Aug. 12, 2005

Thinking about the Past

by Donald Justice

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Poem: "Thinking about the Past" by Donald Justice, from Selected Poetry and Prose © Middlebury College Press. Reprinted with permission.

Thinking about the Past

Certain moments will never change, nor stop being—
My mother's face all smiles, all wrinkles soon;
The rock wall building, built, collapsed then, fallen;
Our upright loosening downward slowly out of tune—
All fixed into place now, all rhyming with each other.
That red—haired girl with wide mouth—Eleanor—
Forgotten thirty years—her freckled shoulders, hands.
The breast of Mary Something, freed from a white swimsuit,
Damp, sandy, warm; or Margery's, a small, caught bird—
Darkness they rise from, darkness they sink back toward.
O marvelous early cigarettes! O bitter smoke, Benton...
And Kenny in wartime whites, crisp, cocky,
Time a bow bent with his certain failure.
Dusks, dawns; waves; the ends of songs...

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Katherine Lee Bates, born in Falmouth, Massachusetts (1859), who wrote the poem that begins,

"O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!"

She was a poet and professor of English at Wellsley, who, in the summer of 1893, traveled with a group of teachers to Colorado, hiked to the top of Pikes Peak, and said, "I was looking out over the expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, [when] the opening lines of [a poem] floated into my mind." And by the time she left Colorado, she had written four stanzas in her notebook of "America the Beautiful," which was published on the 4th of July, 1895. It was set to music about ten years later.

It's the birthday of classics scholar Edith Hamilton, born in Dresden, Germany (1867), to American parents. She grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her father believed in education for young ladies, so she started learning Latin and Greek as a child. She went on to study classics in Europe. She was the head mistress of a prep school. After her retirement, she wrote a book about Greek civilization called The Greek Way, followed in 1942 by her book Mythology. For many years, American children first learned about Hercules and Medusa and Odysseus from the book by Edith Hamilton.

It's the birthday of the poet Donald Justice, born in Miami (1925). He grew up in Florida during the Great Depression. His father was an itinerant carpenter, but his parents gave their boy piano lessons, which inspired Donald Justice to try to become a composer. He eventually switched to writing.

He started out as a minimalist poet. He came out with a book about once every ten years. And then in 1982, went back to his home state of Florida and found the landscape so different that he suddenly began to write poem after poem about his childhood. He died in 2004, just a few weeks before his collected poems came out.

It's the birthday of novelist Wallace Markfield, born in Brooklyn (1926). He is author of You Could Live If They Let You, Teitelbaum's Window, and To An Early Grave.

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