In Christ-Haunted California: Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems | James Matthew Wilson | Catholic World Report
A new collection of poems is a remarkable retrospective on the career of one of America’s most accomplished and controversial poets.
At the heart of Dana Gioia’s 2012 collection, Pity the Beautiful, lies a ghost story. “Haunted” tells the tale of a young man who has gone for a secluded and intimate weekend in an ancestral New England mansion with a woman of great beauty and even greater vanity. Mara, the narrator tells us, “loved having me for an audience,” as she described “her former lovers—imitating them, / cataloguing their signature stupidities.” He, meanwhile, sits in awe. As the story unfolds, we sense the narrator is of humble origins but of a sensibility that has already warmed up to obscene wealth. He describes the mansion’s art as “grand, authentic, second rate,” and while Mara showers, he distracts himself from contemplating her body by exploring the wine cellar, where he recognizes and appreciates the collection of Bordeaux.
Invited into the world of affluence, a quick study in its ways, but held slightly in contempt by its prize beauty, the narrator argues with Mara and storms off to another wing of the mansion. There, disrupting his sulking over a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets, enters a woman, a housekeeper—no, a ghost:
She seemed at once herself and her own reflection
shimmering on the surface of clear water
where fleeting shadows twisted in the depths.
He tries to address her. She ignores him. But then, turning her face to him, she hisses, “You don’t belong here. No, you don’t belong here.”
Other things happen in the story before its end, but we soon learn that this haunted man has fled the mansion in his socks, leaving his shoes behind, and hitchhiked until he, by chance perhaps, arrives at a monastery. The story begins with him insisting to us that he does not believe in ghosts. It ends with him confessing that he does not even believe in an afterlife. And yet, after this encounter with the “unexplained,” he has become a monk. He relates all this while delivering brandy from the monastery to a local tavern. And he is content indeed, for monastic discipline somehow is the only means of ensuring that this life, this earthly life, will not be wasted.
With the publication of 99 Poems: New and Selected, readers are brought to see with clarity how central the themes of this ghost story are to understanding the career of one of America’s most admired, controversial, and accomplished poets and critics. We see that, for all the great variety of form, style, and subject, Gioia’s poetry reminds us again and again that the world is a mystery where the things of God wait, hidden inside the heart of the world.
Half a century ago, Flannery O’Connor wrote that modern America had grown “hard of hearing” to the voice of grace. We lived in a world disfigured by its unconcern for anything but a life spent in the pursuit of pleasant vanities. And yet, those few persons who sense that something has gone wrong without quite knowing what or why will be “Christ-haunted”; they may not believe in God, but they spend their lives running away from, driven to the edge by, his presence.
To encounter Gioia’s poetry is to discover the superficial brilliancies that make up the lives of modern Californians and New Yorkers and to see how they shine on almost totally unperturbed. We pass through the landscapes of a country of power and splendor falling silently into decline. An early poem, “In Cheever Country,” for instance, captures the landscape along the railway as one travels north from New York City into the wealthy counties just upstate and in Connecticut. What sounds from the title like a minor homage to a great mid-century American story-writer soon reveals itself as a perceptive and precisely imagined landscape poem that stands comparison with any in the long tradition of that form. Gioia writes,
The architecture of each station still preserves
its fantasy beside the sordid tracks—
defiant pergolas, a shuttered summer lodge,
a shadowy pavilion framed by high-arched windows
in this land of northern sun and lingering winter.
Speaking of those “palaces the Robber Barons gave to God,” he continues,
… some are merely left to rot where now
broken stone lions guard a roofless colonnade,
a half-collapsed gazebo bursts with tires,
and each detail warns it is not so difficult
to make a fortune as to pass it on.
Gioia worked in the northeast for decades, but his native home is southern California, and so he also depicts the people of a dry and sunny land of “bright stillness” so in thrall to the little gods of the shopping mall that the pleasures of this world blot out the thought of any other. “Shopping,” another poem from Pity the Beautiful, begins: