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The Tame Magpie,
Paul Violi (47pp, $18,Hanging Loose Press)


When Paul Violi died of cancer at the age of 66 in April 2011 we were deprived way too early not only of a really good person but also of one of our most inventive, funny, moving and life-enhancing poets. With the cooperation of Paul's widow Ann, his friends the poets Charles North and Tony Towle have put together a posthumous collection of what they could best figure out, after going through his papers, were Violi's uncollected and later un/published and/or finished poems. It makes for a slim but very welcome coda to a fine body of work.

Violi was always most usually regarded as primarily a humorous poet, a poet whose poems were often very funny. As with most poets who are able to make us laugh, and who deem laughter one of the essentials of a tolerable existence, the underlying seriousness of his project was just as often inevitably overlooked. Also too often overlooked was his lightly-worn erudition and ability to move easily from colloquial American to a lyrical grace, often within the space of one brief poem.

The title poem of The Tame Magpie
takes as its subject the painting of the same name by Allesandro Magnasco that is reproduced on the cover of the book. The poem is prefaced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's description of the painting: "An assortment of people from the fringes of society have gathered to watch the spectacle of a man trying to teach a magpie to sing—an impossible task." In typically imaginative Violi fashion the poem starts off in the Met with people's cellphones "trilling" and then along comes "The Contumacious Kid" who "squirms up" to the museum guide for enlightenment on the painting only to discover that the guide is none other than Ambrose Bierce on his first day in the job, an Ambrose Bierce who "Sports the uniform of Paraguay's/ Most optimistic admiral."

This is quintessential Violi, as North and Towle point out in their brief but necessary and informative introduction to the book, and it's why they chose this as the title poem of the book. Why quintessential? Well, partly because it springs from Violi's love and knowledge of the visual arts; partly because of "The Contumacious Kid", as good an example of Violi nomenclature as there has ever been; and primarily because it is so damn richly imaginative and imaginatively rich. As "Ambrose Bierce" talks about the "assortment of people" in the painting the allusions come thick and fast and I'm pretty sure I don't get them all. But there is Pound, one of Violi's major interests, ("the ruined arches of a botched civilization"; the "swollen magpie"); Chico Marx; Minerva; and Matthew 6:28 ("Why take ye thought for raiment?"), after which Bierce says

   I say unto you, Kiddo,
   That even Solomon in all his glory
   Was not arrayed like one of these.

and I'm pretty sure Violi would have taken as much pleasure in slipping that wonderful "Kiddo" into this context as I for one have taken pleasure in reading it. This is no ordinary or solemn meditation on a painting; this is a reminder that a work of art, and thus a personality, can resonate and inspire across  the centuries.

It's that ability to manoeuvre between registers which is one of the characteristics that make Violi's work so vibrant. Towards the end of the poem the central figure in the painting – the teacher – is described as being "knocked back on his butt", and the poem ends with

   Besides, Kid, since a magpie can already
   Steal like a human, getting it to warble
   Like one shouldn't be much of a stretch.

And, as if to support my point about switching between registers, the poem that follows this opener, "Subaru", has the poet initially waxing lyrical "cutting and splashing/ Over miles of twisting black road" until the poem ends with

   30 mpg
   AC CD
   New tires
   All reasonable offers considered

History was another of Violi's great passions, and history is at the heart of the poems that comprise the core of this volume. The set of sixteen "Further I.D.'s" continues where the first series of I.D.'s, featured in Overnight
(2007), leaves off. It's a series of what North and Towle accurately describe as "riddling dramatic monologues" from historical figures, each ending with a "Who am I?", the answers being given at the end of the set. (Actually, they are all historical figures bar one, that one being a Lappet-Faced Vulture….) I'd not heard of all sixteen people, but that in no way reduces the pleasure of the poems. One of them, on John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, we were able to include in The North's Violi retrospective feature back in 2011. It concludes:

   My mother-in-law said that at fifty two
   I had the sense of humor of a pitiless fifteen-year old.
   I founded a hospital for old cows and knackered horses.
   I was most fond of alarmingly ugly lapdogs.
   I financed the education of ex-slaves.
   I once invited to dinner eighteen people,
   None of whom knew each other, all of whom stuttered.

On the face of it, these I.D.'s are straightforwardly, often almost deadpan biographical ("I introduced Swinburne to cognac.") but they teem with life in all its exhilarating and often disturbing variety. Which, I think, is the point. So Sir Richard Burton plies Swinburne with drink, Democritus publishes his first book, The Little World
, and his last, The Great World, Nero uses burning Christians as torches, Frederick William I describes himself as "a tightwad" ("Why was I known as the King of Peace?") and Fragonard is "shoved into existence" by an uncaring Nature. Of them all, though, I confess my favourite is the vulture:

   If you threaten, I will vomit on you.
   Caveat Lector: I can with stunning accuracy
   Spew a good ten feet.
   My Latin name, Cathartes Aura
,
   Means cleansing breeze.

There is so much to enjoy in this small book. Stalin and Mao have a conversation that never gets beyond the level of

       What's what?
   What's up?
       What's up with you?
   What's it look like?

and "Heap" is a wondrous curriculum vitae that I know draws upon the poet's own life (though I have no idea exactly to what extent) where pretty much every job listed has involved heaps of something: torn-up boxes, grass clippings, old coffee grounds, heaps of twigs and sticks, bundled newspapers, palettes of lemon meringue pies, "abandoned mud huts fallen into a heap" ….. the list of jobs and heaps goes on for two pages and never flags. Which is what Violi did: never flag in his energy, his desire to be open and to learn, to share, and enjoy, no matter how dire some of the stuff life throws at you might be. If poems can give you anything at all worthwhile, surely that's up there near the top of the list of things to value.

     © Martin Stannard, 2014