Michael Quattrone: Commedia Violi
Tuesday morning in Putnam Valley, New York —
Paul Violi is standing at his desk in a navy blue flannel bathrobe and brown Ecco walking shoes. He has just returned from a driveway jaunt to retrieve the Times, which his wife ran over on her way to work. He tosses the paper aside, removes a deerstalker cap and unwinds a wool scarf from his neck.
‘It’s windy out,’ he reports, and reaches for his coffee. The mug has vanished. ‘By the time I find it, it’ll be cold.’ Violi has the stoic squint of a movie star. The corners of his mouth draw in when he smirks, or laughs, or grimaces. Disappointed but not flummoxed — or perhaps flummoxed but not truly disappointed — Violi surveys the familiar territory of his workspace.
The poet’s desk is long and narrow, more sideboard than escritoire. Its antique varnished oak bows beneath the weight of books stacked high on either side of Violi’s circa-1989 Wizard™ word processor. Histories on the left side, everything else on the right. Atop a moldering volume of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria sits a bouquet of cigarette butts in a restaurant-style glass ashtray, and a red plastic lighter on a half-empty soft-pack of Tareyton cigarettes. He proffers one to his guest before lighting up himself, and then leans over the precarious stacks to peer outside. The second-story window reveals a trapezoid of lawn below, badly in need of raking. Violi has decided to wait for all the maple leaves to fall before addressing them, at which point they will likely be covered in snow, and he will have to chop firewood instead. In the distance, a dog barks at the passing of a neighbor’s invisible car; Violi sits.
He is not accustomed to visitors in his study, save a large black labrador mix he calls Kuma (‘Japanese for bear. An obvious misnomer; he’s an ox’). The quarters are cramped and listing to port. When the need for an extra seat arises, Violi scrambles to relieve a stepladder of its burden — Gibbon, Plato, Horace, a King James — but despite his generous demonstration of discomfiture, the surroundings are no different from what any reader of Violi’s poetry would expect, and are therefore charming. The lingering smoke, the over-fed filing cabinet and wild topography of books — even the thinning Turkish rug and figurine of carved Nigerian mahogany — could belong nowhere else. It is precisely this medley of exotic curios and domestic detritus that festoons the well-made cabinetry of Violi’s poems. He fills his bookshelves, and they grin beneath the weight.
Violi has lived here for twenty-eight years. He and his wife, Ann, were married in 1969, and left New York City the following year for Beacon, New York. The couple then lived in Briarcliff while Violi was the managing editor of Architectural Forum from 1972 until 1974. Soon thereafter, with one child and a second on the way, they needed the space afforded by this two-story, three-bedroom cottage. It sits on a modest, wooded plot near Lake Oscawana, fifty-five miles from downtown Manhattan. During the winter months, Violi hides his boat among the trees. In the summer, his wife keeps a vegetable garden. On weekdays they both drive to work in other towns.
For most of his career, Violi has commuted by Honda Civic — to New Jersey first, then to Westchester, and now to Manhattan, where he teaches at Columbia, NYU, and The New School. He says it only takes him an hour to reach the city, which may explain the poem, ‘Extenuating Circumstances,’ from his 1999 collection, Fracas. It is a dramatic monologue wherein the speaker impresses upon a police officer the moral imperative of honoring (with velocity) the ‘work of art’ that is a parkway. Violi is rarely late to class.
Sixty-six West Twelfth Street. Paul Violi wears a Harris Tweed jacket over a pale blue Oxford shirt, a pair of chinos and practical leather shoes. He looks decidedly sheveled, although he has been shuttling between uptown and downtown campuses all day. He has just had another espresso and a smoke. He has made some last minute photocopies for this evening’s workshop, which will begin at eight. His sheaf of papers includes the student work that caught his fancy this week, as well as sample poems by Gregory Corso, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Philip Sidney, and Stephen Dunn. On a different day it might be Mayakovsky, Robert Herrick, Rilke and Verlaine.
In the few remaining minutes before class, Violi chats with students in the New School courtyard. Current and former pupils have surrounded their teacher to ask his opinions of Stein and Berryman, Poe and Pound — or simply to crack jokes in the company of an accomplished poet. Violi has been doing this for thirty years. His extemporaneous commentary is as learned, articulate and amusing as his poems, and he knows that as the students’ graduation looms, their interests will shift to the secret of his teaching career.
‘Teaching career? What teaching career?’ It began with a workshop at the St. Marks Poetry Project, where he later served as interim director. ‘A few people in the class who, unbeknownst to me, were academics invited me out for a drink and asked me if I’d like to teach college courses. I started at Bloomfield College in New Jersey in 1977 and then at NYU in their evening program and General Studies program soon afterward.’
Since then, Violi’s career has been a patchwork of part-time and adjunct faculty appointments — an existence he sometimes characterizes as ‘a scramble,’ but not one he would change. He has time to travel, and over the last thirty years he has produced eleven books of poetry, a handful of art book collaborations with the English artist Dale Devereux Barker, and a volume of short prose. It is modesty that prevents him from observing the degree of his success in a city full of employable writers, many of whom crave the official blessings and insufficient salaries of academia.
At present, Violi — who has been called ‘the best satirical mind in contemporary American poetry’ — teaches a course on satire to undergraduates in Columbia’s department of English and comparative literature. He started teaching there eight years ago at the invitation of Kenneth Koch, whom he met in the late sixties. Violi recalls, ‘Sometime before  Kenneth asked me to teach a class because he would be out of town. It was on Eliot and I had a great time. Then he asked me to do the imaginative writing class.’ Violi’s current syllabus covers much of his poetic ancestry, from Lord Rochester to his late friend and mentor, Kenneth Koch.
‘Those I find most valuable are the poets who mix things up; whose poetry is satirical at times or in part, but also attempt to contain the rest of the spectrum; whose work is so various they can’t be reduced by the label ‘satirist.’ The irony, I suppose, is that I’m considering ‘satire’ as a broader term that, instead of limiting a poet to one angle on experience, permits a full range or perspective on life, either in the overall work or in the same poem; that melds the serious and the comic and everything in between.’
Such tonal melding is precisely what Violi achieves in his own poetry. The poems are often expanded to accommodate that goal: ‘As a young poet I found that in writing longer poems I could move around more freely, bring in or combine serious and comical turns.’ His longer stride and tendency toward narrative did not go unnoticed by Tony Towle, who commented early in Violi’s career:
Violi shows an extraordinary command of the varieties of poetic narration. At one extreme there is reportage, a deceptively easy genre . . . at another the humorously fanciful [poem], and the humorously satiric [poem] which goes far beyond the tone of parody that it sets up and maintains.
Violi refers to some of his poems as medleys: the seven-paged ‘One for the Monk of Montaudon,’ is such a poem. It opens his 1982 collection, Splurge, and is a personal landmark for the poet: the first time a medley ‘took off.’
‘I took a short form (the monk’s enugs or plasirs, song lists of what he liked or disliked) and opened it up, loosened it up to accommodate shifting notes and tones and deeper imagery, and to give it a dramatic shape.’ One sentence travels from ‘And I’m glad of a chance to meet people, / like Miss Ohio,’ to ‘while a strand of smoke lingers, and rises, / and turns like an unheard but legible desire.’ The poem’s systematic repetition (anaphora) is typical of Violi’s work. Each stanza employs the phrase ‘I like to,’ or its equivalent. The simple organizing principle of a list allows for the poem’s thoughts and images to vary wildly, but still cohere.
Because of its success, ‘One for the Monk of Montaudon’ also marks the first time Violi placed a long poem at the beginning of a book. ‘Most of the time poets put their long poem at the end,’ Violi says, ‘but I figured what the hell.’ It’s a risk he has since repeated: The Curious Builder (1993) opens with ‘Sideshow,’ and Fracas begins with the half-prose ‘The Anamorphosis.’ Violi’s well-received volume of selected works, Breakers (2000), contains only eight poems in its 168 pages. It makes sense for him to advertise that he is not (only) writing the single-page lyrics typically published in literary journals and taught in poetry workshops. He wants readers who will take the ride.
And Violi is passionate about taking the ride himself. His discursive modulations keep him surprised by and interested in his own work — no small feat, given that Violi may work on a poem, on and off, for over ten years. This open form, its layering and turning, guarantees the same spontaneous delight for his readers.
‘The word ‘medley’ might be a little misleading in that some of [my] poems [like ‘Sideshow’] use interruptions as connections. I don’t know if ‘sequence’ is any better. I love narrative but there’s something to be said for progressions that aren’t so neat and clear and tied together, progressions that seem more realistic to me in that’s how life often is. Pound’s term ‘grab bag’ for his Cantos wasn’t entirely self-deprecating. I like the freedom of writing in such a way, and think of lines by Michael Drayton that I quoted in ‘Melodrama’ [from Splurge]:
“my verse is a true image of my mind ever in motion, still desiring change.”
‘The insistence of turning interruption into connections is a kind of a basic human endeavor . . . What choice do we have?’
Violi’s work was recently canonized in the new Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehman. The anthology includes two of Violi’s shorter poems: ‘Index,’ a character sketch in one of Violi’s many found forms (here the index of a fictional history book), and ‘Appeal to the Grammarians,’ which opens his new collection, Overnight. Lehman says, ‘I picked Violi because of the virtues I have admired all these years: his wit, his ability to find the poetic resonance of non-poetic language, his deadpan, and his ability to get serious ideas across without didactic earnestness. He is, in my view, among our most talented poets.’
As such, Lehman has endorsed Violi’s work in four editions of his Best American Poetry series, his book of Great American Prose Poems, and Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, an anthology which celebrates eighty-five poets who revitalize traditional poetic forms or create new ones (Violi does both). Like the Oxford anthology, Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms features ‘Index.’ The latter book gives its contributors a chance to describe their processes.
With ‘Index’ I knew I’d set-off and continued to play-off an ‘argument’ between the neutral if not deadpan tone and the wild particulars of the life it described. With regard to formal considerations, how much is a deliberate choice and how much just happens I can’t say, but when I do use such forms I assume I’m employing a simple metaphor, a familiar if not trite context yet a very accessible one, by which I don’t mean to celebrate the ordinary but to subvert it.
The Oxford anthology’s head note about Violi emphasizes his ‘penchant for comic invention and his flair for unusual forms.’ They are aspects of Violi’s poetry so virtuosic and satisfying, they rarely go unnoticed by reviewers.
A partial inventory of the mundane forms Violi has poetically adapted includes: a page of errata, a glossary, a multiple choice exam, and a survival guide; the notes of a naturalist, an elevator notice, mock histories, mock translations, and a product testimonial; one catalogue of fireworks, one of used books, and a third of damaged antiquities; a motivational flier, the advertisement of a sponsor, a radio pledge drive, and a police blotter; clues to a crossword puzzle (whose numbers follow the Fibonacci sequence), a cover letter, a television listing, an acknowledgements page, and a personality survey. In a 2005 interview with MiPoesias Magazine, Violi explains that he ‘started adapting forms like an index, or an addendum, or footnotes and the like’ in the late sixties for the imaginative freedom they yielded:
A lot of that grew out of what painters like Dine and Oldenburg were up to. It seems ‘old hat’ to me now, of course — this was over thirty years ago, though I still do it when an idea pops up. Adapting such forms, or animating one was like putting on a mask, impersonating a character, which is very liberating in a creative sense. The concept may be amusing but the effects can be serious and various. The mask changes, too. That’s what I like, to move within a form that changes along with the poem. (MiPoesias)
If ‘Index’ is representative of Violi’s gift for formal invention, ‘Appeal to the Grammarians’ identifies in brief some elements of the poet’s voice, his temperament, and thematic inclinations. It might be taught in an introduction to Paul Violi class. The poem opens,
We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we’re capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
Its initial tone suggests an Aeschylean Chorus, collectively prostrate before the oracle at Delphi, seeking, for the good of Athens, ‘The inverted exclamation point.’ But the language of the poem shifts, its circumstances unfold, and a narrative premise is revealed: a single speaker has been left incredulous ‘outside the Caffe Reggio,’ after a ‘middle-aged couple / Came strolling by and he suddenly / Veered and sneezed all over my table.’ The poem’s next and final two lines solidify its ‘stupefying irony:’
And she said to him, “See that’s why
I don’t like to eat outside.”
It is a small masterpiece of counterpoint. Violi cunningly juxtaposes the grandeur of classical literature with inanities of a contemporary existence — ‘The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.’ Each item in the poem’s catalogue of ‘up-ended expectations’ is pleasing in its freshly observed familiarity, and each echoes, and contributes to, the movement of the whole towards revelatory frustration and embarrassment. Violi often writes about being short-changed; those moments when life is at its funniest — to others. And when we, like it or not, learn something for our pain.
That the fictional purpose of Violi’s poem is to acquire a new punctuation mark hints at a meta-poetic argument below the surface. Violi speaks the outrage of the underdog in a compelling way, and in so doing wins the trust and affection of his readers. He is giving voice to a universal truth, which everybody knows is what poetry should do. But by couching the poem in relatively trivial terms (‘espresso and cannoli’), and by revealing the initially collective voice as embarrassingly subjective in the end, Violi shows a charming capacity for self-deprecation. He undermines the poetic impulse from which the poem seems to have sprung (to speak for all humanity) and instead offers something real and immediate. ‘Appeal to the Grammarians’ is a lesson in being alive in the here and now of life and poetry. The prize for that courage is historical greatness. Or is it merely personal happiness?
The poet has expressed more directly his preference for
Poems that have a human being in them, as opposed, say, to that precious orphic voice, that messianic stance some poets adopt, or to poems where a human voice is undetectable—there’s not much risk in meaninglessness or blandness. (MiPoesias)
Violi’s alternative approach risks lack of notice from critics on the lookout for the next Walt Whitman, but at least he has made something edifying and entertaining out of an otherwise spoiled afternoon: turned an interruption into a connection.
Paul Violi wears a parti-colored hat, with three bells. On his face is mounted a papier-mâché beak, its proportions epic. There is a lampshade around his neck. His silk shirt billows. His pantaloons taper at the knee to reveal harlequin stockings above fine, Chinese slippers. He does a jig. He soliloquizes to a cutout of the moon. The bells jingle pleasantly, a halo of fairies — or moths — or mosquitoes. He shoos them away. He removes his mask with a flourish to reveal an eye patch (left), and a monocle (right). He bows deeply and notes the cut of his leg before blowing a raspberry in the queen’s direction and retiring to his favorite West Village establishment for a glass of pinot, or a beer. Maybe a burger, rare, no cheese, veggies instead of potatoes. He sips and speculates about expanding his act to include an organ-grinding monkey. He’s worked with animals before. He likes it, but it’s a scramble.
Truth? Beauty? Isn’t Laughter the delightful confluence of both ideals? But the idea of Comedy can be tricky for Poetry readers unaccustomed to the notion that serious literature may also be fun.
Violi addresses the problem with his workshop by teaching Kenneth Koch’s long poem, ‘The Art of Poetry.’ It is a manifesto written in the prosy diction of a style manual, with a shifting tone to sustain it. ‘In a joking way,’ Violi says, ‘Koch advocates being serious about an important art.’ Violi praises the poem for being ‘gutsy’ because a poem about poetry leaves itself wide open to criticism, and because it does not back off of its humor. ‘In Koch’s time he had to defend the comedy of his poetry.’ Must Violi wage the same war?
What is certain is that he resents the reductive labels he has received. The epithets ‘second generation New York school,’ or ‘sit-com poet’ irk him. He does not act surprised when somebody asks him if he is a ‘comic poet,’ he nods and looks away. ‘I’ve been thinking about that.’ Which means either the question occurred to him quite recently, or else he’s been mulling it over for close to forty years. Violi describes Koch’s comedy as ‘a Trojan Horse. It opens people up to more serious matter. It humanizes the persona.’
Readers who cannot escape current prejudices against comedy should think of Violi’s work as Commedia instead — an improvisational circus of the soul, whose best Punchinello is no mere stock character, not a man telling jokes at a microphone, but a master of wit, capable of opening hearts and breaking minds. Think of Chekhov, the dramatist who, in a moment of sublime absurdity, has one of his doctors cry out in desperation, ‘Finita la Commedia!’ Think of Dante, for whom the concept of Commedia includes the moral ordering of the Cosmos. And when you think of them, think also of Paul Violi, who is riffling through a book to find an essential passage before a lengthening ash falls from the cigarette between his lips. It does fall, ‘shattering the ashtray,’ but Violi ignores the smoldering on his desk and reads from Horace.
The critic Terence Diggory, whose readings Violi admires, was the first to posit that Violi acts the part of Renaissance Fool. That characterization of the poems is appealing because it accounts for their humor without neglecting the more serious concerns of craft or depth. In a review of Breakers, Diggory writes, ‘The spirit of spoof is so prevalent in Violi’s work that it is easy to mistake it for mere game playing.’ He adds that the work ‘reveals serious aesthetic, cultural, even metaphysical implications.’
Violi can be acrobatic and sentimental, frenetic and lyrical, bawdy and meditative, all in the same poem. The effect is that of a juggler, who has tossed a chainsaw, a crystal vase, a bowling ball and a dandelion into the air — and keep in mind that gravity is optional in the world of Violi’s poems. In the context of such a foolish endeavor, Diggory argues, the poet’s clear and simple, autobiographical-sounding voice ‘inflect[s] the ‘senselessness’ of Violi’s clowning with the wisdom that the Renaissance associated with the clown.’
Renaissance Fool is less label and more metaphor, apt because it comes from the realm of performance. Violi states, ‘I think a good poem allows us to enter an expanding interior, a “mental theatre”, to use Byron’s phrase for the unstageable plays he wrote.’ But Violi’s poems feel and sound eminently stageable, because they borrow techniques from live theatre, music and film.
‘Counterman’ is written entirely in dialogue and depicts the absurd exchange between the title character and his deli patron. ‘A Podiatrist Crawls Home in the Moonlight’ is a cinematic treatment of its subject written in discrete phrases, which are half interior monologue and half stage direction. The limping rhythm of the poem’s mostly spondaic, short lines demonstrates the physical action of the scene. ‘Panorama,’ is more explicitly from the filmic tradition. After an epigraph from Fellini, Violi identifies the specific camera shots, ‘(Extreme Close-Up)’ or ‘(Tracking Out),’ required for each scene witnessed through the windshield of a car. ‘How can poetry compete with film?’ Violi asks his students.
Violi’s use of sound is equally responsible for the theatrical vitality of his poems. Their onomatopoetic virtuosity rivals the best battle-scene outbursts of any comic book. ‘In Khlebnikov’s Aviary,’ an eighteen-lined homage to that Russian Futurist, contains at least twenty-eight uses of, or variations on, the word ‘cackle.’ The earlier poem, ‘Summer Reading Interrupted by Rain’ (from Fracas, 1999), interpolates the sound of raindrops falling on the page — ‘blippity blot blippity blippity blippity’ — in an otherwise dry passage from John Wain’s Life of Samuel Johnson (yes, that is exactly the kind of book on Violi’s summer reading list). On the page, the onomatopoetic raindrops interrupt the visual flow of the excerpt, thereby mimicking the experience suggested by the poem’s title. But Violi also performs the poem at readings, and it is in hearing the elision of staid language and fluid sound that the poem becomes sublime.
In other instances, Violi chooses forms that are explicitly spoken, such as the live commentary at a fashion show (‘House of Xerxes’), or the somewhat more typical first-person narration of ‘As I was Telling Dave and Alex Kelley.’ ‘Every syllable is deliberate,’ Violi says. ‘The naturalness, the immediacy but not the sloppiness of conversation is what I’m aiming for.’ The latter poem’s opening digression, its judiciously placed exclamations (‘I swear!’), and its rare verbal gems (‘horripilating’) ensure verisimilitude in the rendering of excited colloquial speech and continually re-engage the reader.
Violi is a consummate performer. His work is play. He knows that comedy and tragedy are both achieved by a break in context, that dramatic irony will make his audience sit up and listen, and that once they do that, anything is possible.
The poet was born in 1944, and grew up as a middle child in Greenlawn, Long Island. His parents, Joseph and Irma Violi, were not voracious readers themselves, but indulged his strong appetite for books. He studied English literature and art history at Boston University, where he first read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a favorite novel. He graduated in 1966, at which time he joined the Peace Corps. It was not yet the practical, fashionable, or politically charged alternative to military service that it became during the Vietnam draft. Violi knew he wanted to travel, and found an efficient way to do it. They posted him in Nigeria as part of a survey team in, literally, uncharted territory. By the time he returned home two years later, he was not drafted because of ‘a fortuitous disease or two’ he’d contracted in West Africa.
Violi does not like to be labeled a Peace Corps Writer because, well, what does that mean? But his time abroad left him with the fresh experiences he had desired, many of which are rendered indelibly in his book-length poetic sequence, Harmatan. Written years after the fact, it is as much a poem about memory as it is of cultural adventure. Violi explains that his title, which refers to a seasonal desert wind, means ‘forbidden place,’ and is etymologically linked to ‘harem.’
Other travels of his youth brought him to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. A number of spectacular twists of fate from that period are recounted in his earliest published poems, which began to appear in 1970. It is one thing to travel the world, and another thing to travel the world poor. Violi made it from Nepal to Amsterdam on ten dollars in a time more innocent and American-friendly than now — despite the Darwinian confrontations he repeatedly experienced.
One poem from that period, ‘Moving,’ tells the story of Violi and two fellow Americans who are hired to drive three white Mercedes, their trunks full of knick-knacks, from Istanbul to Tehran. That was Christmastime, 1967. Now, Violi says, ‘I don’t know who wrote that poem,’ but the story comes up again in his book of prose, Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes (2000).
Relapses into memory are common for this poet. Many of his images are infused with a feeling of intangibility, of temporality. Violi’s time in the desert, his and his family’s love of the ocean, and perhaps the circumstance of living by a lake, lead Violi to depict repeatedly wind and water. Both elements elude human grasp, physical and emotional. They imply motion; they take sudden shapes, and just as quickly dissolve to nothing, or morph into something else.
watch the sea and sky move together like memory and imagination.
Violi also renders the fleeting in terms of weather, smoke, and smells (‘whiff’ is a favorite word) — the traces of experience. The images comprise a rhyming series that amounts to a career-long conceit for what poetry can do. Transform. Transcend. Preserve the impression of a moment for eternity.
Violi is fascinated by the spectrum of possibility between gravity and flight. ‘Envoy’ is the poetic antidote to the earlier ‘Drastic Measures’ (Likewise, 1988), which sets simmering domestic tensions against a backdrop of orchestra musicians — and one ballerina — falling out of trees. ‘Envoy,’ which is placed more or less at the center of Violi’s new collection, begins with the pages of a book fluttering in a breeze, and imagines the book’s flight away from the hum-drum particulars of existence.
The book flies above the local, physical landscape of ‘pachysandra’ and ‘porch screen,’ to encounter the ‘Boundaries of Apathy / And its neighboring realms,’ and continues, with occasional rest-stops, over people, places and times, real and imagined. The book’s flight does not simply describe a path from concrete to abstract; it veers in and out of both realms throughout the adventure. It leads through Allegories, past would-be symbols, beyond words, images, thoughts and feelings, ever more urgently into wherever, whatever, whomever is next.
The flight ends, like the poem, back where it started, because the journey was merely imagined — a wish:
Go to her in whose eyes
There is always
The moment the night air
Turns suddenly cool
With the newness of the day.
Go, little book, arrive
With the newness of the day
Hours before sunrise.
It is a surreal love poem. It is the narrative of a flight of fancy: the literalized rapture of escape, and then return, which only books and dreams can offer. In it, as in a number of Violi’s poems, flight is possible and impossible. He is straining against gravity, physical and emotional (or tonal), as best he can at each given moment. The pun that is created by the paired definitions of gravity blossoms into a conceit at Violi’s will. In his world, transcendence requires lightheartedness. Or is it the other way around?
Those two themes, impermanence and transcendence, in their many guises from lyrical to slapstick, figure most prominently in Violi’s deeply eclectic body of work. The poems are attempts to solve the problem of uncertainty in an age of quantum physics and human folly. For Violi, aesthetics are more reliable: ‘If it’s good,’ Violi tell his students, ‘It’s always good.’
Overnight, Violi’s eleventh collection of poems, was published in February 2007 by Hanging Loose Press. Like most of Violi’s work, Overnight is autobiographical at heart. The poet processes the world through his craft, so his books are kaleidoscopic journals of a mind’s experience: medleys of medleys.
The title is Violi’s favorite kind of word: a dactylic compound, which could be verb, adjective, or noun. The component words, ‘night’ and ‘over,’ suggest darkness and finality, but when combined they imply travel, and introduce the possibility of metamorphosis. Those meanings suit a collection in which the poetic self is more introspective than ever before.
Such ambiguity is reiterated in the cover image Violi chose, one of Goya’s black paintings, ‘Perro Semihundido,’ or ‘Half-sunk Dog.’ On the vertical canvas, the dog’s face is visible near the bottom, peering upwards between two abstract fields of color. The details of the dog’s location remain unclear, as does its fate. Perhaps Goya meant to capture, long before Samuel Beckett, the fact that animal curiosity persists in the face of helplessness.
Overnight is divided into two parts. The first part, ‘Overnight,’ is filled with poets from the past.
‘I. D. / Or, Mistaken Identities’ is a series of eleven, first-person testimonials of increasing complexity, each of which ends with the refrain ‘Who am I?’ The form elevates the Jeopardy-style trivia challenge to the heights of ontological and existential crisis. It also reveals Violi’s literary and historical erudition (Homer, Lao-Tze, Castruccio Castracani, Raimbaut d’Orange, Giacomo da Lentino, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are some of the mystery speakers). The gestures toward poetry do not stop there.
The collection contains three poems titled ‘Acknowledgements.’ The first of them, in accordance with its found form, thanks contemporary periodicals for publishing poems by Coleridge. The fun of the poem is its ironic juxtaposition of titles, but its undercurrent is one of homage. ‘Stanza’ borrows its rhyme scheme from Shelley and bears the year of that poet’s death. One of the book’s six sonnets, ‘To Dante Alighieri,’ is a translation of that poet’s rival, Cecco Angiolieri. ‘Envoy’ is the final poem of the section, and includes four lines by Robert Herrick. Cumulatively, these allusions broaden the context in which Violi’s poems must be read, and demonstrate the far reaches of his poetic imagination.
The book’s second part is titled ‘For a February Songbook,’ and many of its poems are set in that month. Its first poem concludes,
Ah, now February is springtime for gray
And I’m at my lighthearted best.
Heart as light as a hornet’s nest.
The antithesis and final simile of those lines indicate the sensibility at work during the book’s second half. Violi remains capable of great fun—in the ironically titled ‘Pastorale,’ he casts himself in the exaggerated role of a grumpy, old man stuck in the woods with ignorant ‘youngsters’ — but the landscape is cold and blue with snow. The trees are gray and naked. The wind picks up, and the poet’s voice drops to a whisper, as in the song-like ‘To Himself:’
You look like one
Whom time has surprised,
Though the perfect sense
Of what is final,
The inmost view
From behind the past,
Beyond the long slope,
The frost and tall grass,
Is not new to you:
You’ve played along
With it once or twice
On your violio.
Violi will turn sixty-three in July. His dark hair has receded and silvered a bit, but the only other sign of aging is the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award he won in 2004. Nevertheless, entrance into one’s seventh decade of life is occasion enough to take stock (as he did in ‘Little Testament,’ for his fortieth birthday) of his ‘squalling self.’
Overnight is, in part, a meditation on what it means to live and work in winter, when days are shorter and nights long, on what it means to grow serious. Some of the pranks in the book’s first part yield to lyricism in the second. But wherever gravity threatens to weigh down the collection, it takes flight in a few sharp turns:
I must remind you how serious I’ve become,
Almost grave (though still immensely likeable).
Love threatens to carry me off
Like a dancer in a trash heap storm.
A counterweight! I need a counterweight.
The poems remain as vital as any Violi has written, and their liveliness culminates in the last five pieces. ‘For It Feels Like February 29th or 30th’ mimics Christopher Smart’s eighteenth century homage to his cat, Jeoffrey, by beginning each line with ‘For.’ A short historical narrative is embedded among the anaphora. In ‘Extended Shortages,’ Violi provides a footnote specifying the weight of heaven and earth (‘Gravity and exhilaration on his back’) as ‘Thirteen trillion trillion tons,’ but still he needs the lead shoes of Philetus (another poet, and another footnote) to stay grounded.
The final poem, ‘Thief Tempted by the Grandeur of February,’ is an elegant lyric, which begins, ‘Wake up! I can’t wait to tell you / How much I learned in my sleep. / / / I have indeed changed.’ With those words, overnight is confirmed as a time of renewal and progress. It ends with these lines:
Distant pleasures, distant strife,
I now can say, modestly
But not without significant charm,
I know the errors of my life.
The final sentence is its own kind of acknowledgement. Violi conveys once again, both sincere and ironic meanings, simultaneously. By the end of the Overnight journey, the reader does not doubt that discoveries have been made, that regrets have been salvaged and dismissed, that tempers have been tempered in the snow. All with modesty and charm. But Violi’s readers must also know that nothing comes so easily. Only a thief, one who advertises his own charm, may yield to the temptation of certainty with a straight face. For a moment, there it is, sealed in rhyme. And then day breaks.
For a bibliography of works by Paul Violi, please visit the Violi page of the Electronic Poetry Center, State University of New York, Buffalo, at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/violi/. The other sources cited in this article are:
Diggory, Terrence. “A Maze of Openings.” American Book Review 22 (2001). http://www.litline.org/ABR/issues/Volume22/Issue4/diggory.pdf
Lehman, David, ed. The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
———. Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms: 85 Leading Contemporary Poets Select and Comment on Their Poems. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996.
Zaldivar, Kemel. “Interview: Paul Violi.” MiPoesias 19. http://www.mipoesias.com/Volume19Issue3Gudding/violiinterview.html
|Title||Michael Quattrone: Commedia Violi||Type of Content||General Poet Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Michael Quattrone||Criticism Target||Paul Violi|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||21 Feb 2014|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Jacket 33 (July 2007)|
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|Contexts||No Data||Tags||No Data|