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Dana Gioia’s Memento Mori

Meet Me At The Lighthouse begins and ends in the underworld, giving Gioia’s latest poems an arresting perspective from which he can essay subjects of profound import, including faith, time, youth, age, love, loss, life, and death,

Dana Gioia in 2018. (Screenshot: Dana Gioia's YouTube channel)

In beginning and ending in the underworld, Dana Gioia’s new book of poetry Meet Me At The Lighthouse gives his latest poems an arresting perspective from which he can essay subjects of profound import, including faith, time, youth, age, love, loss, life, and death, without any of the individual poems seeming astray. There is not only a gravity but a unity in the collection that one rarely sees in books of poetry.

Reading the different poems, I thought of T.S. Eliot’s memorable observation in his 1921 essay The Metaphysical Poets: “…a degree of heterogeneity of material compelled into unity by the operation of the poet’s mind is omnipresent in poetry.” This is certainly true of highly successful poems—Eliot’s The Waste Land is as good an example as any—but I do not know that it is true of many contemporary collections of poetry, which tend, of their very superficiality, to be patchwork affairs. Meet Me At The Lighthouse is an aesthetic whole, which merits and rewards careful reading and re-reading.

The title poem sets the tone by being at once playful and minatory, mysterious and unsettling. The speaker of the poem has invited us to attend a night out from Hell – at an old jazz club on Hermosa Beach – where we can revisit the “Perfume of tobacco in the tangy salt air” and revel once again in the playing of “Gerry, Cannonball, Hampton and Stan,” whose “high notes shimmer above the cold waves.”

Let’s aim for the summer of ‘71
When all our friends were young and immortal

At the same time, under the waves, inexorably: “Time and the tide are counting the beats/Death the collector is keeping the tab.” Why are we being invited to so macabre a reunion? Why does the book begin and end in Hell? What have these bookends of perdition to tell us of the poems in between?

The damnation that hovers over the poems enlivens the book. No one can read it without recognizing that he is being reacquainted with moral consequence – with a kind of eschatological memento mori — by a poet whose artistry is only matched by his moral seriousness. Here, we have poems that exhibit many of Gioia’s signature virtues: his wit, his music, his versatility, his toughminded caritas. Yet throughout we also have Gioia’s masterly ease. It is the hallmark of his impassioned lyricism.

I praise my ancestors, the unkillable poor,
The few who escaped disease or despair—
The restless, the hungry, the stubborn, the scarred.
Let us praise the dignity of their destitution.

Let us praise their mother, Nuestra Senora,
The lost guardian, who watches them still
From murals and medals, statues, tattoos.
She has not abandoned her divided pueblo.

Donald Hall, reviewing a book of essays by Philip Larkin, once said that the English poet’s “devotion to the pleasure principle, his praise for simplicity and clarity, even his popularity, create a mask behind which he makes poems of perfect intelligence and complexity.” The same could be said of Dana Gioia, though what he presents his readers is not a mask but the face of a shared, humbled humanity.

In “Map of the Lost Empire,” the aged poet casts a backward glance at his now vanishing dominions and asks:

Who is that ludicrous imposter in the mirror?
Where are the regiments to hold back the years?
What fortress left to make a stand?

Time and its “humiliating surrenders and abandonments” haunt nearly all of the poems here. They give them their dignity – and their appeal. “At the Crossroads” is a good example:

…if you stand at crossroads long enough,
You’ll see most of the world come stumbling by—
Businessmen, preachers, cats—all going somewhere,
Even the Devil striking up a deal.
I used to wonder if they ever got there.
Be careful here in choosing where to turn.
You learn a lot by staying in one place
But never how the story truly ends.

If time is a recurrent element in the poems, so, too, is death. They put one in mind of the strange, enchanted, death-laden testimonials of Eliot’s The Waste Land, particularly its fourth section:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Gioia, so much of whose talent is nurtured and renewed by his respect for the vitality of tradition, provides a kind of variation on Eliot’s lines in a poem nicely entitled “Seaward,” another poem about drowning, which is one of the best things he has ever done:

Kneel on the stones,
the sea commands.
Then cup your hands
in the shallow tide.
Quench your thirst
with stinging brine.
No taste more bitter
nor truer than mine.

Savor the blessings
of my refusal.
No argosy
will satiate
the hungers of
your restlessness.
No harbor house
your homelessness.

The empty lighthouse
flanks the sound,
mute memorial
to the drowned.
Stand on the dock
as the ocean swells.
Death is what happens
to somebody else.

The poet’s engagement with tradition is also evident in the translations he offers here from Antonio Machado, Rilke, and Neruda, in all of which he shows how he shares their acute sense of destiny. If there is a communion of saints, there is also a communion of poets, and Gioia always delights in echoing and paying homage to his fellow poets.

For example, we can see this not only in his allusions to Virgil, Seneca, Dante and Shakespeare but in his translation of a piece by Rilke entitled “Autumn Day,” in which he helps himself to Rilke’s poem in order to highlight how his preoccupations with time and death only deepen his recognition of the importunate stakes of the present:

Let the last fruit still ripen on the vine,
And give the grapes a few more southern days
To warm them to perfection, and then press
Their earthy sweetness into heavy wine.

Time and death also summon memory, and here the elegist in Gioia is at his heartbreaking best. “Tinsel, Frankincense and Fir” is an elegy for the poet’s mother, which doubles as a lovely carol.

Hanging old ornaments on a fresh cut tree,
I take each red glass bulb and tinfoil seraph
And blow away the dust. Anyone else
Would throw them out. They are so scratched and shabby.

My mother had so little joy to share
She kept it in a box to hide away.
But on the darkest winter nights—voilà—
She opened it resplendently to shine.

How carefully she hung each thread of tinsel,
Or touched each dime-store bauble with delight.
Blessed by the frankincense of fragrant fir,
Nothing was too little to be loved.

Vladimir Nabokov begins his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) with an imposing sentence: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Gioia, God bless him, is peculiarly lacking in this “common sense.” He sees in memory confirmation of that radiant reality that we find in Sirach, the reality of God’s love, which we can embrace, as his mother embraced it, or reject. “If you trust in God, you too shall live,” says the Jewish scribe. Why?

He has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.

Having given His creatures the ability to choose water over fire, good over evil, life over death, God has also given them the ability to love, and in poets this love often expresses itself as love of place. The poems here expressing Gioia’s love of his native Los Angeles are some of the best in the book.

Here is a sample, which will give readers a good sense of this poet’s unaffected nobility:

Pray for the city that lost its name.
Pray for the people too humble for progress.
Pray for the flesh that pays for profit.
Pray for the angels kept from their queen.

Pray in the hour of our death each day
In the southern sun of our desecrated city.
Pray for us, mother of the mixed and misbegotten,
Beside our dry river and tents of the outcast poor.

After treating his readers to a celebration of life’s preciousness, its dignity, its awful consequentiality, Gioia returns them, at book’s end, to Tartarus, where the Dantescan truth-teller in him speaks rather differently of the darkness about which Nabokov is so irresponsibly glib.

The travelers who ventured here before,
The living ones, who crossed into the shadows
To violate this place, could not resist
From questioning the dead. They hoped to learn
Forbidden things and yet remain untouched.
There are some truths that only darkness knows.
Such knowledge never comes without a price.

Meet Me At the Lighthouse is a superb collection, which shows Dana Gioia at the very top of his form. His is now the true Dantescan voice.

Meet Me At the Lighthouse 
By Dana Gioa
Gray Wolf Press, 2023
Paperback, 72 pages

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About Edward Short 34 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. Recently, he chose and introduced the poetry for The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse (Gracewing, 2022), as well as an Introduction. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, which includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists and historians, will be published by Gracewing this spring. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

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