The Operating System

POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition : DAY 9 :: Maryam Parhizkar on Paul Violi

In November 2011 H_NGM_N Books reissued In Baltic CirclesPaul Violi‘s first book of poems, originally published in 1973 by The Kulchur Foundation. This resulted out of funny circumstances: after seeing a review by Matt Hart of his last book, Overnight, in Coldfront Magazine, Violi sent Hart a photocopy of the original book with a handwritten note saying, “I like to think it’s not all juvenilia!” In Baltic Circles is hardly that – even as an early book it encompasses so much of Violi’s essence. What does that mean? For one, if there were ever code of ethics for the poetic form, you also could count on him to violate it in a poem – and he did so in such an elegant and charming way that you could never hold it against him. This is his edgy cleverness, accompanied by a romantic streak and a surreal awareness of the everyday… They are qualities that also radiated like the sun from his personality.
I have been thinking a lot about Paul Violi so much lately. It has been one week and a year since is passing, and today as spring finally seems to have planted its foot firmly into the ground and I am trying to think the other possible things that I could say about him, I find that I can’t talk about Paul without thinking about the time I spent with him as a student in my last year of college. He advised me as I wrote on Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, a book that meant so much to me at that time that it felt fragile – maybe because I felt fragile too. Paul’s guidance and poetry came into my life at a time when I was feeling like hell for so many reasons, and it was by working with him that I got over that sense of anxiety and even learned how to laugh at my own vulnerability.  He also assured me that, yes, a poet’s work did mean more than some stifled academic deconstruction, and it was OK to remember as I wrote. And I remember how, on most meeting days, we’d abandon the stuffy old building for coffee and air, and how he’d often remark about how unfortunate it was that no one smoked indoors anymore. I am thinking of him today, drinking coffee and sitting outside near the Columbia campus, on this very real spring day.

portrait by Paula North

Most strongly, I remember talking to him about  O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster,” andthe way he referred me to another poem: a sonnet by Sir Thomas Wyatt, “My Galley Charged with Forgetfulness.” After a pause for thought he began to recite its first lines with command in his voice, but still the smile in his eyes: My galley charged with forgetfulness / Through sharp seas in winter nights doth pass…  Paul’s poetry transmits this same natural referentiality, often with youthful invention in tow. Always, the invention is there – as Tony Towle recently wrote in Agriculture Reader, Paul had a gift “for infusing a mundane setting with the outrageously imaginative.” How appropriate, then, that he begins his poem “Public Works” with the decadent Swinburne leading an entourage of “35 screeching yellow cabs” through a red light, only to jolt you with Monet’s bug-splattered windshield, only to jolt you again with his own poetic interruption, and then again, with the presence of a new I.  It’s impossible to call any poem a “typical” Paul Violi poem, but this one speaks volumes. There are volumes to speak about him. I am so glad for this book. I wish he were still here.
Public Works
Swinburne pulls up to the light
with 35 screeching yellow cabs.
They rev their engines
the light turns red
they sound their horns
and off they go.
“Tally ho,” yells Swinburne, “tally ho!”
Monet crosses the George Washington Bridge
without thinking about
our first President’s dentures.
He could care less.
He drives slowly up the Palisades.
A flock of cabs passed him a long time ago.
It’s 11:63 a.m. and he could care less.
It’s a warm spring day
and the bugs splatter like snowflakes
against his windowshield.
Soon it is covered with the multi-colored splotches.
He stops for gas.
When the attendant begins to clean the windshield
Monet can do one of two things: he either
(Hi, I’m Paul Violi and I’d like a word with you
about BIC pens. I’ve written some poems
with BIC pens and so has my wife, Ann. I expect
our child will really like BIC pens too. You know
how ordinary pens sometimes botch things up and
give you a glimpse of things to come like, well,
when I’m old and getting a bit, uh, senile, I suppose
my mind, like yours, neighbor, will skip a word
here and there, scratch a mere impression of what
should have been a fine thought on the page and,
in a manner of speaking, just plain run out of ink.
But there is no reason your pen has to falter like
that and you can bet BIC pens never will. So take
my advice, do yourself a favor and buy a BIC pen
today. Pick up a couple for the whole family while
you’re at it and tell them I sent you!)
It’s still a warm spring day
and a man waving
a square orange flag
diverts Monet into the outer lane.
Other men in red vests
have placed orange stanchions in the road,
another drives a blue truck at 3 miles per hour.
They follow him on foot, spraying white lines
and double white lines, yellow lines,
and broken yellow lines while 3 men in black boots
chop up shiny casks of tar, melt it
and scribble the stuff over the cracks
in the pavement.
The gray concrete sparkles and its reflection hovers
over it like a mirage on the wrong road to wonderland.
The first to eat lunch
wipes his hands on a green T-shirt.
He steps off the road and examines a tomato
and cheese sandwich: “. . . I remember a job
we did near the shore, a parking lot.
My brother Harry worked that one.
So did my cousin and my nephew.
We laid down about an acre of asphalt
near the beach and I used to take my daughter
there at odd hours for driving lessons.
I explained to her how we had to put down
a long white line and then angling into that one
a lot of short, slanted ones.
Bus she said it looked like the skeleton of a fish.
I couldn’t teach her anything.
She lives in the city now. I think she’s married.
But in the summer, it’s packed on Sundays
and let me tell you something: when I see all the spaces
filled and the cars glittering like a fish on its side
in the sunlight, I want to tell you
it’s no accident. I’m glad my brother convinced me
to take this job. It ain’t all politics.”
The rest of the men unpack their lunches.
Some exchange sandwiches, some of them drink orange
soda, others guzzle grape juice or beer.
The second crew has finished shoveling asphalt
off the back of the truck.
The paint is still drying,
all the holes in the road are now bumps.
And here is one from me:
Urgent Poem No. 2 (Astoria, NY)
one of those days to be frank: something missing, something
not placeable – you in my thoughts like cigarettes, occasional,
and if nicotene really a schizophrenic cure so be it :
furthermore it is past 1 AM and my body is more present than usual
and in the 24-hour laundromat (God bless America!)
Grey’s Anatomy plays on two television screens: an episode about
trauma (as they all are) and
blood and guts and sex (see above)
while my clothing becomes born again in the dryer.
If: listen to me – if location is everything
then what does this mean? no use for projective verse here,
this not the polis I want, what I want is for
my catastrophic personality
to be relevant to you! ––
but I’m done with catastrophe for now,
now not yesterday this in my year this
being my 2012: fraught, frazzled, startlingly mundane to me,
(and this poem startlingly present vs. previous attempts at lucidity) :
yesterday in the coffee shop: a man all coked up leans over, tells me
in the most seductive voice : “you know,  I used to work for Mossad,
but don’t worry I never killed anyone.” (was this a pick-up line or was it
because I was reading a book that screamed IRAN on the cover?)
highlight of my afternoon.
Nothing emerges on the other side tonight,
my Sundays so still, and I wish for waves
to speak softly to me like last summer, to lilt
against my legs (if you catch my drift)
would that be so much to ask for?
I can’t remember what it feels like
to be lost in that way,
my lostness taking
new forms : here I am
but here I am not I am not
okay I want to have dreams
with you in them again I want
to remember the less wretched parts
of messes made :
you don’t exist that way anymore
now I am waiting for a new current
and new currentness I found new
crosswords to fill the voids but they
are too much Sunday so shake it out
of me shake me out of this help me
remember how present we are
and exactly where I stand —
Paul Violi wrote eleven books of poetry. He has been widely anthologized and received several awards during his lifetime for his work. Born in New York in 1944, he grew up in Greenlawn, Long Island and graduated from Boston University. 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 freelance projects at Universal Limited Art Editions, researching correspondence of poets and artists and assisting Buckminster 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.  Violi taught at several institutions.  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.
Maryam Parhizkar, a dislocated Texas native in Queens, teaches, works, makes music, writes and studies. Most recently you can hear her play new chamber music as a violist on this wonderful album. Increasingly she is convinced that you could approximate the weight of anything by making note of sound quality.
[Editor’s note: another fine feather plucked from the Poetry Project workshops! Maryam introduced me to Paul Violi, her teacher, only recently, and I’d already picked up In Baltic Circles at the Chapbook Festival, where I came to know the wonderful folks at H-NGM-N (in particular editor and fellow poet Nate Pritts), by the time she selected him as her focus for this post. If the breath of fresh air that is an introduction to Violi wasn’t enough, Maryam is a wonderful poet in her own right, and I love the way her relationship to language is infused always with her musicianship. She’s already becoming an active and inspiring part of our tribe. Welcome, Maryam! Well met indeed.]

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