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,”...