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).