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The Poem Stuck in My Head

Donald Justice’s “There Is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings”

December 1, 2011 | by

Claude Lorrain, Pastoral Landscape with the Arch of Titus, 1644, oil on canvas.

Last year the writer Denis Johnson came to Wilmington, North Carolina, where I live, for a conference. Ben George, who edits the magazine Ecotone and was hosting him, graciously asked me to tag along. There were memorable days. Granted, I would file a trip to Food Lion with Denis Johnson under fairly interesting life events. Even so ...

It emerged that Johnson had been fascinated by Venus flytraps since childhood, and Wilmington happens to be the one place in the world where those strange carnivorous creatures grow wild (or at least where they’re truly native: the nutrient-starved coastal soil made them turn to insects for food). We took him to an actual flytrap preserve, behind an elementary school, where you walked on narrow paths through bright green clusters of the plant. You could bend down with a pencil and touch their little hairs, causing them to snap shut. The speed of it made us jump back. We touched only a couple, though, because once an individual trap has clamped down, it can never open again.

The point is, after this excursion, we went to a barbeque joint downtown called Parchies. In the Cape Fear country, and throughout the piedmont of the state, we have this unusual kind of barbeque, which uses a light vinegar sauce instead of the red stuff and tastes totally different than what you expect if you grew up west of here. Strangest of all, it’s served with the coleslaw on the sandwich, right on top of the barbeque. Sounds vile, but when you eat it with a side of finger-shaped hush puppies, you feel that the coronary episode this meal will trigger at some unknown moment down the road makes for an even trade.

Johnson grew visibly excited, waiting for the food. He told us that he had some roots in Carolina and that once, when he was very young, his grandparents had taken him to a barbeque place somewhere in the country and bought him a sandwich. He’d never gotten over the memory of this sandwich. It was perfect. In his mind it had become the ur sandwich. Every barbecue sandwich after it, even the good ones, had been on some level a mockery.

“Hey,” Ben said, “what if this is the one? What if you've been remembering this piedmont-style all these years, and now you're about to reexperience it? Is that a good thing?”

Enter expectation, pressure.

The sandwiches came.

He lifted his and bit into it.

The thing that happened to his face I won’t soon forget. It was childlike joy mixed with grown-up satisfaction mixed with the suppression of laughter. It was deep. I consider it to have been one of the great moments in piedmont-style barbeque history.

As we chatted afterward in the glow, it came up that in Denis’s studio, out in Idaho, he has a plaque on the wall that reads, “The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.” This happens to be a line from a Donald Justice poem I’ve never been able to get out of my head, and have never wanted to. It comes to me on walks or when lying awake, also for no reason. Reciting the lines, I reenter the brief time I knew Justice, during a summer spent tending bar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in the mid-nineties. Justice was staying upstairs, in the house where the bar was. He had a little ritual. Every night at about ten, when the rest of the writers were gearing up for some ego jousting, Justice would come down quietly in his Mr. Rogers sweater and ask for a glass of milk, which we kept on hand for White Russians. He would take a couple of sips, say something pleasant, and slip back upstairs to “work on a poem.” There was something eloquent in the gesture, and yet, in the way he lingered, you sensed that he wished he could stay. It was easy to see why the one D.J.’s work had appealed to the other.

The poem is a masterpiece of late-twentieth-century American verse, written in a curious nonce form that looks for rhyme in repetition. Justice experimented until the very end. It sings of regret, and is a rejection of regret, and is finally about the inseparable sweetness and pain of human life. The poem’s classical—not near-classical or pseudo-classical but somehow and in defiance of time truly classical—lyrical elegance is, I like to imagine, what Justice was working toward upstairs at the wooden desk, with the empty glass in front of him.


There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.


Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.


The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.





  1. percy k | December 1, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    So good. Thank you JJS!

  2. Nick | December 1, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Thank you for introducing me to the poetry of Donald Justice- I agree the poem you quote here is lovely.

  3. Nick | December 1, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    This just became one of my favorite poems. Thank you.

  4. David Young | December 5, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Justice’s 3rd stanza is his translation of the end of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

  5. John Jeremiah Sullivan | December 5, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Thank you, Percy and Nicks, and thanks David Young for mentioning the Chekhov thing, which reinforces the poem’s appropriateness for hanging in the now-playwright Johnson’s studio. Justice touches on the “Uncle Vanya” influence in the little “About the Poem” paragraph at the back of Best American Poetry 2008 (where, incidentally, the piece appears as “Stanzas on a Hidden Theme”; he seems to have vacillated about the title, as it was switched back to “‘There Is a Gold Light'” etc. for the posthumous Collected Poems). He writes: “The first stanza was written in 1984, the third and last in 1997. In that stanza I seem to have been thinking of Chekhov. On the advice of Alice Quinn, the poetry editor of the New Yorker, two other stanzas were cut; I was grateful for the good advice. Whether the three remaining stanzas connect I am not at all sure; they do share something, I would like to believe, besides the verse form. The poem’s original title was from the first line: ‘There is a gold light in certain old paintings.'” JJ

  6. Joey Frantz | December 8, 2011 at 3:08 am

    Donald Justice has long been my favorite poet, and I recently realized the elegance of his final composition. This was a great post to read, and I’m happy to hear your take on it, as well as the anecdote of your own experience with Justice.

  7. Vicky Lettmann | December 8, 2011 at 5:22 am

    Lovely essay. I grew up in Wilmington in the 50’s. I’ve lived most of my adult life in Minnesota. But never, ever have lost that love of the barbecue here… And the hush puppies and slaw. Also I happened to be here to attend Denis Johnson’s reading and the discussion that followed. The connection of all of this to the light and Justice’s poem makes this essay golden.

  8. Matthew G. McCarthy | March 7, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Though I thank the author for this insightful post on his time with Donald Justice, I have to correct the reprinting of this poem. The fourth line should read: “It comes from everywhere and [from] nowhere at once, this light…”

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