On the Death of Friends in Childhood
by Donald Justice
My favorite Justice poem, and one of my favorites in the English language, is “On the Death of Friends in Childhood.” It’s a dizzying ride for such a short poem, though I’d describe its motion not as a swerve or a veer, but a spiral that turns continuously in on itself. And like one of those cartoons in which Bugs Bunny draws a door in the mountain, the final turn of Justice’s spiral is a kind of disappearing act.
I see three turning-points in the poem, the first coming between lines two and three. “We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven, / Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell,” Justice begins, with his characteristic charm and wry humor, all of which leads me to accept the wisdom of those negative claims. The friends who died when we were children are among the most distant and foggy of all the dead, and thus the most unlikely ghosts for us to meet now that we’ve lived so long in the world of adults.
But then, having given my nod of assent that indeed “We shall not ever meet” them, Justice’s next three lines seem to revise the agreement into which the poem has drawn us:
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
The turn here is subtle, sly even, because the off-handed tone disguises just how radically Justice is undermining what came before. It becomes clear that we are headed in a very different direction from what the poem’s first two lines seemed to promise—that is, we are going exactly where the poet seemed to say we could never go: to meet them once more “in the deserted schoolyard at twilight.” I find this turn poignant and beautiful, but it also gives me a little chill. It’s a spooky turn, and one set up by the fact that Justice seemed so warm and playful in the opening.
But it turns out that while we shall never meet those dead childhood friends among the bearded and balding, meet them we shall. And there they are in lines 4 and 5: “forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands / In games whose very names we have forgotten.” I’d call this the second turn of the spiral, as we move from a distant, adult kind of laughter about the balding dead sunning themselves in hell, to suddenly gripping the chain-link fence of the schoolyard, watching all those childhood friends, still playing games “whose very names we have forgotten.”
At this point the soundtrack in my head, which began so buffa and light, takes a decidedly minor-key turn. The stage lights go dim and blue, and I start to sense for the first time, with both excitement and dread, just where Justice is headed with all this. A lesser poet would be content with those first five lines, with their deft tonal shift, their movement from distant to close-up, from the safety of the future tense to the danger of the present. And of course Justice already has a killer ending: the haunting image of those children in their ring, “joining hands / In games whose very names we have forgotten.” Full-stop. File / Print. Celebrate with a cup of coffee.
But because Justice is Justice, he isn’t finished with us yet, and the real last line ends the poem as all inward-turning spirals do: by disappearing into infinity.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.
This unexpected apostrophe, the most dramatic of the poem’s turns, is clearly the poet talking to himself, addressing his own memory, but I always hear it as, at the same time, an address the reader. Come, all of you, Justice seems to say. Come seek your own lost there in the shadows.
While it may be comforting to speak of the dead from a safe distance, armored with the irony and wit of the poem’s opening lines, by the end Justice shows just how daring he is. By the end that deserted schoolyard includes us, too, and the poem changes in our hands into something more: not only an elegy for the dead, but also a memento mori for the living. In that final turn we no longer stand by the fence and recall the dead children of our past, but walk astonished through the gates to join them.
Patrick Phillips is the author of two books of poems, Chattahoochee and Boy, and translator of When We Leave Each Other: Selected Poems of Henrik Nordbrandt. He is a recent Guggenheim and NEA fellow, and teaches at Drew University. His third collection, Elegy for a Broken Machine, is forthcoming in 2015 from Alfred A. Knopf.