Litany -- 12 Poems of Dana Gioia


By Dana Gioia

This is a litany of lost things,
a canon of possessions dispossessed,

a photograph, an old address, a key.
It is a list of words to memorize
or to forget–of amo, amas, amat,
the conjugations of a dead tongue
in which the final sentence has been spoken.

This is the liturgy of rain,
falling on mountain, field, and ocean–
indifferent, anonymous, complete–
of water infinitesimally slow,
sifting through rock, pooling in darkness,
gathering in springs, then rising without our agency,
only to dissolve in mist or cloud or dew.

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 wine,
a benediction on the death of a young god,
brave and beautiful, rotting on a tree.

This is a litany to earth and ashes,
to the dust of roads and vacant rooms,
to the fine silt circling in a shaft of sun,
settling indifferently on books and beds.
This is a prayer to praise what we become,
"Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return."
Savor its taste–the bitterness of earth and ashes.

This is a prayer, inchoate and unfinished,
for you, my love, my loss, my lesion,
a rosary of words to count out time's
illusions, all the minutes, hours, days
the calendar compounds as if the past
existed somewhere–like an inheritance
still waiting to be claimed.

Until at last it is our litany, mon vieux,
my reader, my voyeur, as if the mist
steaming from the gorge, this pure paradox,
the shattered river rising as it falls–
splintering the light, swirling it skyward,
neither transparent nor opaque but luminous,
even as it vanishes–were not our life.

Dana Gioia's note on "The Litany"

I could say a great many things about "The Litany," but most of them would matter far more to the author than to anyone else. The poem will, I suppose, seem difficult to readers eager for the paraphrasable content of workaday prose. I hope the poem is not opaque, but neither did I want the language to be transparent. A reader will either understand "The Litany" intuitively or not at all. It will help, though, to read the poem aloud. Its organization is musical. Though not all art aspires to the conditions of music, this poem wants to be heard and not seen. What better way than music to describe the invisible?

My Confessional Sestina

By Dana Gioia

Let me confess. I'm sick of these sestinas
written by youngsters in poetry workshops
for the delectation of their fellow students,
and then published in little magazines
that no one reads, not een the contributors
who at least in this omission show some taste.

Is this merely a matter of personal taste?
I don't think so. Most sestinas
are such dull affairs. Just ask the contributors
the last time they finished one outside of a workshop,
even the poignant one on herpes in that new little magazine
edited by their most brilliant fellow student.

Let's be honest. It has become a form for students,
an exercise to build technique rather than taste
and the official entry blank into the little magazines ---
because despite its reputation, a passable sestina
isn't very hard to write, even for kids in workshops
who care less about being poets than contributors.

Granted nowadays everyone is a contributor.
My barber is currently a student
in a rigorous correspondence school workshop.
At less six he can already taste
success having just placed his own sestina
in a national tonsorial magazine.

Who really cares about most little magazines?
Eventually not even their own contributors
who having published a few preliminary sestinas
send their work East to prove they're no longer students.
They need to be recognized as the new arbiters of taste
so they can teach their own graduate workshops.

Where will it end? This grim cycle of workshops
churning out poems for little magazines
no one honestly finds to their taste?
This ever-lengthening column of contributors
scavenging the land for more students
teaching them to write their boot camp sestinas?

Perhaps there is an afterlife where all contributors
have two workshops, a tasteful little magazine, and sexy students
who worshipfully memorize their every sestina.


Planting a Sequoia

By Dana Gioia

All afternoon my brothers and I have worked in the orchard,
Digging this hole, laying you into it, carefully packing the soil.
Rain blackened the horizon, but cold winds kept it over the Pacific,
And the sky above us stayed the dull gray
Of an old year coming to an end.

In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s birth–
An olive or a fig tree–a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.
I would have done the same, proudly laying new stock into my father’s orchard,
A green sapling rising among the twisted apple boughs,
A promise of new fruit in other autumns.

But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant,
Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of an infant’s birth cord,
All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.

We will give you what we can–our labor and our soil,
Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,
Nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of bees.
We plant you in the corner of the grove, bathed in western light,
A slender shoot against the sunset.

And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother’s beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.


By Dana Gioia

Money is a kind of poetry.

– Wallace Stevens

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don't know where it's been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.



By Dana Gioia

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.


Cruising with the Beach Boys

By Dana Gioia

So strange to hear that song again tonight
Travelling on business in a rented car
Miles from anywhere I've been before.
And now a tune I haven't heard for years
Probably not since it last left the charts
Back in L.A. in 1969.
I can't believe I know the words by heart
And can't think of a girl to blame them on.

Every lovesick summer has its song,
And this one I pretended to despise.
But if I were alone when it came on,
I turned it up full-blast to sing along ---
A primal scream in croaky barritone,
The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred ---
No wonder I spent so much time alone
Making the rounds in Dad's old Thunderbird.

Some nights I drove down to the beach to park
And walk along the railings of the pier.
The water down below was cold and dark,
The waves monotonous against the shore.
The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,
The flickering lights reflected from the city ---
A perfect setting for a boy like me,
The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.

I thought by now I'd left those nights behind,
Lost like the girls that I could never get,
Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.
But one old song, a stretch of empty road,
Can open up a door and let them fall
Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf
Tightening my throat for no reason at all
Bringing on tears shed only for myself.



By 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.


Summer Storm

By Dana Gioia

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.

We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.

The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.

To my surprise, you took my arm–
A gesture you didn't explain–
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.

Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.

I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn't speak another word
Except to say goodnight.

Why does that evening's memory
Return with this night's storm–
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?

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.


California Hills in August

By Dana Gioia

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.


The Next Poem

By Dana Gioia

How much better it seems now
than when it is finally done–
the unforgettable first line,
the cunning way the stanzas run.

The rhymes soft-spoken and suggestive
are barely audible at first,
an appetite not yet acknowledged
like the inkling of a thirst.

While gradually the form appears
as each line is coaxed aloud–
the architecture of a room
seen from the middle of a crowd.

The music that of common speech
but slanted so that each detail
sounds unexpected as a sharp
inserted in a simple scale.

No jumble box of imagery
dumped glumly in the reader's lap
or elegantly packaged junk
the unsuspecting must unwrap.

But words that could direct a friend
precisely to an unknown place,
those few unshakeable details
that no confusion can erase.

And the real subject left unspoken
but unmistakable to those
who don't expect a jungle parrot
in the black and white of prose.

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.


Rough Country

By Dana Gioia

Give me a landscape made of obstacles,
of steep hills and jutting glacial rock,
where the low-running streams are quick to flood
the grassy fields and bottomlands.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . A place
no engineers can master–where the roads
must twist like tendrils up the mountainside
on narrow cliffs where boulders block the way.
Where tall black trunks of lightning-scalded pine
push through the tangled woods to make a roost
for hawks and swarming crows.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . , And sharp inclines
where twisting through the thorn-thick underbrush,
scratched and exhausted, one turns suddenly
to find an unexpected waterfall,
not half a mile from the nearest road,
a spot so hard to reach that no one comes–
a hiding place, a shrine for dragonflies
and nesting jays, a sign that there is still
one piece of property that won't be owned.



By Dana Gioia

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 in 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 summon.

Poet's Brief Profile

Diana Gioia

Personal Background
Poet, critic, and best-selling anthologist, Dana Gioia is one of America’s leading contemporary men of letters. Winner of the American Book Award, Gioia is internationally recognized for his role in reviving rhyme, meter, and narrative in contemporary poetry. An influential critic, he has combined populist ideals and high standards to bring poetry to a broader audience.

Gioia (pronounced JOY-A) was born of Italian and Mexican descent in Los Angeles in 1950. The first member of his family to attend college, he received a B.A. from Stanford University. Before returning to Stanford to earn an M.B.A., he completed an M.A. in Comparative Literature at Harvard University where he studied with the poets Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop.
In 1977 he moved to New York to begin a career in business. For fifteen years Gioia worked as a business executive, eventually becoming a Vice President of General Foods. Writing at night and on weekends, he also established a major literary reputation. In 1992 he left business to become a full-time writer.

Gioia's poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in many magazines including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and The Hudson Review. He is also a long time commentator on American culture and literature for BBC Radio.

In 1996 Gioia returned to his native California. He currently lives in Sonoma County with his wife and two sons.

Gioia has published three full-length books of poetry. Although widely noted for his use of traditional forms, Gioia also writes in free verse—insisting that a poet should be able to use whatever style the work suggests. Widely anthologized and translated, he has been the subject of several critical books and monographs.

His first collection, Daily Horoscope (1986), was both praised and attacked for its influential revival of rhyme and meter. It was not only widely discussed in literary periodicals but also in publications as diverse as The Village Voice, Newsweek, Forbes, and Connoisseur.

Gioia's second collection of poems, The Gods of Winter (1991), was published simultaneously in both the U.S. and Great Britain. It was chosen by London's Poetry Society Book Club as their main selection, an honor rarely given to American authors. In the U.S. the volume was the co-winner of the Poets’ Prize.

Gioia’s third collection of poems, Interrogations at Noon (2001), won the American Book Award. Reviewing the volume, British critic William Oxley praised Gioia as “probably the most exquisite poet writing today in English.”

Trained in comparative literature, Gioia has been an active translator of poetry from Latin, Italian, German, and Romanian. He has published a translation of the Italian Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale's Mottetti (1990) as well as two large anthologies of Italian poetry. His translation of Seneca’s The Madness of Hercules (1995) was performed by Verse Theater Manhattan.

Best known to many as a critic, Gioia has been an active and outspoken literary commentator for over a quarter century. His essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”, which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1991, ignited an international debate on the role of poetry in contemporary intellectual life. The Atlantic received more responses on this essay than on any piece in recent history. Debated and discussed in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television here and abroad, “Can Poetry Matter?” stands as one of the most influential literary essays of the past quarter century.

Gioia's critical collection, Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992), was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the "Best Books of 1992." This volume also became a finalist for the 1992 National Book Critics Award in Criticism. A special tenth anniversary edition was published in 2002.
Gioia currently co-edits with X. J. Kennedy four popular anthologies, including Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, the nation’s best-selling college literature textbook—as well as numerous other literary collections.

Before deciding to be a writer, Gioia had intended to be a composer. Trained in music, he has maintained a lifelong passion for the art in all its forms. For the past six years he has been the classical music critic for San Francisco magazine.

Gioia’s work has been set to music by many composers in genres ranging from classical to rock, including a full-length dance theater piece, Counting the Children. He has also written two children’s pieces for narrator and orchestra with the composer Paul Salerni.

He has written the libretto for Nosferatu, an opera, with composer Alva Henderson, which was published by Graywolf in 2001. Showcased as a work-in-progress in ten concert presentations across the U.S., Nosferatu has received international acclaim as an intensely neo-romantic musical drama.

Teaching, Conferences, and Service
Gioia is the founder and co-director of two major literary conferences. In 1995 he helped create the West Chester University summer conference on Form and Narrative, which is now the largest annual all-poetry writing conference in the U.S. In 2001 he began Teaching Poetry, a conference in Santa Rosa, California, dedicated to improving high school teaching of poetry.

Gioia has taught as a visiting writer at Colorado College, Johns Hopkins, Sarah Lawrence, Mercer, and Wesleyan University. He is also Vice-President of the Poetry Society of America and has served on the boards of numerous arts organizations.

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