Donald Justice (1925-2004) was a quietly influential poet from Iowa with a sharp and versatile mind. He wrote free form poetry as well as sonnets, sestinas and villanelles. His Selected Poems won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize. Here is The evening of the mind:
The evening of the mind
Now comes the evening of the mind.
Here are the fireflies twitching in the blood;
Here is the shadow moving down the page
Where you sit reading by the garden wall.
Now the dwarf peach trees, nailed to their trellises,
Shudder and droop. Your know their voices now,
Faintly the martyred peaches crying out
Your name, the name nobody knows but you.
It is the aura and the coming on.
It is the thing descending, circling, here.
And now it puts a claw out and you take it.
Thankfully in your lap you take it, so.
You said you would not go away again,
You did not want to go away — and yet,
It is as if you stood out on the dock
Watching a little boat drift out
Beyond the sawgrass shallows, the dead fish …
And you were in it, skimming past old snags,
Beyond, beyond, under a brazen sky
As soundless as a gong before it’s struck —
Suspended how? — and now they strike it, now
The ether dream of five-years-old repeats, repeats,
And you must wake again to your own blood
And empty spaces in the throat.
How to read the first stanza? Justice is known as a ‘poets’ poet’, the first stanza is a self-reflection of an old poet sitting in his garden with a good book on his lap. The shadow of the evening slowly descends on the scene. The peach tree is shouting my name that only I know: nature is becoming identical with the innermost self, I see some kind of gnostic move here. The thing, what else could it be than the harsh reality of mortality? The claw that it puts out and you take thankfully in your lap – death?
The scene with you watching the little boat passing dead fish and dead trees ‘with you in it’ is chilling. You see yourself drifting off on the river of death. In Greek mythology, Lethe is a river in Hades and when you drink from it, you forget everything. In the poem, you did not want to go away and you are damned to repeat, repeat after the gong is struck (death?) Is this a reference to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence of the same? Waking up to your own blood (you can hear your own blood flow, in an environment with very low noise levels) and empty spaces in the throat. In the evening of the mind, awareness is slowly suffocating itself; I don’t see a sign of redemption or reconciliation here, do you?