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Taking Paul Violi Seriously

By Harriet Staff

Paul Violi

Hyperallergic has Barry Schwabsky writing about Paul Violi–match made in The Tame Magpie. “According to Charles North and Tony Towle … our poet was ambivalent about being labeled (as they are) a second generation member of the New York School: ‘Pound, for example, was as important to him as the French modernists,’ they point out; ‘so were Coleridge and Keats.'” More on Violi’s later poems:

If you haven’t read Violi yet, The Tame Magpie might not be the book to start with, but it’s a welcome addition to his oeuvre for anyone who’s already hooked. The heart of the book consists of sixteen poems called “I.D.’s” — a series of riddling monologues (continuing a series Violi debuted in his 2007 collection Overnight) each of which asks the reader to guess its speaker’s identity. For those of us who are stumped, the answers are revealed by an “answer key” at the end, and they range from Nero to Curzio Malaparte, Fragonard to Ulysses S. Grant, not mention more obscure figures like the cartoonist Joseph Keppler or the 2nd Duke of Montague, a notorious practical joker of the eighteenth century—all men (Violi is probably what you’d call a guy’s poet) except for one avian species whose gender is not indicated, the Lappet-Faced Vulture, an inhabitant of North Africa and the Middle East who sounds as gruff and eccentric as any of Violi’s human personae:

If you bother me I will hiss at you,
If you threaten me, I will vomit on you.
Caveat lector: I can with stunning accuracy
Spew a good ten feet.

But the I.D.’s are not quite the “dramatic monologues” North and Towle call them, since the speakers are more like figures in a pageant than characters in a drama. But I think Violi offers a secret self-portrait in the second of these new I.D.’s, whose ostensible subject is Democritus — no, no, not Demosthenes, the orator who overcame his speech impediment by rolling stones around his mouth as he spoke, but Democritus, the pre-Socratic philosopher who opined, in Violi’s rendering, that “Nothing exists but atoms and empty space; / All the rest is rumor and guesswork. / (Poetry is worthless.)” Unlike almost any thinker before or since, Democritus counted cheerfulness as the highest ethical good. And yet his laughter worried people — was it kindly or cruel, reflective of contentment or mockery?

Read it all at Hyperallergic.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, July 8th, 2014 by Harriet Staff.