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

Next Steps on this Poetic Journey

How poetry came to be to me

From love poems to horses to angsty free verse poetry to rhyming poems about the faith, my journey into poetry began at a young age, slept during the years of fiction and college essay writing, and awoke only briefly in my AP English class in high school. “The Gray Squirrel”, a bit of Shakespeare, “Little Elegy” all from one teacher. If there were more I cannot remember them. I encountered none in college.

In college, G.K. Chesterton introduced me to Gabriel Gale and taught me the definition of a poet in The Poet and the Lunatics. “Genius oughtn’t to be eccentric!” he cried in some excitement.

Cover of The Poet and the Lunatics by G.K. Chesterton

“Genius ought to be centric. It ought to be in the core of the cosmos, not on the revolving edges.” The poet sees not only the material before him, but sees into its inner meaning and its connectedness to the rest of the world. It is musing on this and inner light of things that brings about the burst of words called poetry.

Next steps in poetry

This year I learned who Dana Gioia is. Former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and California poet laureate, Gioia is teaching me about poetry through articles and podcast interviews. Gioia made the case in a 1991 article for The Atlantic “Can Poetry Matter?” that, for various reasons, poetry became to be seen as the purview of the elite, something the regular man or woman could not “understand.” It was a pedagogical error that most approaches toward poetry were based on analytical, asking always, “what does this mean?” “What concepts does the poet express?”

Gioia explained,

“But, poetry is not conceptual thought. If you are writing a poem, you’re using language fundamentally differently from how an economist would use it. You are using things in a semi-abstract language to make it absolutely clear about a general case. But, poetry, even if it’s about big issues, is always about a particular case. And so, a poet uses words in such a way that they don’t address primarily your intellect. They simultaneously address your intellect, your emotions, your physical senses, your memory, your intuition in a way which does not ask you to divide them.”

 It is not intended to be unfolded into an essay, but for the listener to step into the moment of wonder or musing with the poet. Gioia explains elsewhere that the muses, referred to as one’s inspiration, stem from the idea of goddess of inspiration. According to Hesiod’s account, the Nine Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (i.e., “Memory” personified).

The poem captures a moment and a sense or feeling like calling up a memory, if not a connection of our own, than one of humanity.

For the past year or two I have been buying up poetry books in the hopes that I would then begin to read poetry. I occasionally encountered a poem that moved me, but little else in the collection around it. “My Heart and I” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example, or “Lead, Kindly Light” and “The Two Worlds” by John Henry Newman found in A Newman Reader.

A Newman Reader, which includes poetry by John Henry Newman

And now, introducing Czeslaw Milosz

I tried The Collected Poems of John Donne, apparently in the original English lacking standardized spelling, another vintage compilation of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poetry, Poems Every Catholic Should Know, and more, but nothing stuck.

I listened to Professors Jennifer Frey and Thomas Pfau discussed the work and world of Czeslaw Milosz on the podcast “Sacred and Profane Love”, Episode 36. More and more I heard about this man who lived many years in Berkeley. To be honest, the first time I remember hearing his name was in the film Under the Tucson Sun.

The protagonist tells a Polish contractor,

“Czeslaw Milosz – I like him”

In the podcast interview, they read and referenced his works and I was spellbound.

I owned the book already, 1931-2004 Selected Poems Czeslaw Milosz having discovered it in the stacks at Lightly Used Books.

Cover of Selected Poems by Czeslaw Milosz

It took me back to the poetry that moved my heart and stirred my imagination in middle school. Milosz captures something, lets the words glaze over and over the center, piecing together the whole picture.

One life. One life is not enough.

I would like to live twice in this sad world.

My senses have to be fully alert to understand any of it. As I read, my eyes light up as sparks flit in my brain, dancing from image to image of the poem, stringing the meaning together into one coherent whole.

I understand why I could not read this stuff when I was drunk tired from life or baby care. It wasn’t the season.

Now tides have changed and I welcome it. One more step on the journey. One new area to learn about. One new step unfolding the mystery of all there is to discover here in life.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Poetry is a photograph with words

Photos of the week…or…

Due to some technical issues, my photos of the week are tucked away, safely on a device where they will not be disturbed, until my husband returns from his musician’s retreat.

I offer you this instead, a day late.

How did I become a writer? Because the idea of taking a photograph with words fascinated me. Poetry is a photograph with words. It goes deeper than a photograph. Beyond the scene, it seeks to capture one moment of the emotion.

Let’s see if I succeed:

When I awake and see the rain my mind goes to sleepA dull sound echoes throughout the dayNot fierce enough to be a stormNor hopeful enough to bring a rainbowbut the steady downpour that covered the sky and house in s.png

And then…

a little hand between the daffodilsa small voice asserts her willdefying grammarimploring eyes intent to controla gentle cuddle restores my roleas s toddler's mother.png


Sad Haikus

These are from earlier in the week. The memories move back and forth in my heart, sometimes at the front, sometimes at the back, always there.

My peace is the belief in the communion of saints. As C.S. Lewis writes about the mother, it is “a comfort to the eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.”

These haikus reflect that reality…our reality.




He sits on a chair

Wishing her to sing her a song

Rocking her to sleep


No song will come out

She is already asleep

On her way to light


Tears fill up his eyes

A man who almost never cries

Cries to say goodbye


Silence fills the room

For death has taken her home

Little baby girl




Filled with emptiness

Memories of silence

Warm blanket on her


Goodbye my sweet girl

For long I will not see you

Till I come to you


A life lived in fear

Waiting for another grief

Mark left on my heart


I don’t know your cry

I never saw you alive

I don’t know your touch