Dana Gioia: running the long race


A first, incandescent review for Dana Gioia‘s brand new collection, Meet Me At The Lighthouse (Graywolf). Seth Wieck‘s write-up, “Dana Gioia’s Bright Twilight,” is in included the newest issue of The Front Porch Republic, a blog (and book publisher) launched in 2009 with contributors, known as “porchers,” focusing on concepts of community, place, decentralism, and conservation. And sometimes they talk about poetry.

Poetry is a profession that bears well into the seventh decade of life and beyond – better than being an astronaut or Olympic gymnast, or pretty much any other non-literary profession. Dana is playing the long game, and he isn’t missing a beat, metrical or metaphorical. As Wieck writes, “Rather, he’s heeding Eliot’s warning. Don’t turn aside. Take up your lantern and charge into the darkness. Sing all the way into the afterlife. Gioia does not linger on the threshold of death; he wants to be our guide through the Inferno and beyond.” (Please be reassured, gentle reader, Dana is in the best of health.)

An excerpt:

“The book closes with the 14-page poem “The Underworld,” giving it a weight no other poem in the collection receives. The 17 seven-line stanzas return us to the afterlife with which the book opened. However, instead of a lively jazz club, now the ‘you’ is seated on a silent train commute to the Underworld. It flips the tropes of those ancient epics where a hero interviews a long train of shades, hoping to garner wisdom. In Gioia’s Underworld, ‘You’ speak to no one. There are no fantastical creatures, ‘no triple-headed dogs…no Titans bound in chains.’ There are no malebolges stuffed with squirming sufferers. There is only the commute full of dead-eyed passengers isolated from one another, turned to stone as if the Gorgon had gazed back from their morning mirrors, or the screens in their palms.

Gioia at the Sierra Poetry Festival (Photo: Radu Sava)

The train never quite arrives anywhere, yet all the passengers are anxious to get there. For those people like Tennyson and Baudelaire—like me on the days I get off work and succumb to sitting vacantly in a room with my family, each with a face to a respective screen, absence substituting absinthe—for those, the Underworld, Hell, is already here. As Gioia reminds us in the poem’s epigraph, quoting The Aeneid, ‘Descending into Hell is easy.’ The sentence doesn’t stop here, however. If we were to heed Gioia’s guidance and work our way back through the poets, the tradition, the wisdom handed down to us through the ages (with no lack of God’s providence in the process), then we’d arrive back at Virgil and finish the line: ‘Descending into Hell is easy / But to return, and view the cheerful skies, / In this the task and mighty labor lies.’”

“As I mount midlife—Tennyson’s rocky walls—and attempt to gather my bearings for what’s coming in the next 40 years, I find fewer and fewer people have been able to run the long race. The energy and ambition and love I had in my youth is running low. Wouldn’t it be easier to fold my hands, to repeat the catch phrases and sound bites, to laugh at the canned cues and teach my children to? Whose woods these are I think I know. Then out on the wrinkled sea, the high notes come shimmering over the cold waves, and 72-year-old Dana Gioia says, ‘Meet me at the Lighthouse.’”

Read the whole thing here.

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