Sunday Poetry: Men at Forty, by Donald Justice

Men at Forty

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

– by Donald Justice
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This man at 48 can’t help but be mildly amused by Donald Justice’s intimations of mortality at age 40, but he gets the feeling right. (Though he could not have known it at the time, 40 was almost exactly the halfway point of his life, which ended six days short of his 79th birthday.) At some age, most of us begin to think about the fact we’ve walked more than halfway toward our own funeral, and it begins to temper how things are for us.

If the average age is 75 or so, when you’re forty you might start thinking, on one of those absolutely perfect spring days, “How many of these remain?” You only have 35 best spring days left, and you’re going to spend it at the office? Today, I look out at a perfect snow, whitening the ground, lacing the trees and (thank you) melting on the roads and sidewalks, and I know that at the pace of a few a year, the number of such pleasant snows in my future is likely in double digits, not triple.

Donald Justice manages to capture the feeling without lurching into the maudlin or self-pitying. His opening thought, that men at forty learn to close doors more softly, is a hopeful and generous one, and isn’t even accurate for a great many of us. Too often, men at forty slam the doors on the families that have sustained them, and open the doors of red convertibles. Too often, panicked men at forty try to pry open all the doors that have been closed to them. McCain, to choose a public example, spent the past year slamming doors hard and burning his dignity in a vain attempt to gain a presidency he was unlikely to live through. Not all men are as wise as Donald Justice hints.

At forty you become aware, through unfortunate friends and doctors’ consultations, that little things (those gentle swells you feel on a stair landing), could be big things gently making themselves known. There’s no guarantee that you get your full allotment of 75 years – cancer, heart attacks and disease have already taken some of your peers when you are in your forties, and acquaintances’ mortality becomes less and less of an “Oh my God!” shock.

The gentleness in Justice’s portrait contrasts with other poetical advice, such as Dylan Thomas’ call to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But Justice is not offering advice – he is describing the internal alertness to mortality that comes with age. Justice’s immense woods at the foot of the slope filled with the twilight sound of crickets could be the very same lovely, dark and deep woods that Frost stopped by on a snowy evening. Justice’s “mortgaged houses” parallel Frost’s “promises to keep, and mile to go before I sleep.” Responsibility calls us from self-absorbed fascination with our own mortality and moves us forward.

This poem seemed an apt choice this week because Thanksgiving Day was the birthday of my friend’s recently lost father, whom I mentioned in the context of Sharon Olds’ poetry. He was a man I knew only as a father and grandfather; I didn’t know anything about his career life or the adventures he had. He was a man who moved to Kansas City to be closer to his grandchildren – a man with patience to untangle a fishing line and sit through long meets to watch his grand-daughter shine on a balance beam.

I never knew him when he was forty, but I am certain he was a different person in countless ways. His spirited daughters certainly drew some of their audacity and moxie from their father. When I knew him, though, he was a man adept at closing softly the doors to rooms he would not be coming back to. He had taken to heart the wisdom that Donald Justice suggests.

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