The final poem in Donald Justice’s final book, Collected Poems, published days after the poet’s death on Aug. 6, 2004, takes its title from the first line of the first of its three stanzas. The theme – appropriate to what appears to be a dying poet’s concluding report to the world he is about to leave – is how humans might endure unhappiness and suffering.
“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 from nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.”
I find this stanza sadly moving in light of Justice’s death. It stands as a poem complete unto itself. Justice was gentlest of poets, without being the sort who wants us to notice and laud his gentleness. I think of his “gold light” as grace descending on all of us, even the Roman soldiers. In “Old Masters,” Zbigniew Herbert writes of Renaissance painters:
“they drowned without a trace
in golden firmaments
with no cry of fright
or call to be remembered
“the surfaces of their paintings
are smooth as a mirror
they aren’t mirrors for us
they are mirrors for the chosen”
Justice was more forgiving and hopeful. “Charity” is a word monstrously compromised through misuse. Justice reminds us of 1 Corinthians 13:13, in the King James Bible: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
“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.”
From the Christian world we move to the classical. Orpheus turns to look at the doomed Eurydice. Orpheus/Justice (surname-turned-allegory) will sing of loss and grief – or nothing.
“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.”
This is Sonya Alexandrovna Serebryakov speaking in the final scene of Uncle Vanya. Chekhov, who considered all of his play comedies, published it in 1899 and based it heavily on another play he had published a decade earlier, The Wood Demon. Sonya describes a vision of the afterlife – as do the Old Masters and Orpheus. Suffering is real but will be forgotten “as though it had never existed.” On Dec. 3, 1898, Chekhov (already ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him in five years) wrote in a letter to Gorky that he had never seen a production of Uncle Vanya:
“In the past few years it has had a good many performances in the provinces, possibly because I published it in a complete edition of my plays. In general I am not now particularly warmly disposed towards my plays; I lost interest in the theatre some time ago and no longer have any desire to write for it.”
Chekhov lived long enough after his renunciation to write Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, not to mention “The Lady with the Little Dog,” “In the Ravine,” “The Bishop” and “The Fiancée.”