Expansive Poetry & Music Online, Review


Graywolf Press
Saint Paul, Minnesota
72 pages, US$16.95

Citations may not be used without
permission of Graywolf Press
and Dana Gioia

a brief look by
Arthur Mortensen

One is made wary by a publisher who says the author is better-known as an essayist and critic.  This sense does not improve as the back copy goes on to say that, though the author is a leading force in a revival of rhyme and meter, he doesn't necessarily use them so much himself.  One begins to expect double messages, a complication of careerism as much as of a psychological type.  And, one has heard too much of that old cover story for free verse about its "musicality" to pay attention to such claims for any poetry.  Besides, the best of English poetry doesn't sing; it sounds with march and dance step rhythms, not of pitch and of harmony. However, it would be difficult to count the number of times that back copy poorly represented a book, so the writer opened the the cover with its intriguing cover art by Christopher Pekoc, covering both it and the boyish photograph of Gioia on the back. (The latter is not so bad; the back photograph of Alfred Dorn on his 1996 collection was taken in 1948.)

Since this is a brief look rather than an analytic review, one may as well go front to back.  It opens with "Words," a poem that begins "The world does not need words. It articulates itself...", a thesis thankfully at odds with contemporary literary criticism.  The line itself, as many of those following, is difficult to measure metrically, as though the first half-lines are iambic feet and the second free verse.  Variation is necessary for good verse, but too much muddles the sound.  "Are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted...", "carved as arrowheads.  To name is to know and remember....", or "greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon"  are sort of six-foot lines but could pass as free verse.  Although a solid poem, illustrative of a commonplace we too easily forget (reminding is a task all poets  do), its slippery prosody has an odd feel to it, as if it were trying to pass muster rather than exercise the superior craft Gioia amply displays in his songs for Nosferatu. This critic also doesn't much care for poems about writing and words, which seem better for private reflection than publication.

When the writer has liked Gioia's poems, however, the following, "Voyeur," is a fine sample to answer why.  It's unburdened with overwrought abstractions, its prosody light and sinuous:

 ...and watching her undress across the room,
oblivious of him, waching as her slip
falls soundlessly and disappears in shadow,
and the dim lamplight makes her curving frame
seem momentarily both luminous
and insubstantial -- like the shadow of a cloud
drifting across a hillside far away...
This is lovely blank verse, with variations that enliven it rather than with forced effects.  When you read Yvor Winters poems, you may begin to feel as though you're being hit over the head with their hard, regular beat.  Not here -- this is a good poem to enjoy and to examine for its elegant application of lessons learned over five hundred years of using this ancient meter.  The poem draws no conclusions from its observed moment; it doesn't have to.  It's about speculation, not answers.  "The branches shake their dry leaves like alarms" is just right to conclude.

The title poem for the book, the brief, 4-stanza, "Interrogations at Noon" employs a fairly tight iambic pentameter, with XAXA rhyme.  Frequently employed by Dickinson, such rhyme has a forward movement rather like wind through high grasses, a fine counterpart to the subject, the narrator's interrogation of himself.  The last stanza is lovely:

"You cultivate confusion like a rose
  In water lies too weak to be untrue,
  And play the minor figures in the pageant,
  Extravagant and empty, that is you."
In a free verse lyric, this sentiment would break down into the maudlin.  Its strong structure keeps it just remote enough to leave space for irony.  For instance, if he were so convinced this were true, why hasn't he changed?  But of course, an interview with one's self is a rigged game, and the contrivance of the poem subtly reveals this.

The next several poems illuminate what the writer considers unpleasant in any poet, and irritating in Gioia, who is much better.   "Failure" is aptly named.  It's a clunker.

As with any child, you find your own more beautiful....
Fine.  Nobody ever said poetry has to be original.  It's the art that counts.  But where is it?
Why not consider it a sort of accomplishment...
Sloppy conversational diction is not imitated by using it.  To paraphrase an old actor,  you can't be bored onstage; you must act bored.     Translation: the paradox in art is always the same.  You must apply art to convey artlessness.

"Divination" is  a small collection of fortune cookie predictions arranged into a poem.  Whatever it's supposed to be,  it seems as flat as Burma Shave signs flashing past a car window in 1960.  Perhaps this was intended as divinations in cookies mass-produced are about as plausible as Zodiac readings in a tabloid.

"Elegy With Surrealist Proverbs as a Refrain" could be described as a cento where, instead of a collage of lines from familiar poems, it's done partially with quotes from artists and poets, some of which they might have been happier not to have said.  The refrains, as noted in the title, are drawn from lines from a proverb.  It works well enough, but might have been more vibrant and intriguing if the scheme had included a strong meter.  Its absence leads to watering down of images, as "impossibly pale, luminous and lifeless as the moon."  As to why, a good guess is that the absence of meter allows a casual approach to the line.  This is not a bad poem; I enjoyed what's there but feel that Gioia's exceptional metric skills might have been put to good use in delivering it with more art.

"The Litany" brings us back to the Gioia the reviewer prefers.

This is a prayer to unbelief,
to candles guttering and darkness undivided,
to incense drifting into emptiness.
It is the smile of a stone Madonna
and the silent fury of the consecrated young god,
brave and beautiful, rotting on a tree...
The only thing that mars that powerful stanza is the adjective "young" in line five, which skews the meter for no apparent reason.   The last stanza, with its overwrought reference to Baudelaire, might not be needed.   Gioia thought it was.  The poem concludes part I.

Part II opens with three fine poems, "Entrance," "New Year's" and "Metamorphosis."   The first, a poem after Rilke, is a good example of how useful irregular length metered lines can be, particularly mixed with rhyme.

Whoever you are: step out of doors tonight,
Out of the room that lets you feel secure.
Infinity is open to your sight,
Whoever you are....
"New Year's," a reflection on the Dedekind cut between one year and another, is only slightly marred by an unnecessary adjective that skews the last line.  If snow is without footprints, there are no single footprints either.  But, we should all be so good as to have only one word off in a poem.    Much the same small problem marks "Metamorphosis," otherwise a good meditation built on the foundation of Ovid, but only in the line "There were a few whom even the great gods..."   Take out the great; it's fair to assume the gods have that stature.  And the line sounds better with the next.  Otherwise, this is a very well-executed and richly referential poem.

Skipping a bit, "California Requiem," done in the same stanza as "Interrogations...," starts strongly, its first four stanzas as solid as the headstones the narrator passes.

There were no outward signs of human loss.
No granite angel wept beside the lane.
No bending willow broke the once-rough ground
Now graded to a geometric plane....
It's when the poem turns to a speaker from the dead that this reviewer begins to lose interest.  It's not the sentiments expressed that cause this -- in this case, a special regret by these dead for burning their way through life, "What we possessed we always chose to kill,////"We claimed the earth but did not hear her claim,/And when we died, they laid us on her breast."   It's a gnawing sense that the tone of the speaker's voice is awry, or that nothing is visible to her -- it seems like an old grandmother's voice -- but the freeway beyond the cemetery.  Now, that would be a fine Purgatory or Hell for denizens of the freeway life in California, with its endless, flattened landscapes of shopping centers, malls, and parking lots.  But the language doesn't convey that, bordering on the precious, as "Forget your stylish verses, little poet,//So sadly beautiful, precise and tame...."  Perhaps the dead speaker only knew Hallmark verse.  This thankfully changes at the end, as if someone else were speaking, in a very strong stanza:
"We offer you the landscape of your birth --
Exquisite and despoiled.  We all share blame.
We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth
For killing what we cannot even name."
If only the rest of the dead speaker's monologue had been like that, or had illuminated it in a way that suggested the casual brutality of a "standard of living" that leaves behind mountains of trash, burning tires, and rusting cars, not so much for the social reality, which never lasts, as for a stronger, more recognizably detailed poem.

A long poem continues part II, "Descent to the Underworld."

There is a famous cliff on Sparta's coast,
A headland covered by a thick-grown wood,
Where Cape Taenarus juts into the sea.
It's here the mouth of Hades opens up,
The high cliffs split apart, and a huge cave,
A gaping chasm, stretches its great jaws
And makes an entrance wide enough
For all mankind.
This poem is quite well-wrought, thick with classical reference but none so difficult as to be invisible to an educated reader.  Described as written "after Seneca," it makes no effort to conflate the modern world with Seneca's vision, or with modern conceptions of hell, as it proceeds.  The critic thought this was the best serious poem in the book, and that at some point Gioia might write a modern "mirror" to this piece to describe his own artistic vision of hell.  But reviewers have a wide variety of thoughts, most of them reasonably ignored.

Moving on to part III.  This is a delightful section of the book, where Gioia's superb skills with meter and rhythm, employed to great effect in Nosferatu (see article on this from last month), emerge in lyrics.  Of course, lyrics require such skills or they fall flat, a lesson lost on several generations of lyric writers in the U.S..  Particularly effective in songs are triple meters, employed with skilled variation in the opening poem, "Song for the End of Time."  The citation is the last stanza.

You may say that you're sorry for all that you've done,
You may swear on your honor and protest with tears,
But the moon is burning under the sun,
And nothing you do will stop what appears.
If every foot had had been three syllables, the stanza would be irritating.  The last stanza opens that way, which gives it force, as one would expect in a conclusion.
you may SAY that you're SORry for ALL that you've DONE
And again in the second
You may SWEAR on your HONor and PROtest with TEARS
But as soon as the conditional part of the stanza is over, the meter varies to
But the MOON is BURNing UNder the SUN
Where there are two iambs in the middle of it
And NOTHing you DO will STOP what appears.
Take those variations out and the stanza falls flat on its face.

"The Archbishop," a wry commentary on the dissolution of authority, which comes to us all, even to Dana Gioia, depends on supple use of triple meter and a varying rhyme scheme.

The Lord washed the feet of His servants.
"The first shall be last," He advised.
The Archbishop's edition of Matthew
Has that troublesome passage revised

The Archbishop declines to wear glasses,
So his sense of the world grows dim.
He thinks that the crowd at the Masses
Have gathered in honor of him....

Look at how the triple meter is accented with iambs, the marked change in the rhyme from XAXA to ABAB.  Such effects, like a comic's timing of actions and handling of props, are critical in the success of such poems.  Each little touch of art ruffles our expectations and keeps us chuckling.  The critic was reminded of Hardy, or of Auden in a sunny mood, in this and in several other of these songs.

The songs from Nosferatu are arias.  As such, and as noted in last month's article on Nosferatu, we're missing the larger part of the art, the music and the singer.   They're still interesting to read, and valuable to study if you want to write lyrics for music yourself.

After that comes "Alley Cat Love Song," the first of two in "Borrowed Tunes." It's a song by a cat in heat, and is very funny, suggesting a direction that Gioia might follow more often:

Come into the garden, Fred,
For the neighborhood tabby is gone.
Come into the garden, Fred.
I have nothing but my flea collar on,
And the scent of the catnip has gone to my head.
I'll wait by the screen door till dawn....
X.J. Kennedy has made a substantial part of his poetic career out of such flights.  The rest carries this off well.  And, a reader has to be tin-eared to miss how the rhyme and varied triple meter contribute to the humor.  In fact, unheard, this poem isn't funny.  But poems are better heard, are they not?

"At the Waterfront Cafe," with stanzas alternating between six-foot and three-foot lines in a varied meter (many lines beginning with several trochaic feet), is a more sardonic piece, the kind of observation poem written by a participant aware of the irony of his position.  Auden wrote some of these, Larkin many.    The reviewer's only complaints about it are put in front of the citation, so as not to spoil the quote.  One, the writer has a hard time imagining diplomats at an archeological dig, which, after all, implies dirt and sherds on one's tuxedo.  And two, waxed Bugatis, except in Milano, where a new car by that name is being made once or twice a year, are seventy-year-old gems in museums or at antique car shows and auctions. But those are personal quibbles.  Better...

Fair as Venus on a half shell, flanked by two aerobic beaus,
Shines a local sun-kissed princess, lambent in her jogging clothes.
When she smiles at the busboy, he starts grinning ear to ear,
Till she counters with a fleeting but still devastating sneer....
Nice, and you can't help but giggle at "aerobic beaus" as a modern twist on the Botticelli reference, and concluding....
But tonight I hope they prosper.
Are they shallow? I don't care.
Jealousy is all too common,
Style and beauty much too rare.
That's one of the better sneers in poetry -- Dana Gioia should try more.  Note too how the meter and rhyme contribute to its force.  Such served Larkin, and occasionally Auden, very well.  This poem has a feel, as do "Voyeur" and "The Archbishop," of being how the author feels about the subject.  It isn't necessary, in trying to escape the  infinite boredom of confessional poetry, to exclude one's point of view.  Including it, as in this piece, more often enriches the work.  And how one feels about refugees in Guatemala, or the pangs of capitalism, are hardly the only suitable subjects for this.

Part IV -- there are perhaps too many parts in this book, but no matter -- begins with "Juno's Revenge." Like "Descent to the Underworld," it is Gioia's very well-wrought blank verse take on a piece by Seneca.  The writer isn't sure if modern readers will take to it, as there are no references to Beach Boy songs or Toyotas, but they should try as it is very well-done.

The writer will leave part V, with its many poems on relationships, affairs and love, to the reader.   A varied and not always satisfying collection, it has some solid, well-written poems, some serious, some witty, some wry.  So give it a try.

Interrogations at Noon is well-designed and typeset, and is on acid-free paper, a good thing as poetry books tend to moulder on library shelves. Why this is so is hard to tell; maybe it's because, since most are so light, they aren't thought of as tools for exercise.

                             Arthur Mortensen

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