Saturday, April 16, 2011

`Whoever Had the Light On'

A gesture I’ve always found attractive is writing something with a specific person in mind but obscuring the identity even from the recipient. Call it particularity cloaked in generality. The strategy calls for discipline, like telling a joke but withholding the punch line. But that’s not quite right. It’s closer to an anonymous gift, and giving away too much spoils the effect. Ideally, any reader, known or unknown to the writer, might mistake the piece for a personal offering from its author, which is why books by Boswell and Thoreau can be read as private missives. In “Poem to Be Read at 3 A.M.,” Donald Justice works a variation on the theme by addressing a specific reader unknown to him:

“Excepting the diner
On the outskirts
The town of Ladora
At 3 a.m.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Where someone
Was sick or
Perhaps reading
As I drove past
At seventy
Not thinking
This poem
Is for whoever
Had the light on”

The poem is from the nicely titled Night Light (1967), the second poem in a diptych called “American Scenes.” The first is "Crossing Kansas by Train." Ladora is a town of fewer than three-hundred people in east central Iowa, near Iowa City, where Justice studied and taught at the University of Iowa. A generation or two earlier a comparable poem might have been written not from an automobile but a passenger train. The specific time and place – 3 a.m., small Midwestern town -- lend the poem an air of lonesome nostalgia reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson, a writer much cherished by Justice. In his essay “The Prose Sublime,” the poet might be writing of his own work:

“In Anderson there is not the same push toward meaning; the rendering exhausts the interpretation.”

Justice’s rendering of the late-night reader, glimpsed in the Midwestern night, is not thesis-fodder. It evokes understanding even in anonymous readers.

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