Celebrate the Life and Work of Paul Violi by Charles North (part 9)
I can’t think of anyone who is writing better poems right now than Paul Violi. Many of the inspired modes, and moods, that appeared in his last book, Splurge, make new appearances in Likewise: the satirical and purely comic (including the comic “found”), the outrageous wordplay, the narratives and dramatic monologues, the bleak states of mind, the pure lyrics. Violi doesn’t hold back. In addition, the new book has a group of terrific adaptations from the Italian, plus two long poems either of which could justify a book by itself.
A part of Violi’s splurging is to be generous with words: he’s an includer rather than a whittler. The somehow unwarranted and excessive—gratuitous puns, satirical cracks, unexpected surreal bits—spill out of his lines as if he can’t help himself. But he can. If you read the poems fast, as if they were meant to be read that way, you can miss any number of carefully attended-to phrasings, images, and figures, many of them extraordinary; and in addition a good deal of substance. Violi is one of the few genuinely funny poets around, not merely witty, funny. But he’s also a surprisingly careful writer.
If it weren’t such a literary tag, one might consider calling Violi a Metaphysical. If anything sets his poems apart, it is the yoking together of the totally dissimilar: “Slow Lightning,” “squat elegance,” “champagne in a dirty glass,” “a pile of junk and generosity,” “absurdity and squalor,” “flowering contradiction.” In all sorts of ways—oxymoron and zeugma, comic poems counterpointing more “serious” ones, inventive two-term names—contradictions that flower seem to be at the heart of his poetic impulse. In “Little Testament,” the book’s wonderful big closing poem, the speaker says what instigated the poem was seeing a “lump of gold in the road,” which turned out to be “bees / who like ferocious translators / had taken on the shape / of what they were devouring: a dead frog.” What an amazing, complex image. The most striking poetic mood in this book as in all his books, somewhere between disaffection and limbo, almost always contains the seeds of its own banishment, which is one reason even the “dark” poems never seem cynical or truly depressed. Another reason is the verve with which he writes. Unlike most funny poets, Violi writes beautiful lyrics too. He also undercuts his own occasionally elevated tone with phrases and quick turns of feeling that are so low-down as to seem perverse. I could go on. Among many subsets of this double-sidedness is a wonderful way he has of bringing abstractions to life and definition, often in that most literary of figures, personification: “the little wings of an immensity” (well, let’s call that one “avification”), “all futility and quacking isolation” (hmm. . .)
Or, as Clarity said to me,
“Let’s shoot the breeze.”
Because of all the obvious humor in his work, I feel the bleaker side, apparent in the adaptations (from Cecco Angioleri, Michelangelo, Leopardi, Fra Maura) as well as poems in his own voice, deserves attention. There is a surprising number of references, often ironic, to emptiness, confusion, disappointment, futility. In the middle of “In praise of Idleness,” the speaker, atop a “flunkgirder” on an unfinished building—a ruin—has this ironic little talk with himself:
Want a cigarette? Nope.
Got a match? Nope.
See any alternative to solipsism? Nope.
Hedonism? Nope. Sloppy stoicism? Nope.
Did you know that Maryland
has no natural but only man-made lakes? Nope.
Just when it seems there is no way out of his idle, disaffected state, the “creatures of idleness,” some of whom are “big and clumsy and sly / and like to lick my watch,” appear, and soon afterwards the last flake of snow
as it descends, and presents
when it lands in a burst of brilliance
the floorplan for a new building
where every wet, beaded window
is a picture of pleasure and expectation.
The drops ripen, moments in the light,
questions that, answered by a feeling,
slide away as clear as my being,
a drop at a time down the glass.
When the wind blows this hard
it’s about to say something at last.
The earth down to its bare magic,
wind and glass, water and light.
Although he is drawn to Michelangelo’s self-disgust (and his adaptation is a lively litany of complaints) and Cecco’s sardonic invective
If I were fire, I’d burn the world away;
If I were wind, I’d blow it down;
If I were water, I’d let it drown;
If I were God, I’d deep-six it today.
the Leopardi “L’Infinito” is closer to Violi’s “peculiar sense of nothing,” his attempts to carve some meaningful shape and gratifications out of the randomness and almost existential idleness he finds himself held by. Somehow beauty, and more specifically poetry, have a redeeming part to play. Nor is his vision of confusion anything but clear-sighted, as in the perfect couplet that closes the book:
It is my own gift of darkness,
less than I mean, all I can say.
The lovely “Triolet” that forms a coda to “In Praise of Idleness” (and proves that this form is not in fact impossible) seems an emblem for the plight and the hope, both.
I haven’t done much, I realize, to suggest the abundant imagination at work throughout Violi’s poems. Imagination, whatever it means in these rather dry, post-modern ergo propter lingua days, isn’t much looked to for any light it can shed on the value of particular poems, or for that matter on poetry in general. Indeed, it appears as though poets have been “freed” to get on with their task—which seems, curiously, to strive to be anything but poets. “King Nasty” is a brilliant piece of dramatic monologue that goes on for thirteen pages satirizing Hollywood and the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. (Can the Reign of Terror be satirized? If it leaps “Out of the Pol Pot and into the frying pan” and includes heads that roll but also bounce and speak, probably so.) The reader is left not quite knowing how to respond, although fascinated horror, or else horrible fascination, seems in order. Equally imaginative in a different vein is “Little Testament,” roughly after Villon, which collates a big range of real and imaginary experience, bestowing “gifts” on the deserving and undeserving, including the poet, the “occasional Nihilist.”
Some shorter poems that stand out are the lovely nocturne “Slow Lightning,” the absolutely hilarious “Fable: Kid Blanco” and “Drastic Measures” (each containing some real-life domestic drama just beneath the surface), and the perfect opening poem, “Abundance,” which takes off from Williams’ rollicking “The Dance,” but the way a plane takes off from a runway: the rest of the flight is all Violi. Apparently out to depict the vibrant life of Canal Street in lower Manhattan (as Williams celebrates Brueghel’s depiction of a peasant fair—this is getting Platonic), the poem begins, outrageously,
In Brueghel’s great picture “Canal Street,”
restaurant customers order roast swan
instead of chicken, hurled salad
instead of tossed salad
—goes on to satirize a street peddler and his audience, shifts in mid-flight to “silver towns and sea and fields” and farmers who throw “animals, large animals, / into the air to be carried away / on the winds of exuberance”—and eventually, but only eventually, returns to Canal Street. Often the effect of Violi’s exuberance is to set poems to bursting, not simply as here via random or surreal connections, but often via stretching or undercutting of the familiar ways, including formal ones, poetry operates. A portion at least of the invention and the pleasure occurs in the space between unstated poetic conventions and rule smashing.
One potential issue I see in these poems is the rearing up of violence, even cruelty, as comic material, as background, or in some instances as the focus. It’s at its most obvious in “King Nasty,” which has the framework of satire for justification, but makes an appearance in a number of places, even a gratuitous cameo one (which I guess is the joke) in the title of an otherwise very pretty poem, “When to Slap a Woman.” In similar fashion a few horrifying historical anecdotes crop up out of Violi’s reading, one startling one involving images of faces left in ice following the siege of Leningrad, another involving the German pirate Stoertebaker who managed to run past fourteen of his crew after he was beheaded. Well, we do live in the Age of Blue Velvet. Myself, I think much of this material (let me not fail to mention an ironic “Totem Pole” consisting mostly of beheaded figures from history), which gives a distinct edge to his writing, belongs with the “occasional nihilist” side of Violi’s poetic impulse. He’s not just kidding around, and he doesn’t hold back. What he does do is turn whatever provides the impulse into poems which give evidence of his curiosity and learning, feelings, wit, and struggle to come to terms with private demons. He is, when the occasion arises, as tough on himself as on anyone, and he displays a sharp eye for beauty in and out of language, in and on whatever terms it presents itself.
Although a few of the poems in Likewise, good by most standards, aren’t quite up to the book’s high standard, in just about all of them Violi manages to bring off something extraordinary. Take “Private Jokes,” a poem in a minor mood, which closes with a stunning image of Tragedy and Comedy as Siamese twins
starting the day
in their usual way,
washing each other’s hands,
combing each other’s hair.
Or take “Midnight Shift,” which begins in a familiar mood, a limbo seemingly without means of escape:
—But then to feel your hand instead, palm up
on the bed like a little boat in the dark,
with everything calm for an instant
before out of nowhere all of you lands
on me with a great laugh, a splash of hair.
That’s singing at heaven’s gate. Not the movie.
This review of Paul Violi’s Likewise was originally printed in the Poetry Project Newsletter (Summer 1988) and was included in Charles North’s No Other Way: Selected Prose (Hanging Loose, 1998); it is reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Charles North has ten books of poems, most recently What It Is Like: New and Selected Poems (Turtle Point/Hanging Loose, 2011) and Translation (drawings by Paula North; The Song Cave, 2014). North and Violi were close friends and colleagues for four decades. They jointly ran Swollen Magpie Press from 1976 to 1983. With Tony Towle, North edited Violi’s The Tame Magpie (Hanging Loose) and Selected Poems (Gingko Press), both of which came out in 2014.
For part 8 please click here, for part 7 click here, 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.