“The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.” ~ Donald Justice, from “There is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings”

I have always loved the following Donald Justice poem, so I was very excited when this post showed up on my Tumblr dashboard:


Pastoral Landscape with the Arch of Titus (1644)
Clauda Lorraine

“As we chatted afterward in the glow, it came up that in Denis [Johnson]’s studio, out in Idaho, he has a plaque on the wall that reads, ‘The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.’ This happens to be a line from a Donald Justice poem I’ve never been able to get out of my head, and have never wanted to. It comes to me on walks or when lying awake, also for no reason. Reciting the lines, I reenter the brief time I knew Justice, during a summer spent tending bar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in the mid-nineties. Justice was staying upstairs, in the house where the bar was. He had a little ritual. Every night at about ten, when the rest of the writers were gearing up for some ego jousting, Justice would come down quietly in his Mr. Rogers sweater and ask for a glass of milk, which we kept on hand for White Russians. He would take a couple of sips, say something pleasant, and slip back upstairs to ‘work on a poem.’ There was something eloquent in the gesture, and yet, in the way he lingered, you sensed that he wished he could stay. It was easy to see why the one D.J.’s work had appealed to the other.”

~ John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Donald Justice’s ‘There is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings’”

Music by Sting, “Fields of Gold”


There is a Gold Light in Certain Old Paintings


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 nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.


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.


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.

~ Donald Justice