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Martin Stannard

Selected Poems 1970-2007 by Paul Violi, (ed. Charles North & Tony Towle), Rebel Arts, 243pp.

I've written so many times about my late friend, the American poet Paul Violi, that when it comes to writing about him anew I admit to feeling that to avoid repeating myself is well-nigh impossible. Indeed, the last time I wrote about him, as part of a series of tributes for the American magazine Coldfront, I openly re-published bits and pieces of earlier articles and reviews with the addition of only very little that was new. However, the welcome publication of a Selected, coming pretty much hot on the heels of the posthumous The Tame Magpie, cannot go unremarked and, as it happens, it has served to bring to mind the fact there is always something new to say about great poetry if one makes the effort – that's one of the features of great poetry: it never ceases to give and reveal itself. It's never a closed book, a finished project.

I was made to think of this not only by reading for the umpteenth time the poems in the book, but by an article at The Best American Poetry website by Alexandra Bennett.   Since Violi's untimely death from cancer in 2011 there has been a veritable cascade of writings from people who knew him: poets and former students, all attesting to his qualities as a friend and teacher as well as to the pleasures of the poetry. But Bennett did not know him. Rather, she says she has only come to know him through reading the Selected, but that he has "marked [her] life in an indelible way." Which, you have to admit, is quite something.

For me, one of the most important things she says is "For Paul, all of life was a poem waiting in the wings, a chance to put thoughts to paper, to expand his understanding through iterations and imaginings." The final part of that sentence is spot on, I think: "to expand his understanding through iterations and imaginings." Bennett goes on to say that Violi's poems "remind us to breathe."

I know now (though I don't think I knew it at the time) that from the moment of my first encounter with Paul's poems, and then with the man himself some 30-odd years ago, that it was always this reminder to breathe, and the sense of the possibilities that come from those iterations and imaginings, that was the bedrock of how I saw Paul both as a poet and as a friend. On one of the occasions we hung out together, back in 2004, I interviewed him for The North, and during that conversation he said "One of the indications that you're onto something worthwhile is when you surprise yourself…. Even if [poetry is] sombre or nasty, it at least gives an intimation of amplitude, superflux. It extends our experiences, our sense of life, a sense that it's about more than we could ever contain or sustain for long." (The interview was subsequently reprinted online here)

Surprise, wonder, possibilities: I've used these words over and over again when talking about Violi's poetry down through the years, and revisiting the poems with this Selected they once again push themselves to the fore. Those, and often very funny and often very moving.

From the first poem in the book, where the narrative is interrupted by a passage beginning

      Hi, I'm Paul Violi and I'd like a word with you
      about BIC pens. I've written some swell poems
      with BIC pens and so has my wife, Ann

to the final poem, "Thief Tempted By the Grandeur of February" which begins

      Wake up! I can't wait to tell you
      How much I learned in my sleep.
      And though I remain somewhat modest
      And completely charming,
      I have indeed changed.

and ends

      The beauties of the night, I already know
      What it's like to feel cold
      And beautiful hair slide through my hands.
      Beyond the edge of forgetfulness
      Or the last of a fine rain,
      A few memories flare
      And sputter in a final appeal.
      What once seemed true,
      What once seemed wrong,
      I let them disappear, blown away
      By a caress, a spray of light here
      And there across slick, wide avenues.
      Distant pleasures, distant strife,
      I now can say, modesty
      But not without significant charm,
      I know the errors of my life.  

I am continually struck, as if it were a new sensation, but it isn't, by just how BIG these poems are – and by BIG I mean life-enhancing. And this, I think, is because Paul Violi the poet was essentially and vitally Paul Violi the man, the husband, the father, the teacher, the smoker, the coffee drinker, and the guy who ran splashing into the North Sea in his underpants on a cold Autumn day because it was there. There was no distinction between the two, the man was, as the poet was, continually open to life, to its moments beautiful and bizarre, scary and bewildering. And from that openness, and the gift of imagination, come these poems, with all their inventiveness and insight and humour and, last but by no means least, wonder.

As a reviewer I guess I should be pointing towards "key" poems in this selection, "highlights" of some 40 years of poetry, but I don't know that I can. Or rather, the poems I pick out today would likely not be the poems I pick out tomorrow or the day after.

But it's today, February 13th, and I am in Zhuhai, China. It's unseasonably warm for the time of year, for even here in the sub-tropics we get a kind of winter, and while in February we might expect temperatures of around 12 or 13 and a dull grey dampness akin to an English Autumn, what we have instead is a sunny and blissful 20, and the mind is correspondingly sunny too. So I am drawn to the delights of Violi's TV Guide ("Triptych") and its

      12:00 (4)       News
               (7)       News and Weather
                          The wind hunting
               (8)       INQUISITION
     12:30  (2)       A CHILLING TALE.
                          A man with long
                          blonde hair hands a
                          threatening note to a
                          teller with long
                          blonde hair.
               (13)     MODERN EXPLO-
                          RATION. A deer
                          trying to climb
                          a ladder.

and that other list of times, the remarkable "Police Blotter":

     9:42         Anonymous caller wants to know if world
                    was created ex nihilo or if God created it
                    out of part of himself; if latter possibility
                    most likely, which part might God have used?
                    All units confer.

     9:43         Caller advised to look around and consider
                    which part of himself he would donate
                    to such an end. Caller rejects advice as
                    "puerile anthropomorphism," refuses to
                    identify himself, laughs and hangs up.

     10:28       Attempts to trace call abandoned.

I am in the sunny mood also for the what seems to be a schoolchildren's tour of "the Science and Nature Section" of a museum in "The Anamorphosis", and the tetchy teacher's running commentary:

      That's called a diorama.
      How should I know?
      Some kind of thatched
      and tropical hebetude.
      Does that help?
      Too bad.
      Don't touch.
      Drop the bongo.

And this is today, a sunny day, but tomorrow, February 14th, St. Valentine's Day, may bring clouds, and I might be feeling less bouncy, and more taken by the thought of someone's temporary absence, in which case "Triolet" may be the poem of the day:

      Wind and water, glass and light,
      Send her what she needs,
      A clear song on a quiet night.
      Wind and water, glass and light,
      Nothing else in sight,
      No way to know where her heart leads.
      Wind and water, glass and light,
      Send her what she needs.

Reading Paul Violi's poems we are, as has already been remarked, reminded to breathe. Or, as his friend (and one of the editors of this book) Tony Towle once put it, "his poems inspire the feelings of excitement about life that is, still, the ultimate function of art." Indeed.


Copyright © Martin Stannard, 2015