Is it possible to know someone you’ve never met, someone who has been completely invisible to you in the flesh but has marked your life in an indelible way? This is my question in regards to the poet Paul Violi, a man I’ve never seen in person but one I’ve come to know through his Selected Poems and the descriptive, warm, and love-inducing stories shared by others who knew him for a long time or perhaps only shared a moment in his presence.
By the time I arrived in New York City, Paul had already passed away. I was studying in The New School’s MFA program, and his name was frequently heard throughout the writing classes and at poetry readings. Mysterious to me then, the goal soon became to figure out who he was as a writer and person, about his teaching style, and the way he viewed the world through an “an ever-widening hour, / where fountains in the rain / half frozen, half music, / shine with a dim dream of the sun.”
Many have written about Paul’s unusual influence; their stories are posted on this blog, and others are embedded in various writings. Memories of Paul circle around themes of gratitude, warmth, and sheer amazement at the poet’s unique capabilities. Those who sat in Paul’s classes tell of his intense focus during conversations, his generosity as both a sincere listener and a speaker who elicited “clarity drawn from darkness / song from thought.” One young man, who knew Paul only through writing, recounts how he reached out to the poet about a possible collaboration. Paul responded to his inquiry and suggested that the two have dinner. He later sent him several of his books, all in the spirit of goodwill and connection. I’m thinking of these lines from “One for the Monk of Montaudon:”
For it’s a pure and simple joy
to eat and drink with those I love,
to stay late and celebrate a few certainties
while confusion and scorn
and a few other crazy, weather-beaten guests
continue to roll across the cold floors
I love this idea of sharing a meal to fight back some of life’s crazy. It seems to be an authentic and real solution, to break bread and enjoy one another’s company amidst all our joys and difficulties. Yet, it also seems to be a rare thing in today’s world.
This was Paul’s mode of operation, though. He found happiness in connecting with others. Earlier in “One for the Monk of Montaudon,” the poet explains:
And I’m glad of a chance to meet people,
like Miss Ohio
(“five foot nine, eyes that shine”),
if for no other reason than the pleasure of shaking hands or the opportunity
of leaning into the distances
while a strand of smoke lingers, and rises,
and turns like an unheard but legible desire.
In these moments we lean into the distances with Paul. We meet others; we meet him. His scenes help us gain a tiny eye and an enlarged heart for what’s going on around us, the people whose lives are intersecting with our own.
Whether on a construction site, in a Nigerian village, or somewhere in his own thoughts, the poet’s life serves as an example of joie de vivre. In another posted tribute (there are dozens), one reader tells about the time Paul ran into the freezing North Sea wearing only his underpants, simply because the water was there and he was alive. This reminds me of his vibrant poems from Harmatan, which relay Paul’s experiences in Nigeria while serving in the Peace Corps.His work, life amongst the people, and keen observations come marching before us, instructing us to hop on the motorcycle behind him as two packs of wild dogs attack from the bush, “leaping over the handlebars, / all fangs and spit flying in strands”. There’s an intense uncertainty here, “alarm still ringing in your head,” and we question how the poet will navigate the rest of our ride.
As we think of poems, like “Index,” we see the writer splurging on language, venturing into what interests him most, things he's appreciating in the moment, the paths he questions, and even items that some of us might initially consider dull. For Paul, all of life was a poem waiting in the wings, a chance to put thoughts to paper, to expand his understanding through iterations and imaginings. Selected Poems is a memorial of the poet’s mind in motion, one that bares its musings – all of the things that can happen in an hour, the loves and losses, the knowable observations, and the darker uncertainties. His lines can bring us back to the surface, as they prompt, “Is life all you know?” Such questions remind us to breathe, to think beyond our ever-present worries. And we need these reminders, especially when we find ourselves disavowing our life’s work three times in the same day (see “Index” again).
Continuing to turn pages in Selected Poems, we see just how seriously Paul took the poetic possibilities within any situation. Poem after poem demonstrate his deep curiosity of small moments in time. It’s as if an idea twitches ever so slightly, and then the poet traces the thread, nourishing additional thoughts and fictional exploration. He takes it into something much larger and more imaginative.
So what has the poet-scholar taught us on our first day of class? If we’re willing participants, we see that there is always something on the other side. Violi left the door open for connection and further questioning. The hour widens as we sit with him, contemplating both light and weighty things, all of which seem weightier by the end of our time together.
Selected Poems will continue to transmit the teacher’s voice. I’m reminded that “it’s a good day / when the wind is pure sensation” and I can stretch out with the writing before me, meeting the poet who hummed each line, breathed each thought. At the beginning of his day, I can almost see Paul stepping out of his house in Putnam Valley, his teacher’s bag full of students’ papers and his comments. It’s early in the morning. He puts one foot past the threshold and calls forth any new or unusual thing. He’s asking someone or something to cross his path, to make itself known in a small or quiet way, and he’s smirking ever so slightly.
This week we celebrate Paul Violi’s life as a friend, poet, and teacher. On behalf of David Lehman and The New School’s Writing Program, we invite you to attend a special night honoring the poet. Please join us this Wednesday, February 11 at 6:30pm at The New School’s Wollman Hall (65 W. 11th Street). Find more information here.
Alex Bennett received her MFA from The New School in 2013. Her work has appeared in the Sosland Journal, The Best American Poetry Blog, the New School Writing Program blog, Insights Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Parsons.