At the heart of Dana Gioia’s 2012 collection, Pity the Beautiful, lies a ghost story. “Haunted” tells the tale of a young man who has gone for a secluded and intimate weekend in an ancestral New England mansion with a woman of great beauty and even greater vanity. Mara, the narrator tells us, “loved having me for an audience,” as she described “her former lovers—imitating them, / cataloguing their signature stupidities.” He, meanwhile, sits in awe. As the story unfolds, we sense the narrator is of humble origins but of a sensibility that has already warmed up to obscene wealth. He describes the mansion’s art as “grand, authentic, second rate,” and while Mara showers, he distracts himself from contemplating her body by exploring the wine cellar, where he recognizes and appreciates the collection of Bordeaux.
Invited into the world of affluence, a quick study in its ways, but held slightly in contempt by its prize beauty, the narrator argues with Mara and storms off to another wing of the mansion. There, disrupting his sulking over a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets, enters a woman, a housekeeper—no, a ghost:
She seemed at once herself and her own reflection
shimmering on the surface of clear water
where fleeting shadows twisted in the depths.
He tries to address her. She ignores him. But then, turning her face to him, she hisses, “You don’t belong here. No, you don’t belong here.”
Other things happen in the story before its end, but we soon learn that this haunted man has fled the mansion in his socks, leaving his shoes behind, and hitchhiked until he, by chance perhaps, arrives at a monastery. The story begins with him insisting to us that he does not believe in ghosts. It ends with him confessing that he does not even believe in an afterlife. And yet, after this encounter with the “unexplained,” he has become a monk. He relates all this while delivering brandy from the monastery to a local tavern. And he is content indeed, for monastic discipline somehow is the only means of ensuring that this life, this earthly life, will not be wasted.
With the publication of 99 Poems: New and Selected, readers are brought to see with clarity how central the themes of this ghost story are to understanding the career of one of America’s most admired, controversial, and accomplished poets and critics. We see that, for all the great variety of form, style, and subject, Gioia’s poetry reminds us again and again that the world is a mystery where the things of God wait, hidden inside the heart of the world.
Half a century ago, Flannery O’Connor wrote that modern America had grown “hard of hearing” to the voice of grace. We lived in a world disfigured by its unconcern for anything but a life spent in the pursuit of pleasant vanities. And yet, those few persons who sense that something has gone wrong without quite knowing what or why will be “Christ-haunted”; they may not believe in God, but they spend their lives running away from, driven to the edge by, his presence.
To encounter Gioia’s poetry is to discover the superficial brilliancies that make up the lives of modern Californians and New Yorkers and to see how they shine on almost totally unperturbed. We pass through the landscapes of a country of power and splendor falling silently into decline. An early poem, “In Cheever Country,” for instance, captures the landscape along the railway as one travels north from New York City into the wealthy counties just upstate and in Connecticut. What sounds from the title like a minor homage to a great mid-century American story-writer soon reveals itself as a perceptive and precisely imagined landscape poem that stands comparison with any in the long tradition of that form. Gioia writes,
The architecture of each station still preserves
its fantasy beside the sordid tracks—
defiant pergolas, a shuttered summer lodge,
a shadowy pavilion framed by high-arched windows
in this land of northern sun and lingering winter.
Speaking of those “palaces the Robber Barons gave to God,” he continues,
… some are merely left to rot where now
broken stone lions guard a roofless colonnade,
a half-collapsed gazebo bursts with tires,
and each detail warns it is not so difficult
to make a fortune as to pass it on.
Gioia worked in the northeast for decades, but his native home is southern California, and so he also depicts the people of a dry and sunny land of “bright stillness” so in thrall to the little gods of the shopping mall that the pleasures of this world blot out the thought of any other. “Shopping,” another poem from Pity the Beautiful, begins:
I enter the temple of my people but do not pray.
I pass the altars of the gods but do not kneel
Or offer sacrifices proper to the season.
In a similar vein, “A California Requiem,” from Interrogations at Noon (2001), resurrects the scathing social critique of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963). Californians, Gioia suggests, so jealously clutch those gods of the shopping mall that they make every effort, in their cemeteries, to pretend that death does not exist. He describes one thus:
There were no outward signs of human loss.
No granite angel wept beside the lane.
No bending willow broke the once-rough ground
Now graded to a geometric plane.
My blessed California, you are so wise.
You render death abstract, efficient, clean.
If we reduce the monuments of death to the pleasant and gentle grades of a public park, perhaps death itself will disappear. Perhaps. As “Shopping” hints, perhaps not: Gioia’s speaker relishes the gods of the mall, from “Mercury, protector of cell phones and fax machines,” to “Venus, patroness of bath and bedroom chains,” but finally confesses, “I would buy happiness if I could find it.” We all would, but each of these little gods, after a time, turns upon us like the ghostly presence in “Haunted,” to warn, “You do not belong here.”
The difficulty for us modern persons, so anxious to discover for ourselves just how much happiness money can buy, is that, as O’Connor wrote, we are hard of hearing. If the thought of living another kind of life whispers through our minds—one that will not be squandered or that will be found worthy as we enter by way of divine judgment into another—we will finally notice the sound only belatedly, suddenly, and with fear. The divine comes only as a ghost comes, passing through a shut door into our lives.
99 Poems appropriately begins with poems on the theme of “mystery,” for from his first book, Daily Horoscope (1986), onward, Gioia’s work has sought to remind us that our secular age, our world too enlightened and uniform for any depths of darkness to remain, is not the place we think it is. Around every corner, haunting us, some strange revelation awaits. You awake in the middle of the night and hear “what the house has to say,” “How many voices have escaped you until now.” We look up at the stars, not as astrologists who seek to discern and master the astral powers, but as complacent worldlings who discover that everywhere we look is a sacramental sign, however subtle:
Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
the rhythms of your expectation break
and in a moment’s pause another world
reveals itself behind the ordinary.
Many of the poems in Gioia’s second book, The Gods of Winter (1991), consider such disturbances with alternately imaginative and spiritual brilliance. “All Souls’” begins with a curious conceit,
Suppose there is no heaven and no hell,
And that the dead can never leave the earth,
That, as the body rots, the soul breaks free,
Weak and disabled in its second birth.
The poet proceeds to depict just such a world, as if to show us that even for those who envision the world as smaller, narrower, and less spectacular than does, say, Dante in The Divine Comedy—with its sublime architecture of Earth, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise—the reality of the soul refuses to disappear. It just becomes harder to understand and so our present lives become harder to live well, so much of what makes them worth the living having been consigned to the spectral margins of superstition.
It is in Gods that Gioia’s reflection on the mystery of things finds mature and most poignant articulation. Dedicated to Michael Jasper Gioia, the poet’s first-born son who died in infancy and whose loss left him, for years, mute with grief, Gods is a book whose perfect stanzas express a wisdom dearly bought. The haunting grief that hangs over the volume attests that sorrow has much to teach us about the same mystery of the quotidian that Gioia’s first book strained to show us. One of its lessons is that the decision we must make about the nature of the world is not between secular materialism and “superstitious supernaturalism.” We choose, rather, between a world, as Thales once wrote, full of gods, and one made and ordered by the love of God and guarded by his angels.
It was a wise choice to gather together in this new volume all of Gioia’s poems about his lost son alongside others on the theme of “Remembrance,” for there we see not only some of his most finely wrought lines but also his most compelling accounts of life and death. “Planting a Sequoia” stands out as one of the great poetic elegies of a century that produced many fine ones, but “Prayer” testifies most richly and suggestively to the depth of insight the tragedies of our lives can bring. The first four stanzas address the “object” of prayer in a series of epithets. Some of them could conceivably apply to the spectral presence of some pagan earth god, or simply to Fate, while others clearly could only speak of the one God. We hear this presence first named as
Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.
As Gioia’s early poems had suggested, the “rearrangement” of the stars or the mundane order of our lives to reveal divinity, spirit, and mystery at their depths generally feels like a haunting: an echo that troubles the otherwise insensitive ear, the sound of an approaching footstep just out of sight, the wind among the leaves. But, he continues the address,
Jeweler of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.
Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper traveling the wires.
Beginning with an image of minute yet precise beauty that Gioia will echo many years later in “Prophecy,” these lines suggest not a god stalking through nature, haunting us, but the God of nature giving measured form to his creation, crafting each blessed thing as a revelation, as a sign of his work—including, at last, the form of our lives, whose shape is delimited by our birth and death. The epithets continue, and then at last a complete sentence follows:
Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough—
in the shadow of the rainfall,
in the brief violent darkening of sunset—
This God will be seen in nature, but of course he will also be the thief who steals our lives away, thus every sunset is a brief intimation of a “violent darkening” that will come later but “soon enough.” The poem has been a prayer of awful praise, thus far, but now it becomes one of petition:
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore
and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
We hear in such lines the supplication of every father who has ever buried a son. It is a prayer to the gods of winter, those deities who would pull us under the earth, even as it is finally a prayer to the true God. Death and grief have a way of reminding us there is always someone to whom we owe our existence and the shaping of our lives. Grace feels like a weight when marred by loss.
Two years ago, Gioia published his great essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” initially in First Things magazine and subsequently in a limited edition from Wiseblood Books. Its argument and insights help us to see his poems as joining a great tradition of Catholic writing in America, where a sacramental vision of the things of this world as signs of the divine disrupts, transforms, and instructs our otherwise unobservant and complacent engagement in the business of daily life. We could name many other important poems that are so disruptive, including such magnificent lyrics as “Words,” “Interrogations at Noon,” “Night Watch,” and “Veterans’ Cemetery.” These and other later poems move beyond the mere suggestion that the secular world remains haunted by a spiritual one in order to give us a truer vision of reality as a whole.
It would, however, mischaracterize Gioia’s achievement to describe him only as one of the great Catholic poets of the last century. When Daily Horoscope was published, critics recognized it as a seminal volume in what had just been dubbed the “New Formalism,” the revival of meter and rhyme as central techniques of poetic craft. Gioia’s critical essays from this period helped give this poetic movement its bearings. The poems in Horoscope were also recognized for reconnecting the fine arts with the landscapes, the popular culture, and even the business world as these things filled out 1980s American life (as in the award-winning poem, “Cruising with the Beach Boys”).
By the time he published Gods five years later, Gioia had become the most prominent single advocate of poetry as a central and public art form for American culture. In his hands, poetry once more became a medium of rhythmically brilliant songs but also of great story-telling. “Counting the Children” and “The Homecoming,” both collected with Gioia’s other tales in verse in 99 Poems, are stories of great power, deepened by their respective main characters’ sense of being haunted, even hunted, by the destiny of the soul. That same year, he published his best-known essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” The answer, his book showed, was, yes, if poets would only let their art rejoin the central concerns of human life. The elegies in the volume are of such hard-won power that they remain his best-known poems.
In 2001, Interrogations at Noon showed Gioia reasserting poetry’s role as words for music, words for the stage, and words for interior meditation. The movements between dramatic monologue, song, and lyric seemed to invite readers to join in a shared public culture that valued the way words can deepen our engagement with the world. From 2003 to 2009, Gioia served in a role suited to one concerned with the place of art in public life, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He revitalized that organization, bringing its programs into schools, military bases, and towns across the country.
After a hiatus from publishing on account of his public position, his most recent collection of new poems, Pity the Beautiful, continued to offer poetry as an art form of public reflection for the members of a shared, national culture. The occasional poem, “Autumn Inaugural,” is perhaps the greatest work of its genre written by an American. It reminds us of how essential ceremony is to the life of a people if it really is to have a common life.
But that is not all. Like many poems in Pity, “Autumn Inaugural” manifests Gioia’s Catholic sense that culture matters, poetry matters, because it is a temporal sign of something deeper, eternal, and more mysterious: the way divine truths come to appear, if only by “indirection and ellipses,” in the things of this world. “Symbols betray us,” he writes, because they “are always more or less than what / Is really meant.” The poem resolves, “Praise to the rituals that celebrate change, / Old robes worn for new beginnings.”
Human beings are not only haunted by the divine. For the common blessed multitudes, the sacred weaves its way through our everyday lives and gives to the mundane a significance that transcends the horizon of this world. Down to the socks we wear, and the shoes we sometimes forget, our lives are cluttered with symbols, material things waiting to show us the spirit. The divine only rebukes our consciences when we grow deaf and forgetful, or treat created things as subject to our dominion (as another great poem, “The Angel with a Broken Wing” suggests). The rest of the time, it guides us down the path to living lives informed by a consciousness of good and evil, salvation and sin, evanescence and permanence.
Fifteen new poems are included among these ninety-nine, including a bizarre and important new blank verse story called “Style.” But, given how various and full of surprises Gioia’s poetic career has been so far, it would be idle to speculate where his work will take us next.
99 Poems: New and Selected
by Dana Gioia
Graywolf Press, 2016.
Hardcover, pp. 194.