I hadn’t seen Dana Gioia since his 2007 commencement address at Stanford. All our communication had occurred via email and phone lines, including the interview I did when he was awarded the Laetare Medal.
The last time I actually made the trek to the poet’s California home was even farther back in time — before his appointment to the National Endowment for the Arts chairmanship in Washington D.C. – eight years ago. In that era, I lived in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and the long winding journey to the hills above Santa Rosa seemed to me to be a temporary return to an urban center and blessed civilization.
That was then; this is now. Driving from my new life in downtown Palo Alto on a sunny Friday, the miles along 101N north of the Golden Gate seemed instead a return in the opposite direction — back to the hinterlands, driving four hours in almost continuous traffic through the vineyards, the yellow hills dotted with green trees, miles and miles past Petaluma, Cotati, and Santa Rosa.
Surprise: It was not only a return to the hinterlands but, after three years of city life, a return to a kind of sanity. Or maybe it was just the presence of Dana — one of the busiest and level-headed people I know, and also one of the most generous I have ever met. The Gioias’ spacious white house has been stripped of many of the furnishings I remembered – most of their things remain in Washington – and a stone walkway to the house now gives it the settled flavor of time. A few santos collected in the Southwest have replaced their familiar bric-a-brac.
Dana, Mary, and I sipped wine on the balcony overlooking the valley and the hills. We talked about the increasing commercialization of society, where marketed celebrities famous for being famous in turn market corporate brands for us to buy — how to keep Guess jeans, Netflix, Jimmy Choo shoes, and apps from monopolizing our remaining memory banks and our lives? We discussed the crazily increasing speed of 21st century communications and life. He liked, he said, living in a place where impressions are taken in and thought occurs no faster than the speed of walking. August notwithstanding, the wind gave the air a bite, and Mary and I wrapped in blankets and watched the deer nibbling on the newly clipped lawn below.
Back in his study, in a separate white building that looks like a New England church, he offered some CDs from his popular Big Read program at the NEA: Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Naguib Mahfouz’s “The Thief and the Dogs,” and Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” for the road, packing them in a leftover Thomas Garraway canvas tote, along with a few extra books — among them the Longman Masters of Short Fiction, which he edited with R.S. Gwynn, and The Wilderness of Vision: On the Poetry of John Haines. But the book that intrigued me was the fine anthology he edited a quarter-century ago with William Jay Smith, Poems from Italy. Dana’s name is among the translators, an eminent crew including W.S. Di Piero, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jonathan Galassi, Anthony Burgess, James Merrill, Leigh Hunt, and others. Here’s Dana’s translation of a poem by Mario Luzi (1914-2005), a poet previously unknown to me:
Night washes over the mind.
After a while we are here, as you well know,
a line of ghosts along the mountain ledge,
ready to leap, almost in chains.
On the page of the sea someone
traces a sign of life, fixes a point.
Rarely does a gull appear.
The evening in the wine country had a magical glow, and the three of us ended over late-night coffee and blueberry pie, as Dana read his newest poems, the first after a long pause while he was preoccupied with the NEA. I think they will be quite a surprise when they are published, and are likely to be his best ever – I qualify “likely to be” because I’m always mistrustful of what the ear takes in, and how discernment can be lulled by good company, good conversation, and an excellent reader like Dana. I will have to wait for bound copies, and meanwhile rely on those overloaded memory banks, where the poems will jostle for space with computer passwords and drupal. With the Thomas Garraway bag and CDs, I headed back into the darkness for the quick return to Palo Alto after midnight, with no traffic at all, and a stack of “Big Read” CDs.