Life and death in 17 syllables
Camden poet Nick Virgilio is a master
of saying a lot in a very few words
By Frank Rossi
Photography by J. Kyle Keener
THE CAR WAS HEADING DOWN A ONE-WAY STREET TOWARD NICK VIRGILIO’S HOUSE IN Camden, and Nick was explaining his morning routine.
“I’m up at 4:30, I go downstairs and I have two lemons in springwater. See, that helps the bowels. Then I go up and take a warm bath followed by a cold shower. Then I start these abdominal lifts, a couple hundred of `em, and that’s very good for all the internal organs.”
The car Nick was riding in came to stop. A Ford, a blue piece of junk, was blocking the one-way. Nick Virgilio, one of the best haiku poets in the United States, maybe the world, didn’t notice.
“Then I do charging breath -- pfft-pfft-pfft—which cleans the lungs out. Then I do deep breathing, then I come downstairs. Some days I’ll go down the cellar and I’ll do some reading or I write some poems. That’s all it is, anyway, rewriting. Or I’ll do it in the bathroom. Or sometimes I’ll write standing on my head, because when you’re standing on your head you have 15 percent more brainpower.”
The car blocking the road had not moved yet, and two men were actually standing in the street talking. One guy had a skinhead and wore a motorcycle jacket, the other wore a bright-blue baseball cap tilted in a way that suggested he couldn’t put his hat on straight without the aid of a mirror. Nick looked up and noticed them, but he didn’t say anything.
What did that mean, 15 percent more brainpower?
“Yeah, because you got more blood coming to the brain,” Nick said. Nick looked up again, and something about him changed. Sparks shot out of his eyes.
“What the hell’s he doin’?” Nick cried, giving skinhead the evil eye. The guys were punks. No doubt about it. What’s more, they were blocking the road on purpose. Through the windshield, skinhead could see Nick starting to lose it. Then skinhead threw his keys under the rotting Ford, hunkered down and made like he was looking for them.
“Look at that,” Nick yelled, reaching for the door handle. “What the -‘re you doin’, buddy?” he yelled, pulling at the handle.
“Don’t do that, Nick.” If this kept up, one of the foremost haiku poets in the country was going to show up at his next reading with tire a iron crease down the center of his shiny, lovable head.
“What the -‘s the matter with you people?” Nick called through the windshield, totally absorbed in the two wingnuts who were doing what they were doing for God knows what reason. Finally, in order to avoid strife, the driver of the car Nick was in pulled up on the curb, over the sidewalk and around skinhead and baseball cap.
“They did that on purpose,” Nick said. “Make a right, here. I hate people like that. I mean, you don’t have to be that way. I mean tell ‘em to -off. I would.”
“I know, Nick, but then we’d get into it.”
That answer didn’t calm him, “Tell ‘em to -off,” he repeated. “Park over here. Yeah. Right here.”
He stepped out of the car into the thin spring shade of a huge tree, and suddenly he decompressed.
What is this, an oak tree?
“No,” Nick said. “This is an American basswood, a linden. The neighbors are -ed off because it drops fuzzballs. They want to cut it down. If they do, they’ll cut my heart out.” Nick threw his arms around the tree.
“I think this tree is holier than I am. You don’t have to tell a tree to be a tree. That tree is a -ing tree. And it is a tree to the end. But how about human beings? We’re not often ourselves. You can learn a lot from trees. That’s why I say we are not better than anything else in the universe.
“If you see a worm on the sidewalk, don’t step on it, because it has as much right to live as you do.”
Can you pick it up for fishing, though?
“Yeah, I’ve done that. But don’t kill for no reason.”
Nick Virgilio walked up the steps of his modest rowhouse in the Fairview section, threw open the door and said, “C’mon, I’ll show you where I work.”
YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE FOR A MONTH WITH NICK VIRGILIO TO UNDERSTAND WHY
he’s a great poet. Part of it is his talent. More important, though, he is vulnerable.
No matter who he’s with, he lays himself open, which is risky business. If he’s hurting, he says so. If you’re hurting, he absorbs your hurt; he is a sensory sponge, and the only way he can squeeze himself out is by writing poetry.
And the kind of poetry he has chose to write is like Virgilio himself. It is called haiku. Invented by the Japanese, it is short and clean and powerful. With haiku, you get what you see and much more.
It would be easy to say that beneath the facade of Nick Virgilio lies Nick Virgilio. But there are subtleties to the man, and the only way you can read them, really, are in his poetry.
In the way, for instance, he combines a dying person and a housefly.
to the terminal patient’s toe:
Or this, about going to church:
the sermon is taking the shape
of her neighbor’s hat
Or the soft edge of a whore’s life:
raising their voices
hookers on the bus
Or how about this one:
Between tricks knitting booties
Among those who follow haiku in the United States, Nick Virgilio is famous. Of his book, Selected Haiku, a collection of 20 years’ work, one critic said that “every one of his 82 haiku resonates with essences of life and death.” Since the 1960’s Virgilio has been published regularly by every haiku review in the country. His work has also been translated into Japanese. A few months ago, his most famous poem
out of the water…
out of itself
was on the front page of the New York Times Book Review as an example from a collection of American haiku published by Simon & Schuster.
But the biggest honor is Virgilio’s reputation in Japan, where haiku was invented and where praise is not wasted on the uninitiated.
Kazuo Sato is a Japanese authority on haiku. Besides hanging out with all the great Japanese poets, Kazuo Sato is director of the haiku museum in Tokyo and writes a column for the only English language newspaper in Tokyo.
Now if you ask Nick Virgilio what the Japanese think of him, he says, “They think I’m pretty good.” Kazuo Sato, on the other hand, once wrote Virgilio a letter, saying that he’d recently discussed Virgilio’s work with the crown prince of Japan.
Sato ended the letter by saying, “You are great.”
All of which doesn’t mean spit at the checkout register of the supermarket.
Often, Nick Virgilio is paid $5 per poem. Sometimes he gets $25. Simon & Schuster’s haiku collection, for example, includes 31 of Virgilio’s poems. For these he was paid a flat fee of $5 each. His readings may bring him anywhere between $100 and $500, but like most poets, he doesn’t earn enough from readings to make his income taxable. Finally, he may be one of Camden’s most important resources, but to the powers of that city, he is just a faceless little guy from Fairview.
So when you come down to it, Nick Virgilio writes haiku not for money or recognition, although he could use some of both, but “because I want to be alive. It’s a way of getting turned on to life. And it’s also enthusiasm. I mean, what… good are you if you don’t have enthusiasm, some energy to give to other people?”
Virgilio is good because he writes what he knows and what he sees. And because he has lived in Camden almost all his life, that’s what he writes about.
Which means that, although they will never know it, skinhead and baseball cap have a pretty good chance someday of ending up in a haiku.
Nick Virgilio is jumping around in the middle of the Paley Library at Temple University like a sparrow trying to mate. In 15 minutes he will descend to the auditorium to read his poetry. Right now there is nothing to do, and he’s not doing it well.
“No,” he says, “I’ve done a lot of these before.” Then he starts walking in circles. His friend Father Joe Messina, a priest from Nick’s church, is calmly trying to engage Nick in a small talk, but it is like telling jokes to a man having open-heart surgery under local anesthetic.
Nick turns and walks to the door and looks out, and for the first time it’s apparent that he has a serious carrot-juice mustache. He drinks a quart of the stuff a day, and his friends say he is turning orange from it. But if you’re a stranger, you’d probably just think it was his natural color.
Finally, the clock surrenders, Nick walks down-stairs and takes the stage. The auditorium is low and dark and sparsely appointed. A couple of shoji screens and it’d look real Japanese.
“You know,” Nick says, “poetry is autobiographical. But you gotta take the leap. You’ve got to use the imagination, you’ve got to try to do God one better. And you fail.
Virgilio’s poetry is autobiographical, all right. To the point of pain. He has done a whole series about his brother Larry, who was killed in 1967 in Vietnam. When he talks about it, he is poetic, even when he’s not trying.
“When my bother Larry died, the hawk died in me,” he says, Nick Virgilio’s mother, Rose, is on the verge of death from Parkinson’s disease, caused, he believes, by the loss of Larry. His father, a strong man, “died of grief.” And now he and his brother Tony spend all their time taking care of their mother, and so in a way they, too, are victims of the war. Nick may be luckier than Tony. At least he can spend his grief writing poetry.
The audience, of course, knows very little about any of this. All it hears are the poems:
my gold star mother
and father hold each other
and the folded flag
darkened by the autumn rain:
my dead bother’s name
Nick pauses. “I haven’t visited that monument,” he says, “and I won’t either. I just feel that it’s a monument to shame, a national tragedy, really. A lot of men died who were patriotic. They believed they were helping their country. And I believe that the country sold them down the river.
“Enough of my opinion,” he says suddenly, and reads:
my dead brother…
hearing his laugh
in my laughter
still silent in his closet:
making up her face,
lighting a candle to Mary
for business’ sake
selling her favors:
putting her younger brother
teaching the hookers
how to make mops for a living:
The Japanese have set rigid rules for writing haiku. The rule of thumb is that a haiku be three lines- the first line five syllables long, the second line seven syllables, and the third line five syllables.
The problem is that what’s a syllable in Japanese may not be a syllable in English. For example, the word Nippon is two syllables in English. In Japanese, it’s four. So, following the rules cross-culturally doesn’t work so well.
Still, in English or Japanese, the ideal is 17 syllables per poem. “Does it have to be 17?” Virgilio says. “Well, you’re not making cupcakes, and you’re not wearing a straightjacket. If you’re short a syllable, so what? You say enough and no more.”
But even such a master as Virgilio risks being whipped by the critics when he steps far out of the bounds as to write experimentals like this:
Or this one liner:
In less than an hour, Nick Virgilio ends his poetry reading, thanks his listeners for showing up and advises them to go outside and sit on the grass and enjoy the sun, because “that’s better poetry than I can ever give you.”
Most choose to remain behind, munching young cheese and poor wine in order to have a few words with this man whose specialty is a few words.
INSIDE THE HOUSE IT’S WARM AND, WITH THE SHADES PULLED, ONLY BRIGHT ENOUGH to see Nick Virgilio’s mother, Rose, lying quietly on a thin platform, her head low, her feet up.
“I put her on the slant board so she gets more blood to the brain,” Nick says. “It does help. She’s got Parkinson’s disease.” Nick and his brother Tony live at home and take care of her.
“Hello,” Nick says to his mother. He bends over and kisses her. There is no indication she knows he’s there. “Do you want to get up, honey? You want me to put you on the couch?”
Nick carefully places his arms under his mother, as delicate as thin ice, lifts her onto the sofa and covers her carefully.
Through the dining room and its table covered with bottles of vitamins and into the kitchen he walks. He pulls a bottle from the refrigerator and pours a little from it into a glass.
“Taste that,” he says. He waits. “All right, this is carrot and apple, a real tonic for the body. If you can’t take carrot juice straight, you mix it 50-50 with apple juice.” There’s a huge pile of asparagus in the refrigerator, also.
Does he make asparagus juice, too?
“I can,” he says.
With a juicer whose motor is capable of squeezing blood from a stone, Nick Virgilio extracts the liquid from 50 pounds of carrots a week. Next to the sink, in a trash can, is a massive heap of carrot pulp. In a way, getting something drinkable from a carrot is like writing poetry. There’s always more pulp than there is juice.
Now Nick Virgilio descends to the basement. This is where it happens. Among winter clothes stored and hanging from the rafters, he sits behind a black World War II era Remington typewriter, a fingerbuster that’s more dust than typewriter.
Virgilio’s file cabinets are cardboard boxes full of his poems, a dozen or so poems to a page. He reaches into a box and grabs a handful. “This is like 10 years’ work, 15 years’ work,” he says. He points to a particular poem.
“Mike Doyle gave me this idea,” he says. “He saw this wino lying in the trash behind the Union League. So I tried to do something with that.”
on a cardboard box,
holding the frozen wino:
FRAGILE: do not crush
Out of another carton, Virgilio pulls his submission lists. Each list contains the titles of 75 to 100 poems, along with the name of a specific publication the poems are being submitted to, a few at a time.
How many of these 75 have been published? “Two,” Nick says, without emotion. You mean one of the best haiku writers gets 73 turndowns out of 75? “Yeah, that’s about it.” Other magazines will buy them, sooner or later. It’s a matter of work, says Virgilio, who has been working on some of these little three-liners for decades. The reward never is money or fame. The reward is the work itself.
The phone rings. Nick puts his palm over the mouthpiece. “It’s Mike Doyle,” he says.
“Yeah,” he says into the phone, “that’d be a good idea.” He hangs up.
“Michael says it’s the anniversary of Walt Whitman’s death and we ought to stop over and visit his grave.”
THE DRIVE TO HARLEIGH CEMENTERY IS SHORT. IT MAY BE THE MOST
beautiful place in Camden, a place where the rich and famous and the poor and anonymous finally get to be equal.
Walt Whitman died in 1892, and they put his body in a mausoleum that cost $5,000, a tremendous sum for a marker in those days. It was a perfect contradiction to his life. He had to persist beyond the meaning of the word to win acceptance for his poetry. Like Nick Virgilio, he wasn’t paid much for his work. And in his home town, he was hardly known, while people in England considered him a great American poet. Just as the Japanese consider Virgilio a great American poet.
Nick Virgilio walks to the iron bars and looks in. “Look at this,” Nick says, picking up a loose bar someone had ripped out of the grid, “somebody’s been trying to break in. It’s crazy.”
It’s one of those spring days when you can still smell winter. But the sun is out, and daffodils are popping up all over the hillside into which Whitman’s grave is built, a sign that spring is winning.
A limb from a tree blocks the approach, and a blanket of oak leaves covers the ground around Whitman’s place. It is still too early for even a blade of grass. The wind pushes a piece of trash along until it stops in the pathway to the mausoleum.
“Crunchy Doodles,” it says on the bag. Nick Virgilio is uncharacteristically mute. Finally, he looks up and says, “C’mon, let’s go.”
Captions under the pictures:
Virgilio does an hour of yoga each day, including headstands for 10 minutes at a time. The picture on the wall beneath the American flag is of the poet’s brother Larry, who was killed in Vietnam in 1967 and who has been the subject of a number of Virgilio’s haiku. At lower right is a portrait of Nick and his brother, Tony.
Gazing into Newton Creek (left), just east of Mount Ephraim Avenue, Virgilio draws inspiration for his nature poems. As a child, he fished for carp there. “Now I fish for ideas,” he says. In his kitchen (bottom left), Virgilio grinds carrots with a juicer to make fresh carrot juice for himself and his mother and brother. He uses 50 pounds of carrots each week. Leaning over his ancient Remington (bottom right), Virgilio thinks about a poem he has been working on for seven years. The craft of writing, he says, “is mostly rewriting.”