Overnight by Paul Violi
Hanging Loose $15.00
Review by Luke Kennard
"Overnight" is Violi's eleventh volume of poetry and it contains the best poem from "Best American Poems 2006" - "Counterman" - about ordering a sandwich. I read this book in one sitting and then I read it again. I haven't been this excited by a book in a long time. Violi has the borderless imagination of Richard Brautigan and the flawless delivery of Ashbery. He makes irony and experimentation fun again - and he makes old-fashioned sincerity something you actually want to listen to.
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.
Do you know that taxidermy students
Begin with a mastodon
And end by stuffing a flea?
And as for poetry, it's easy
And impossible - like stealing from yourself.
(from "Thief Tempted by the Grandeur of February")
While most of us are worrying about how to be taken seriously, Violi is completely fearless in the pursuit of his vision - which combines high wit with melancholy and righteous anger with surrealism. From the clipped sense-poem, "A Podiatrist Crawls Home in the Moonlight":
Right knee left foot
Left knee right foot
We also have mock "Acknowledgements" sections ("Architectural Digest: 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison'; Teen Life: 'On the Death of Chatterton' ... ") which bring to mind Gilbert Sorentino on form. Then several superbly executed list poems such as "Finish These Sentences", my two favourites being:
I like to think my supervisors value my ability to
From the bloody throats of those dull-coloured birds
That scream at the sun,
It's the sort of thing jealous, po-faced whiners read and say, "Oh, yes, it's all very clever, but where's the wherewithal?" Although really they're just bitter that nobody talks to them at parties. In fact, Violi's poetry is as likely to have you howling with laughter as it is to have you howling in dismay. "As I Was Telling Dave and Alex Kelley" has to be read to be believed. I'm not going to quote from it at all. You need to read it, as soon as you possibly can. Point is, "Overnight" contains every device and process poem you can imagine - especially the ones you thought were just parlour games. Concrete poem "The Art of Restoration", is written, I shit you not, in the shape of a broken commemorative plate. It's also a great piece of writing. Nothing here is presented as if it were a novelty, but rather as if it were another form to be chosen, like the sonnet or a sestina - which is the truth. Violi is reclaiming the novelties. "Overnight" is like a Christmas cracker with an actual crown inside it. And it's not a "political", anti-traditional-form thing, it's an exhortation: "Will you just fucking relax?" He can write Pisa, 1822 at the end of a poem and you almost believe it.
And our special thanks to Haiku Annual for a Special Mention Certificate for a Collaboration That Extols the Pleasures of Urban Life While Employing at Least Five Annoyingly Obscure Words and the Image of an Overturned Barrel of Olives on a Rain-glazed Cobblestone Street.
It's the same voice needling us to examine our own stupid judgements in the First Impressions ("Ostentatious, but a bleeder and subject to fits") and Saving Graces ("Delightfully garrulous yet a blowhard") of "Seesaw" as the voice startling us with a lyrical detail in "Envoy":
An open book on the patio table,
Pages turning back and forth
As if it were reading itself
And lost its place.
The droll "House of Xerxes" in which the armies of the Greco-Persian wars are given a fawning real-time style commentary - ("... all very wearable, very sporty. / Huge amounts of gold, / A killer-look feel / But it still says A Day at the Shore.") - is funny, but outstays its welcome at four pages. I guess it's just that if you watch sitcoms like The Simpsons and Arrested Development your mind has grown accustomed to being hit by three gags like that in one minute - which is not to say my attention span is shot to hell, rather that I.... Oh, hey, look - a poodle! Ha ha! Look at its tail!
So, I being a philistine and a baboon, it's really a testament to Violi's finely calibrated sense of humour that not one of the other poems in "Overnight" had me turning to 'Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess' or my new Season 3 box-set of 'The Wire' or the bottle of sherry and tube of Pringles in the kitchen. "I.D. or Mistaken Identities" is an extended play on the "Who Am I?" riddle. It starts with genuine historical figures like Homer and Mark Antony, but ends up with complete strangers like Newton Minnow and Larsen E. Whipsnade. Every line is a pleasure: "I was fired today by a man with a terrible stutter."; "I didn't know where else to spit / That would have offended you less." No. 9 is just a fast-talking, conversational monologue - like from a Bukowski protagonist - offering absolutely no autobiographical information or clues whatsoever.
Moments later "September 13, 2001" effortlessly becomes the best 9/11 poem in its defiant informality, its perfect evocation of the celebrated New York School voice. It concludes:
Uptown early enough for another coffee, I stop
At the West End, keep a weak joke about Oswald Spengler
To myself, and ask Jay to translate what heâs chalked up
On the slate board behind the bar. Veni, Vidi, Velcro:
"I came, I saw, I stuck around."
The second book of "Overnight" is called "For a February Songbook" and explores a quieter, more sombre terrain - but with no less exuberance. The reader learns, for instance, the eerily apposite uses for quill pens from different feathers in "Light Rain Falling on Deep Snow":
A buzzard quill for epitaphs,
An albatross for arrivals,
A goose for laughs, an eagle
For denials, a swan for
Invitations, a kiwi for regrets,
A condor for condolences,
A chickadee for threats...
There is a filmic quality to the interjections of "Pastorale":
Paul Violi, volunteer, was on hand to enjoy
The day and encourage less experienced paddlers
Watch where the hell you're going!
For the love of god, are you blind?
And around the evening campfire offer the youngsters
The benefit of his knowledge and years
You guessed it, Fatso. If I had to
Do it all again, I'd be
A friggin' diplomat.
Among the quotes on the back cover is this: "Violi writes poems so enjoyable that poetry purists may feel guilty about savouring them."
Whoa! I've committed the greater part of my life to studying literature because I enjoyed it. Was I not supposed to? Did the various teachers and supervisors I've had the good fortune to learn from fail to impress on me how important it is to take no pleasure whatsoever in writing and reading? Was the enthusiasm and delight they inspired in me the last thing they intended?
No. Here's a secret: when people talk about "guilty pleasures" in literature they mean the stuff that's actually any good. They say it because they're scared by how little they understand the "serious" stuff. And they don't understand it because it's rubbish and not meant to be understood.
Here's another secret: Good writing is always funny. Even when it's really sad. Ever since we first started scratching marks into the walls, the good marks were funny. The Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Pound, Proust, Beckett. Funny, funny, funny, funny, funny, funny, funny, funny, funny. If contemporary poetry is not funny then it is pointless even thinking about reading it. Might as well just have a sandwich and watch the snooker.
And before you go all John Kinsella on me ("I write not to pleasure or to leisure but to prod" - I'm paraphrasing), let's take a sensible definition of 'pleasure', shall we?: it's a pleasure to be provoked, to be made uncomfortable as well as to be lulled into a meditative trance or delighted by fireworks. Everyone loves being made to think more deeply about something. Everyone enjoys questioning their views and testing them out. Good writing - even when it's only trying to upset you - is a pleasure. I like it. We all like it. EVERYONE likes it. Anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or a moron.
I know I'm reading between the lines here, but this is the kind of art-as-green-vegetables bullshit that continues to plague poetry. Yeah, it's dull, it's completely personal and could only be of interest to the writer themselves and the style is bafflingly obscure, but it's high art and it's good for you. So no TV until you've finished it. Violi's work is like a V2 full of confetti against all that po-faced, po-minded nonsense. And if you feel guilty for appreciating that, I just don't know where to start with you - except for maybe cooing, "It's okay to laugh; laughter is what makes us human; laughter is pretty much a mainstay throughout all literature from the beginning of time. How could you miss that? Have you actually not read anything?" into your ear until you tell me to stop it.
© Luke Kennard, 2007