Celebrate the Life and Work of Paul Violi by Bill Zavatsky (part 8)
BILL ZAVATSKY • PAUL’S MAGPIE
A consideration of the title poem of The Tame Magpie by Paul Violi,
edited by Charles North and Tony Towle (Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 2014)
Anyone who knows Paul Violi’s work sooner or later realizes that he was fascinated by the figure of the magpie. Anthropologists would call it his totem animal, a creature that summons up certain powers and protects the one devoted to it. My own association with the bird began with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The villain, who tricks James Stewart into working for him, is named Gavin Elster, but I was very young when I saw the film, and the name meant nothing to me. The next time I came upon the magpie was in a writing workshop that I taught at the Jan Hus Church in Manhattan many years later. An older woman, whose first language was German, was recording a dream, and in it appeared “die diebesche elster.” I had no idea what creature this was, until she could translate it for me: “the thieving magpie.”
The Tame Magpie (1707-08) by Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749).
The magpie is a trickster, a very playful, sometimes mischievous character that likes to steal shiny objects—almost anything, watches, rings, foil, will do—to line its nest. There has been much discussion about whether a magpie can be trained, and even if it
can be trained to talk or sing. (Amusing videos on YouTube that feature magpies testify to this.1) My guess is that Paul, who liked to get outdoors, first encountered the magpie in one of its habitats. Did he ever visit Australia? Magpies, pretty much confined to the western part of the U.S., seem to be plentiful there. Mark Twain, who traveled to Australia on his lecture tour that began in 1895, filed this report in his big travel book, Following the Equator:
The magpie was out in great force, in the fields and on the fences. He is a handsome large creature, with snowy white decorations, and is a singer; he has a murmurous rich note that is lovely. He was once modest, even diffident; but he lost all that when he found out that he was Australia’s sole musical bird. He has talent, and cuteness, and impudence; and in his tame state he is a most satisfactory pet—never coming when he is called, always coming when he isn’t, and studying disobedience as an accomplishment. He is not confined, but loafs all over the house and grounds, like the laughing jackass. I think he learns to talk. I know he learns to sing tunes, and his friends say that he knows how to steal without learning. I was acquainted with a tame magpie in Melbourne. He had lived in a lady’s house several years, and believed he owned it. The lady had tamed him, and in return he had tamed the lady. He was always on deck when not wanted, always having his own way, always tyrannizing over the dog, and always making the cat’s life a slow sorrow and a martyrdom. He knew a number of tunes and could sing them in perfect time and tune; and would do it, too, at any time that silence was wanted, and then encore himself and do it again; but if he was asked to sing he would go out and take a walk.2
I’d also bet that in his voluminous reading Paul encountered the following passage in Pound’s Cantos:
“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity. . . .”3
The Cantos of Ezra Pound, LXXXI , 519
Is Pound taking his own egotism to task in these lines, written during his incarceration at Pisa after World War Two? Whatever the case, there’s the swollen magpie that Paul used to name his press, and of course anyone who starts his or her own press is open to the charge that it is a vanity press. Paul published his first three books under the Swollen Magpie Press imprint, as well as all four issues of New York Times, the literary magazine that he and Allan Appel edited (and Appel remembers that the name of the press was Paul’s idea4). A number of other poets’ books were published under the imprint as well, including volumes by his longtime friends Charles North and Tony Towle. Obviously the magpie was with Paul to the end, for there it is—in Alessandro Magnasco’s painting The Tame Magpie on the cover and as the subject of the lead poem in Paul’s final book.
What are we to understand about the swollenness of the magpie? Is it super-gorged on food (magpies sometimes appear quite plump)? On vanity? On its own ornery nature (watch some of those magpie videos on YouTube)? The glittery stuff that attracts the magpie (and which is often junk) reminds me of the old saying, “Everything that glitters is not gold,” but let me go a little further and bring in the tweaked version of this proverb that one (or two) of the French Surrealist poets concocted: “Everything that glitters is gold”5 (and I’ve taken the liberty of putting the “is” in italics). Paul was a genius at finding materia poetica all over the lot, which today I suppose we can call “appropriation.” His greater genius was to transmute these pieces of fools’ gold into the real deal by virtue of the alchemy of his poetry. He could create a mock index for a mock biography (his poem “Index,” from Splurge) and leave us with a banal format transformed into a hilarious and touching series of thumbnail sketches that delineate the lives of more than a few artists and poets. He effected these transformations of base matter into poetry over and over again.
In the passage quoted above from Canto LXXXI, there are lessons enough about appropriation. The first line is Pound’s translation of a line from Chaucer’s “Balade de Bon Conseyl” that reads, “Werk wel thy-self, that other folk canst rede.”6 In line two Pound alludes to the Book of Ecclesiastes, 1:2: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The poet—if that’s whom we’re talking about here—is both pummeled and puffed-up, often at odds with himself (“Half black half white”), and sometimes doesn’t know his ass from his elbow (“Nor knowst’ou wing from tail”). Think you’re hot stuff, Mr. Bard? Oh, climb down off it!
Not only does “The Tame Magpie” take as its subject the Magnasco painting, but the setting of the poem is in the Metropolitan Museum, Gallery 619 to be exact, where the painting hangs. For an epigraph Paul borrows a few words from the Met’s online catalogue, arranging the prose as verse:
An assortment of people from the fringes
of society have gathered to watch
the spectacle of a man trying to teach
a magpie how to sing—an impossible task!7
The exclamation point is Violi’s touch. We know that Paul was a longtime teacher, first at Bloomfield College, then at New York University, then at Columbia and the New School. The magpie might be just another student in this motley gang on the “dilapidated dock” in the painting, described by Paul as “ungrateful layabouts”: the “gangly man” who is the teacher, “The sloucher in the Chico Marx hat, / The Minerva lookalike, / The drunken soldier, the mother / Holding forth her infant. . . .” All of them are more or less watching the man and the bird amidst “the squalor and decay, / The rotten gate, the ruined arches / Of a botched civilization.” Is this Violi’s vision of the modern university—all of the pretentions of “progressive” societies summed up in a crumbling institution? And “botched civilization,” of course, is right out of Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.8
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, V
“Broken statues” and “battered books”—this is why the Great War was fought, in which Pound lost friends like T. E. Hulme, the philosopher and founder of Imagism, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a young sculptor to whom Pound devoted a book. Richard Aldington, another Imagist and friend, was compromised by “shell shock.” Magnasco’s painting depicts a scene that looks very much like a “botched civilization.” And what are we doing now? Teaching magpies how to sing? Teaching aspiring poets how to write poems as we and the magpie whistle on the rim of the volcano? I’m not suggesting by any means that Paul didn’t enjoy teaching or that he disliked his students, but any of us who knew him watched him knock himself out for years running around in his car from one university to another to make a living. He did it brilliantly, and was much loved by those he taught. But there must have been more than a couple of moments, in all those years, when he found himself scratching his head and muttering, “What the hell am I doing?” He did it because he had a family to support, and because he loved poetry. But it can take a damn sight of sweat to coax even a bit of poetry from a student.
Next in “The Tame Magpie” Violi introduces “The Contumacious Kid,” whose name contains a wonderful pun. “Contumacious” (remember Hamlet’s “poor man’s contumely”?) most likely derives from the Latin contumax (con, with; tumere, to swell). Here’s the prideful swollenness again—a kind of cancerous tumor—that leads to the definition: “stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority.” And who is this little rebel standing next to?—an arch-rebel of American letters, the creator of The Devil’s Dictionary (originally called The Cynic’s Word Book), none other than Ambrose Bierce, whose nickname “Bitter Bierce” was well-earned. After he experienced savage fighting in the Civil War, and sustained a serious head wound, Bierce began a long career as a short story writer, a journalist (working for William Randolph Hearst), and a poet. Bierce dropped out of sight in 1914 on an ill-starred journey through the South and into Mexico, where he intended to follow Pancho Villa’s revolution:
Much has been debated over the last century about the eventual fate of Ambrose Bierce. What is known is that Bierce, at the age of 71, traveled across the country by rail to Texas, with stops along the way to visit Missionary Ridge, Chickamauga, and other American Civil War battlegrounds, as well as New Orleans where he was interviewed by a reporter for the States in which he is quoted as saying, “I’m on my way to Mexico because I like the game,” before finally crossing the Mexican border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez on horseback. However, after crossing into Mexico, he disappeared without a trace. Today, his disappearance remains a great mystery and one of the most famous in literary history.—The Ambrose Bierce Letters Project (The Archives and Rare Book Library, University of Cincinnati).
But Bierce hasn’t disappeared from Violi’s imagination, and hasn’t gone missing at all. This is his “first day on the job” as a guard at the Met; he “[s]ports the uniform of Paraguay’s / Most optimistic admiral.” This is most likely a reference to Francisco Solano López, the President of Paraguay from 1862 to 1870, who plunged his country into wars that virtually destroyed it, and who had a taste for expensive, custom-made military uniforms of the Napoleonic type—making him a kind of magpie. (And López is exactly the kind of nut that Paul would be interested in reading up on.)
Francisco Solano López, President of Paraguay.Portrait by Aurelio García (1866).
Once Violi has established the essentials of the scene, he turns the poem over to Bierce, who delivers his speech to The Contumacious Kid. The boy is sniffing around the Magnasco painting. Like the magpie, the Kid seeks instruction: “Enlighten me, Admiral Bierce!” he exclaims. And the writer begins:
“That gangly man,” says Bierce,
“Is he beseeching or conducting the bird?
Of art, who is hungrier,
He or that swollen magpie?”
Surely every teacher struggles through the realization that he or she might be far more interested in what is being taught than are the students sitting in the classroom. But any teacher worth anything knows that he or she has to go on. Bierce then catalogues the characters in the painting, shifting into a paraphrase of Matthew 6.24-29 as he continues to address The Kid:
“The entire scene impels me to say,
O despondent youth,
Consider your little sisters,
Behold the fowls of the air:
Are they not flammable?
Are ye not much better than they!
Why take ye thought for raiment?
I say unto you, Kiddo,
That even Solomon in all his glory
Was not arrayed like one of these.
Adversity? Doubt? Dismay?
Consider the goldfinch who feeds on thorn
And thistle yet sings a lovely song.”
The Gospel of Matthew (King James Version) has it:
24 Ye cannot serve God and mammon. 25 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body more than raiment? 26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? 27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? 28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: 29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
We don’t quite know why The Kid might be “despondent,” or why he has been struck by adversity, doubt, and dismay; maybe it’s the boy’s anger, but Bierce might just as well be talking to himself (meaning all of us) here. Among the ironies of the passage is a museum guard duded-up in a Paraguayan admiral’s garish outfit, who, after quoting Jesus, says, “Why take ye thought for raiment?” (Another irony is that Paraguay is a landlocked country.) The thrust of Bierce’s speech remains faithful to Matthew’s text: God takes care of us; we shouldn’t worry about food or drink or clothing. Violi puts the passage through his condensary, adding in jokes (the “flammable” fowls of the air), and even brings in the goldfinch, a bird that has been identified as a symbol of Christ because it feeds on thorns and thistles. (And perhaps there is a reference here to Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, which shows the Virgin, flanked by little John the Baptist, cupping the bird in his hands, and the little Jesus, who pets the bird.) The goldfinch can sing beautifully (not yet the condition of the magpie), and perhaps Violi suggests here that suffering (or certainly struggle) plays a role in creating the poet’s ability to sing.
(Just for the record, let’s note that Magnasco produced a few other didactic paintings involving a teacher and a magpie. Google “Magnasco” and “The Tame Magpie” and you’ll easily find them. All of them are crudely done, as if they were quick studies, and bear little resemblance to the highly finished Tame Magpie under discussion. There is even one that has a similar teacher training a dog.)
But now back to the poem. The last section focuses on the figure of the magpie in the painting, and the teacher. Bierce is still speaking:
“That magpie perched atop a stack
Of wine casks like a short wick, a black flame
On a fat candle, is singing, damn it!
That low smudge of sunlight a foil or halo
Behind him, lets your eyes grow sharp
To what (as some sages sing)
A black flame can illuminate.
That teacher has been knocked back
On his butt not by exasperation but
By a miracle of futility.
That thieving pest, head raised, beak open,
Has indeed let a note or two fly.
Besides, Kid, since a magpie can already
Steal like a human, getting it to warble
Like one shouldn’t be much of a stretch.”
Those wine casks might be full of gunpower rather than wine! That fantasy aside, the flame of art has been ignited; the magpie is singing! There’s even a hint of glory in the “low smudge of sunlight” that serves as “a foil or halo,” and which sharpens the vision to appreciate what the oxymoronic black flame of the bird can show us. The teacher is knocked on his rear end by this miracle of the “note or two” released by his student. And here we have another answer as to why Paul was always going into the classroom: the miracle of even a bit of poetry, the promise that students can and will achieve. In the final few lines Violi rephrases Ambrose Bierce’s definition of the magpie from The Devil’s Dictionary: “A bird whose thievish disposition suggested to some one that it might be taught to talk.”9 Paul sticks with “warble” because it is poetry that he’s talking about here, not mere speech. We are also reminded of the dictum attributed to Picasso: Good artists copy, great artists steal. T. S. Eliot, no small-time borrower himself, put it neatly in his essay on Philip Massinger in The Sacred Wood:
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.10
Eliot’s passage might be all the explication that we need of “The Tame Magpie.” How Paul has pulled together a jumble of material and made something better, “a whole of feeling which is unique,” is a testimony to his imaginative powers.
Let’s look a little deeper into the beginning of the final passage:
“That magpie perched atop a stack
Of wine casks like a short wick, a black flame
On a fat candle, is singing, damn it!
That low smudge of sunlight a foil or halo
Behind him, lets your eyes grow sharp
To what (as some sages sing)
A black flame can illuminate.”
The magpie is compared to “a short wick, a black flame / On a fat candle. . . .” The “low smudge of sunlight” sharpens the vision “to what . . . / A black flame can illuminate.” I don’t know where Paul’s researches or recondite readings led him, but the “black flame” seems to refer to Satanic or Gnostic practices, and is much discussed on the internet. (The candle that produces a black flame plays a significant role in the 1993 supernatural thriller Hocus Pocus when, upon being lit, it resurrects three buried witches.) Teaching the bird to sing or young poets to write is a kind of conjuring act. One internet source on the black flame is signed by a Michael Anthony, who avers that “The Black Flame is a symbol of the satanic essence. It is used to describe the diabolical spark that distinguishes Satanists from other types of humans.” Anthony continues:
Integral to this concept is the idea of the Dark Force. As explained in The Satanic Bible, the Dark Force is an “untapped reservoir” of power, a “many faceted key to the unknown—which the Satanist chooses to call ‘Satan’” (p. 62). This is the unique energy that the Satanist identifies and develops within himself or herself for the fulfillment of desires and the enhancement of experiences. It is not a “spirit,” but a consequence or successful alignment with one’s individual nature and with the nature of the universe. The Black Flame is the Dark Force as harnessed by an individual Satanist.
When directed outward, the Black Flame opens everything around it to doubt and its attendant mysteries. An accomplice of the imagination, the Black Flame can enhance everything from playful fantasy to scientific experimentation. Through what I call “umbration,” it can introduce the dynamics of Darkness into even the most stagnant ideas.
The Black Flame also functions inwardly, drawing into the Satanist, its generator and host, the myriad stimuli of profound indulgence. Delicious foods, sexual fulfillment, potent knowledge, unique experiences, and other objects of desire are like iron filings before an electromagnet to those charged with the Black Flame.
Just as the color black absorbs the full spectrum of visible light, so the Satanist, ablaze with the Black Flame, takes in the diverse delights of his or her self-centered universe.11
Anthony cites The Satanic Bible (1969) by Anton LaVey (1930-1977), a well known Satanist and founder of the Church of Satan. The “self-centered universe” described here sounds a lot like the human ego raised to the nth power. What Violi had in mind with his reference to the “black flame” is open to speculation, but I focus on it here because its appearance hardly seems accidental.
Finally, though a teacher can lead, the poet’s task is to train him- or herself to sing. That is, in part at least, why poetry workshops are a challenge. If the teacher is a first-rate poet (as Paul Violi was), the students will have their model before them day after day. Perhaps you know the Wen Fu of Lu Chi, the Art of Writing whose preface famously says: “When cutting an axe handle with an axe, surely the model is at hand.”12 So in “The Tame Magpie” we find the bird and the bystanders sharpening themselves on the instruction of the teacher (or not), The Contumacious Kid sharpening himself on the instruction offered to him by Ambrose Bierce (or not), and all of us, with Violi’s book in our hands, sharpening ourselves (or not) on the lessons that Paul offers us.
In a sense, we are all magpies, even those of us who are not artists. We “borrow” from the world we know, often to honor it, sometimes to make fun of it, and just as frequently, to learn from it. Like the magpie, the poet simultaneously desires and resists being trained. But it is this world, which includes other poets, that trains us. And at the same time, or eventually, or not at all, it is this same world that forms the audience that accepts or rejects or ignores the magpie poet and his borrowings.
There is a good writeup on the black-billed magpie on the Wikipedia site. See also good photographs of the bird on the VIREO (Visual Resources for Ornithology) site.
1. See “Australian Magpie Playing,” Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoaEBb4IN4Q and Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFWR5FJzWR4. An Australian magpie and a puppy in delightful play; the magpie later in Part 1 joins a woman as she hangs out her wash. Also “Our Talking Magpie, BIRD,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1XouiiaMas.
2. Mark Twain, Following the Equator and Anti-imperialist Essays. Foreword by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, introduction by Gore Vidal, afterword by Fred Kaplan. The Oxford Mark Twain edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996; originally published in 1897), 225-6. Twain must have had his tongue deep in his cheek when he asserted that the magpie “is a singer. He has a murmurous rich note that is lovely.” The Cornell bird site says that “Black-billed Magpies are very vocal birds. Their two primary vocalizations are a harsh, ascending call and a raspy chatter.” Listen to the magpie’s bird call on the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-billed_Magpie/sounds
3. The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1975), 519.
4. Email correspondence, BZ and Allan Appel, August 4, 2014.
5. I’ve carried around in my head for many years the surrealized version of “Tout ce qui brille n’est pas d’or” (“Everything that glitters isn’t gold”) for so long that I can’t remember if it originates in 152 Proverbes mis au gout du jour en collaboration avec Benjamin Péret by Paul Éluard / 152 Proverbs set to the taste of the day in collaboration with Benjamin Péret (1925), or if it is to be found in Breton and Soupault’s Les Champs magnétiques / The Magnetic Fields (1920), or elsewhere. (I don’t think it’s in Robert Desnos’ Rrose Sélavy [1922-23]). I’ll keep searching, but I’d be grateful if a reader could set me straight.
6. Chaucer’s “Balade de bon conseyl” is also known as “Truth.” The original line, “Werk wel thy-self, that other folk canst rede,” means “Work on yourself, so that other people can read what you’ve written,” and thus take instruction from it. “Rede” can also mean “advise, counsel; interpret.” (“Master thyself” is a brilliant restatement of “Work wel thy-self.”) Pound’s “beare” might be found in another draft of Chaucer’s poem, or it might be a Poundian interpolation. The correct Middle English form is most likely “bere,” having the sense of “conducts oneself, behaves.” Thus: “Work on yourself so that other people will know how to comport themselves, (having observed you).” Pound’s version of the line, if indeed “beare” is an alteration, may also suggest, “Work on yourself so that other people might put up with you.” Chaucer’s “Balade de bon conseyl” may be found in The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by Walter W. Skeat (New York: Oxford University Press, Oxford Standard Edition, 1912; reprinted 1969), 122.
7. See the listing of the Magnasco painting in The Online Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/436935
8. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Contacts and Life) V, in Personae: The Shorter Poems by Ezra Pound, A Revised Edition Prepared by Lea Baechler & A. Walton Litz (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1926/revised ed. 1990), 188.
9. Ambrose Bierce, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary, edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2002), 160.
10. T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (Methuen: London, Barnes & Noble, New York: University Paperbacks (1960; originally published in 1920), 125. See the interesting article on Quote Investigator that traces the origins of this idea: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/03/06/artists-steal/
11. From Tenebraeology: Studies in Heretical Surrealism http://tenebraeology.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2008-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&updated-max=2009-01-01T00:00:00-08:00&max-results=9
In The Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey describes Satan as a motivating and balancing dark force in nature. Satan is also described as being the “Black Flame,” representing a person’s own inner personality and desires. Satan is seen as synonymous with nature.
In his most important essay, “Satanism: The Feared Religion,” the Church of Satan’s current leader Peter H. Gilmore states:
“Satanists do not believe in the supernatural, in neither God nor the Devil. To the Satanist, he is his own God. Satan is a symbol of Man living as his prideful, carnal nature dictates. The reality behind Satan is simply the dark evolutionary force of entropy that permeates all of nature and provides the drive for survival and propagation inherent in all living things. Satan is not a conscious entity to be worshipped, rather a reservoir of power inside each human to be tapped at will. Thus any concept of sacrifice is rejected as a Christian aberration in Satanism there is no deity to which one can sacrifice.”
Satan in mythology and literature around the world is a trickster and a rebel. He is the classic figure seeking to free man from slavery. He does not require worship because he is a symbol similar to the way flags embody an idea and a philosophy. Figures such as the Greek Prometheus are said to perfectly exemplify the qualities of Satan, as the prideful rebel. Satan is seen as the powerful individual who acts in terms of rational self-interests regardless of what others might say. The word Satan is derived from Hebrew and it means “adversary” or “accuser” this is not a literal being it’s symbol [sic] for everything good in man and woman.—From “The Truth About Satanism” by Barnett and Palomino, http://merlinravensong2.tripod.com/true-satanism.html. See also the Church of Lucifer website, for more on this topic: http://greaterchurchoflucifer.org/black-flame/
12. Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, translated by Sam Hamill (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Press, Revised Edition, 2000), 4. See also Gary Snyder’s use of this line in his poem
“Axe Handles” in his book of the same name (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983), 5-6.
My thanks to Ann Violi, Tony Towle, Charles North, David Lehman, and Allan Appel for comments and corrections.—BZ
BILL ZAVATSKY is a poet, translator, teacher, and longtime friend of Paul Violi. His press SUN published two of Violi’s books—Harmatan (1977) and Splurge (1981).