The last installment of this month’s Poem of the Week is a special one: three poems by Paul Violi—poems originally published in his first full-length collection In Baltic Circles by Kulchur Foundation in 1973 and now reissued by H_NGM_N Books.
When choosing poems these last three weeks, I had Paul in mind, and it wasn’t hard to cull from the multitudes of former Paul Violi students whose work (and lives) have been influenced by him. I could fill a whole year of Poem[s] of the Week with Violi-inspired verse. Which isn’t to say Paul encouraged his students to imitate his style (you can’t ape wit, charm, and unrelenting curiosity) nor that he had a heavy hand when editing his students’ poems (on the contrary, he knew just how to nudge you in the right direction—your direction).
Before Paul passed away suddenly in April 2011 of pancreatic cancer, he was working on the reissue of In Baltic Circles with H_NGM_N. Recently released, the new volume includes an introduction by Nate Pritts and an afterword by Matt Hart, with the original 1973 cover portrait by Paula North.
“It is my hope,” says Pritts in his introduction to the reissued 192-page-volume, “that by making this book available again, new and return readers can joyously remember that the antidote to indifference is zany generosity, to counter detachment with a limitless range of feeling.” It is that “limitless range” that makes reading Paul Violi so exhilarating, perhaps most inspiring—and for which I’m most thankful.
–Allison Power, November 2011
(Special thanks to Ann Violi, Charles and Paula North, Tony Towle, Matt Hart, and H_NGM_N Books.)
***Paul Violi Memorial Reading: Friday, December 2, 6:30 PM, The New School
Theresa Lang Community and Student Center,
Arnhold Hall, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor.
***In Baltic Circles can be purchased here and here.
ON THE RISE
__East on 7th Street
like portraits, dusty oils, an old immigrant
sitting behind each window
White monster garbage truck
grinds up yesterday
____grim tramp in the alley
____rummaging through cans
_____drops a scrap into his burlap bag
_______and totters away
moseying over toward the park
_________and a few spades
But the street a stream
kids dragging their girlfriends
into the open priapic hydrants
__Fast clouds over the hot day
smell of moisture in the air
and suddenly trees
anxious and lively
__________below the imminent rain
include girls dancing
and a muffled rock beat
_____long hair tossing
___________saying climb on me
_____________welcome to the sky
EXCERPTS FROM THE CHRONICLES
My tooth aches and a drowsy numbness pains
__my head; the gas the dentist gave me
sent me soaring through a pinhole in the sky
__It was, to my estimation, Zero Hour
Throwing books out of high windows
________only to see them descend again
later, as I sit under the lamp
____and the wasted moths fall into my lap
It’s a difficult habit to break
Planes lost in the fog, monotonous lullabies,
They’ll drone on for a while, they’ll sputter
and crash and briefly disturb the crickets
but then, my white hour, we will finally sleep
A housing development continues its glacial
movement through the hills
Impossibilities flounder on the opposite horizon
. . . yank the paper out of the typewriter, crumple
it up, toss it on the floor
The cat pounces, struts away triumphantly holding
the paper in its mouth like a bird
In a large, unfurnished sunlit room
a man nails an extraordinary book to the floor
I went to my favorite restaurant
and ordered a typewriter
While I typed I watched this typewriter
eat corn off the cob
O hollow autumn skies rusty madness
fumes of red voyages down wooden streets
Your clowns bore me
The exhausted women in the willow trees
have thrown their costumes under the setting sun
I don’t believe in the benefits of an eight hour sleep
I will prolong this fatigue as long as possible
Chaos will wear my composure like a wound
The wind will polish my nose
There is a fly in the room
with a reward on its head
Heinrich Himmler looked like a fly
No, Joseph Goebbels looked like a fly
Heinrich Himmler looked like a bookworm
You klutz, you can’t scribble without drawing a pile of rope
The radio announcer finished playing his selection
and addressed the panel.
___Dr. Sandler was convinced the music was an early
___concerto by Haydn.
___Dr. Salmaggio doubted this very much but tended
___Dr. Winetz scoffed at these speculations: “All
of what you say is mere words, he protested, I have
no respect for them whatsoever, they are much
too subservient to your thoughts!”
___I, myself, found the discussion worthwhile
but couldn’t give it the attention it undoubtedly
deserved and continued shuffling through the house,
pants down around my ankles, searching for toilet paper.
The nights were as black as carbon paper
and the days
were exact copies of all the rest.
This elevator is not working today.
Just consider it an anonymous eulogy.
Please use the 53rd Street entrance.
Thank you for your cooperation—
Will everyone have a front row seat
Do our eyes appear as headlights
Does the glow increase while we think
Explain these nipples on my chest
Where was the Land of Cockaigne
What about the face of Charlemagne
Did someone discover the wheel by stepping
_on his fingers at the brink of a hill
Can you appreciate the modulations of a vicious belch
Where are the plays of Menander
Does the Loch Ness Monster ring a bell
Do impure souls lend color to the flames
Do you find these myths entertaining
Am I a Calvinist
Whither Martin Bormann
Has someone already asked you these questions
Have I already asked you these questions
How will I know you’re not lying
How will you know you’re not lying
Is perfection comforting
What if it isn’t
Photo: Paul Violi and daughter, Helen, ca. 1973. Courtesy of Ann Violi.
Paul Violi wrote eleven books of poetry during his lifetime, including Overnight, Fracas, The Curious Builder, and Likewise, from Hanging Loose Press, and a selection of his longer poems, Breakers, from Coffee House Press. Widely published and anthologized both here and abroad, he received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in poetry, as well as grants from the Ingram Merrrill Foundation, The New York Foundation for the Arts, the Fund for Poetry, The Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and a John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001 he received The Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Violi was born in New York in 1944. He grew up in Greenlawn, Long Island, and graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in English and a minor in Art History. After a stint in the Peace Corps doing map completion and survey work in northern Nigeria, Violi traveled extensively through Africa, Europe and Asia. Upon returning to New York he worked for WCBS-TV, then for various newspapers and magazines. He was managing editor of The Architectural Forum from 1972—1974 and worked on free-lance projects at Universal Limited Art Editions, researching correspondence of poets and artists and assisting Bucky Fuller while he wrote the text to Tetrascroll. As chairman of the Associate Council Poetry Committee, Violi organized a series of readings at the Museum of Modern Art from 1974 to 1983. He also co-founded Swollen Magpie Press, which produced poetry chapbooks, the poets and painters anthology Broadway edited by James Schuyler and Charles North, and a poetry magazine called New York Times.
Waterworks, a short selection of his early poems from Toothpaste Press, appeared in 1972, and Kulchur Press published In Baltic Circles the following year. Bill Zavatsky’s Sun Press published two of Violi’s books, Harmatan, a long poem set in Nigeria, in 1977 and Splurge in 1981. In 1993 he curated an exhibit “Kenneth Koch: Collaborations with Artists” for Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, U.K., and his art book collaborations with Dale Devereux Barker, most recently Envoy; Life is Completely Interesting, have been acquired by many libraries and museums. The expanded text of their first collaboration, Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes, a collection of non-fiction prose, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2002.
Violi taught at colleges and universities, public and private institutions—New York University, The Dalton School, Sing-Sing, Stevens Institute of Technology, Bloomfield College, State University of New York at Purchase, Scarsdale Teachers Insititute. At the time of his death, he was teaching in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and in the graduate writing program at New School University.