Celebrate the Life and Work of Paul Violi by Ali Power (part 7)

Paul Violi

TT_Towle, Violi, North

I like to consider what else

could be more important than kindness and work

–Paul Violi, from “One for the Monk of Montaudon”

 

I met Paul Violi in my first workshop in the New School’s MFA program in 2009. His reputation for being a great poet, teacher, and human preceded him. That semester I learned for myself that Paul had a wry sense of humor; that his knowledge was vast—extending from “Hawaiian music [to] Mormon architecture”; that he was approachable, by which I mean, he wasn’t a prick; that he was extremely kind & terribly generous; that he laughed with his mouth closed, that is, through his nose; and that he smoked cigarettes in the courtyard between 11th and 12th streets before class and enjoyed sharing spirits & stories after class at Café Loup. I think teaching came naturally to Paul, and he was damn good at it. Paul was the Chuck Bodak, the Bill Belichick, the Gregg Popovich of poetry professors.

During my time in the MFA program at the New School, Paul became my advisor—my mentor. He replied to countless emails, was keenly responsive to poems and manuscripts (even just weeks before he passed away), and offered subtle, invaluable advice. Now, having been a teacher myself, I can appreciate how much time and energy he happily dedicated to his students, and I’m just one of many who sought out Paul’s trained eyes, ears, and friendship. There are former Violi students in multitudes, grateful and missing him.

*

Charles North and Tony Towle have executed the tremendous task of culling and collecting Paul Violi: Selected Poems, 1970–2007 (October 2014, Rebel Press/Gingko Press). North, Towle, and Violi cultivated “their own New York School within the New York School,” I once heard someone say. When I was studying with Paul, he, Tony, and Charles met regularly at Café Loup for dinner. Their practice of gathering at restaurants, coffee shops, and each other’s homes had begun forty years earlier in the early 1970s after the three poets met in Tony’s workshop at the Poetry Project, as Towle recounts in his Preface to the Selected Poems. Paul’s investment in friends & family became obvious to me as I got to know him and his poems. The landscape of Paul’s work is strewn with friends:

. . . nothing pleases me more
than to sit under a clear sky at a table piled high
with oysters and shrimp, mushrooms and veal,
wine, strawberries, brandy, coffee and mints.
For it’s a pure and simple joy 
to eat and drink with those I love,
to stay late and celebrate
 a few certainties
while confusion and scorn
and a few other crazy, weather-beaten guests
continue to roll across the cold floors,
out the doors, the gates, the empty palace of the night.

(from “One for the Monk of Montaudon,” read the entire poem below)

I don’t think it coincidental that during that first semester in Paul’s workshop, I made what have become some of my most-valued friendships. Paul, quite simply, brought out the best in us. We had a lot of fun together.

Now we have the Selected Poems as a source to return to. Here’s the very short list of my Violi favorites in the volume, with the titles of the books in which they originally appeared:

“Public Works”, “Sleeping Dactyls and Lurking Iambs” (In Baltic Circles)

“1,” “35,” “48” (Harmatan)

“Rifacimento”, “One For The Monk of Montaudon,” “Exacta,” “Index” (Splurge)

“King Nasty,” “Abundance,” from “Little Testament” (Likewise)

“Police Blotter,” “Errata” (The Curious Builder)

“On an Acura Integra,” “Extenuating Circumstances” (Fracas)

Every single poem in Overnight. Just go and buy Overnight (available from Hanging Loose Press).

*

At the time of his death, Paul had been working on one long poem “I.D. Or, Mistaken Identities.” The early I.D.s were published in his book Overnight (2007), and the later pieces were published this spring in his posthumous collection The Tame Magpie (Hanging Loose, 2014). (A selection from “I.D.” is also included in the Selected Poems.)

It seemed to me that Paul read everything. And he loved digging up the past, especially the ancient and obscure. In the I.Ds., he uses a modern quiz template—the kind you’d find in the backmatter of a magazine in a waiting room—to create character sketches of a mysterious list of historical figures (ranging from the Duke of Malu to Silas Tompkins Cumberbacke [aka Coleridge], Raimbaut d’Orange, Mark Antony, and more), each ending with the question “Who Am I?” The poems are complete with answers (printed upside down, as they would be in Cosmopolitan Magazine). This final work hits all the Violi notes: humor, grit, serio-comic dissonance, the subversion of the ordinary, art, love, loss, and historical references—a conversation with the dead.

In the last email I received from Paul three weeks before his death, he talked about the I.Ds.

[My son], my wife and I listened to my daughter read ID and I talked to them about the poem, how it is one poem and how people hesitantly ask if it is. I told them how Ann and I were having drinks one day at the Half Moon in Cold Spring. The ground was covered with white blossoms. All of a sudden this waterspout jumped off the river and spun those blossoms a hundred feet into the air, up to a few vultures that were circling overhead, the whirlwind turning white, the vultures resisting the downdraft . . .

(Paul Violi, email to the author, March 12, 2011)

I’m grateful for Paul’s life and work, and for the generosity of his teaching and friendship.

*

ONE FOR THE MONK OF MONTAUDON
Paul Violi

I like to wake up somewhere
between Hawaiian music and Mormon architecture,
say, another coffee shop above the sea,
a silver, streamlined diner in the dawn
with chrome stools, cushioned booths,
cold food on a hot plate.

When the smoke clears,
I like to just continue,
sit on a brilliant windowsill
and enjoy the view; wonder about things
such as what’s in it that makes glass
cast more of a shadow than some people I know.

I like to order another cup of coffee,
light another cigarette and admire the paint job,
check out the insects sealed under a third coat,
or see yet another sullen short order cook
bitch and grumble above the grill.

I love the way the waitress
can chew gum and sing while she wipes
the dust off a plastic plant
and then stop and talk about the weather.
And I love the dramatic weather:
the way the air changes with us,
the way another world arrives
in an avalanche of clouds,
the way the continents meet and separate again
while I jot down my immediate impressions
on a sheet of yellow paper;
taking note of little things, like the scorpion,
the first creature to walk on land;
or craters of illusion, great assumptions of normalcy,
where Ohio once was, or never was.

And I’m glad of a chance to meet people,
like Miss Ohio
(“five foot nine, eyes that shine”),
if for no other reason than the pleasure
of shaking hands or the opportunity
of leaning into the distances
while a strand of smoke lingers, and rises,
and turns like an unheard but legible desire.

And the sight of a cat, undisturbed,
curled in the sunlight, pleases me;
or ketchup smears on table mats
of Venezuela and its hideous flowers;
or the sight of boys splattering peaches
against an ancient stone wall.

I just like to sit back and take it all in,
watch the sea and sky move together
like memory and imagination,
move me out of a dripping indolence
to a dripping cathedral, like Chartres
(“walls of glass, roof of stone”),
where I can stand outside, see
whatever a summer sky can do, doing it all at once:
sunbursts through the daylong overcast
just when the rain begins to fall,
wind that leaps through the light and dark
to tear newspapers out of old grumps’ hands
and raise the skirts of secretaries
who run by in groups that sound full of birdcalls
and smell like groves in bloom.

Or I just enjoy relaxing, follow
my thoughts and shadows
through the light of a vacant lot
where a cathedral once stood, or a cleaning store
(“Clothes Cleaned In An Hour, Fresh As A Flower”),
and watch a cassowary stamp and scratch in the rubble,
able to explain the dust of his resentment
to anyone who might ask: although
he’s not the only bird that can’t fly, he is the only one
that can cripple a man with one swell foop.

And after the dust settles and the snow falls,
I like to listen to the cars
stuck throughout the hills,
tires that spin and smoke and wail,
attracting greater creatures
whose wings creak with sadness,
whose eyes sway with the stars.

And I like to sink into the bright desolation,
the sword-of-the-Lord glare
of empty, limitless parking lots,
the vast western skies above highways,
galactic pinball nights
when the wind carries my sight
and I’m lulled by the sound of passing trucks,
the surf-like rumble
that splashes a dusty light over my face.
Highway jetsam: hubcaps, tailpipes, a shoe,
mere logic’s gleam in an empty bottle,
the spark of omniscience on my fingertips
wondering where the ocean went
that bared these gray miles, this unfinished world
where a miniature figure waves an armless sleeve,
greetings from the phantom of an ever-widening hour,
where fountains in the rain,
half frozen, half music,
shine with a dim dream of the sun.

Or after drinking white wine on a gray day,
I want to step outside,
see the rain fall with the snow
and lick it off my lips.
Another fast walker in the smeared city,
people huddled under umbrellas
like clumps of black mushrooms on the corners,
shriveled rainbows on the oil-stained sidewalk,
cars sprouting clear wings
as they cut through flooded streets.

And it’s a good day
when the wind is pure sensation
and I can lie in the garden with my lady,
watch the crows slide sideways above the clearing
and squirrels trash through the treetops;
when I can listen to dragonflies
roll in a dogfight over the snowpeas
and the wind fizz through blighted pines;
or watch my shadow climb after a yellow bird
through the towering ruins of memory.

And by the rings of St. Elmo,
it’s a good day when I can stretch out
under the magnolia tree,
hear its limbs rub the ground,
see its flowers still filled with water
days after it’s rained.
In a place like that I like to think
about where I’ve been
—Milwaukee, Cleveland, Dallas—
or where I’m not sure I’ve been
—Milwaukee, Detroit, Tenerife—
Just put a shining finger on the globe
and cloud-crawl above the spin,
from Agadir to Inertia.
An occasional pastime,
and the past is endless:
Hausaland to Sokoto, Senegambia
to Isfahan, Kabul, Baluchistan,
the Southern Limit of the Grain,
the Southern Limit of the Vine,
the Standing Bear, the Gold Flies,
the Blue-eyed Dog, Yenner’s Slopshop,
muezzins’ voices and kites
whirling above the skyline,
craven runts suddenly dancing through trashfires
on a hilltop intersection,
or jumping through stars reflected in the Bosphorus.
Dutch junkie in a sweetshop
slouched over the jukebox;
just me and a few shivering cheerleaders
loitering in Asia Minor.

On a good day, I’m glad I was there
and glad I’m not there now,
another paleface in the middle of winter
living on hotel roofs covered with plastic,
almost asleep beside the trashfire
while French tramps broadjumped the flames.

Sparks and singed hair.
Moonhole through a dome of clouds
or starlight through plastic,
withered plastic flapping above the heat.
Cold, thick fingers. Mine.
And I could see myself in time
the way the log burned brighter than the flames.
The years below, rooms
with the furniture removed,
where moths rested on my bare arms
and spiders descended into conversations
on spectral parachutes;
where the words flowed
and the beginnings of all my thoughts
sat behind me like an idol in the night,
the dark and fearsome generosity,
the eyes of some gigantic child
who has never spoken, never slept.

And I swear by the Blue Saint of Tolerance
that when the future looks bright
I’m as happy as a flame in a lumberyard,
and nothing pleases me more
than to sit under a clear sky
at a table piled high
with oysters and shrimp, mushrooms and veal,
wine, strawberries, brandy, coffee and mints.
For it’s a pure and simple joy
to eat and drink with those I love,
to stay late and celebrate
a few certainties
while confusion and scorn
and a few other crazy, weather-beaten guests
continue to roll across the cold floors,
out the doors, the gates, the empty palace of the night.

And I like the sweet, weary feeling
of going sleepless, aimless through city streets,
have the action and ebullient tones
carry me like the first wave-borne beer can
to near a pristine shore;
and then wallow in the sunlight
as the day drifts into one long morning,
sit on a bench and gaze at the river
and, above its glimmer of forgetfulness,
at the wild blue yonder,
and wonder whether the haze between
—like a life—joins or separates them.

I like to consider what else
could be more important than kindness and work,
or think of a better way to end a day
than to lie on a lawn
as the sun casts a net of shadows
below the leafless trees, a net
that slides over me and gathers in its gentleness
what a mind finds too heavy to force away.

And for a while I am outside of time,
amazed by what’s left of me
and all there is to know.
I can close my eyes and bask in a satisfaction
that begins to glow with silence;
it could be green, dark green, the entrance
to the deep, empty well
that Pliny told astronomers was the best place
from which to watch stars move in daylight.
And though he meant that as practical advice,
it sounds to me like a prayer
from one of those barren, cloudy lands
that I’ve seen and liked,
forgotten and then wrote about.

 

 

Ali Power is an editor at Rizzoli Publications and co-founder of Maggy Poetry Magazine. She is the editor of New York School Painters & Poets (Rizzoli, October 2014). Power’s poems have appeared in The Brooklyn RailLITPainted Bride Quarterly, the Pen Poetry Series, Washington Square, and elsewhere. Her chapbook YOU AMERICANS was published by Green Zone Editions in 2008.

 

PHOTO CAPTION & CREDIT: Charles North, Tony Towle, & Paul Violi, Fanelli’s Café, NYC, 1984. Photo by David S. Kelley / Courtesy Tony Towle.

 

“One for the Monk of Montaudon” reprinted by permission of Ann Violi / Originally published in Splurge (1982, SUN).

 

For part 6 click here, for part 5 click here, for part 4 click here, for part 3 click here, for part 2 click here, for the introduction and part 1 click here.