According to The Poetry Foundation, Donal 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 Doveand 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;
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.
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It is rare to encounter contemporary, rhyming poetry. And especially rare to encounter good contemporary, rhyming poetry. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I found A.E. Stalling’s poem “The Pull Toy” in Five Points Journal.
It is a simple, heartfelt poem, very different from the intentionally weird poetry that many reputable journals seem to prefer nowadays. It is also a carefully crafted piece that hides the many hours of its composition behind its accessible subject matter and language. A feat to be applauded, no doubt.
A. E. Stalling’s is widely known for how she uses her training in the Classics to bring formal elements into her writing. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.
The Pull Toy
You squeezed its leash in your fist,
It followed where you led:
Tick, tock, tick, tock,
Nodding its wooden head,
Wagging a tail on a spring,
Its wheels gearing lackety-clack,
Dogging your heels the length of the house,
Though you seldom glanced back.
It didn’t mind being dragged
When it toppled on its side
Scraping its coat of primary colors:
Love has no pride.
But now that you run and climb
And leap, it has no hope
Of keeping up, so it sits, hunched
At the end of its short rope
And dreams of a rummage sale
Where it’s snapped up for a song,
And of somebody—somebody just like you—
Stringing it along.
There are charms
that forestall harm.
The house bristles
for stasis: refolding
the linens along
their creases, keeping
the spoons and chairs
in their right places.
Nobody needs to
witness one’s exquisite
care with the napkins
for the napkins
to have been the act
that made the fact
By Kay Ryan
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