First Death

Justice, Donald

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Aug-20-2023
  • Last revised: Aug-20-2023


“First Death” is a 48-line poem divided into three equal sections of 8 rhyming couplets each, with a meter that is vaguely iambic tetrameter. Each section has as its title one of three consecutive days in June 1933 at the time of the young speaker’s grandmother’s death, presumably his first encounter with death. 

Most scholars reviewing his 2006 Collected Poems consider this to be an autobiographical poem, which well it might be since Justice would have been 8 at the time of this, his “first death”.   

Donald Justice has been described as "a poet's poet" and it is easy to discern why, after reading this poem, his colleagues held him in such high regard.  


Justice has ably depicted a child’s confusing reactions to death, his first, apparently, of a family member. The first section recounts his physical and emotional response, even his kissing his dead grandmother’s cheek. 
“I remember the new taste -
 Powder mixed with a drying paste.”
Like most children, he is observant but ignorant, at the time, how to encode such observations: 
 “The men sat silent on the porch,
 Each lighted pipe a friendly torch  
 Against the unknown and the known.
 But the child knew himself alone.”
It is Justice’s deft recording, apparently as a disinterested reporter, of the child’s reactions but with the benefit of an adult poet’s subtle commentary (the pipes’ friendly torches “Against the unknown and the known”) that makes this poem such an effective point-counterpoint milestone in the young boy’s life, a milestone he never forgot.  

The second section, the next day, is just that - the next day on a farm with a barn, cow dung, an abandoned Ford, mice. Anyone who has grown up on farms will recognize the freedom of a young boy allowed to wander, collecting apparently mundane experiences that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would become what Louis Auchincloss called “a writer’s capital” - his childhood.   

The last section is a compact jewel with subtle and not so subtle salutes to poets past. It is now day three, June 14, 1933, and the church service:    
 “I remember the soprano
 Fanning herself at the piano” 
And a few couplets later, 
 “The stiff fan stirred in mother’s hand.
 Air moved, but only when she fanned.  
 I wondered how could all her grief 
 Be squeezed into one small handkerchief.” 
 This couplet recalls Marianne Moore’s “Nevertheless” and its near miraculous last three lines:
 “                              What sap 
went through that little thread to make the cherry red!”  
The compactness of the verse aptly matches the compactness of the reference.   The very next couplet is a tribute to Emily Dickinson and a coda reminding the reader that Beelzebub was the Lord of the Flies: 
 “There was a buzzing on the sill
 It stopped, and everything was still.   
We bowed our heads, we closed our eyes
To the mercy of the flies.”    
 The couplet on buzzing and “everything was still” is a direct allusion to Emily Dickinson’s  “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died”.  Flies and childhood had a certain resonance with Justice.  (ref 1) As someone who spent many a childhood Summer on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, I can attest to the presence and strange dominance of flies - a single fly on a cow’s defenseless nose can be a cruel bully - and their power to insinuate themselves into your earliest memories. If you grew up on a farm, you grew up with flies.  


Justice, Donald. “In the Attic.” New England Review (1978-1982), vol. 1, no. 2, 1978, pp. 131–131. JSTOR, Accessed 14 July 2023.  

Primary Source

Collected Poems





Place Published







Anthony Thwaite

Page Count