From Publishers Weekly
Gioia gained prominence during the 1980s as a crusader on behalf of the New Formalists--poets who wrote about everyday lives and losses in determinedly accessible, traditional modes and metres. Though his own poetry has received respectful notices, he has gained wider acclaim as a critic and editor, especially for the polemical volume Can Poetry Matter? This third book of poems (his first since 1991) will disappoint some readers, please others and surprise very few. Much of the work here expresses predictable sentiments in predictably straightforward lines--"The daylight needs no praise and so we praise it always," notes the speaker of "Words"; a husband, imagining himself as "The Voyeur," "looks and aches not only for her touch/ but for the secret that her presence brings"; a poem called "My Dead Lover" tells him or her, "Your body was the first I ever knew/ Better than my own." Domestic happiness and everyday epiphanies have produced many good poems, in and out of traditional metres, but Gioia fails to make them linguistically or emotionally compelling in any way. His real gift is for light verse; "Elegy with Surrealist Proverbs as Refrain" has a seriocomic interest beyond its absurdly reduced subjects (Andre Breton, Apollinaire and others), and the songs from Gioia's libretto Nosferatu stand out for their verve. Translations from Seneca's tragedy Hercules Furens and from the Italian poet Valerio Magrelli flesh out what would otherwise be an extremely thin volume. (Apr.) Forecast: Gioia's prolific critical activity in myriad venues has kept his brand ID solid, even after the collapse of the New Formalism. Followers of little and larger poetry magazines will buy this book just to see what Gioia's up to; libraries and others will similarly get it for the name recognition.
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The ancient Greeks and Romans created European civilization, and studying their literature--the classics--has long been considered a civilizing activity. But the classics also teach plenty about chaos, not least that the human heart is never satisfied. Gioia, who has translated classical literature, shows that he has learned civilization in the formal dexterity of his verse, that he has learned the turbulent heart in the content of his poems.Gioia is, at midlife, full of regrets. He writes about the youthful intellectual sparring partner, never seen since, who he learns has died of AIDS; about the child who grows ever "more gorgeously like you" but whose likeness is also "not a slip or a fumble but a total rout"; and about "the better man I might have been." Most affectingly, he writes about his son who died in childhood. "Comfort me with stones," he prays. "Quench my thirst with sand." In those desolate lines, he echoes the Song of Songs, a masterpiece of the third classical tongue, Hebrew, whereas in many other poems, he draws on Greek and Roman motifs, stories, and attitudes. He finds in the classics and conveys to us the acceptance of mortality and the celebration of beauty that have made the classics perdurably relevant. And his rhymes are true, his meters are correct and musical, his diction is fresh--he is well on the way to becoming a classic poet himself. Ray Olson
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