Overnight by Paul Violi
(Hanging Loose Press, 2007)
When played by an all-star, the violio is an instrument from which the music rolls seemingly as easy as a baby’s breathing. It’s interesting to note that, though capable of an amazing range, it has never been popular with the Guild of Funerary Violinists. Perhaps that’s because even the most somber themes, when fingered with a shooter’s touch (you know the one I mean, the one that turns rims kind), fill magically with light, and are apt to provoke very unfunerary chortles of glee .
Paul Violi is one of the instrument’s modern masters. If another (one last) hoops analogy be allowed, he’s a perennial league-leader in behind-the-back no-look passes and shots from well beyond the arc, way downtown. Overnight, his 11th collection, is a worthy edition to his oeuvre, and a joy to read.
This book is totally real and totally fun. The first poem, “Appeal to the Grammarians” begins
We, the naturally hopeful
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we’re capsized.
… I need it – here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, “See, that’s why
I don’t like to eat outside.”
In the meantime, Violi has served as our Virgil and toured us through the mini mundane Inferno that makes up the “disappointment and perplexity” of our quotidian daily lives. All in a page. And, even better, he has not only taken us, “the naturally hopeful” (how long has it been since I have remembered to include myself among the naturally hopeful even though there’s nothing for which to hope (which is, of course, why the “naturally”)?), for a wild ride, he has even given us the sign we need: this very poem, and by extension, poetry itself: exactly the gift we need to keep us on our feet.
This life is is painfilled and funny at the same time. In “Finish These Sentences” we find the line “A situation in which humor might be most unwelcome is”. By book’s end it’s pretty obvious: who can think of a single one? Which doesn’t mean he or his readers are led to underappreciate the reality of suffering. No. He just realizes, along with Patrick Kavanagh, that “tragedy is failed comedy.” Comedy isn’t just jokes; it’s the genre with a happy ending.
And “happy”, as everyone knows by now, just means so damn glad to be alive.
Violi knows that happy endings are hard earned. One poem, “I.D.”, is subtitled “Or Mistaken Identities”. A collection of riddles or game show monologues, in which the point of the show is to guess the monologist’s identity, each one ending “Who am I?”, “I.D.” can be read as a series of lessons in tragedy and comedy and what’s in between. “Destiny” can be seen as the result of self-fashioning-within-the-limits-of-possibility. Let’s take number 8, in which “I” = Silas Tompkins Cumberbacke, i.e., S T Coleridge. He’s been talked into what turns out to be a miserable trip with his “dearest friend” and his friend’s sister (the Wordsworths?). They split up. He walks home:
One night during that time,
Somewhere – O somewhere! –
In the company of strangers,
Suffering from hunger,
Bloody feet, hysterical fits,
Stomach pains, dreams
Of shame and terror,
I resolved to marry
My philosophical investigations
To the daily thrills and fears
Of my own extinction, and thus
Engender and engild the great book of my life!
No failed comedy here. Question: is that Coleridge talking, or is it Violi? Or (hear Roger Daltry’s voice), “is it me, for a moment?”
The Coleridge riff continues into a poem called “Acknowledgments”, one of a series of three poems with that title. It may interest readers who are not Coleridge experts to learn that “Dejection: An Ode” was first published in Sports Illustrated; that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” first appeared in Modern Bride; and that “Christabel” first saw the light of day in the pages of Hustler.
One of my favorite poems is “In Khlebnikov’s Aviary”. I’d love to quote the whole thing for those who still tend to take themselves the least bit too seriously, but let this stanza suffice:
Greet the morn, O you Cacklers and Cacklettes!
Welcome to Cackledom!
O you cacklelishly contagious Cacklings!
Splattering cachinnations, cackle every which way!
Cease not, O noontide Cacklettes
And Cacklings – cackle away!
Lest you be left with the sense that this book is just goofy, and never touches on “the really serious side of life”, it’s all serious, as any master violio player knows; you can’t play the heights without plumbing the depths. But given the universal capsizing, it’s all in the self-fashioning, or as Grace Slick put it all those years ago, “It’s all in how you walk.” And of course in living up to the bodhisattva vow, the Sermon on the Mount, the Communist Manifesto, etc; but there’s only so much one can do with a poem …
One of the most “really serious” days in recent American history (by any measure) was 11 September 2001. Here’s the end of a poem titled “September 13, 2001”:
… I stop
At the West End, keep a weak joke about Oswald Spengler
To myself, and ask Jay to translate what he’s chalked up
On the slate board behind the bar. Veni, Vidi, Velcro:
“I came, I saw, I stuck around.”
Every so often we’re given a gift. I take this book to be one. From “To Himself”:
Tuft and scrub still bent
In the direction
The wind last blew,
You plunk, you hum
A few notes,
You try to catch a tune
That’s already flown
Right through you
With a sound
As quick as daybreak
And as light
And hard as bone.
You’re on your own,
With a little something
You can play all day,
Strum of hack away
On your violio.
John Bloomberg-Rissman's most recent publications are World Zero and No Sounds Of My Own Making. Work of his will soon appear in The Hay(na)ku Anthology, Vol. II. He is one of four collaborators on the recent hay(na)ku sequence "Four Skin Confessions", which has served as a seed project for a number of other collaborations also to be anthologized. His current project is called Autopoiesis, of which he has completed 100+ parts and though he expected it would be time to move on to something else when he put paid to no. 100, surprise! 2008 seems to be the year of the sonnet-shaped thing.