Tuesday, November 29, 2016

`The Absent Flowers Abounding'

David Sanders read Monday’s post and wrote to say: “That last line always made me think of Don Justice for some reason.” He means the final line of Larkin’s “Absences”: “Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!” I wrote back to say that while writing the post I had Justice’s poem of the same title, “Absences” (Departures, 1973), in mind, and David replied: “`Absences’ is my favorite Justice poem.” Here is a recording of David reading Justice’s poem, and here is the poem itself:

“It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote,
Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
Of a childhood piano—outside the window, palms!
And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
Soon to let down its white or yellow-white.

“Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
Like the memory of a white dress cast down . . .
So much has fallen.
                                    And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers

We might divide humanity into those who feel the presence of absence and those who don’t, or who chose to ignore it. What do we find among the absent? The dead, of course, and the distant and forgotten, all of which can be revived by memory and imagination, and made present, and that is Justice’s realm. No other poet makes nostalgia so respectable. The motive is not escapism but commemoration. Metric verse is almost uniquely suited for the task (see Milton, Pope, Tennyson). In his essay “Meters and Memory” (Platonic Scripts, 1984), Justice writes:

“The emotion needs to be fixed, so that whatever has been temporarily recovered may become as nearly permanent as possible, allowing it to be called back again and again at pleasure. It is at this point that the various aids to memory, and meter most persistently, begin to serve memory beyond mnemonics. Such artifices are, let us say, the fixatives. Like chemicals in the darkroom, they are useful in developing the negative. The audience is enabled to call back the poem, or pieces of it, the poet to call back the thing itself, the subject, all that was to become the poem.”

If the emotion is not fixed, if form is flaccid or absent, the poet usually fails in his task to make emotion memorable – that is, present. “Absences” is the second-to-last poem in Departures. The final poem, “Presences,” its companion piece as reflected in a distorting mirror, makes clear the cost:

“Clouds out of the south, familiar clouds –
But I could not hold on to them, they were drifting away,
Everything going away in the night again and again.”

One of the best poems in David Sanders’ Compass and Clock (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2016), “Some Color,” comes with an epigraph from Justice’s “Absences”: “It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.” And in the Justice-suffused “Piano,” David writes:

“So much that wasn’t played,
The silence resonating like the dusk
That ushers out the fall . . .”

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