He hasn’t won a Pulitzer—yet—but make no mistake about it: Dana Gioia is one of the best American poets writing today, and his latest volume proves it.
Organized topically (“Mystery,” “Place,” “Love,” to name three of seven) rather than by previously published collections, 99 Poems: New and Selected is a book for readers, not scholars. Fifteen of the poems are new. The rest have been selected from his previous four collections. All of them show a master at work.
This is a book of seemingly insignificant things—a photograph, a tree, a Beach Boys song, a long dead uncle remembered. Why? Nothing “is hidden in the obvious / changes of the world.” Or, as he puts it in “The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves Above You”:
The stars now rearrange themselves above you
but to no effect. Tonight,
only for tonight, their powers lapse,
and you must look toward earth. There will be
no comets now, no pointing star
to lead where you know you must go.
Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
the rhythms of your expectation break.
That those “disturbances of ordered things” are formally reflected in the poem’s enjambment, caesuras, and trochees suggests that poetry is the “microscope” that helps us see, to borrow Emily Dickinson’s metaphor in “‘Faith’ Is a Fine Invention,” to which “The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves Above You” is, perhaps, a response. Ironically, it is in looking “toward earth” that “another world / reveals itself behind the ordinary.”
To say that this world “reveals itself” is to reject the idea that the poet is a priest or a little god who endows the world with a significance not its own. “The world does not need words,” Gioia writes, “It articulates itself / in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path / are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.” Still, “the stones remain less real to those who cannot / name them.” The role of the poet is to articulate the meaning that is “graven in silica.”
That meaning is not always comforting. In “Beware of Things in Duplicate,” for example, he warns us that there is “nothing so familiar / or so close that it cannot betray you.” The sea, in a sensitive and unflinching poem on his uncle’s time in the Merchant Marines, is an “undisguised illusion” that saves his uncle from his “icons of happiness” until, that is, he is “burned beyond recognition.” “Jacob / never climbed the ladder / burning in his dream,” Gioia writes in “The Burning Ladder.” He “slept / through it all, a stone / upon a stone pillow, / shivering. Gravity / always greater than desire.” Life is an accumulation of choices, which narrow over time. We always “must choose again,” Gioia writes in “Nothing Is Lost,” “but over less.”
There are no easy truths here—no pat abstractions that insult or offer relief, as the case may be, while simultaneously puffing the poet’s ego. Poetry is not a game—or not merely a game—for “kids in workshops / who care less about being poets than contributors.” It’s the “music” of “common speech” that might, Gioia writes in a line that rivals the best of Wallace Stevens, “direct a friend / precisely to an unknown place.”
But if poetry points us to the mystery of small things and “unknown places,” it also remembers who we were (or weren’t) and reminds us how we became the people we didn’t want to become. This storytelling function of poetry is one that is sometimes derided by contemporary sophisticates proud of their enlightened denial of both the self and sequence, but it’s a tradition that goes back to the origin of the art itself. In 99 Poems, we have short verse narratives that begin with a dead body or a visit to a family home and trace attempts to escape the past or restart lives, both of which turn out to be dreams as universal as they are illusory. “My love, how time makes hardness shine,” he writes in “Sea Pebbles: An Elegy.” Memory, he writes in “Summer Storm,” “insists on pining / For places it never went.”
In “Style,” one of the new poems in the volume, Gioia writes that “Most lives consist of choosing the wrong things. / We try to compensate by choosing more, / As if sheer mass bestowed integrity.” The wrong things are often the big things, and in “Most Journeys Come to This,” which was originally titled “Instructions for the Afternoon,” Gioia tells us to leave “the safe distractions of the masterpiece”:
Leave the museums. Find the dark churches
in back towns that history has forgotten,
the unimportant places the powerful ignore
where commerce knows no profit will be made.
Sad hamlets at the end of silted waterways,
dry mountain villages where time
is the thin shadow of an ancient tower
that moves across the sundazed pavement of the square
and disappears each evening without trace.
After all, it is in such “unimportant places” that we might find what we’ve “come for thoughtlessly, / shoved off into a corner.” But if not—even if “the vision fails”—“this, too, could be / the revelation”: that such “insufficiencies,” even in art, “make up the world,” and, more soberingly, that “most journeys come to this: the sun / bright on the unfamiliar hills, new vistas / dazzling the eye, the stubborn heart unchanged.”
Beauty will not save the world. Poetry is only momentarily therapeutic and should offer no ticket to an easy, self-congratulatory, pseudo-spiritual “human flourishing.” Rather, like both the church and nature’s stones, it either speaks to us or reflects a future of “graceless frescos” among a “shadow-land of marble tombs.”
A lot of art, Gioia writes in “The Haunted” is “grand, authentic, second rate.” 99 Poems, as the title itself indicates, shows a poet who couldn’t care less about the first two—at least not in the cavalier way that they are used today—in over thirty years of writing first-rate work.