Donald Justice, “On the Night of the Departure by Bus”

It is April, which has been designated (by somebody, somewhere) Poetry Month, and given the importance of such Official Pronouncements, I find myself drawn to thinking, again, about poetry.

Now, my relationship with reading poetry is complicated, in the sense that one might describe a relationship with a great-aunt as “complicated” if one only encounters that particular great-aunt once every year or three, even though one always enjoys those encounters because said great-aunt is so insightful and wickedly funny. But then one also hears murmured stories about her abrasive and alcoholic personality, and how she pushes (literally) everyone away whenever she gets in “one of her moods,” and those are the stories one recalls whenever one thinks that maybe one should try to get together with the proverbial great-aunt before time runs out for all concerned.

I wondered over coffee if it might be a useful experiment, during this Poetry Month, to pull a volume of poetry off the shelf, not every day but maybe a couple times a week, and share it with my Breathlessly Expectant Readers, along with (if any) my own thoughts on the selected poem.

But don’t worry, I don’t think that this will be as dull and useless as it sounds, so no need to turn off the email updates or delete my RSS feed just yet. (There’s more Ellul coming, after all.)

For one thing, I’m not going to try to explain poems, and any thoughts I actually do share, I promise, will be scant. I think that reading poetry is similar to reading Kierkegaard, in that the purpose is not to figure out what the author is saying, but what the work is saying — to me, specifically. And even I recognize the limits of interest anyone else might have in my specific emotional reactions.

This morning, the first volume that grabbed my eye was Donald Justice’s Collected Poems, and that’s because it is always the closest in proximity, the volume with which I am most familiar, since I read through it every couple of years. I discovered Justice in a college class, and since even then I was already old beyond my years, I found myself drawn to his elegiac, but plain-spoken, voice. I mean, I was reading “Men at Forty” and only pretending to roll my eyes when I was barely in my twenties.

Which is a perfect lead-in to the following poem, which I must have read many times but don’t recall, and to which I randomly opened the book this morning.

On the Night of the Departure by Bus

Tell me if you were not happy in those days.
You were not yet twenty-five,
And you had not yet abandoned the guitar.

I swore to you by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
You swore to me by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
The moon swore to us both by your nakedness that you
had abandoned yourself completely.

Who would not go on living?

The typewriter will be glad to have become the poem,
The guitar to have been your body,
I to have had the luck to envy the sole of your shoe in the dead of winter.

A passenger has lost his claim-check,
The brunette her barette,
And I – I think that there are moths eating holes in my pockets,
That my place in line is evaporating,
That the moon is not the moon and the bus is not the bus.

What is the word for goodbye?

Donald Justice

Oh, misty-eyed Donald. Setting aside the unfortunate last line (which I think should have been left off, but let’s face it, Donald liked that heavy-handed sort of thing), this poem jarred me this morning, the jar of recognition of a conflicting set of emotions in myself. A sense of loss for youthful dreams and artistic ambitions, and the understanding that, with age, our pathways first narrow and then vanish completely. The poem brings forth my outright grief for those things I wanted to achieve, but didn’t — and yet, also, for me anyway, a profound sense of gratitude.

It’s true that most of us will not achieve all that we dreamed, and yet — and yet — aren’t we lucky to have known that desire? To still know that desire?

Who would not go on living?

I would, until I cannot.

Ephemera, 8/31/23

Justin E. H. Smith in his meandering essay on Generation X:

“In order to be a suitable candidate for redemption, a being must of course be flawed. It was long thought that to be this way was simply the general condition of humanity, but today, if you were to seek to learn about our peculiar species by studying the daily tide of social-media discourse, you could easily come away with the impression that it is the condition of only some people (roughly half of them) while the rest are consistently righteous … To identify some work of art, literature, or entertainment as problematic is not overtly to seek to censor, nor to call categorically for moral condemnation. It is simply to taint public perception, to inform readers or viewers that enjoyment of the work in question will likely result in some sort of subtle social sanctioning. It is a weasel word, employed by people who lack not only the courage of their convictions but also anything beyond convictions … “

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Along those lines, this piece claims to be against the “binary” of good and bad books, but it seems actually to be about the need for people to be nicer to other people when talking about the books they like. Ok, sure. Essentially another entry in the modern dominant genre of discourse, which can be described as, “I’m not an asshole, but boy, what about those other assholes, huh?”

There remains, in fact, good and bad (and mediocre) literature; I’ve hated some good, loved some bad, and passed the time with (and written) some mediocre. Also, the thing about human beings (see Smith’s quote above) is that we’re all assholes.

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Minor housekeeping note: since my series of notes on Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World is spiralling out of control, I’ve created a series page listing them in chronological order, including the corresponding page numbers in the book. You can also access the series from the Archives page, and in the header to each series post, which lists the number.