When Paul Violi died of cancer at the age of 66 in
April 2011 we were deprived way too early not only of a really good person
but also of one of our most inventive, funny, moving and life-enhancing
poets. With the cooperation of Paul's widow Ann, his friends the poets
Charles North and Tony Towle have put together a posthumous collection of
what they could best figure out, after going through his papers, were Violi's
uncollected and later un/published and/or finished poems. It makes for a slim
but very welcome coda to a fine body of work.
Violi was always most usually regarded as primarily a humorous poet, a poet
whose poems were often very funny. As with most poets who are able to make us
laugh, and who deem laughter one of the essentials of a tolerable existence,
the underlying seriousness of his project was just as often inevitably
overlooked. Also too often overlooked was his lightly-worn erudition and
ability to move easily from colloquial American to a lyrical grace, often
within the space of one brief poem.
The title poem of The Tame Magpie takes
as its subject the painting of the same name by Allesandro Magnasco that is
reproduced on the cover of the book. The poem is prefaced by the Metropolitan
Museum of Art's description of the painting: "An assortment of people from the
fringes of society have gathered to watch the spectacle of a man trying to
teach a magpie to sing—an impossible task." In typically imaginative Violi
fashion the poem starts off in the Met with people's cellphones
"trilling" and then along comes "The Contumacious Kid"
who "squirms up" to the museum guide for enlightenment on the
painting only to discover that the guide is none other than Ambrose Bierce on
his first day in the job, an Ambrose Bierce who "Sports the uniform of
Paraguay's/ Most optimistic admiral."
This is quintessential Violi, as North and Towle point out in their brief but
necessary and informative introduction to the book, and it's why they chose
this as the title poem of the book. Why quintessential? Well, partly because
it springs from Violi's love and knowledge of the visual arts; partly because
of "The Contumacious Kid", as good an example of Violi nomenclature
as there has ever been; and primarily because it is so damn richly
imaginative and imaginatively rich. As "Ambrose Bierce" talks about
the "assortment of people" in the painting the allusions come thick
and fast and I'm pretty sure I don't get them all. But there is Pound, one of
Violi's major interests, ("the ruined arches of a botched
civilization"; the "swollen magpie"); Chico Marx; Minerva; and
Matthew 6:28 ("Why take ye thought for raiment?"), after which
I say unto you, Kiddo,
That even Solomon in all
Was not arrayed like one
and I'm pretty sure Violi would have taken as much pleasure in slipping that
wonderful "Kiddo" into this context as I for one have taken
pleasure in reading it. This is no ordinary or solemn meditation on a
painting; this is a reminder that a work of art, and thus a personality, can
resonate and inspire across the
It's that ability to manoeuvre between registers which is one of the
characteristics that make Violi's work so vibrant. Towards the end of the
poem the central figure in the painting – the teacher – is described as being
"knocked back on his butt", and the poem ends with
Besides, Kid, since a
magpie can already
Steal like a human,
getting it to warble
Like one shouldn't be much
of a stretch.
And, as if to support my point about switching between registers, the poem
that follows this opener, "Subaru", has the poet initially waxing
lyrical "cutting and splashing/ Over miles of twisting black road"
until the poem ends with
All reasonable offers
History was another of Violi's great passions, and history is at the heart of
the poems that comprise the core of this volume. The set of sixteen
"Further I.D.'s" continues where the first series of I.D.'s,
featured in Overnight
(2007), leaves off. It's a series of what North and Towle accurately describe
as "riddling dramatic monologues" from historical figures, each
ending with a "Who am I?", the answers being given at the end of the set.
are all historical figures bar one, that one being a Lappet-Faced Vulture….)
I'd not heard of all sixteen people, but that in no way reduces the pleasure
of the poems. One of them, on John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, we were
able to include in The North's
Violi retrospective feature back in 2011. It concludes:
My mother-in-law said that at fifty two
I had the sense of humor of a pitiless fifteen-year
I founded a hospital for old cows and knackered
I was most fond of alarmingly ugly lapdogs.
I financed the education of ex-slaves.
I once invited to dinner eighteen people,
None of whom knew each other, all of whom stuttered.
On the face of it, these I.D.'s are straightforwardly, often almost deadpan
biographical ("I introduced Swinburne to cognac.") but they teem
with life in all its exhilarating and often disturbing variety. Which, I
think, is the point. So Sir Richard Burton plies Swinburne with drink,
Democritus publishes his first book, The Little World, and his last, The Great World, Nero uses burning Christians as torches, Frederick
William I describes himself as "a tightwad" ("Why was I known
as the King of Peace?") and Fragonard is "shoved into
existence" by an uncaring Nature. Of them all, though, I confess my
favourite is the vulture:
If you threaten, I will
vomit on you.
Caveat Lector: I can with
Spew a good ten feet.
My Latin name, Cathartes
Means cleansing breeze.
There is so much to enjoy in this small book. Stalin and Mao have a
conversation that never gets beyond the level of
What's up with you?
What's it look like?
and "Heap" is a wondrous curriculum vitae that I know draws upon
the poet's own life (though I have no idea exactly to what extent) where
pretty much every job listed has involved heaps of something: torn-up boxes,
grass clippings, old coffee grounds, heaps of twigs and sticks, bundled
newspapers, palettes of lemon meringue pies, "abandoned mud huts fallen into
a heap" ….. the list of jobs and heaps goes on for two pages and never
flags. Which is what Violi did: never flag in his energy, his desire to be
open and to learn, to share, and enjoy, no matter how dire some of the stuff
life throws at you might be. If poems can give you anything at all
worthwhile, surely that's up there near the top of the list of things to