Donald Justice’s “There Is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings”
December 1, 2011 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
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.