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I Need to Tell You About My Interesting Brother
Because he's just done another interesting thing
Many of you already know about my older brother Dana, who occasionally gets mentioned here. But based on the impact he had on my life, he ought to be acknowledged on almost every post.
Big brothers are often role models for younger siblings, but Dana’s influence in my case was decisive. In our working class home, he showed me that there was a whole world of literature, music, painting, theater, and (above all) higher education that I would hardly have known about otherwise.
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During my adolescence, he was always giving me books to read and albums to hear. In those years, Dana introduced me to everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim. On any given day, he might drag me off to a Matisse exhibit or a showing of Marx Brothers films or a Vladimir Horowitz recital. He always knew exactly where we had to be, and I was delighted to go along for the ride.
Neither of our parents had attended college, but when I was eleven years old I watched Dana head off to Stanford University—which seemed like a magical place. I was clearly inspired by his example, and seven years later I made the same journey. I was fortunate that Dana was in graduate school there at the same time. So I continued to benefit from his presence.
At some point I need to tell you about this in more detail. It would make for fascinating reading. It’s hard to convey how poised, erudite, and connected Dana was in his late teens and early twenties. Even when he was just a grad student, he stood out as one of the leading intellectual presences at Stanford.
To cite one example, during my freshman year Dana arranged for me to have dinner with Saul Bellow on a Friday night, and have breakfast with John Cheever the following morning. This was a few months before Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
How in the world did Dana pull this off? As I mentioned above, he was just a first year student at Stanford Business School back then. But even then he was operating at some prodigious level—knowing everything and everybody.
Another example: Dana and I shared just one class at Stanford, an Italian language course. I was 18 years old, and was curious to see how my older brother operated in a classroom. One day, he brought a guest visitor to our class, Ezra Pound’s daughter, who was also an Italian princess.
Our professor was astounded—and so was I, needless to say. What kind of student hangs out with princesses and brings them to class? Only my brother Dana.
So I was never surprised when Dana later was appointed head of the National Endowment for the Arts, or became Poet Laureate of California. I knew when I was a kid that he was destined for those kinds of things.
I could say so much more, but the other stories will have to wait. Because I have the more immediate task of announcing my brother Dana’s new book of poetry, Meet Me at the Lighthouse.
With Dana’s permission, I’m sharing three short poems from this collection. These were designed to be set to music by jazz pianist Helen Sung, so I’m also providing some video links below.
Three Songs for Helen Sung
By Dana Gioia
Hot Summer Night
Let’s go downtown. It’s a hot summer night.
Lovers are sitting in sidewalk cafés—
Breaking up, making up, hooking up, cooking up
Plans for tonight that leave them amazed.
Let’s go downtown. It’s a hot summer night.
Let’s not stay home and get in a fight.
Let’s eat spicy food in a dark little dive
And let our bodies know we’re alive.
Summer has come. The young are on fire,
And every tattoo spells a word for desire.
They’re strolling as naked as custom allows.
They never say later. They only say now.
Let’s live in the flesh and not on a screen.
Let’s dress like people who want to be seen.
Don’t bring me home till the dawn’s early light.
Let’s not waste this hot summer night.
Ballad: The Stars on Second Avenue
I’d say it was the stars
Reminded me of you.
But I can’t see the stars
From Second Avenue.
The shimmer is just neon
Reflected in the rain
From the little corner deli
Where memory comes with pain.
I’d say it was the moon
That made me lose my head.
But I never saw the moon
In the window by our bed.
It was just a street lamp
Shining in the dark
Above the empty bench
In the empty park.
I’d say it was the wine
That eased my heavy soul.
But I never take a drink.
I never lose control.
Maybe I should blame myself,
Maybe just blame you.
The stars won’t tell me anything
Here on Second Avenue.
You’re such a fool
Honey, you lost
Call my name.
Don’t you know I
Love your sweet words,
In a while
Your alligator tears
On the phone.
You’re gonna spend
Below are three video links—featuring both music and poetry. First, here is the musical version of the initial poem in the sequence.
This next video features another poem sequence from the book, with music by Dmitri Matheny.
This final video showcases the title poem in Meet Me at the Lighthouse.
You can learn more about Dana and his work at his website.
An excellent quick introduction is his interview with Tyler Cowen. It gives you an accurate sense of what my brother is like in conversation.