Near the end of Shakespeare’s King Lear, when all seems lost, Lear comforts his daughter Cordelia—like him, soon to die—by telling her that in prison they will contemplate “the mystery of things.”  Both in this sense, and in another sense, the word mystery leads the reader into the heart of Dana Gioia’s poetry.

In the first sense, Gioia’s poetry is haunted by the mystery of life—its ultimate nature and meaning, its complex interweaving of journeys to and from places, its encounters with people and a world we never fully know, its byways and dead ends, its ghosts and dreams and memories, its elusive signs and paradoxes, its “might-have-beens” still somehow real though never realized, its “unimportant” yet significant dots on the map and buildings not listed in tourist guides, and its other “small things” in which a deep insight into creation and the human condition is to be found.

In the second sense, Gioia is a poet who has mastered the “mystery,” or craft, of composing verse in traditional poetic forms.  Gioia writes in a contemporary style that is clear, precise, and free of those unnecessary obscurities that have played a major role in the decline of a general audience for modern poetry in the last hundred years.

As seen in this volume’s opening poem, “The Burning Ladder,” our human journey through the mystery of things is like that of Jacob, who, sleeping on a “stone pillow,” saw in dream, but could not join in fact, seraphim ascending the ladder that connects heaven and the earth.  And so we are left to look for answers to life’s ultimate questions in hints and clues found in unlikely places and things, not in comets or a “pointing star” but in “a missing ring, / a breath, a football or a sudden breeze, / a crack of light beneath a darkened door” (“The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves”).  However, our ability to interpret is limited: “nothing is hidden in the obvious / changes of the world,” yet when we look or touch we only “press against / the surface of impenetrable things” (“Do Not Expect”).

And yet, even if we hear no “voice in thunder” now, we may still pray, paradoxically, to the “Lord of indirection and ellipses” to “ignore our prayers” and “bless us with ennui and quietude” as well as with the patience and attentiveness to find the divine in “the dry grass bending in the wind / and the spider’s silken whisper from its web” (“Prophecy”).  Furthermore, we must accept the truth that God blesses us in ways that may at first seem unjust, cruel, and inscrutable: “Blessed are the night and the darkness that blind us. / Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel” (“Prayer at Winter Solstice”).

Such seemingly mixed blessings that really are not so include the relationship of the soul to the body and to the body of the world.  Imagine, Gioia posits, no heaven or hell exists, and our souls, after the body’s death, must wander through this world disincarnate and thus detached from the senses: “The pines that they revisit have no scent. / They cannot feel the needled forest floor” and “the pallor of the rose is their despair” (“All Souls’”).

Another mysterious kind of unity and separation is that which exists between words and things.  True, “the world does not need words,” but for human beings, ever since Adam, “to name is to know and remember.”  And, therefore, though “the daylight needs no praise  . . . we praise it always— / greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon” (“Words”).

Still, what else does the poet have but “airy words” as his medium by which and through which to probe for significance that may be hidden along the way in journeys we take or in places we visit—an old Brian Wilson/Mike Love song that reminds Gioia, as he drives, of his now distant youth, his father’s Thunderbird, and “the girls that I could never get” (“Cruising With the Beach Boys”); the loneliness of travelers crowded together briefly but with different destinations (“Waiting in the Airport”), or a laborer at the close of the day drinking coffee by himself in a diner or coffee shop (“Men After Work”)?

Indeed, the essential enigma of human journeying is that it is better to “leave the museums, the comfortable rooms, / the safe distractions of the masterpiece” for “the unimportant places” like a remote chapel on a hill.  Yet whether in a museum or in a rural church, the lesson to be learned remains the same: “Strange, how most journeys come to this: the sun / bright on the unfamiliar hills, new vistas / dazzling the eye, the stubborn heart unchanged” (“Most Journeys Come to This”).

Modern versions of this kind of journeying may be found on a walk through an up-to-date shopping mall or in a trendy cemetery.  As Gioia wanders through such a mall, he mockingly asks (in “Shopping”) for redemption in this “temple of my people”:

Redeem me, gods of the mall and marketplace,

Mercury, protector of cell phones and fax machines,

Venus, patroness of bath and bedroom chains,

Tantalus, guardian of the food court.

But these false gods of commercialism cannot save their worshipers from a contemporary cemetery’s “equidistant graves” that seem all too appropriate in their cold efficiency (“A California Requiem”):

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.

Sadly, in Dana Gioia’s own life, one important journey ended far too soon when his first son died in infancy.  How much courage it must have taken for Gioia to write poems about this all but unbearable loss.  The best of these poems is the widely admired elegy “Planting a Sequoia.”  Instead of planting a tree to celebrate the birth of a first son—as is done in his ancestral Sicily—Gioia plants the sequoia with a lock of his son’s hair and a portion of the birth cord: “All that remains above earth of a first-born son, / A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.”  The poem ends with words addressed to the young sequoia: “And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead, / . . . / I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you, / Silently keeping the secret of your birth.”

This concern with the limits of memorializing and remembrance is further addressed in “Guide to the Other Gallery,” this gallery being not for the famous few but for the forgotten many who yearned for fame:

These portraits here of the unknown

Are hung three high, frame piled on frame.

Each potent soul who craved renown,

Immortalized without a name.

But one way to live on is through stories, and Gioia, an excellent storyteller, has collected here several medium-length narratives in the form of monologues spoken by such memorable characters as a college professor, an accountant, an escaped prisoner, and a monk.  These poems are important additions to the revival of the narrative poem, a form out of favor during the high tide of literary modernism.

There are also moving narratives among the shorter poems.  The ballad “Summer Storm” tells the story of a wedding party at which a woman the poet had never met before takes his arm during a downpour.  After the party ends and all the guests depart, the poet wonders whether this chance meeting was one of life’s unrealized possibilities:

There are so many might-have-beens,

What-ifs that won’t stay buried,

Other cities, other jobs,

Strangers we might have married.

And memory insists on pining

For places it never went,

As if life would be happier

Just by being different.

Yet against such might-have-beens stands the final poem in this collection, a poem celebrating Gioia’s own lifelong happy marriage.  The married lovers speak to each other in a language that is all their own and therefore doomed to die with them, yet “what must be lost was never lost on us” because, as husband says to wife, “You are a language I have learned by heart” (“Marriage of Many Years”).

For Gioia, life seems to be an open mystery, but a mystery consistent with faith in God the Creator Whose overflowing love has made a beautiful, ordered universe that is essentially good and, to some degree, knowable, but which, in Saint Paul’s words, is still groaning with evil and with death as a result of the Fall.

This understanding is surely at the heart of King Lear’s “mystery of things” as well as our apprehension of the gulf between potentiality and actuality, a gulf that extends to the very act of creation itself, including the making of a poem.  As Gioia says of the difference between the idea of a poem and the poem as realized in words on the page (“The Next Poem”),

How much better it seems now

than when it is finally written.

How hungrily one waits to feel

the bright lure seized, the old hook bitten.

Such is the distance between Jacob sleeping on a “stone pillow” beside the brook and seraphim ascending the ladder between the earth and heaven.  And from that place lying in between what is and what was, what may be and what might have been—a place almost, but not quite, beyond words—Dana Gioia has brought back to us some of the finest poems of his or any other time.


[99 Poems: New & Selected, by Dana Gioia (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press) 195 pp., $24.00]