Paul Violi and a “Back to the Future” Pandemic Poem

July 1, 2020

It was well over 40 years ago that I first encountered the poems of Paul Violi (1944-2011). I had found his book HARMATAN in a bookstore in New York City in the fall of 1977. At that point, I was still editing and publishing my magazine, MOMENTUM, but it was becoming clear that I should focus on book production. The final issue of the magazine came out in 1978, and I didn’t have time to write a review of Violi’s book. As a substitute, I ran a full page notice at the end of the issue as a free advertisement in which I cited his book as the best book of poems I found on my trip.

Here is part of a poem by Paul Violi that seems just as effective in 2020 in letting its depth of field carry its humor as it was when he was wrote and read it to others. I can think of more than a few anthologies that would be easily improved with a substantial selection of his work.

I assume the citation of “Weehawken” in this poem is a nod toward part one of William Carlos Williams’s “January Morning,” in which “the beauties of travel” are attributed to the “strange hours we keep to see them.” The example Williams invokes is the domes of a Catholic Church in Weehawken. In a chapter (“The Virtue of History”) in Williams’s In the American Grain, Williams will examine the aftermath of the Hamilton-Burr duel, which took place in Weehawken.

Appeal to the Grammarians
by Paul Violi

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.
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.”

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