Pity the Beautiful: Poems, by Dana Gioia (Graywolf, 68 pp., $15)
Angels — at least according to Hollywood — are handsome, shining, and strong. But the angel in Dana Gioia’s new book of poems looks like he’s been in a fight and lost.
His wing is broken; he’s missing an eye; his hair is uncombed, his robe streaked with dirt. He doesn’t even have a halo. Yet he’s featured on the cover of Gioia’s fourth book of poetry, Pity the Beautiful. And he (or someone very much like him) seems to be given a voice in some of the poems here.
In one, “The Angel with the Broken Wing,” for instance, he mourns the loss of his past glory and the state of his present decline. He had been a conduit for prayers in their ascent to God, or, as Gioia’s stunning metaphor puts it, “Their candles stretched my shadow up the wall, / And I became the hunger that they fed.”
This broken angel leads readers through a collection of poems that (like the angel) is affected by what is missing. As Gioia writes, even God is missing: He’s merely “an ancient memory they [people] can’t dismiss.”
Gioia’s poems are countercultural. They, like Gioia, go against the prevailing winds of opinion. Politically incorrect, they speak of sin, prayers, prophecy, virtues, and grace. They consider unusual subjects from unusual perspectives — such as looking for one’s self or soul in a mall.
Gioia is not afraid to acknowledge man’s spiritual nature. In his poems, one hears echoes of T. S. Eliot (“The Hollow Men”), W. H. Auden (“Musée des Beaux Arts”), and Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Spring and Fall”). Gioia’s spiritual themes offer contrast to the state of religious values in American culture.
Winner of the American Book Award for his last book of poetry, Interrogations at Noon (2001), Gioia is a highly regarded poet, essayist, and anthologist with eleven previous books to his credit. His Atlantic Monthly essay “Can Poetry Matter?” (1991) shocked members of the literary community as it berated them for the lackluster state of U.S. poetry. According to Gioia, poetry matters because if it doesn’t, we are lost — and so is culture, civilization, and whatever we hold, or should hold, dear. Gioia pushed that message from 2003 to 2009 when he served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. And he pushes it today as the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.
If there’s one theme in his latest collection, it’s that there’s more to life than consumerism. In “Shopping,” for example, Gioia writes of entering the “temple of my people,” hoping to “discover the one true thing.” In the final lines, Gioia pulls the rug out from under the reader: What appears to be a satire of shopping becomes a plea for the real amid an atmosphere of fakes. A similar poem, “The Freeways Considered as Earth Gods,” rails against a secular culture epitomized by California highways, which Gioia calls gods who do not “condescend to our frailty.”
Often, the poems here mourn lost loves, lost opportunities, lost friendships, and lost family members. In “Finding a Box of Family Letters,” Gioia reads old family letters and postcards and looks at pictures in the family album. As in his best work, Gioia allows readers to get close, with lines such as, “My father breaks my heart / simply by being so young and handsome.”
Although Gioia does not focus on the death of his infant son from SIDS as sharply as he did in The Gods of Winter (1991), two of the more evocative poems here allude to that loss. “Majority” muses on what would be the 21st birthday of the infant who died, or, as Gioia exquisitely puts it, “moved away / into your own afterlife.”
In “Special Treatments Ward,” the best poem in the book, Gioia worries about a son who is ill as he remembers the son he lost. The poem’s style is meditative and serious with no jokes, no satire. It begins with the foreboding line: “So this is where the children come to die.” As we read, we learn that this poem has taken twelve years to write. “No well-stitched words could suture shut these wounds. / And so I stopped. . . . / But there are poems we do not choose to write.” The poem ends as grimly as it began, with Gioia calling his grief “a vagrant sorrow [that] cannot bless the dead.”
“Haunted,” the most unusual poem here, describes being obsessed by memories of a loved one, and uses the relationship between the ghosts who reside in a haunted house as a metaphor.
Although the title poem, “Pity the Beautiful,” would have worked better if it had been less sarcastic, it succeeds nonetheless because of its irony. People praise beauty; they don’t pity it. Poets — especially religious and romantic ones — should find inspiration in beauty. Gioia, though, who is a religious and a romantic poet par excellence, finds an occasion for pity. Why would a poet advise his readers to pity that which is beautiful?
Beauty is external and ephemeral. It’s also seductive. People get caught up in it and lose sight of what matters and what endures. Beauty fades; youthful good looks vanish. Those who are the most beautiful have the most to lose. There’s a world we don’t see. It’s more lasting, according to Gioia, than the one we do see.
Gioia writes neo-formalist poetry that blends techniques of free verse and formal verse. There are sonnets here with perfect and slant rhyme. There are couplets and quatrains written mostly in iambic pentameter. There are poems written after lines from such classic poets as Pablo Neruda. There’s even a short libretto. Whatever their form, these poems have a musical quality.
Ultimately, Gioia’s poems come alive and sing on the page. In a sense, they’re all love poems.
– Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. She is the author of several books, including Radiant: Prayer/Poems (Cathedral Foundation Press).