99 Poems: New & Selected

99 Poems: New & Selected

by Dana Gioia


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99 Poems: New & Selected by Dana Gioia

Now in paperback, a major career retrospective by the California Poet Laureate, Dana Gioia

So much of what we live goes on inside—

The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches

Of unacknowledged love are no less real

For having passed unsaid. What we conceal

Is always more than what we dare confide.

Think of the letters that we write our dead.

—from “Unsaid”

Dana Gioia has long been celebrated as a poet of sharp intelligence and brooding emotion with an ingenious command of his craft. 99 Poems: New & Selected gathers for the first time work from across his career, including many remarkable new poems. Gioia has not arranged this selection chronologically but instead has organized it by theme in seven sections: Mystery, Place, Remembrance, Imagination, Stories, Songs, and Love. The result is a book that reveals and renews the pleasures, consolations, and sense of wonder that poetry bestows.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977719
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 798,986
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Dana Gioia is an award-winning poet, critic, and librettist. From 2003 to 2009, he served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and he currently lectures at the University of Southern California.

Read an Excerpt

99 Poems

New & Selected

By Dana Gioia

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2016 Dana Gioia
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-925-6




    never climbed the ladder
    burning in his dream. Sleep
    pressed him like a stone
    in the dust,

          and when
    he should have risen
    like a flame to join
    that choir, he was sick
    of traveling,

          and closed
    his eyes to the Seraphim
    ascending, unconscious
    of the impossible distances
    between their steps,

    them mount the brilliant
    ladder, slowly disappearing
    into the scattered light
    between the stars,

    through it all, a stone
    upon a stone pillow,
    shivering. Gravity
    always greater than desire.


    Now you hear what the house has to say.
    Pipes clanking, water running in the dark,
    the mortgaged walls shifting in discomfort,
    and voices mounting in an endless drone
    of small complaints like the sounds of a family
    that year by year you've learned how to ignore.

    But now you must listen to the things you own,
    all that you've worked for these past years,
    the murmur of property, of things in disrepair,
    the moving parts about to come undone,
    and twisting in the sheets remember all
    the faces you could not bring yourself to love.

    How many voices have escaped you until now,
    the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,
    the steady accusations of the clock
    numbering the minutes no one will mark.
    The terrible clarity this moment brings,
    the useless insight, the unbroken dark.


    The stars now rearrange themselves above you
    but to no effect. Tonight,
    only for tonight, their powers lapse,
    and you must look toward earth. There will be
    no comets now, no pointing star
    to lead where you know you must go.

    Look for smaller signs instead, the fine
    disturbances of ordered things when suddenly
    the rhythms of your expectation break
    and in a moment's pause another world
    reveals itself behind the ordinary.

    And one small detail out of place will be
    enough to let you know: a missing ring,
    a breath, a footfall or a sudden breeze,
    a crack of light beneath a darkened door.


    Nothing is lost. Nothing is so small
    that it does not return.
    that as a child on a day like this
    you held a newly minted coin and had
    the choice of spending it in any way
    you wished.
          Today the coin comes back to you,
    the date rubbed out, the ancient mottoes vague,
    the portrait covered with the dull shellac
    of anything used up, passed on, disposed of
    with something else in view, and always worth
    a little less each time.
          Now it returns,
    and you will think it unimportant, lose
    it in your pocket change as one more thing
    that's not worth counting, not worth singling out.
    That is the mistake you must avoid today.
    You sent it on a journey to yourself.
    Now hold it in your hand. Accept it as
    the little you have earned today.
          And realize
    that you must choose again but over less.


    Do not expect that if your book falls open
    to a certain page, that any phrase
    you read will make a difference today,
    or that the voices you might overhear
    when the wind moves through the yellow-green
    and golden tent of autumn, speak to you.

    Things ripen or go dry. Light plays on the
    dark surface of the lake. Each afternoon
    your shadow walks beside you on the wall,
    and the days stay long and heavy underneath
    the distant rumor of the harvest. One
    more summer gone,
    and one way or another you survive,
    dull or regretful, never learning that
    nothing is hidden in the obvious
    changes of the world, that even the dim
    reflection of the sun on tall, dry grass
    is more than you will ever understand.

    And only briefly then
    you touch, you see, you press against
    the surface of impenetrable things.


    Beware of things in duplicate:
    a set of knives, the cufflinks in a drawer,
    the dice, the pair of Queens, the eyes
    of someone sitting next to you.
    Attend that empty minute in the evening
    when looking at the clock, you see
    its hands are fixed on the same hour
    you noticed at your morning coffee.
    These are the moments to beware
    when there is nothing so familiar
    or so close that it cannot betray you:
    a twin, an extra key, an echo,
    your own reflection in the glass.


    Suppose there is no heaven and no hell,
    And that the dead can never leave the earth,
    That, as the body rots, the soul breaks free,
    Weak and disabled in its second birth.

    And then invisible, rising to the light,
    Each finds a world it cannot touch or hear,
    Where colors fade and, if the soul cries out,
    The silence stays unbroken in the air.

    How flat the ocean seems without its roar,
    Without the sting of salt, the bracing gust.
    The sunset blurs into a grayish haze.
    The morning snowfall is a cloud of dust.

    The pines that they revisit have no scent.
    They cannot feel the needled forest floor.
    Crossing the stream, they watch the current flow
    Unbroken as they step down from the shore.

    They want their voices to become the wind —
    Intangible like them — to match its cry,
    Howling in treetops, covering the moon,
    Tumbling the storm clouds in a rain-swept sky.

    But they are silent as a rising mist,
    A smudge of smoke dissolving in the air.
    They watch the shadows lengthen on the grass.
    The pallor of the rose is their despair.


    The thought pursues me through this dreary town
    where the wind sweeps down from the high plateau
    and where a diving chimney swift can cut
    the slender thread of mountains far away.

    So soon come forty years of restlessness,
    of tedium, of unexpected joy,
    quick as a gust of wind in March is quick
    to scatter light and rain. Soon come delays,
    snatched from the straining hands of those I love,
    torn from my haunts, the customs of my years
    suddenly crushed to make me understand.
    The tree of sorrow shakes its branches ...

    The years rise like a swarm around my shoulders.
    Nothing has been in vain. This is the work
    which all complete together and alone,
    the living and the dead, to penetrate
    the impenetrable world, down open roads,
    down mineshafts of discovery and loss,
    and learned from many loves or only one,
    from father down to son — till all is clear.

    And having said this, I can start out now,
    easy in the eternal company
    of all things living, of all things dead,
    to disappear in either dust or fire
    if any fire endures beyond its flame.

(From the Italian of Mario Luzi)


    If we could only push these walls
    apart, unfold the room the way
    a child might take apart a box
    and lay it flat upon the floor —
    so many corners cleared at last!
    Or else could rip away the roof
    and stare down at the dirty rooms,
    the hallways turning on themselves,
    and understand at last their plan —
    dark maze without a minotaur,
    no monsters but ourselves.
          Yet who
    could bear to see it all? The slow
    descending spirals of the dust
    against the spotted windowpane,
    the sunlight on the yellow lace,
    the hoarded wine turned dark and sour,
    the photographs, the letters — all
    the crowded closets of the heart.

    One wants to turn away — and cry
    for fire to break out on the stairs
    and raze each suffocating room.
    But the walls stay, the roof remains
    strong and immovable, and we
    can only pray that if these rooms
    have memories, they are not ours.


    The world does not need words. It articulates itself
    in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
    are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
    The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
    The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.

    And one word transforms it into something less or other —
    illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
    Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
    glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
    arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

    Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
    name them, or read the mute syllables graven i silica.
    To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper —
    metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
    carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.

    The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds,
    painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
    each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
    The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always —
    greater than ourselves and all the airy words we


    Just before noon I often hear a voice,
    Cool and insistent, whispering in my head.
    It is the better man I might have been,
    Who chronicles the life I've never led.

    He cannot understand what grim mistake
    Granted me life but left him still unborn.
    He views his wayward brother with regret
    And hardly bothers to disguise his scorn.

    "Who is the person you pretend to be?"
    He asks, "The failed saint, the simpering bore,
    The pale connoisseur of spent desire,
    The half-hearted hermit eyeing the door?

    "You cultivate confusion like a rose
    In watery lies too weak to be untrue,
    And play the minor figures in the pageant,
    Extravagant and empty, that is you."


    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.
    With eyes that have forgotten how to see
    From viewing things already too well-known,
    Lift up into the dark a huge, black tree
    And put it in the heavens: tall, alone.
    And you have made the world and all you see.
    It ripens like the words still in your mouth.
    And when at last you comprehend its truth,
    Then close your eyes and gently set it free.
    (From the German of Rainer Maria Rilke)


    Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
    Eternity has festivals enough.
    This is the feast of our mortality,
    The most mundane and human holiday.

    On other days we misinterpret time,
    Pretending that we live the present moment.
    But can this blur, this smudgy in-between,
    This tiny fissure where the future drips

    Into the past, this flyspeck we call now
    Be our true habitat? The present is
    The leaky palm of water that we skim
    From the swift, silent river slipping by.

    The new year always brings us what we want
    Simply by bringing us along — to see
    A calendar with every day uncrossed,
    A field of snow without a single footprint.


    I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
    The one large statue in this quiet room.
    The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
    Faith's ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.

    The docents praise my elegant design
    Above the chatter of the gallery.
    Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts —
    The perfect emblem of futility.

    Mendoza carved me for a country church.
    (His name's forgotten now except by me.)
    I stood beside a gilded altar where
    The hopeless offered God their misery.

    I heard their women whispering at my feet —
    Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
    Their candles stretched my shadow up the wall,
    And I became the hunger that they fed.

    I broke my left wing in the Revolution
    (Even a saint can savor irony)
    When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
    They hit me once — almost apologetically.

    For even the godless feel something in a church,
    A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
    A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
    An ancient memory they can't dismiss.

    There are so many things I must tell God!
    The howling of the damned can't reach so high.
    But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
    A crippled saint against a painted sky.


    Sometimes a child will stare out of a window
    for a moment or an hour — deciphering
    the future from a dusky summer sky.

    Does he imagine that some wisp of cloud
    reveals the signature of things to come?
    Or that the world's a book we learn to translate?

    And sometimes a girl stands naked by a mirror
    imagining beauty in a stranger's eyes
    finding a place where fear leads to desire.

    For what is prophecy but the first inkling
    of what we ourselves must call into being?
    The call need not be large. No voice in thunder.

    It's not so much what's spoken as what's heard —
    and recognized, of course. The gift is listening
    and hearing what is only meant for you.

    Life has its mysteries, annunciations,
    and some must wear a crown of thorns. I found
    my Via Dolorosa in your love.

    And sometimes we proceed by prophecy,
    or not at all — even if only to know
    what destiny requires us to renounce.

    O Lord of indirection and ellipses,
    ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction.
    Slow our heartbeat to a cricket's call.

    In the green torpor of the afternoon,
    bless us with ennui and quietude.
    And grant us only what we fear, so that

    Underneath the murmur of the wasp
    we hear the dry grass bending in the wind
    and the spider's silken whisper from its web.


    He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
    By being far too busy looking for it.
    Searching the distance, he often turned to find
    That he had passed some milestone unaware,
    And someone else was walking next to him,
    First friends, then lovers, now children and a wife.
    They were good company — generous, kind,
    But equally bewildered to be there.

    He noticed then that no one chose the way —
    All seemed to drift by some collective will.
    The path grew easier with each passing day,
    Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
    The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
    Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?


    Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
    Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.

    Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
    Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.

    Blessed are the night and the darkness that blind us.
    Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.

    Blessed are the cat, the child, the cricket, and the crow.
    Blessed is the hawk devouring the hare.

    Blessed are the sinner and the saint who redeem each other.
    Blessed are the dead, calm in their perfection.

    Blessed is the pain that humbles us.
    Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.

    Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light.
    Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.


    Night-born, malformed, maleficent,
    pale as a pulled root,
    a monster prowls the woods.

    What other explanation is there
    for the gutted deer, the naked
    footprint by the bedroom window?

    Now the neighbor's dog
    has disappeared. The back gate's broken.
    I keep the shotgun loaded.

    How often now the birds
    suddenly go silent in the trees.
    What do they hear?

    This thing of darkness I
    acknowledge mine
. I made it.
    I let it escape. Now it returns.

    Go on, you ragged underling.
    Stalk me with your pitiful strategies.
    Starve and shiver in the darkness.

    Cry to me from the thorny ravine.
    I'm safe behind locked doors.
    I will not answer or embrace

    the thing I have created.


    Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
    — ST. PAUL

    I was already an old man when I was born.
    Small with a curved back, he dragged his leg when walking
    the streets of Copenhagen. "Little Kierkegaard,"
    they called him. Some meant it kindly. The more one suffers
    the more one acquires a sense of the comic.

    His hair rose in waves six inches above his head.
    Save me, O God, from ever becoming sure.
    What good is faith if it is not irrational?

    Christianity requires a conviction of sin.

    As a boy tending sheep on the frozen heath,
    his starving father cursed God for his cruelty.
    His fortunes changed. He grew rich and married well.
    His father knew these blessings were God's punishment.
    All would be stripped away. His beautiful wife died,     then five of his children. Crippled Soren survived.
    The self-consuming sickness unto death is despair.

    What the age needs is not a genius but a martyr
    Soren fell in love, proposed, then broke the
    No one, he thought, could bear his presence daily.
    My sorrow is my castle. His books were read
    but ridiculed. Cartoons mocked his deformities.
    His private journals fill seven thousand pages.
    You could read them all, he claimed, and still not know him.
    He who explains this riddle explains my life.

    When everyone is Christian, Christianity
    does not exist. The crowd is untruth. Remember
    we stand alone before God in fear and trembling
    At forty-two he collapsed on his daily walk.
    Dying he seemed radiant. His skin had become
    almost transparent. He refused communion
    from the established church. His grave has no headstone.
    Now with God's help I shall at last become myself.


Excerpted from 99 Poems by Dana Gioia. Copyright © 2016 Dana Gioia. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I Mystery

The Burning Ladder 3

Insomnia 4

The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves 5

Nothing Is Lost 6

Do Not Expect 7

Beware of Things in Duplicate 8

All Souls' 9

On Approaching Forty 10

Maze without a Minotaur 11

Words 12

Interrogations at Noon 13

Entrance 14

New Year's 15

The Angel with the Broken Wing 16

Prophecy 18

The Road 20

Prayer at Winter Solstice 21

Monster 22

Homage to Soren Kierkegaard 23

II Place

California Hills in August 27

Cruising with the Beach Boys 28

In Chandler Country 30

In Cheever Country 32

The Garden on the Campagna 35

Most Journeys Come to This 36

Waiting in the Airport 38

Men after Work 39

Rough Country 40

Becoming a Redwood 41

A California Requiem 43

The End of the World 45

Shopping 46

Sea Pebbles: An Elegy 49

Vultures Mating 50

Progress Report 51

III Remembrance

Prayer 55

Night Watch 56

Veterans' Cemetery 58

The Song 59

The Gods of Winter 60

Planting a Sequoia 61

Metamorphosis 62

Pentecost 63

The Litany 64

Unsaid 66

Finding a Box of Family Letters 67

Special Treatments Ward 69

Majority 72

My Handsome Cousin 73

IV Imagination

Elegy for Vladimir de Pachmann 77

Lives of the Great Composers 79

God Only Knows 81

A Curse on Geographers 82

A Short History of Tobacco 83

Guide to the Other Gallery 85

My Confessional Sestina 86

The Silence of the Poets 88

Money 89

The Next Poem 90

Elegy with Surrealist Proverbs as Refrain 92

Autumn Inaugural 94

The Seven Deadly Sins 96

Deal with the Devil 97

Meditation on a Line from Novalis 99

Title Index to My Next Book of Poems 100

V Stories

The Room Upstairs 105

Counting the Children 109

Homecoming 117

Haunted 132

Style 140

VI Songs

The Country Wife 153

Song for the End of Time 154

The Archbishop 155

Nosferatu's Serenade 157

Mad Song 158

Alley Cat Love Song 159

Marketing Department Trio 160

Pity the Beautiful 162

Reunion 163

The Heart of the Matter 164

Cold San Francisco 165

Household Gods 166

Film Noir 167

VII Love

Thanks for Remembering Us 171

The Sunday News 172

Speech from a Novella 173

Speaking of Love 174

Equations of the Light 175

The Voyeur 177

Spider in the Corner 178

Summer Storm 179

The Lost Garden 181

Being Happy 182

The Present 183

The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet 184

The Apple Orchard 185

Come Back 186

An Old Story 187

Marriage of Many Years 188

Note on the Texts 192

Index 193

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