A review of The Gods of Winter by Dana Gioia

Poetry is not popular, perhaps because unlike fiction it demands a reader capable of giving all of his or her attention to the text. Dana Gioia’s own book (Can Poetry Matter?) is the best examination of the problems that poets face. But the work in this book – free of sentimentality, scrupulous in its construction and direct without impediments – is the best argument for poetry and worth every intelligent reader’s consideration.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Gods of Winter
by Dana Gioia
Graywolf Press 1991, ISBN 1-55597-148-2, $12.00, 62 pages

Gioia at the time of this book, his second book of poetry, was a business executive. It reminds one that many poets were otherwise occupied for their livelihood. Wallace Stevens was a business executive and William Carlos Williams was a doctor. A more recent biography of Gioia does not indicate that he works any longer at anything except writing and his books now include literary criticism and an opera libretto besides collections of poems. He also provides a valuable research tool on the Web.

His poetry shows an exact ear, an unstudied naturalness of speech and an unusual degree of accessibility. In The Gods of Winter he has divided his poetry into five sections. The first clusters about the death of his child in infancy. Some of the poems are about death in general and his image of timid ghosts deprived of sensual perception is eerily effective:

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 second part consists of one poem, ‘Counting the Children.’ This was later set to music. In his daughter’s room at night a man contemplates her dolls:

Their sharp eyes surveyed me with contempt.
They recognized me only as a rival,
The one whose world would keep no place for them.

Part three consists of nine shorter poems, one a translation from an Italian poet and another that has a quotation from Wallace Stevens as its epigraph. Less allusive than Stevens, Gioia has the same quality of mind, the same preoccupations with the glancing qualities of reality. The mechanics of writing poetry provide a subject for two of these poems. ‘My Confessional Sestina’ reflects on the form and the general lack of interest that the many poems in this form provoke. ‘The Next Poem’ measures the sad gulf between conception and execution. Poetry has always tended to feed on itself in this way but the results are seldom so arresting or memorable.

But part four, ‘The Homecoming,’ departs from the intense combination of intellect and simplicity – in idea, not in expression – of Stevens. It is a story in verse and a story of the type that Robinson Jeffers would have told or, in his darker moods, Robert Frost. The narrator describes his life in a foster home – foster parents being the villains of modern folklore – where he encountered the intense passion of his foster mother for divine predestination. The narrator cannot feel saved and finds relief and release in electing to be damned. His crimes find him out and he is imprisoned but escapes. His first intention is to kill his foster mother but he decides against it until he finds that she has taken in another boy to mistreat as she mistreated him. He sends the boy away, kills her and calmly waits for the police. The last line is chilling: “I had come home and there was no escape.”

The last part consists of six poems, one of which is another translation. ‘Speaking of Love’ stays in the mind. It explores the reluctance of lovers to use the language of love because it is trite. But, flawed or not, it is the only way to keep love alive and the lovers are shown keeping vigil over a dying love.

Poetry is not popular, perhaps because unlike fiction it demands a reader capable of giving all of his or her attention to the text. Dana Gioia’s own book (Can Poetry Matter?) is the best examination of the problems that poets face. But the work in this book – free of sentimentality, scrupulous in its construction and direct without impediments – is the best argument for poetry and worth every intelligent reader’s consideration.

For more information visit: The Gods of Winter

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teto.com/service/Persons_Places

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