Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Violi’s Overnight

Red Coil

Just what conceivable distinction is Ron Silliman, apparently in modo grosso majordomo, attempting in noting, yesterday—in a rather condescending review of Elaine Equi’s work—“all the poems ‘as book index,’ ‘as table of contents,’ ‘as menu,’ all the list poems of any kind that have been written over the past 40 years and just how very few of them really do work, even in the slightest.” Too, he calls such poems a “blot” and “a tell-tale sign of a weak poet.” The alphabet as structuring principle, that indexical “core” is, Silliman must imagine, not a “list.” (Or, differently, Silliman’s The Alphabet,—you know, the warm-up to “The Universe” with its three hundred and sixty books—may well earn the sobriquet “blot,” a minor thing, in advance of getting shunt’d off into dire “tell-tale” lands of the “weak poet.” All because of its list-like structure . . .)

Truth is, the idea that something unworkable’s inherent in “the list” is idiotic. Silliman’s own Under Albany is essentially a glossary—a listing, sentence by sentence, of the back-stories to “Albany.” Silliman’s “Zyxt” in its first form pleases itself by bringing up the dreary rear of The Poets’ Encyclopedia, Michael Andre and The Unmuzzled Ox’s late-’seventies lexicon of batty indices. The list is a mighty literary convention: biblical catalogue, geographical data, church litany, character books. Listing is a rhetorical move that allows extraordinary power to accumulate, a mode capable of turning back on itself, looking itself over, and advancing: see Whitman, see O’Hara, see Dylan, see most of the finest oratory in these States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So why the sappy denial? Why the pat animosity (coupled with a kind of faux apoplectic gee-Louise “am I as enthusiastic as I seem to be?” response to Equi’s Ripple Effect? What, put simply, is Silliman’s argument with “the aesthetics of the New York School”? (Which leaks out everywhere, strangely coupled with a kind of enamourment with the Eastern establishment—see the recent bizarre advocacy of the New York Times.)

The “original” poem “as book index” could well be Paul Violi’s “Index,” beginning:
Hudney, Sutej IX, X, XI, 7, 9, 25, 58, 60, 61, 64
      Plates   5, 10, 15
      Childhood   70, 71 . . .
and moving diligently and humorously through an artist’s life with entries like “Composes lines beginning: ‘Death, wouldst that I had died / While thou wert still a mystery.’   17” and “Bigamy, scandals, illness, admittance of being ‘easily crazed, like snow.’   128” and “Invents the collar stay   159” and “Departures, mortal premonitions, ‘I think I’m about to snow.’   176.” It is an examination of what Violi himself’s call’d—in an interview with Martin Stannard—a “stock character,” a conventional book-manufactory formal entry. Violi says “Part of the pleasure of writing is impersonation, and I see how in a lot of poems I’m impersonating a character—a radio announcer, a horse race announcer, whatever . . . it starts to become something like a poem when I insinuate myself into it . . . and the impersonation breaks down or goes in an unexpected direction.” Too, he says: “Narrative has always appealed to me, it leaves so much room for mischief.” And: “The whole impulse behind the experimental tradition is to increase the possibilities, not close them off. I keep coming across these false, simplistic dilemmas, such as, that aesthetic values are precious and ‘literary,’ an escape from reality, from political exigencies.”

Paul Violi’s newest book is Overnight (Hanging Loose, 2007), Cover the inexplicable and thrilling Francisco Goya painting titled “The Dog.” It begins with what is seemingly a stirring call for precision, and what is, en même temps, a veering off into the delights of what Violi—only semi-jocularly—calls being “ambushed / by trivial or stupefying irony”:

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we’re capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we’re ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift
Or taken the first sip of a flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn’t bounce back,
The flat tire at journey’s outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.
But mainly because 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.”
Impeccable pacing, precise details (I particularly like the alignment of “air pocket” and “scratch shot”—the conceptual bump that occurs in noting how oddly they conjoin whilst appearing to “belong together”), sonic boomlets (“Veered and sneezed”), humor (“Weehawken”)—the poem’s pleasures are legion.

In Overnight Violi’s investigation into rather overlook’d forms continues unabated. Here are riddles (kin to some of the oldest Anglo-Saxon scraps, the several dozen riddles of the Exeter Book—“Ic eom wunderlicu wiht—     wraesne mine stefne, / hwilum beorce swa hund,     hwilum blaete swa gat” is how one begins—bark like a hound, bleat like a goat, &c. Violi’s riddles point to historical personages for the most part—Homer, Lao-tze, Mark Antony—though some—Newton Minnow, Raimbaut d’Orange—might get overlook’d by even the most avid bird-dog.), Too, Overnight includes unfinish’d sentences (high “writerly” text—the reader, so theory’s duly drummed into us, ’ll “participate in the construction of meaning”—“From the bloody throats of those dull-colored birds / That scream at the sun,”). Too, a George Herbertesque “picture poem” (or Apollinairean calligramme) titled “The Art of Restoration” in the form of a repair’d commemorative plate. And a brace of prose poems all titled “Acknowledgements.” Here’s one:
A month of twilights, laglight, fritterdusk. Withered plants, soggy bulbs, stubble. The Garden in February. Mold and tendrils, colorless scribbles dangling from a ripped-back carpet of matted leaves. Fresh hole in the frozen ground that looks like it was made by a pick-axe, a fang. Smeared dirt and frost, diamond slime. Paradise a child’s notion. Paradise painted one stroke, one phrase, one glimpse at a time, whatever a lightning flare reveals of it. Blunderblink. An invitation. Mr. and Mrs. Dwindle. Request. Demand. The pleasure of your company, your antics, your fervor, your moodiness, your stolid numbing small-time solemnity, your contempt, your pig-headed pride, your carelessness, your squalling self.
A whole gamut of emotional notes get play’d out there beyond humor, so that the poem ends up being lots larger than the (formal) joke of its occasion. The neologisms point to the mysterious clash of triggers, sources, back-story, all that that goes un-acknowledged in the gestatory gusto and labor of a poem.

Francisco Goya, “The Dog,” 1820-23