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Book Review : Poetic Justice in Haunting Elegies of America's Past

August 12, 1987|FRANCES RUHLEN McCONNEL | McConnel teaches English at Claremont McKenna College

The Sunset Maker by Donald Justice (Atheneum: $16; 73 pages)

All of the pieces in Donald Justice's beautiful and haunting new book "The Sunset Maker" could be called elegies, elegies to the past as well as to lost family and friends. Among these pieces are a villanelle to an unknown poet, an elegy to a bassoonist, a series of poems about the American past--including poems inspired by Henry James and poems on the Great Depression--poems and a memoir on the lost world of childhood and a moving lament over the death of the poet's mother: "The clocks are sorry, the clocks are very sad / One stops, one goes on striking the wrong hours."

At the center is a memoir in which Justice writes charmingly of taking piano lessons as a child in Miami during the Depression when "the half dollar (for the piano teacher) was like a coin paid the Gypsy for her improbable prophesying."

Pleasures of Cadence

Perhaps because of his early musical training, Justice gives more pleasure to his readers than do most poets writing today. Everywhere in this collection, in sonnets and villanelles as well as in songs, Justice shows you how closely related to the pleasures of music are the pleasures of poetry--or ought to be.

The older I get, the more important seems giving pleasure as a literary value. Especially in poetry, where it can be an enticement to read and reread until the difficulties of poetic logic and imagery sink in.

In recent years, a number of poets have begun to use storytelling in their poetry to achieve similar ends. Justice writes just as enjoyably in this mode--both in the prose pieces and in his more narrative poetry. In a way this whole collection is a kind of exploration of the relationship of poetry, music and storytelling, as Justice works out many of the same themes, subjects and events in different forms. Thus the prose memoir on piano lessons, with its historical, local, social and biographical details, echoes, elucidates and helps place the images and associations of the surrounding poems.

In the penultimate story, Justice presents his theme directly, as he writes about the single performance of an elegy for Cello and Piano written by a friend. Here six remembered notes from the piece (which Justice writes out for us) become, after the death of the composer, his soul. Or so it seems to the narrator. The story is reflected in the last poem in the book, a dramatic monologue in blank verse in the style of Robert Browning. The same story is told, the same notes are quoted and yet what a fascinating change in effect. One that must be read to be appreciated. This theme--the pain and beauty of memory and loss--echoes throughout the book.

The whole collection is like a complex piece of music with many different ways of working out the same theme. Some of these--the prose pieces and the songs--will be easy pleasures. Others, more difficult in their rhythms and structures, will take longer.

I suggest leaving "The Sunset Maker" on your night table and dipping in and out a little at a time but often, until the lines begin to haunt you too.

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