BreakersPaul Violi
Coffee House Press ($14.95)

by Fred Muratori

The publication of a Selected Poems is one of the two or three most significant milestones in a successful poet's career. Having a bona fide Selected—thick, filigreed with acknowledgments and dedications—means that you've made it, baby, and even if the poetry in-crowd had never read your work before, they'd damned well better pretend to know it now.

Or at least that's what Selecteds used to mean, before poets and poems swept over the American landscape of bookstores and Web sites like a tide of red ants, choking readers with choice, paralyzing them with product. Lost in this wriggling armada of indistinguishably lineated texts, a Selected is lucky to catch the heat ray of a mischievous critic's magnifying glass. But if you squint, you can almost make out Paul Violi's Breakers among the masses: it's the "one ant dancing with a dead ant in the sand."

A Paul Violi poem is like no one else's. Combining professorial erudition with the relaxed unpredictability of Frank O'Hara, the shadowy wisdom of Rimbaud, and the urban angst of Jerry Seinfeld, Violi's poems make you laugh out loud, then think really hard about what it is you're laughing at. They begin as modest eddies, then spiral outward in ever-widening circles to absorb and transform conventions of mass culture rarely incorporated into poetry: the TV program guide, the travel diary, the crossword puzzle. In Violi's hands, these mundane forms become retorts in which language and the cunning unconscious are released rather than imprisoned.

"Wet Bread and Roasted Pearls" illustrates how such borrowed forms can enhance the movement of a poem, allowing it to negotiate multiple planes of perception and rhetoric. It begins conventionally enough with a train ride that unwinds as smoothly and concretely as Philip Larkin's "Here":

Hudson Line. Gravel trackbed
dusted with snow, bank rock and piling
blackened with oil, barges,
half-rotted on granite slabs
where a deer dips her head in bent reeds

and then steps out onto shore ice:
One long wave of white ice
nightwinds caught at its farthest reach
between arrival and return
and held gleaming above the tide.

The speaker regards the actions of the deer as representing universal emotional states—recognition, amazement—much like Chinese ideograms. "Newspaper in hand, he speculates on "the numerous ideograms / for 'To fill in the blanks,'" the most obvious being a crossword puzzle, which, "newspaper / in hand, stultified / by a maze of blanks," he just happens to be mulling over:

One across: To be reasonably
suspicious of zeros and words
that contain too may os.

Two across: Prosopopoeia.

Fifty-five down: Monotonous.

Three across: Puzzle is to Mystery
as Grapefruit is to . . .

Five across: Rhymes with orange.

But this is only one passage embedded in a larger narrative that snakes outward to the tangible world, then inward toward reserves of memory, drawing on the crossword puzzle as a rhetorical armature to hold and schematize personal remnants of the past: ". . . ground // now as blank as Eight down, / the winter you decided / to freeze me out, kept / the house as cold as a morgue."

The cleverness and grace of passages like this are expertly molded and certainly admirable, but where is the iridescent humor and flesh-tingling irony Voili's readers have learned to expect? Where is "Scatter," one of the liveliest poems to ever grace a Best American Poetry anthology? Or "Errata," the inventive checklist of wild printer's errors that ends 1993's The Curious Builder? Or Violi's ransom note, titled "Tanka," also from The Curious Builder, written in that delicately jarring haiku-like form ("Where the blossoms fall / like snow on the dock / bring fifty thousand in cash // or you'll never see / your baby again")? You'll have to buy the earlier collections for those, since the eight long poems and series that comprise Breakers seem marshaled to emphasize Violi's more meditative side, as if length alone carried with it an intrinsic weight or claim on high seriousness.

Appearing more jotted down than written, "Harmartan" is a fifty-plus page travel diary recording the poet's time in Nigeria during the 1960s. You won't find this kind of information in the National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel, as Violi enumerates the quotidian collisions of poverty, politics, and perseverance, the wrenching contradictions of a nation-in-progress, with an almost journalistic detachment. "Sputter and Blaze" comes off as a dreamy chunk of late-Romantic reverie so deliberately paced, so ethereal in its extended metaphors of silence and light, that you nearly forget it's set in a propeller factory. Even "Triptych," which takes the form of a day's offbeat TV schedule, can transmit an unexpected gravity in its summaries of programs like "MODERN EXPLORATION" ("Spaces in the / air where the / wind waits / disguised as / silence.") and "KARMA "("The live / leafless / branches and the / dead tree / against the sky, / all grappling / with the wind."). Thank goodness "BITCH ON WHEELS," "MOSTLY PROSE" ("A / bug flies / through my eye. / The crowd / cheers."), and others add the signature Violi zest.

Unfortunately, the major comic enterprise included here, "King Nasty," makes its point in the first page or two, but struggles on for another fifteen. Written in the voice of a hot-shot Hollywood player spelling out every detail of his vision for a movie about an executioner in Revolutionary Paris ("Maybe we got a play here. / Or convert it into an opera. / A Musical. Or all three."), it seems to urge itself grudgingly forward until the campy absurdity of anyone's wanting to produce such a bad film begs the question of why anyone would want to read such a long poem about producing such a bad film.

But "King Nasty" is the only serious misstep in an otherwise provocative and obliquely engaging collection. Not many poets can get away with a line like "You can have your snake and egret too," but after the chuckle comes the realization of how perfectly the line functions within the context of the poem, how succinctly it encapsulates the moral fable it concludes. Having published exclusively with small presses, Paul Violi has suffered too low a profile in the poetry world for three decades—our age does not appreciate satirists unless they host talk shows—and one can only wish that Breakers will at last initiate his breakthrough.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000