Saturday, April 11, 2009

Men At Forty - Donald Justice


Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father's tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

---Donald Justice

Donald Justice's Men At Forty

A renowned teacher of poets, and a hell of a poet in his own right, Donald Justice has been called "a poet of restraint." That word, restraint, seems to carry a negative connotation, as if Justice didn't allow himself the freedoms that some of his contemporaries reveled in. Admittedly, I've most often heard restraint in regards to people who need it because they've lost control of their lives. Something occurred to rob them of their sense of what is right and as a result they lack the judgement or know-how to make positive decisions. I'm more inclined to approach restraint from a different angle, especially when using it as a praising adjective, and say that Donald Justice was more so a poet of balance. Where restraint reels you in, balance focuses on why a diverse array is healthy. Where restraint scolds you, balance calms you. And where restraint limits you, balance opens up new possibilities by reminding you there are many paths worth following, paths that lead us through the complicated middle ages of adulthood.

Published in 1967, when Donald Justice was a ripe forty two years of age, Men At Forty delivers an unflinching snapshot of the male middle age. Bittersweet and haunting, the poem's greatest accomplishment might be how it carries these qualities without straying from reality. Justice reinforces the belief that memories tether us to the past, dreams carry us into the future, and the present can be stable or slippery beneath us, depending upon the day. For the men in Justice's poem they can't even rest on stairs without having them move "Beneath them now like the deck of a ship." But while this movement is disorienting because it denies the men any constancy and solid footing, Justice is quick to point out "the swell is gentle." Years of experience have provided the men with valuable knowledge, yet as the world progresses and changes around them they realize that they will never be perfect. Youth and wisdom are opposite trains, passing each other on their journeys to distant coasts. Even as the smooth innocence of childhood is irrevocably smashed, we cling to the pieces that remain: "The face of the boy as he practices tying / His father's tie there in secret." Recalling themselves as boys, the men in this poem also remember the sense of wonderment over their own fathers. How shaving was more than a grooming task, but a ritual of manhood with a distinct "mystery of lather." Justice breaks these men from their nostalgia with the sharpened claws of truth, declaring "They are more fathers than sons themselves now." The transition has happened without their knowledge or consent. And now, "Something is filling them." They might not want to delve into the nature of what this something is, but Justice was forty two when he wrote this poem. He was one of them, a man unable to accept the terms of his own mortality and unwilling to roll over to the constraints that society expected him to welcome without question. I can't tell you exactly why Donald Justice wrote this poem, but I imagine it was somewhat therapeutic to give words and images to what he was feeling so that the something became the "twilight sound / Of the crickets, immense."

From a technical standpoint, Men At Forty is similar to Anna Akhmatova's Evening which I looked at a few days ago: both are poems worth studying for accomplished and up-and-coming writers alike. Starting at the beginning, Justice supplies readers with a first stanza that clearly sets the tone for the poem. The subject matter is middle aged men, specifically their uncertainties and insecurities. To capture these insecurities, Justice employs hard enjambments in the first stanza. There is clear irony in ending a hardly enjambed line on the word "softly." I imagine Justice writing that line with a little spark in his eye and an under-his-breath chuckle. Beyond the line breaks, the poem is superb in its form. The quatrains are fluid in their AABC rhyme scheme, only breaking in the poem's beautiful final stanza. The lines vary in length greatly, but each word has been chosen and placed precisely where it needs to be. Justice's level of craftsmanship with this poem is abundantly clear; notice how he swings the pendulum of time back and forth more than once during the poem. These oscillations are dependent upon the strength of his images. Justice gives readers men learning new tricks in closing softly "doors to rooms they will not be / Coming back to." He shows us solid ground moving under the men like a ship. Justice uses a mirror to transport the men back to their childhoods and to draw parallels between where they are at now in their lives and where their fathers were back then. Finally, he quantifies the insecurities the men are feeling as the noise of crickets, but more importantly that noise is "Filling the woods at the foot of the slope / Behind their mortgaged houses." Justice takes a simple image and coaxes a story to unfold out of it. He very easily could have left it at crickets chirping, but he pushed himself to the heart wrenching end of these men in their mortgaged houses. This is the work of a balanced poet and a man who needed to write this poem to test himself, but also to speak for others like him, others searching for something beyond the admirable quality of restraint.


BlueSkye42 said...

This is a beautiful, nostalgic poem. Thanks for sharing this and your thoughts on it!

Anonymous said...

Well said and very appropriate to men at fifty, also. :)