this light, which gives “charity” in the oldest sense of the word: not philanthropy, but a kind of love, where it is as fortunate to be needed as it is to be in need.
These stanzas are more than rooms; they are epochs. Justice distills the Western canon to its stories, moving through biblical, then Greek, and finally Enlightenment views on our state. In the first line of the second stanza, we meet Orpheus, the hero who could charm the birds and divert the course of rivers, the one whose song had power even over Hades. But here Orpheus does the most human and vulnerable of things: he hesitates. Again Justice leverages the word’s whole weight, so Orpheus stammers, holds fast, and falters all at once. It was his wedding day, imagine. Eurydice, his bride, was set upon and bitten. She dies. He follows her all the way to the Underworld, where he is given one condition—an archetypical one—Don’t Look Back. But Orpheus cannot trust, and who can blame him? Like the soldiers, he is infinitely pitiable, and he loses his love. Orpheus’s “black river” and “beloved back” are like “the cross” in the first stanza. They are particular and his, but the articles matter: “the” and “the.” They are all black rivers, all beloved backs, and yours, and mine. “We think he sang then, but the song is lost,” Justice writes. So, at the end of his lifelong apprenticeship to poetry, music, and painting, Justice steps in where the “we” that is scholars and scholarship falters. Art is what we need. So he takes up Orpheus’s instrument and sings.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
There is the poem’s shortest line and its most gaping, gasping line break. The two poet’s voices make a chorus of lovers, defiant before death.
After one cataclysm, and the next, we come into the third stanza and a world we know. Here, to exist is to suffer, but this world is “dusty,” not doomed; Justice renders it with great kindness and calm. In the poem’s best-known line, we meet a child, or a grown man (Chekhov’s Sonya, perfected), who is encouraging his elder. The soft sound of dusty leads to that of uncle. “The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.” In this line, we hear the first beat we ever heard, or, as Justice would have it, the hammer. The line is end-stopped, meaning we work because the world is dusty and that is who we are, not because our work will necessarily change things. The promise of the next line is independent of us: “One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good,” both forever, and in exchange. Beauty saves us, not progress. And we are in there. An orchard needs gardeners, a guitar needs a guitarist; this restoration at the end of time does not require our extinction. In the end we are given what is ordinary and plain. Paradise is a spring day. The right ordering of the city is a guitar being played.
From his earliest poems, Justice favored the shape and act of circles, which mimic memory, his great subject. The identical rhymes in this poem circle, too, but they change and chime with each iteration. “Back” is a direction, then “back” is a last look at Eurydice. “Good” is a state; then it is a quality. At first, “existed” connotes every sorrow ever; in its second use, it is the absence of them. Finally, this poem breaks that shape and frees us and its author from the burden of remembering at all. It is a lofted half-circle, a narrative arc, which is a segment, which is a line. Follow the terminal words: “paintings,” “sunlight,” “happy,” “light,” “cross,” “cross,” “river,” “back,” “lost,” and so forth, to “existed.” There is a story: beginning, middle, and end, with the most classic movement from tension, to crisis, to resolution.
This poem loves humans. The mercy throughout it is abundant, and of a very human sort. “Happiness” is praised, not joy, a more difficult state. “Forgetting” is offered, not forgiveness, which takes such work. Our orchards bloom. Our art can last. And the man who makes the most terrible mistake, the one who looks back—we are that man and love that man, and in the end what we’ve done is OK. It is more than OK. It is “strong and clean and good.”
If you Google “There is a gold light in certain old paintings,” you’ll find several reports that the poem was first published after Justice’s death in August of 2004. They are false. The poem was first published on page 80 of the New Yorker on November 24, 1997. But the bloggers’ idea seems true. What Justice refers to in his last book’s “Notes” as “the ailments of his age,” infuse this poem, and one can imagine the final draft falling from his spotted hand. But it’s more than that. The speaker knows what we don’t and has a view that is high enough and broad enough to see that the light under which we are sprawled, grieving, and at work “comes from everywhere and nowhere at once.”
To use a metaphor is to carry over. We need them because things are so far apart. But here, approaching death, and the “day when the sickness shall pass from the earth for good,” things resolve into their thingness, the shadows draw near to the forms, and “light” is like the “sunlight,” and “happiness” is like “when we are happy,” because there is nothing left to carry over.