Poetry from the Muses / A Review of Meet Me At the Lighthouse

Meet Me at the Lighthouse

Meet Me at the Lighthouse, a new collection of poems by former poet-laureate Dana Gioia, released February 9 by Graywolf Press.

The collection offers a style for everyone, capturing what Gioia says —with a nod to Robert Frost— poetry is meant to do, utilizing poetry as “the most concise, expressive, moving and memorable way of articulating what it means to be human” to remember that which it “would impoverish us to forget.”

These lessons from Gioia, through his interviews and teaching, come to the fore in this little bound book of poems. Through the five sections, Meet Me at the Lighthouse presents us with his reminiscences, a ballad recalling the adventure and death of his great-grandfather, and a long poem that references the greatest poets and myths of history, illustrating the journey through death.

An Exercise of Memory

To be sure, as others have said, Meet Me at the Lighthouse is nostalgic. But even more, this work explores what Gioia so often speaks about, that this ancient art of poetry is an exercise of memory. That does not mean the sort of memory that dryly recalls the facts and figures of a city’s population growth, but the sweet feeling of recalling stories and children swallowing the stories whole recounted in “The Ancient Ones.”

In a series of teaching videos on YouTube, Gioia explains “No people can know where to go into the future without knowing where they came from in the past” and so here in this work he honors his past, not only his familial ancestors and their stories, but the poets who came before him, as in “Three Drunk Poets” when Gioia with two friends walk the nighttime streets reciting poetry.

Poetry goes still further.

When answering “What is Poetry?” Gioia states, it is

“not merely communication, poetry is a kind of enchantment that desires covertly or overtly to transform the world.”

Reading Meet Me at the Lighthouse I felt this in no place more deeply than in the section of modern psalms and laments for Los Angeles.

Here, Gioia taps into the Judeo-Christian consciousnesses as he recalls with heartache, longing, love, and righteous anger the place of his youth. It is beautiful. By tapping that shared culture of those who have read the psalms, the poet takes a shortcut to the vulnerable places of the hearts of those who mediated on those words, “How can I forget you, O Jerusalem?”

What does all this looking back do for the reader or listener of such poems?

I wondered where that attachment or nostalgic feeling was for me. What places did I love so dearly?

Those were the college days, my golden age. Transplanted to that world of snow, in those days, as Gioia wrote, we felt immortal.

And what about ancient ones who share their stories?

The ancient ones at the general store 100 years ago? The matriarchs and patriarchs of families at Thanksgiving? More accessible to me is our small town historical society. I see what Gioia describes: the little ones —my daughters— entranced, the older ones distracted with their tales, the absence of middle age.

What if our families are not storytellers?

Because the poet, whatever else he has taken in, must turn it around inside his mind, perceive it and make something of it.

We make the memories by soaking in the moment, by being willing to look back and let our imagination run wild while we recall the story.

And this is how we capture the beauty.

Gioia brings an earthiness to his poetry that might mean you don’t read them aloud to your children at night, but the feelings are true, beautiful, sad and transcendent — all the best things that poetry can be.

Three of the poems are set to music by Helen Sung, in a remarkable collaboration that takes me back, nostalgically so, to those college days of mine, driving downtown on a Saturday night to The Artist’s Quarter, buying drinks, then sobering up in the Minnesota chill while we grab a hamburger from Mickey’s, before driving home.

Meet Me at the Lighthouse is grounded in time and place, which makes the poetry more real, more transporting. He comes the neighborhood of Pulp Fiction and his odes to that metropolis exercise my empathy, as I imagine how someone could actually feel that way about a place I dislike so much. Poetry has that power too, it erases the exterior differences and gets to the heart of it.

This small volume can be consumed quickly, and feel free to do that, like browsing the buffet before you settle in to savor it, but please do savor it, and pick up a copy of Meet Me at the Lighthouse.

As Gioia says,

“Lean back relax and listen. Clear your mind of the clutter of the 21st century. Open your imagination and poetry will do the rest.”

Cover of Meet Me at the Lighthouse by Dana Gioia

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