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The Hidden Life

Dana Gioia's arrival in Washington to head the NEA prompts dark thoughts about the difference between the public and the private life.

12:00 AM, May 13, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
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The Hidden Life

For the poet Dana Gioia, upon his taking a public office, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

Sometimes on evening walks you hear,

in whispers from old wells

and almost-words that rivers speak,

a quiet voice that tells

of small, secluded things. Like murmured

prayers from churchmen's stalls

or what the marbled echoes say,

it rises, then it falls.

And you may follow when it calls

or you may think to wait. The green

at dusk seems deeper than

the green at dawn. Beyond the gate

a garden opens on

long shadows overgrown with leaves

and lilac nunneries

between the gravel paths, where sparrows

seek their tenebraes.

And you may follow, if you please,

or keep to public streets. Against

the bruit of busy day,

the private houses close their eyes.

A few small panes betray

high bookshelves in a firelit room,

a woman sweeping floors,

a glimpse of some unknowing boy

at work at evening chores.

And you may follow, through those doors,

or you may turn aside. In lines

of black between the flames,

a fire writes against its light.

Dry hopes, forgotten fames,

the traceless works of childless men:

All printed there to read.

The cinders spell the deeper night,

dark need inside dark need.

And you may follow where they lead

or you may look away.

--J. Bottum

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard and author of The Fall & Other Poems.