Reading Joe Ceravolo's 'Migratory Noon' with Ron Silliman

Joe Ceravolo in Washington Square Park, April 1964 (photo by Rosemary Ceravolo).

At the end of a thorough close reading of a Joe Ceravolo poem, which he identifies as “Migratory Moon,” Ron Silliman in his essay “Migratory Meaning,” apparently written “circa 1982,” provides a twist: “‘Migratory Moon’ is not the title of Ceravolo’s poem, but the result of a typographical error. The word in Transmigration Solo is ‘Noon.’ A single letter transforms the work.”[1]

Prior to this destabilizing revelation, Silliman emphasizes that every attempt at integration of elements into a coherent reading is thwarted, especially since “key terms … resist specificity” and “there is a seeming rejection of anaphoric connection between sentences.” However, Silliman argues that an “outdoors schema” and “the perceptible determination of every device” allow “the whole” to be able to “be said to determine every device, insinuating unity and closure,” even if this is all a result of “the Parsimony Principle acting within the mind of the reader.” This principle, taken from the work of linguists Charles Fillmore and Paul Kay, entails readers’ tendencies to combine “frames always to a maximum of unification with a minimum of effort.”[2] The poem’s first two sentence fragments illustrate the kinds of disconnection against which those trying to utilize the Parsimony Principle struggle:

    Cold and the cranes.
Cranes in the
            wind
like cellophane tape
on a school book.[3]

Silliman rightly states that “nothing in the text clarifies whether these cranes are mechanical arms that lift and carry, or birds,” but that both kinds of “cranes” and “birds” are framed by “outdoorsness.”[4] He goes into considerable detail about the associations that “cellophane tape / on a school book” evokes for different readers, but he does not consider how the simile in the second fragment may be coaxed into “sense.” Since the “cranes” and “tape” are dissimilar as material objects or beings — for example, the tape’s purpose has nothing in common with either crane — their point of comparison seems arbitrary. Some degree of vulnerability to wind’s force seems all that they have in common: the mechanical crane can be forced to move (even if slightly), the bird can be encouraged (and perhaps forced) to do so, and the tape’s function of holding a fragile schoolbook together can be disrupted. The next part of the poem, a multiclause sentence, introduces another target of the wind:

The wind bangs
the car, but I sing out loud,
              help, help
as sky gets white
and whiter and whiter and whiter.

Silliman, who uses the example of “Migratory Noon” and other poems to support a theoretical point in his essay about the need for a fresh critical vocabulary for poems that resist ordinary thematic analysis, points to the strangeness of the devices that Ceravolo uses (such as the “singing” of a plea). However, the passage above does not require much effort for a reader to construct a plausible slice of narrative. The speaker, whether inside “the car” or out in the elements, wants to be rescued from the impact of wind and cold, and the whitening of “sky” indicates an increase in cloud cover or presages a snowfall. However, the pronoun used in the poem’s only question and final sentence makes it considerably more elusive: “Where are you / in the reincarnate / blossoms of the cold?” (31).

Silliman writes: “That the ‘you’ has no identifiable signified, that ‘you’ is, literally, absent, is the thrust of the question: where, under such circumstances, are you?”[5] If the you is “a lover,” situating “the poem well within the lyric subgenre of the ‘lover’s lament,’ it requires an importation of meaning which rests entirely on a knowledge of literary conventions extraneous to the text.”[6] This importation in no way disqualifies this particular reading, because a great deal of interpretation in general — perhaps most — relies on contexts that stand outside the given text, which itself combines signifiers in ways that can fit differing constructions of a signified. Of course, the “you” could just as easily be the reader, who might be perusing the poem representing outdoor cold in a heated indoor environment, or a parent, another rescuer for the one needing “help,” or any number of “others.”

Silliman skillfully shows how the word “reincarnate” produces multiple effects: it “is a term that fits a Migratory schema. It also contains the word ‘car,’ the long a of ‘cranes,’ and even an allophonic scrambling of the word ‘crane.’”[7] Though he speaks of “blossoms” as partaking of a “pastoral envisionment,” it is also important, I think, to note how Ceravolo’s yoking of “reincarnate / blossoms” with “cold” subverts the usual image of floral growth in spring or summer after the killing of flowers in winter and posits winter weather (even if a season is not specified) as associated with rejuvenation and production. But what is being produced? Is physical pain or anxiety itself being “reborn” after a period of latency? Another question arises from the preposition “in” the middle of the poem’s closing gesture. If the question is actual rather than rhetorical, then the speaker assumes that the you is spatially or psychologically within the cold environment. But if the question is rhetorical, it indicates an accusation that the you is outside — (selfishly) failing to share the obstacle that the cold entails and will not respond helpfully to the “sung” “help.”

And how does the poem’s title relate to the poem? Silliman distinguishes between the function of “a title,” which “points or refers to the body of the text as a whole,” or of a titular “caption,” which “penetrates it highlighting certain elements within.”[8] He asserts that Ceravolo’s false title, “Migratory Moon,” is a caption, prompting “a leap of faith that allows a reader to experience a cohering unity,”[9] but when he reveals the actual title, he claims that “nothing within the poem is open to such a penetration.”[10] The adjective “migratory” echoes Transmigration Solo, the title of the 1979 volume in which the poem was originally collected. Captioning particular elements of the poem, it can be said to refer to the fact that “cranes” (birds) and human beings like the speaker have a reason to migrate, given the cold of the wind. However, the fact that this adjective is tied to the noun “noon” may indicate to some readers, instead, that the title makes “the body of the text as a whole” — whatever narration lies within — be framed by a particular time. Thus, “noon” is a personification; it exemplifies multiple movements of elements within an environment. Silliman denies that either title or caption can be supported when it is discovered that “Moon” is actually “Noon.” However, given the accuracy of what he says in the essay about the pervasiveness of the Parsimony Principle, a reader determined to conceive of the correct title in either of these two ways will foreground elements that fit specific contexts and ignore those that disable such a reading, and these moves could easily prove persuasive to a constituency of readers. For example, one could argue that a title is a caption even if it lacks any words from the poem, because words in the title and poem might be considered linked by definition, metaphor, or metonymy.

Putting the finishing touches on his opening critique of Peter Schjeldahl’s review of Transmigration Solo, which admits to “rarely” knowing what Ceravolo “is talking about” but trusting in the poet’s “felt contact with actual experience beyond the experience of words,”[11] Silliman concludes his analysis of what is within the experience of words by asserting that Ceravolo’s poem is “a complex, unstable whole not equal to any single envisionment.”[12] Though my own reading (which, unlike his, never considers the relation of the word “moon” to the poem) locates different potential clusters and disruptions of meaning than his does, I cannot disagree with his thirty-year-old summation. In the past three decades, what Silliman calls “the School of Quietude” and Charles Bernstein terms “Official Verse Culture” still express their discomfort at times with poems that severely splinter the readerly quest for envisionment. Nevertheless, so much has been written about Language Poetry and other innovative work that the kind of “final” characterization that Silliman offers has become commonplace, though the interpretive steps he takes to arrive at it are not. It might be useful for writing on Ceravolo in 2012 to trace the collision or confluence of competing emphases — for example, pastoral, amatory, aleatory, collagistic, theological, rhetorically hybrid, surreal, linguistically self-reflexive — and to speculate about how readers foreground effects that stem from these encounters of disparate elements.

 


 

1. Ron Silliman, “Migratory Meaning,” in The New Sentence (New York: Roof Books, 1995), 109, 119.

2. Ibid., 115.

3. Joe Ceravolo, Transmigration Solo (West Branch, IA: Toothpaste Press, 1979), 31.

4. Silliman, “Migratory Meaning,” 112.

5. Ibid., 118.

6. Ibid., 118–19.

7. Ibid., 119.

8. Ibid., 110.

9. Ibid., 111.

10. Ibid., 120.

11. Ibid., 109.

12. Ibid., 119.