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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review of Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia

In the preface of his seminal book, Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, Dana Gioia set forth this standard: “While it is a critic’s task to analyze a literary work, the reader needs only to experience it.”

So true, but then when I received a review copy of Dana Gioia’s new book of poems, Pity the Beautiful, for the sole purpose of reviewing (aka “critiquing” aka “analyzing”), I felt at odds with those roles, first trying to assess what the poet had accomplished and how before giving myself up to the experience of reading, enjoying, absorbing, and “being there” in the poems.

As I read it or, perhaps, felt it, the opening poem “The Present” hints of the pity of putting aside the enjoyment of a gift given, whether by God or another Lover, who left an unopened gift beside “our bed.” Both possibilities of the Giver also seemed likely in light of the second poem, “The Angel with the Broken Wing,” who once “stood beside a gilded altar where/ The hopeless offered God their misery.”

The next poem “Prophecy” beautifies that source of misery by saying, “I found my Via Dolorosa in your love,” but whose love? God’s or another person’s and does it matter? Or, to be more precise, can we separate one love from another as God is love and source, moving like living water through us and our relationships?

To be clear though, this collection of poems does not focus on lost loves, but life itself. Again, in “Prophecy,” for example, “It’s not so much what’s spoken as what’s heard –/ and recognized, of course. The gift is listening/ and hearing what is meant only for you.” So there’s that gift again, opened and heard or not – a theme that winds down “The Road” where the narrator has “sometimes felt that he had missed his life/ By being far too busy looking for it.”

Conversely, some of us seek gifts that don’t really matter, such as experienced in “Shopping” where “I would buy happiness if I could find it,/ Spend all that I possessed or could borrow./ But what can I bring you from these sad emporia?/ Where in this splendid clutter/ Shall I discover the one true thing?”

The second of five sections takes a different route toward discovering that “one true thing” in “Prayer At Winter Solstice” where we see fresh views and insight in a plethora of blessings: “Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless./ Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way” and, later, “Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel” and “Blessed is the pain that humbles us.”

While few of us seek such thorny gifts, the poet helps us to see these incidents and discomforts as gifts to be received gratefully for the deepening of our spiritual lives, which joy and sorrow widen in subsequent poems.

For example, the humor used in addressing “The Seven Deadly Sins” coaxes us to recall similar experiences where “The food’s so bad that even Gluttony/ can’t finish his meal.” With wit to remove the sting, we might be more likely to identify areas in our own lives in need of reconsidering or correcting as we accept and forgive our disappointments in ourselves.

Then, the opposite of humor arrives to increase our awareness of life’s gifts in the beautifully wrought, heartrending poem, “Special Treatments Ward,” which begins with the introduction: “So this is where the children come to die,/ hidden on the hospital’s highest floor.” These beautiful children “wear their bandages like uniforms,” while tired mothers spend the nights on cots until “they slip/ beside their children, as if they might mesh/ those small bruised bodies back into their flesh.”

Oh, isn’t that what God Our Heavenly Father/ Mother does for us in Christ Who bears our bruises?

Well, I could go on to tell you about the remaining sections of the book with its ghost story and lively rhymed and metered title poem where we “Pity the night/ the stars lose their shine” or “The Argument” where “After you put the phone down,/ The words don’t vanish all at once.” But I would have to address almost every poem in the book to give you a glimpse of the beauty that, without a hint of didacticism, encourage us to accept each gift and fully experience our own lives.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer

Pity the Beautiful, paperback

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