An appreciation of Joseph Ceravolo
I am going to center my reading of Joseph Ceravolo’s work on The Green Lake Is Awake, (Coffee House Press, 1994), which in all its modesty is the current extant selected of Ceravolo’s work. Readers of his poetry will welcome the imminent comprehensive collected, that’s for sure. In The Green Lake Is Awake, the lovely introduction by Kenneth Koch provides a graceful, incisive, and friendly opening to a complex poetry, but more readings and responses are way past due. (I note that on the Internet one may find a selection of critical responses scattered among the blogs of devotees). And readers may supplement the experience of reading his poetry with online recordings of Ceravolo reading his work. Poet and critic Anselm Berrigan gave an impassioned talk on hearing Ceravolo’s work via just such sources at an event at SVA in spring 2011 (Poetry as Music, March 17, 2011).
Ceravolo’s poetry (famously, if such a word can be used in relation to this underknown poet) is enigmatic and original, a poet’s poetry. A reader may want to retain these notions as the work is entered, to provide certain reference points, as, very quickly, the persuasively abrupt pathway of his poetics draws the reader in, on and down to a shifting, elemental “place,” which throws off and rebuffs any distancing literary considerations.
“Where are you closer to everything?” the poem “Lighthouse” asks. “Wherever I am” may be read as a reply — “when everything’s so fated” (24). With a kind of panpipe trace, the poems throw out songs from where they are: positions in consciousness that cry out their existence and, quick as a lightning bug, flicker off at different pitches and dimensions of the same voice, before alighting on another plane.
With all their weird otherness, these early poems also bring us into domesticity, a dominant mode and evocation in Ceravolo’s work. A set of familial elements is alluded to: male, female, boys … children among waves, sand, and lighthouse flash, “among all things / that bloom” (25).
And yet, Ceravolo constructs, with the oddity of his language and the perfect confidence of his own estranged discovery, a dimension of domesticity that is unknown in previous American poetry. A possible precursor might be found in Dickinson’s poems; that is, a realm of relation in the poem that is trans-species, trans-object, and non-object. In “Dusk,” Ceravolo observes a “little moth dressed in / rose pink” (15). The poet, in love and immersed, dives in a swoop of empathy down to a nearly cellular level, as when he inquires, in the poem “White Fish In Reeds,” “Who calls you / on a sun shirt sleeves down his ecstasy / The hair you are / becoming?” (25). In “Ho Ho Ho Caribou,” a poem dedicated to the poet’s wife, Rosemary, Ceravolo employs metaphor as provocation: “Where geese sons / and pouches of daughters look at / me and say ‘I’m hungry / daddy’” (26). One experiences a projection of an interspecies empathy. The poem is made from the merging of simultaneities of consciousnesses flickering back and forth among parallel granular elements. “And I want to / be / among all things” (25). This is not — or at least not completely or only — a poetry of the Romantic tradition. It reads as aligned with Emerson’s transparent eyeball meditations, and the outcome of a long looking a la Thoreau. Yet, for all the transcendence of the effect, one wonders if most of these poems were not composed in peripheral minutes snatched during trips to the zoo, in a parking lot, a visit to Mexico, sitting at a table strewn with children, a drive through small-town New Jersey streets.
Perhaps because of the poet’s situation and obligations (his muse and ground as well), wisps of ironic humor — “My eyes are full of cement” (24; so much for transparency!) — as well as sadness and resignation shoot through the work: “Although I do not / love flowers” (25); “where I love is now cool” (23); “even though I could not sleep” (24; not with these poems in you could you sleep!).
Millennium Dust by Joseph Ceravolo (1982).
“Ho Ho Ho Caribou” is surely one of the great, secret, experimental poems of the late twentieth century, for all its being the most anthologized of Ceravolo’s work. Arising out of the domestic and yet utterly strange in its progression, it finds its way into being. Utterances float out of a juncture of “caribou … gastrous desert … at a star” (26–27). It is not only the juxtapositions that make the poem so memorable. What compels a reader to return to its unknowability is the encounter with the inventing mind that proceeds through the bumpy terrain of its devising as it asks: “Do we flow nothing?” (28), and notes: “You passed / beyond us” (29).
A French sound, if you will, rings through many of these poems, the whispered chimes of a Breton-like music and magic: “Wolves on the desert / of ice cold love, of / fireproof breasts and the breast / I took like snow” (29). Ceravolo is clearly a careful, passionate reader of modern poetry. Visual artist Rosemary Ceravolo, wife, companion, and mother of his children, has stated: “He lived and died for poetry. Nothing mattered as much to his sensibilities.” And of course it is known that he studied and hung out with the poets of the New York School and the Poetry Project scene. Although Ceravolo may seem to have the aura of an innocent — the Rousseau among the Bateau-Lavoir crowd — this is not the poetry of a naïf isolate. Ceravolo, talking back to Ashbery, writes: “When will I / decline with the lazy starve?” (cp. Ashbery’s “How much longer will I be able to inhabit the divine sepulcher / Of life, my great love?”). For all the sweet outsiderness of Joseph Ceravolo’s attitude, his poems are engrossed in the conversation.
Many of his poems contain compact, Asian-seeming poems within them or attain a haiku-like brevity. A reading of that edge of his work would be fascinating. But there is another thread, which may be discerned also in the early work of poet Bernadette Mayer, and that is a Native American narrative, a kind of Black Elk Speaks accounting of events, of seasonal incidents, as in “We are the people who have / been running with / animals.” This account, spoken by an Oglala Sioux shaman, was a key source during the decades when Native American narratives would impress themselves on a poet’s awareness. “Boy-not-afraid. / Ugly boy a magic” is the last line of Ceravolo’s poem “Indian Suffering” (32). Maybe Ceravolo speaks to himself here. Perhaps the ugly boy magic, influenced by Native American thought, becomes Ceravolo’s own “creep’s / universe” (31).
The peculiarity of Ceravolo’s repurposed syntax has been characterized by poet and critic David Shapiro as “cubist.” For it is Ceravolo’s use of language (as all commentators on his work have noted) that makes his poetry groundbreaking and completely at the experimental forefront of late-twentieth-century poetry. Certainly his work extends the inventions begun by Stein, the surrealists, and American modernists, but in Ceravolo flexibility of syntax and materiality of grammar are pushed even further. The radicalism of the poems never seems to insist didactically on its mode. It’s more that the thought and situation of the poem’s instantaneous specificity could only come into being if language rules were subverted, remade, and fluidly reordered.
Cubist yes, but also delving and compositionally contingent, one feels, upon a compressed time frame. As though these poems were written very quickly under pressure so as to inhabit fully the fleeting, highly abstract juncture of elements that calls them into existence. Yet they provoke exactly the opposite effect on readers, throwing us into an expansive ignorance of time, in which cycles of experience overlay, transgressing surfaces. “Can I escape […]?” the young swimmer or potential swimmer asks in the poem that is an underground classic, “The Wind Is Blowing West” (21).
Is there a more poignant, realized communication in any poem of its time? And the deliberations of its process, whether to engage with the forces of the world or to wait, are the oceanic volumes of a few minutes or Hamlet’s eternity. There is a saintly spirituality in these poems that is inescapable. Shall we attribute it to the consciousness that comes through and leave the memory of Joseph Ceravolo free of such a burden? “I am a little dirty bug”; “will you come home / with me?” (34) seem of the same spirit as Saint Francis of Assisi’s exultant canticle. Another facet is that the dirty bug is the poetic thought ineluctably attracted to a poet’s reverie, coming home to “stay With us on the bed” (34) as though one key to Ceravolo’s enigma might be a highly receptive state of mind. Could it be proposed that in part Ceravolo’s poetry is a hallucinogenic poetry in the time-honored practice of systematic derangement of the senses (speaking of divine sepulchers)? An evanescent quality of flux propels a number of these poems. Perhaps. A throng of sensations as in a Dubuffet painting. Or the cubists, depicting a cubistic universe at an eye level away from our bodies. Ceravolo’s poems seem to be speaking from inside a like realm, zapping us inside.
“To indicate is to / turn off” (43). Is this the poet’s comment on how to know this process of immersion? “In a new storage of love”: don’t the words intimate something larger than the poet’s own comprehension? As though Ceravolo heard on the wire a vibration of a new dimension, a big thing, and mixed in his intuition of the oncoming microchip universe.
Ceravolo may have been an early experimentalist in homophonic translations from the Italian (for such an experiment from the French, look to David Cameron’s Flowers of Bad). In phrases such as “Unwhorl sagesse pain!” or “misery prosody somnambula” (66), the vocabulary is fancier, more archaic and Latinate than in others of his poems. And the music is of Petrarch’s scritto avea di diamante et di topazi (Canzoniere, Sonnet 190). It’s not difficult to imagine Ceravolo making his own versions, similar to results from Kenneth Koch’s workshop assignments or the writing exercises Bernadette Mayer has made famous. One imagines fellow poet Clark Coolidge in tune with the hard syncopation of the music “the starts do not emit.”
Whatever its provenance and mysteries, Ceravolo’s poem remains “gush some bang of ode” and “way so / nod of” (66–67) in a “Night for the carnival / rummage of humans” (70). For all their cartoony music, these poems are more formal than Ceravolo’s earlier work and engage in even more abstract language forays. Only further scholarly research will reveal the situations that led to this development in his poetics. I think that, of all the New York School poets, Joseph Ceravolo’s sister in wit and mood might be Susie Timmons in her kindred quizzicality of spirit, of succinct noticing. The Poetry Project recognized this, including her as reader in a 2010 celebration of Ceravolo’s work.
My personal favorite in the selected is “Pain Songs,” in its solitude and “goulash / of darkness” (95) and “Veracruzian desolation” (96). A line such as “in deep vocabulary afternoon” (97) is such a pleasure for its mortal melancholy. It resonates with Jack Kerouac’s “early pale English furniture … sad beads of afternoon.” Surely, Ceravolo must have loved much of the works of the Beats, discerning the gold in the straw. In staying with this poem, following along its dark ramble, one feels aligned with the mood of full immersion in the universal other and ecstatic possibility that Ceravolo’s poetry realizes.
4. On the very afternoon I wrote of this, I happened to encounter Susie Timmons on a Brooklyn street. As we paused in front of a bucket of early daffodils, she related that years ago she and poet Steve Levine “made a pilgrimage” to the home of Joseph and Rosemary Ceravolo, where “they graciously received us and served us glasses of Cynar liquor.”
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.”
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.” 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
like cellophane tape
on a school book.
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.” 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,
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?” 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.” 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.’” 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.” 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,” but when he reveals the actual title, he claims that “nothing within the poem is open to such a penetration.” 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,” 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.” 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.
Why would it make sense to analyze select poems by a disparate group of younger poets working today via one particular poem by Joe Ceravolo? Wouldn’t it be better, if one wanted to make the case that Ceravolo is newly relevant, to take his entire oeuvre as a reference field? And even if his poetry might presage formally (through its informality) some things some poets today are doing, surely there are many other ways they are writing that have nothing or little to do with Ceravolo, or have much more to do with a wide range of poets from diverse periods.
The fact is that there is something in the poetry of both Barbara Guest and Joe Ceravolo that is distinct from other poets of their time or later and which is becoming increasingly recognized and influential among poets working today. Let’s call it musicality. It is a way of communicating that has little to do with logic, except as the logical mind extrapolates from given signposts. It is poetry that is nonlinear; stories are not told. Settings, if anything, are intimated, not specified. The poems do not rely on humor, irony, or surrealist surprise of detail.
And yet the poetry of neither of these poets is fragmentary. I believe that has to do with the time in which both Guest and Ceravolo grew up. In a pre-media, pre-multi-tasking, age, their poetics, aware though they were of tragedy, aspired to wholeness. I don’t mean their poems have pat endings, quite the contrary, but their poems have completeness. You can think of them as musical pieces. They begin with motifs, which are elaborated, and ultimately conclusions — musical conclusions — are reached.
It occurs to me I have been trying for some time to find a way out of the fragmentary. The more the fragmentary has been praised as the signal artistic achievement of the past century, the more I have realized I am uncomfortable with its ascendancy. Ceravolo and Guest are excellent guides to poetry that is thoroughly modern without being fragmented. In their poetry, there is no desire to turn back to an earlier conception of poetry’s limits.
A poem by Joe Ceravolo, then, provides the springboard for thinking about a group of young poets, who have been published in recent issues of 6x6. Let’s take a look at a poem by Joe Ceravolo, “Stars of the Trees and Ponds,” and then bring it back with us to 6x6.
Stars of the Trees
O blue and nerveless
stars. The night and the
distance of the lake.
The lake: mosquitoes, the
uni-inter air — the pond of
towering mosquitoes we float
the tents as we use
the lumpy earth under a
blanket. Cars: the
blanket of cars facing your
vision of stars and thoughts
never concealed to the lake.
Conceal: Thoughts are never
hidden, the mosquito cries to
the lake. And brings the
lake’s invisible man
Invisible: a woman rises into
the lake and out of the lake
Pond: you are left in the tent
and see the beige pond.
Leak: a woman stands over you.
Woman: the pond leaks.
You hear it.
(The Paris Review 38 [Summer 1966])
This poem by Joe Ceravolo accrues power through repetition. Not a description of a scene, nonetheless a setting emerges; the title hints at that setting, although the force of the possessive “of” is ambiguous, and the graphic separation of the word “Ponds” from the rest of the title seems to set it almost as counterbalance to the other terms.
We are in the realm of pastoral. The following words alert us: lake, mosquitoes, pond, earth, stars, tent. But this is no narrative of a camping trip, no occasion for a meditation on nature. Our first impression is that this is an occasion for the senses, and the trained ear may hear echoes of Mallarmé here, that is, of a poet who could write seemingly for sound only (or color, an Impressionist like his colleague Debussy), who created dreamlike passages of sound, in which desire is fomented and disappointment and attainment take turns as the tonic chord.
Ceravolo’s pacing is masterful: unexpected and precise. There are pick-ups: the third line ends with “lake.” The fourth begins, “The lake …” The sixth ends, “we float …” The seventh continues, “… through. Float.” “Blanket” rhymes with itself at the beginning of the tenth line (the last of the first stanza) and the beginning of the eleventh (first of the second stanza). And so on: “concealed to the lake. / Conceal:”; “invisible man / Invisible:”
The colons have a specific function, almost like a musical notation of repetition of an idea, a pause for reiteration. They initiate clarification of meaning but not by providing equivalents. Ceravolo’s insistent mode is a lyrical breaking of syntax. There is a progression as the poem moves through its stanzas. Although the lines are short, the poem moves by pauses, not flow, creating an expanded sense of time. This short poem can take a long time to read.
Cars are introduced at the end of the first stanza, grounding the poem in the mundane, as much as “the lumpy earth” grounds its physical experience. The cars threaten to “blanket” that experience, but, the poem tells us, thoughts, associated by proximity to the cars, are “never concealed,” “never / hidden.” Whose thoughts? At this point, the poet’s — perhaps only his. One interpretation could be that imagination is able to resist the onslaught of commercial culture. Reading this way, one would be tempted to identify imagination (or intellect) with the natural elements in the poem. Another interpretation could be that cars are transportation, and therefore imagination.
At the transition from the second to the third (and final) stanza, first a “man” and then “a woman” are introduced, albeit “invisible.” In the poem’s final three lines, the drama of the scene coalesces, as, “Leak: a woman stands over you.” This is the first use of the generalizing “you” in the poem. There is a human opening, literally and emotionally, here. The word “leak,” set apart by a colon from the phrase that follows, implies the woman, standing over “you,” is leaking. The tension created between a physical and emotional leak is powerful. But in the next line, the poet inverts the tension, clarifies it, or has the woman clarify it, speak it perhaps: “Woman: the pond leaks.”
Another idea makes itself felt: the identification of woman with nature. This ancient male conception has been discredited by feminists, but some women have sought to rescue an element of power in the identification. Perhaps Ceravolo’s poem partakes of this more tentative identification. Perhaps woman in this poem is nature, in all its hovering evanescence, while man is identified with the car and tent not as progress and domination but as intrusion, pollution.
In the final line of the poem, three short words quickly focus the reverie. Everything we have become aware of is part of the sensual experience of nature in a modern context, an ambiguous relationship between a man and a woman: “You hear it.” Humans are invisible, apart from, through somehow identified with, nature.
I would like to keep the experience of reading this poem by Ceravolo in mind as paradigmatic while examining some poems by much younger poets, published in 6x6.
Published by Ugly Duckling Presse in editions of 1,000, 6x6, as its name implies, presents in each issue six pages of poetry by six poets. (The Rolling Stones’ second album, 12x5, presented twelve tracks by five musicians). I have access to issues 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19, and it is these I will consider here. In these, all the contributors are contemporary, except for Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), whose poems appear in translations by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak. No information is provided in the magazine as to who edits it. No bios of the authors are given. The magazine has a distinctive format, seven by seven inches square with the upper right corner cut out, bound by a fat rubber band. The first line of poetry from the first poem in the magazine is printed on the cover along with the issue number but without the magazine title.
One of the pleasures of reading 6x6 is having one’s horizons broadened by the editorial policy of promoting experimental work. There are, in 6x6, poems composed of prose, and there are poems in stanzas. There are poems written in complete sentences, easy or difficult to comprehend, and there are poems whose syntax is interrupted. There are humorous poems and despairing poems, also angry poems, and sexy poems. I am combing the pages of 6x6, looking for poetry that works by subterfuge — in ways not readily apparent to logical analysis.
In 6x6 no. 18, Guy Bennett presents a suite of conceptual poems. Here is “Poem Wholly Lacking In Ideas” in its entirety: “Intriguing as the thought may be, / it is simply not possible / to write a poem wholly lacking / in ideas.” This is very well done, as are his other poems in the set. They are witty, and they keep to their intellectual premise of complete self-referentiality. More importantly, they are poems. They are very far, however, from what Ceravolo was trying to achieve. There is no urgent feeling that syntax needs to be fractured while retaining with difficulty a melodic result.
Lawrence Giffin’s poems in 6x6 no. 15 bears a superficial resemblance to Ceravolo’s in their use of exclamation, repetition, and spatial separation within normally laid-out lines. Here is his opening section:
was at my feet.
I too, knew,
it was immense!
I knew the word that
named the process
going on inside my head,
was restrained The Sea
and made in fact
herself to point.
My first conscious perception
of an abstract idea. Part I:
Helen’s Genius She touched
my head and said
with decided emphasis,
This is well-paced, and the word choices are very tasteful. There is a subtle mixture of ideas from classical poetry, philosophy, psychology, and politics, without the poem’s seeming overly referential. The ideas are subsumed into the poet’s own intervention in the English language. But there is still here a reverence for the completeness of the sentence. This is an important separating point, that determines whether a poet will be able to find his or her path of linguistic innovation, or will be under the sway of previous modes of connecting ideas. And lest anyone think I only favor poetry of The Tennis Court Oath lineage, let me add that innovation can take place too on the level of the syllable, or in punctuation, or in the space between words. Frank O’Hara does it in “The Day Lady Died” as much as he does in “Easter.”
Here is a poem that approaches what I am getting at. It is by Ossian Foley, from 6x6 no. 16. I can’t tell if it is a poem or a section of a poem. It appears on its own page without a title:
Souse with spray
— yet awash in rimless floods
the boundless touch
hand in hand without halt
the sail spans the bay —
time at bay.
What attracts me here is the use of the word “souse,” leading off with that, and yet — apart from the suggestive word “rimless” — relying on commonly used words, and resisting the temptation to pile words next to one another. The use of alliteration, assonance and rhyme here is sophisticated — “hand in hand without halt / the sail spans the bay” is particularly successful — but what really hooks, and seems particularly Ceravolean, is the way Foley uses the word “bay” differently in the last two lines. This gets inside the skin of poetry, to do something only a poet can do. “[T]ime at bay” is both “time spent at the bay” and “time kept at bay.” In the latter sense, the time — that is to say, the music — of the poem exemplifies what it suggests: it keeps rational clock-time at bay, at least for as long as we are reading.
Megan Kaminski, in 6x6 no. 17, presents untitled poems from a longer sequence, “Favored Daughter.” Dispensing with punctuation, she creates blocks of text, whose meanings hover and migrate, as in this section:
Fingers search into clay damp earth
make way for deeper roots horizontal
creepings below those top two leaves
there is still darkness even this time
of year beneath the sunshine and lawn
parties bequeathed longings croquet
around tulips sprout nasturtiums
lain dormant underground for years
As with all her poems in this selection, the first word only is capitalized, making them function like stanzas. They are breath-blasts — a tiny pause, or caesura, thrown in the middle — the amount the poet can speak in one burst, getting it all down in time. Getting it all done at once means that meanings wend their own way. You could consider this description, if you are really hung up on syntax, but it would not get you too far: hands probing under the earth run into roots, which they courteously make way for, prompting the narrator to remember croquet games and other happy summer activities. Even that, as description, is fairly odd, but what takes on much deep weight (“deeper roots”) is the way the sense of memory is leavened in, or rather how sensation (and here I get a twinkling of Ceravolo) unexpectedly prompts memory. As in Foley’s work, Kaminski does not tell the reader this; her words enact it.
It happens here: “there is still darkness even this time / of year” (italics mine). She (the fingers) has found the darkness — under the literal ground of earth and underground in the subconscious — which kicks up lawn parties and croquet and shockingly interspersed among them “bequeathed longings.” By the last line of the poem, we know for sure that it is not only the tulips and nasturtiums that now sprout, but these precise longings, which have “lain dormant underground for years” (italics mine). In this short, unassuming poem, there is a stark depth of emotion, all the more powerful for remaining unexplicit. We inevitably fill in the blanks. What remains is that strange word “bequeathed.” Archaic-sounding, almost out of place, it keys in the poem, making the connection from one person to another and making that connection somehow uncomfortable.
Paul Hoover in 6x6 no. 18 is something of an anomaly. I imagine most of the poets in 6x6 are in their thirties, maybe some in their twenties, some in their forties. Hoover is of an earlier generation, a revered figure both as a sophisticated experimenter with poetic forms and, with Maxine Chernoff, as a significant publisher of other poets. His work in 6x6 is not, therefore, surprising, but it does fit with the editorial stance. Here is the second stanza of Hoover’s “Night Is Spoken Here”:
clouds over miami
and clouds over time
it’s always the future somewhere
we all remember it well
a violent time has great ideas
peace is full of holes
One is aware reading this stanza of a poetics balanced by years of practice and freighted with an ability to handle the big questions. Yet the musical carries the burden, much as in Ossian Foley’s “the sail spans the bay — / time at bay.” Here, it is the repetition of “clouds” in the first two lines, the way the word alters its function by what it is connected with: first, the direct and nondescript; then, by pacing and substitution, Hoover shifts the game into the metaphysical.
Dan Rosenberg in 6x6 no. 19 presents prosy poetry in which syntactic connections are ambiguous, as in this opening stanza to “sight cracks open my shell tight flesh sloughs off”:
overripe I’m a white peach placed next to
the refrigerator humming unkind
odes to splitting open I have felt this
rippling in the colors inside me
have bled hot through the breached walls helplessly
The placement of words here is muscular, spreading energy through the text. “Humming” at first seems to describe the refrigerator, but later attaches to the “I” of the poem, as “splitting open” seems to go with the peach that is standing for that I. “Rippling in the colors” is still playing with the person/fruit metaphor, but the last line of this stanza takes an abrupt turn with the phrases “bled hot” and “breached walls helplessly.” Significant, in my opinion, is the rhyme of “breach” in the last line with “peach” in the first. The fruit is broken here, in the poem’s logic, although it is “walls” that are broken in the literal text. Another rhyme happens too, this one a semantic one, as “helplessly” recalls an unexplained “placed next to” from the first line. At whose mercy does this peach-person feel her- or himself to be? That is not explained, but the feeling, the “helplessly” of it, is very clear.
What have I found in my stays in 6x6’s pages? I realize that there is substantial diversity in the poets published by 6x6 in terms of style and attitude. What I am personally drawn to, what I began this discussion with, is what I find in Ceravolo’s “Stars of the Trees and Ponds.” I find reflections of that in 6x6 as well. It just occurred to me that “stars” in Ceravolo’s title can take on the meaning of movie or theater stars. The poem’s woman and man are the stars of the trees and ponds. I recognize that my reading in 6x6 has allowed me this perception. It is not a case of some poets published in 6x6 being influenced by Joe Ceravolo’s poetry. It does not even matter if they are aware of Ceravolo. There is something in the traffic — the taxis, and yes, of course, the subway — that travels in both directions. I become aware that paying close attention to what the poets in 6x6 are doing has helped me understand Joe Ceravolo better.
Previously published at poetryproject.org February 2, 2010.
1. Guest has become widely acknowledged as an innovator, especially since the publication in 2008 of her Collected Poems by Wesleyan University Press; Ceravolo is still largely terra incognita. Only The Green Lake Is Awake, a selected poems published in 1994 by Coffee House Press, is available. Ceravolo, who was born in 1934, died in 1988.
A different way of thinking
What follows are excerpts from Poetry as Music: A Different Way of Thinking, a panel discussion organized by Vincent Katz and Tim Peterson as part of their Quips and Cranks series on poetry and poetics. This discussion took place at The School of Visual Arts, New York, March 17, 2011. The panelists were poet and critic Kimberly Lyons, poet and critic Anselm Berrigan, and painter and publisher of The Brooklyn Rail Phong Bui. Katz and Peterson were the moderators.
Vincent Katz: Our topic today is poetry as music. We were thinking about a number of poets whose work is difficult to categorize, either in terms of political point of view, let’s say, or even formally, or through a relationship to the subject matter. In particular, we were thinking about the poetry of Joseph Ceravolo and Barbara Guest. Guest has received quite a bit of attention since the publication of her Collected Poems [Wesleyan, 2008]. Ceravolo remains a more fugitive figure whose work is hard to find, although there is a collected Ceravolo in the works, which is exciting.
Ezra Pound usefully divided poetry into logopoeia, phanopoeia, and melopoeia. According to him — and I think he was right in this — all poetry has some percentage of these three elements, and it varies from poet to poet. Logopoeia is the meaning, or logos, in the poem; phanopoeia is making an image appear, the visual quality that the poem evokes; and melopoeia is the sound and the music. So if we’re thinking of these two poets as poets whose work is hard to discuss in traditional critical ways, and we’re trying to develop a new language, we thought to ask what would it mean to use music as an analog by which to look at their work? And then, we realized we need to ask what is music? I’m just going to read some notes before we turn it over to our panelists.
What is music? Sounds and rhythms, sounds and sequences, sounds and phrases like talking. Repetitions, different registers, timbres, harmony, counterpoint, large-scale forms, motifs, embellishments. And as we all know, there has been a long-standing historic connection between poetry and music. Much poetry was performed to music. The Roman word for poem is carmen, meaning song, and our word sonnet means a little sound, a little bit of music. Lyric enters into this; ballads, odes, other terms that we use for poems that come from song. But we’re talking about musical forms, so here are just a few: canon, motet, song, sonata, are elements of music, and these can be useful when talking about ways of talking about these poets. An introduction, a theme, a development, a crescendo, a climax, a denouement, or a coda, but also composition by phrase. Here are a couple of quotes that may be useful: “All arts approach the conditions of music” — Pater. “If we want pure sound, we want music” — Ezra Pound, from “Vorticism” (1915). “For me, poetry has its beginning and ending outside thought” — John Ashbery, writing on John Clare. Timing in art, the timing of a career, timing within a work, an idea of lyric. Is Ceravolo lyric? The passing of time, poetry as a temporal art, as a measurement of time and music.
I’d like to read a short poem by Joseph Ceravolo to get us started thinking about this topic. This is a poem called “Fly”:
The lights are on;
flesh is next to the body.
Drinking out of the glass
and the tide sways
you in my arms.
A membrane of wisdom
or the lips. I spit.
Nothing is changed.
The lights are on.
The sound of the waves
through the traffic. I rub your body.
Hold me: the waves.
A fly alights
on the glass.
It sings a song
with a nerve impulse.
And the tide
the birds——fit to eat
comes back in
the dream of a metropolis.
The flies full of
energy, full of light alight.
Tim Peterson: One aspect of this topic that interests me is how the meaning of language gets obscured when sound is foregrounded, when the musical qualities outweigh meaning qualities […]. That they’ve taken precedence in some way. I find that happening a lot in Joe Ceravolo’s work in the confounding way that he puts words together. He puts words together like a weird adjective with a weird noun. I can open a random page in this book, say, “A small listen.” You know. “The gang sponge.” “The beach of wingy feet.” That one makes a little more sense. “Algebraic breeze.” These things are everywhere, and that’s interesting. So, what are we saying in a case like that? Is that music or nonsense? What do you guys think about that?
Anselm Berrigan: I would start by saying it’s not nonsense, because nonsense is too tight a sense to have a purchase inside of the conversation, right? It has a musical quality to it because it’s existing in time, and it has this sound as an inherent part of it, but it’s inside of the larger work. Maybe one of the interesting things about Ceravolo and Guest, though in a different way, is that the duration of each line is part of, but also distinct within, the duration of the whole poem. The line is functioning on this sound and material level, and it’s going to hold in a certain way, and meaning on the literal or logical level is something that’s not unimportant, but it’s traveling alongside these other components. What comes up to the surface depending on your particular experience inside that poem is going to really vary. The emphasis is going to shift constantly, and that has to happen if you’re functioning off of some kind of musical performance inside of the poem.
Kimberly Lyons: I totally agree with you. Taking off from that point, in Ceravolo’s wildest, most abstract poems, the shifts are very instantaneous; they happen within the line. It’s almost pointillist. Yet he does have these sequential poems that have some sense of a narrative. With Guest, the lines are usually more sensibly intact, but then the meaning seems to shift from line to line. But there are exceptions to that, and as her work progressed […] she became very spatialized, and you start to see the radicalism that you see in Ceravolo also. It’s just a different process and a very different effect. The music is very different in those two poets.
Berrigan: Ceravolo’s music I think of as jangly, or jittery, almost like there’s a tree following him.
Katz: At first Ceravolo’s music is a little bit jarring and disturbing for some of the reasons Tim was mentioning, two words that don’t ordinarily go together, but I find that after reading a lot of it, it starts to have a very deep tone, and I’m wondering if any of you would consider that lyric. I mean, to me it has something that’s very eternal, it’s “about the eternal issues,” although it’s totally nonlinear and not literal, but I’m wondering if we could bring the term lyric into this conversation at all.
Berrigan: I would say I think Ceravolo and Guest’s particular dictions are fairly different […] They both have this kind of mad word-love […] although one change with Ceravolo I think is that his vocabulary gets a little more spare towards the end of his life, which wasn’t meant necessarily to be an end. But in the early poems, especially “Fits of Dawn,” the vocabulary and diction are wide-ranging. Guest and Ceravolo’s [uses of] syntax […] are really different, but you can hear the consonants, the full use of the alphabet just ringing across the poems. That’s part of how you get those funky word combinations you get in Ceravolo.
Lyons: You know, I hadn’t thought about that poem, “Fits of Dawn,” and I wonder if this might not have been some kind of systematic mistranslation from the Latin or the Italian? Because if you read it, to me it has that sort of surface resonance with Italian, with all the o’s. So I brought some Petrarch, and I was hoping you would read it and you would hear the sound. There’s a resonance, there’s a conversation going on. “O gong of wept / O unviolet” — let me start again, because I’m starting to project into it my own intensities, and I think he would read much more evenly.
O gong of wept
furious cozy the rain
O dam of soul
to chase look! am poor.
O cheat of beg o cat
gist o am Walk
elysium tool a sun day Broke
revel lasso to
Yes, wolf of songs, O muse
O mixed Enemy! Invent
of dwell So voyage So end mercy
earth Usurp violets
O visible gym of flowered
Katz: Let’s see. You have Petrarch in Italian? It’s all with those funny letters. If there’s an f it’s supposed to be an s. Okay. It looks different. I’m going to try to read this one.
Una candida cerva sopra l’erba
Verde m’apparve, con duo corna d’oro,
Fra due riviere, all’ombra d’un alloro,
Levando ’l sole a la stagione acerba.
Era sua vista si dolce superba,
Ch’i’ lasciai per seguirla ogni lavoro:
Come l’avaro, che ‘n cercar Tesoro
Con diletto l’affanno disacerba.
Lyons: It gives you a sense of the sound. I’m just wondering if some of the wildness of that poem might not come from [a sense of sound in other languages, apart from the meaning] —
Katz: When you were reading the Ceravolo something struck me. These poets all get lumped together as New York School poets, and then we often try to think, well what is the relationship, really, of Barbara Guest’s poetry to John Ashbery’s, or Frank O’Hara’s, and the same with Ceravolo. But when you were reading that poem, as disjunct and abstract as it is, I was getting the sense, and what made me think, oh that’s why it’s New York School, because it was a personal poem, and partially because of his use of the word “am,” which was thrown together with some other words in a non-syntactic way. Also through his use of the O, the apostrophe, which is not only very Kenneth Koch-ian but it’s also very, to me, personal. I don’t know if you’d call it lyric, but it’s this kind of desiring or outpouring of emotion that I saw there for a minute as New York School.
Joel Lewis (audience): I don’t know if this is useful or not, but I remember once asking Joe if he could recommend a poet I should be reading, and he said [Giacomo] Leopardi, who was someone whose work he felt a lot of affinity with. Like Barbara Guest, Joe did make a definite connection in his poetry to the visual arts. Joe was married to an artist, Rosemary Ceravolo, who practiced her art for many years under the name Mona da Vinci and was a feminist artist in the 1970s. She was involved with people like Hannah Wilke, who performed at Joe’s memorial at the Poetry Project. Together, Joe and Rosemary did early versions of performance art in the ’70s at the Project. So visual art really does play a strong part in his work, although it rarely seems to come up in discussions of his work.
Peterson: That Leopardi thing is interesting to me, because — it’s related to what Vincent is saying — you have a texture of sounds which are not English sounds, and you’re putting them together, and so part of what that might do is create an experience that’s more intimate, both more estranging and more intimate. You’re hearing something that’s not a language you know or a place that you know or you recognize immediately; it’s this weird pattern of sound. But when I think of this as an issue of translation, that makes these issues seem new in a way. When I think of other poets where the sound overwhelms the sense as in Mac Low, people who have a texture that’s consistent, they have a consistent way of not making sense in the way that you normally would understand.
Katz: Yeah, but there’s more of a logic there that you can follow. It can be sometimes a limitation. I would go so far as to say that you could make a polemic about this kind of poetry, Ceravolo and some of Barbara Guest’s poetry, that it doesn’t have that kind of underpinning of a logical procedural system. I appreciate Mac Low, I’m just saying something that could be like — I think this kind of poetry, Ceravolo’s, often gets left behind in discussions, because you can’t really pin it to a certain kind of philosophy or movement.
Lyons: That’s a good point, I agree with that.
Berrigan: I’d like to jump in on that, actually. Because looking at this book, The Green Lake is Awake, which came out in 1994, brings me back […] I was reading through Fits of Dawn, and there’s a line on page 76, the line is, “Shoulder are the vines,” and it goes on. I’ll read the page.
song song restay fairness of
dawn. That cry of
booze that sparrow
of soul “miradel”
unique justly lotus
nothingless char of sunday.
Vicious of moon for the actual.
Old like the praise cast
still at day Assuage
of rose of eye
O sun with the dreadful
of kind Man! full! of the organ
Shoulder are the vines
are the plus are the
autumn of found are the fallen
blank are the aussi
the loping soon
This is towards the end of Fits of Dawn, and so a lot of those heavy o’s have been happening already in the poem, and then on that page he’s working in the o’s, and he’s working in the r’s, and he’s using the apostrophe, but also the little connective bits of language as repetition, not just to hinge the lines but actually to repeat within the music and flip the time back, to flip it into a circle.
Anyway, I was reading that poem last night, and the line “Shoulder are the vines” rang a bell, and I remembered I found a galley of this book in a bookstore in San Francisco, right around the time it came out in 1994, when I was living there. It was impossible to find his work, and I’d only been writing for a couple of years at that point, and I was instantly attracted to that poem in particular. I actually stole that line and made it the title of a poem. But at the time I was interested in translating or transferring aspects of music I was interested in and loving into a way to approach writing and thinking about sound. The terms that I was thinking of though were not so much the classical terms, like a counterpoint and things like that, which are quite interesting to me now, but I was listening to Sonic Youth really heavily, and I wanted to figure out how I could get distortion and feedback into the work, and the way to do it was through running words together as I discovered, and through the diction and through the clanging of sounds set up formal structures that would dissolve and fall apart midway through and then come back together again. At least, that’s what I was thinking, and to me Ceravolo was doing that in this way, and so it was completely useful.
That gets me back to this idea that lyricism, now, in twenty-first-century America, is beaten down as something coming out of Romanticism, which is sort of ahistorical, or that there’s experimentation, and there’s the lyric, and the experimental is against the lyrical. But then actually in a wider, popular sense, for one who doesn’t read poetry much I think there’s some almost unconscious or implicit conflation of the lyric with narrative. If it makes sense it’s lyrical, so therefore anybody that makes sense is being lyrical. You know, just a lot of bullshit. But I’m interested in the idea of the lyric as actually containing noise, and being noisy and being messy, and that’s where Coolidge comes into play.
Katz: Well today’s lyre could be the distorted guitar of Sonic Youth.
Berrigan: Possibly, yeah. Except that they need more words, which is not a criticism, but I wanted to read this little bit from an interview with Clark Coolidge that’s in Jacket magazine, and he’s being asked about, the guy’s asking “I was wondering too about that whole sense of the blend or the fudge or the blur that comes through in a lot of your work, versus say the somewhat more static visual image that you get in somebody like Ron Silliman, who’s often giving you a very clear da da da,” and Coolidge says, “The idea, probably out of Cage, but also free-jazz, that you can have those blurs, you can have stuff that’s in-between the pitches, that’s more like what they used to call noise than music, if the work lacks that, I find it misses some, it feels like it’s missing something to me. That would be one thing I’d be critical I guess of with Silliman in that it’s a little too clean for me, it’s a little too demarcated and has that kind of evenness to it. Sometimes it looks like a whole page of that is the same color. You can write a certain kind of poetry where it seems like there’s a gap, there’s a slot every thirty, well I don’t know, every few seconds, that’s going to be filled with a certain image, word, or color, and when it becomes too even I lose purchase on that surface. I just can’t stay with it. To me it has to be more full of dirt.”
And I [think], actually on the flip side of that, poetry that is basically prose put into line breaks, where the breaks fall where the clause ends and another one begins is essentially the same thing as that. There’s a system and things fall in these gaps.
Phong Bui: Anselm — and this maybe can apply to everyone else here — let’s turn it back to the tradition of poets who happen to play an instrument, who somehow are able to mix even their singing to their reading repertoire. I’m thinking about that specific tradition of people as such. We also know that Kenneth Rexroth too thought of the voyage, regarded the instrument that can trick back to the audience, the poetry that could take back audience, and that’s what I’m thinking in that tradition too, how one can re-access. There’s a whole perpetual history of those people doing, expanding the voyage into instrumental and vice versa, and it’s very important to place that in the context of New York School poetry too. I think they may have done it before elsewhere. A little bit less here because the painting culture was so beyond predominant, it was so strong.
Franklin Bruno (audience): I don’t know how to formulate this as a question. I’ll try to make this short, but I hope to be slightly provocative. No one has said this explicitly, but there are gestures when you talk about poetry and music toward making music this kind of catch-all site of the ineffable, the irrational, the non-semantic, the alogical. I think this is troubling, and I want to problematize it in a couple of ways. One, for many figures and for many periods, what music has symbolized for people has been rationality, order, system, and in fact the literally rational in that harmonies are caused by the ratios of vibrations, like between strings. Someone like Pater had a notion like that in mind. When he says, “All arts aspire to the condition of music,” he means something abstract but also something wonderfully and perfectly ordered. He’s not thinking about noise by any means, right? It’s a very classicist conception. So one thing that I think has to be kept in mind when we cite a line like that is the context, what he meant by music. He certainly wouldn’t have meant Sonic Youth. When we’re saying all arts aspire to the condition of Sonic Youth, we’re getting something rather different. The second thing is that there’s also a tendency to make this anti-semantic, arational, alogical thing a place where music’s sound gets to be a place of non-meaning, of a sort of aestheticized purity, as though music were not understood cognitively, as though it did not have history, as if its forms came to us innocently or without generic or stylistic baggage. I’d just like to hear people say what they want to say about what music means socially, or how the sound of something has a bearing on what it is as sense as well.
Katz: I’d just like to thank you for pointing that out and making that statement, because it’s very true, and I don’t think any of us were trying to say that music was irrational, or —
Bruno: No, no, I just think we drift that way. I don’t mean to accuse anyone.
Katz: No you’re right, and I’m glad you pointed that out, because that’s really true, and poetry of course has those elements as well. But these particular poets I think are still a little bit off if you’re trying to find a rational, ordered approach to explain their work.
Peterson: I think you’re going to have that problem with the drift if you’re dealing with something that’s potential — it’s going to seem irrational if there’s no language for it. You’re dealing with a system other than language, so that’s why that drift is happening, but that’s not to imply that it’s not a system.
Berrigan: To me a key term here in terms of thinking about music and poetry is prosody, and because prosody is a very specific thing, and it’s typically linked towards strict metrics, but actually by my way of thinking about it strict metrics are a subset of prosody, and prosody is about how you handle sound and emphasis in time, moving forward. When I’m thinking about music, I’m trying to think about it in those particular terms. Ceravolo and Guest have their difficulties in certain ways, but their work can also be read prosodically. Part of the laziness that happens, at least on the poetic side of things, is that if you aren’t dealing in meter, then [you] ignore the fact that words have stresses, that those stresses are affected by accents, that languages are constantly being changed and added to and transformed. To ignore those things is to ignore this gigantic portion of your bag of tools. Where that maybe comes in in a different way to a social context is simply the fact that part of the reason that poetry may be hard to teach after a certain point is that you could teach certain metrics, maybe not necessarily well, but you’re talking about organizing a system, teaching a system — it’s like the thing that O’Hara said about a poem that he was being very critical of. He said he didn’t like the content of the poem, and that it doesn’t matter that you can put it in metrics, because any student in the country studying this kind of thing can put it into metrics. Poetry gets more difficult to teach if you don’t have an orderly system to work within from a certain point of view, which comes back to my idea that if students at very early ages, like seven, were talked to about how to break a line, to think of words going and stopping at a certain point on the page, instead of extending across into a sentence and into paragraphs, then that might stay with some of them and open it up, and then poetry is actually natural and easy to read. It doesn’t really matter if it makes sense, so to speak, because sense is this other thing that’s being imposed half the time.
Lyons: We were asked by Vincent and Tim to bring in some work of people we think have a relationship to Ceravolo and Barbara Guest. So I grabbed Douglas Rothschild’s Theogony, I feel like that’s somewhere in this practice; Julian Brolaski, who’s very much about sound, using archaic sound, very radical; and also Brenda Ijima, I feel like there’s this funny resonance between her and Barbara Guest, I mean completely different content, and of course Brenda has this huge sense of the social, and activism and poetry, but there’s something about the way that she isolates lines and the thickness that somehow made me think of Barbara Guest; Elizabeth Robinson, also working off of a certain tangent of Barbara Guest; Susie Timmons, who’s a wonderful New York School writer; and John Coletti I thought of in relation to Joe Ceravolo, especially the poem “Fly,” the poem of Ceravolo’s we started out with. Hearing that poem made me think of Coletti’s work. So Vincent’s encouraging me to read a John Coletti poem:
Want big toughness
Wax flowers bending
Neon blue plucks open flat B
Rabbit snails quack house
Caught in some apse
Of Truman dust straightening
Oak leaves west of here
Katz: So as strange as it might seem, this is actually a tradition continuing until today. Thank you all for coming! It’s been a great conversation.
Through my exploration of the poetic sentence and the prose poem, I have become fascinated by the work of American poet Lisa Jarnot, author of the trade poetry collections Some Other Kind of Mission (Burning Deck, 1996), Ring of Fire (Zoland Books, 2001/Salt Publishing, 2003), Black Dog Songs (Flood Editions, 2003), and Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008). A New York City poet born in Buffalo, Jarnot is also the author of chapbooks that include Fall of Orpheus (Shuffaloff Books, 1993), Heliopolis (rem press, 1998), Nine Songs (Belladonna, 1999), The New Mannerist Tricycle (with Bill Luoma and Rod Smith; Beautiful Swimmer Press, 2000), The Eightfold Path (a+bend Press, 2000), One’s Own Language (Institute of Further Studies, 2002), Reptile House (BookThug, 2005), Iliad XXII (ATTICUS/FINCH, 2006), Amedellin Nosegay Cooperative (Song Cave, 2010) and Joie de Vivre (Dirty Swan Projects, 2011), as well as the new biography of the poet Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus (University of California Press, 2012).
Opening Jarnot’s collection Ring of Fire, I became struck by the thirty-page prose poem sequence “Sea Lyrics,” previously produced as a chapbook by Situation Press in New York in 1996. Jarnot favors the long sentence, it would seem: each poem but the first is made up of a single, staggered line, and I’d be interested to hear how she managed to read these publicly, whether a combination of quick-pause inhalations at commas or somewhat breathless, or slow enough that her breath becomes more subtle, measured:
I am a partially submerged boat on the waterfront of
Jack London Square on a Sunday morning buying jam.
I am flesh-colored and pale, in an Indian head dress
cracking chestnuts and eating roots, in the fissure
between the bus lines, with the smell of burnt toast in
the can-crushing lot, in the inside-out tomato yards,
where I am riding all the bicycles through tunnels to see
lawn, where I am on a downtown bus, partially
submerged, I am krill and various large birds, the color
grey on the sidewalk, a small opossum, in the breaking
glass in isolation in the sun, I am waiting for the
swamps and smoke of eucalyptus in the breeze, I am
stuck in traffic near the mudflats on the bay, I am
aimless and have several new tattoos.
In an interview in VERSE magazine (issue 16, no. 3/issue 17, no. 1 ), she says:
Sea Lyrics was written after Some Other Kind of Mission, though I drew it from information (memories) previous to Some Other Kind of Mission. I lived in California for three and a half years (from 1989 through 1992) and Sea Lyrics sorts out all of that. It has some Whitmanisms, but it also has some Ferlinghetti-isms (“I am waiting”) in it. Sea Lyrics was very much a response to living in New York in two ways. Firstly, I had just enough distance on the terrain of California to start to understand how shell-shocked I had been by its culture (in a good way, for the most part). Secondly, I had moved to New York early in 1994 and found myself in the midst of a community of young people who had come into poetry primarily through Language writing, and that also seemed very foreign to me. I realized at readings that it was entirely shocking if someone used the word “I” in a poem, so I decided to run with that, to exhaust the “I” and to bounce it off the particulars of Oakland and San Francisco.
Jarnot plays with the movement of the “I,” and in her “Sea Lyrics,” interplays the narrative “I” with what is seen, “I/eye” echoing a similar binary in Vancouver poet Meredith Quartermain’s equally small work The Eye-Shift of Surface (Greenboathouse Books, 2003). In her chapbook, Quartermain composes shifts such as “Can one ever cease to invent one’s self? Apart from death?” and “Deliberate I am fixed. You are flickering — a light. Him to have slain beside / the haystack the gazers strike. Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid — I, an epic.” It’s interesting to note that Jarnot studied with Robert Creeley, who himself wrote poems replete with the narrative “I” as domestic patter, but with a stripped-down language of point and counterpoint, as opposed to Jarnot’s own collage of point, scatter, and repetition, often looping back to meet itself. The poem pushes forward, in part, through referencing and reworking what has already come. Writing of Ring of Fire in Boston Review (February/March 2002), Andrew Zawacki describes the book as being “replete with poems that move within closed circuits, indulging in the so-called pleasures of merely circulating, of scouting ahead and then doubling back.” He goes on to say:
This issue of the self’s permeable, continually gerrymandered boundaries is revolved and left unresolved in the book’s middle section, “Sea Lyrics.” The epigraph, taken from an eighteenth-century Encyclopedia Brittanica, notes that it is “uncertain” whether California “be a peninsula or an island,” as Jarnot begins inquiring tangentially into the dynamism of the self, which dreams of independence and apartness, but is realized only in locked relation to the landfall of others. Conjuring Donne’s admonition that no man is an island, “Sea Lyrics” equally recalls his “Metempsychosis,” about the transmigration of the soul. The objects, ideas, and atmospheres that this speaker inhabits are seemingly endless, rendering the “self” not lone but legion. Sometimes these temporary incarnations disturb the distinctions between surface and depth: “I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront.” Sometimes they offer a plea, by admitting incapacity: “I am not quite yet the harmony of spheres.” Sometimes these ulterior, alter egos deploy paradox or solicit contradiction, in the service of estrangement or difficulty: “I am dangerous and undangerous also.” Often they figure the self as the sum of its complex itineraries, as in the remark, “I am almost to Japan”; the convoluted admission, “I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of night, I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of rock in avocado night”; and the observation, structured like an ouroboros, “this is from where I came and to which I came.”
Who was it that said the coast is but a line? In responses to “Sea Lyrics,” there seems to be much fixation on Jarnot’s “I,” as David Kaufmann writes in “Repetition, Noise and Pleasure, or Why I like John Yau and Lisa Jarnot,” that “Sea Lyrics plays with the words that people use to make up identities. It shows how identities are fabricated at the same time that it renders that process of linguistic self-creation rather comic, in that it is susceptible to grammatical fun, if not absurdity.” Earlier on in the same essay, Kaufmann goes further, specifically targeting the “I”:
What saves this from being oppressively narcissistic is the equally obvious point that these pieces are not biographical in any conventional way (“I am underwater buying jam”). The identities of this “I” range from the whimsical (“I am all the hot dogs and the roof of city hall”) to the almost incomprehensible (“I am of the new year sober now”). What is more, this poem can in no way be construed as a report on the whereabouts of its supposed speaker. Unlike the artist in “830 Fireplace Road,” Jarnot’s “I” is here, there and everywhere and all at once.
Part of the wit of this series lies in the way it plays the verb “to be” (I am) off the present continuous (I am writing, I am dancing, etc). It shows quite clearly how the same words can have quite different uses, at the same time that it raises the question of the relation between identity (I am) and action (I am doing). To what extent, then, is the poem actually about the bits of language it puts into action?
Why is there such a fixation on her narrative “I”? It nearly distracts from what else the poem is doing. Another perspective on Jarnot’s “I” comes from Patrick Pritchett, who reviewed Ring of Fire in Jacket 15 (December 2001), writing:
Yet another of the great pleasures afforded by Ring of Fire is the poet’s anaphoric “I,” that acts like a fractal integer, the secret number divisible by everything it is not. Divide this “I” by any object you choose and come up with a mise-en-abyme, an infinite regress of the same figure — the figure of the Other — across a landscape of mirrors. To say “I am this,” or “I am that,” with such repeated, hungry insistence, is not to say “I” at all. Or if it is, it is to say the little “i.” The I that has been emptied out, that stands as the sign for its own erasure. The “I” of Sea Lyrics, then, is the kenotic I. Evacuating itself, it permits everything to occur, and all at once.
It is as if the poem opens with uncertainty, citing uncertain placement and impossible grounding. The “I” might be there, but floating, unreliable. It’s as though part of the point of the collage included a lack of interest in any one particular, fixed point of view, which is about as far away from narcissism as one could imagine. What is the purpose of referencing Oakland’s Jack London Square, and then, London himself (who grew up in Oakland)? Throughout the poem, Jarnot repeats and twists references to Jack London, tides, San Francisco’s Cliff House, avocados, waterfront, and tattoos (the latter three mentioned nine times each), turning this poem of the Bay Area back in on itself with some of the same language, in some of the same ways Toronto’s Margaret Christakos resequences her own language. As the fifth poem in Jarnot’s “Sea Lyrics” reads:
I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront and all
the boats all know me, I am the foreignest of birds and
the shadows of sails upon martinis, I am underwater
buying jam and drinking stolen coffee, I am pelagic now
and sober, having recently discovered all the birds.
In a review posted in 2009 on Gently Read Literature, Gwyn McVay refers to the sequence as “terse prose poems” that “meditate on dislocation and violence.” Dislocation, perhaps, but less a violence than a layering of perspectives, overlapping and even overwhelming in places. The twenty-first poem in the sequence reads:
I have been a long time in this story on the bridge inside
tattoos and wearing avocados, and I can think only of
myself, and I can steal the books in bookstores, and I
can collect cans at all the can and crushing lots, and I
am here to wait in line with others near the lawns, and I
am being shot at on the sidestreet, and I am hording all
the plastic pigs, and I am practicing with others for the
dawn, from rooftops where the hills are all on fire with
the most usual of circumstances, where the fish are kept
in large tanks and a black smoke settles on the roof,
where the neighbor harbor pitbulls between the cars,
where the strange small apples bounce across the tar
upon the roof, where opossums cross against the flow of
traffic, where the streetlights blink and flicker on, where
the plastic and the airplanes fill the sky, where we live
beside the most chinese of oceans, where I gamble in the
empty and where winterless I am.
Not a dislocation, but a collage of perspectives, kaleidoscopic and almost allowing the reader to pick and choose which thread to follow. Kevin Varrone ends his review of Ring of Fire in ixnay 6 (summer 2001) with:
Ring of Fire seems to me a testament to rhetoric, to the varied powerfulness of language, to all that is said and is meaningless and that which is said and is not. The matter here, a la Hamlet, is words. And things. There is some sense of Hemingway in Jarnot’s poems for me: Stein, perhaps (the Stein in Hemingway, that is) — something beautiful, conjunctive, repetitive, childlike, intelligent. The things themselves become less themselves as they more become words in a highly wrought rhetoric. In the first poem of Sea Lyrics, the speaker says, “I am aimless and have several new tattoos.” That aimless speaker becomes, in the sequence’s sixth poem, “the foam of / obstruction in the foam of obstruction I am,” then “… how lost I am” in the eighth poem, then “I am not sure where I am” in the final poem of the sequence. But it is just such aimlessness and lack of surety that make Jarnot’s poems so engaging — her willingness and ability to leave readers in a labyrinth or city, in the ocean or the sky. And the fact that there is no real progression toward anything — a speaker is aimless at the start of a thirty-poem sequence and not sure where it is at the end. And so the wandering is both means and end, and the landmarks signal existence, not direction. This is the pervasive sensibility of this book: a writer overwhelmingly involved in the world and the things of the world yet somehow lost in them, in the experience of them, in the saying of them, so that the things become just things and the I’s just I’s: apparitions reminding themselves to identify the things the[y] are seeing: “This is a jumbo prawn,” and “This is the sound of my television.”
Jarnot composes her “Sea Lyrics” as an accumulation, a collage-aspect, with the informative, deceptive “I” stretching less a narrative impulse than a lens that captures a variety of perspectives and reports them, overlapping and contradicting, one by one. “Sea Lyrics” exists as a song that remains firmly on the land, stepping out only as far as the waterfront, barely stepping foot in the water. Even as the narrator becomes submerged, the land is unbearingly close, leaving the threat of open water both an absence and a psychological presence. Is it something in the air? The poem opens with a passage as epigraph from Encyclopedia Brittanica 1768 that reads:
California, a large country of the West Indies, lying between 116º and 138º W. long. and between 23º ad 46º N. lat. It is uncertain whether it be a peninsula or an island.
We might know, as readers, the geography of California well enough to know the difference, but the poem doesn’t stray far enough from shore to know, from the openings of the “partially submerged boat” to “I won’t go to the waterfront anymore,” and closing in on the end of the sequence, writing “I am bludgeoned by this most exotic ocean, currently,” to “I am getting better like / the oceans on the sidestreet, I am surrounded by water,” and “down the surge of waterways in dark,” to “the pier with all / the sink hones on the edge,” and “I am at the ocean from the tops of / towers.” With so many references to surf, moisture, fog, rain, water and hottubs, but for the single reference to the actual ocean, these lyrics are more often for an abstract sea, or is she at the waterfront, staring out? Should these, instead, be waterfront or even bay lyrics? The poem stands, but can’t it also swim? Jarnot repeats, rewrites and alters, and her California, it would seem, includes references to San Francisco’s Grateful Dead, Carol Burnett, Huey Newton (the Black Panther cofounder shot in West Oakland in 1989), Huey Lewis (stepson of San Francisco poet Lew Welsh), Lucretius, “the church of Thelonius Monk,” “Lammas Tide” (the tide that comes up on Lammas Day, August 1, referenced also in Romeo and Juliet), “this Saint Ana wind” (a wind that comes up the southern California coast), and Atlantis. Is this “Sea” or “See” lyrics?
Part of this is reminiscent of Sommer Browning’s 2011 sequence “Vale Tudo,” from her first trade poetry collection Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC), a twenty-two-page prose poem sequence that explores a geography not her own (but from a much shorter stay), mixed in with the locale of a late writer who, on the surface, has little to do with the author. More narrative than Jarnot’s piece, Browning’s sequence blends hotels with mixed-martial arts with Walt Whitman, the Walt Whitman Mall, and the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site:
Some of you will never go to Long Island. Some of you will but will never go to Walt Whitman Mall. Some of you will enter Walt Whitman Mall and head straight for Foot Locker. So let me tell you about the façade of Walt Whitman Mall, how it’s carved with passages from Leaves of Grass, how the block Emigrant Savings Bank sign is bolted to the poem.
A child said what is the grass? Fetching
Emigrant Savings Bank it to me with
full hands How could I answer Get more
money for your money the child?…I do
not know what it is any more than he.
But the best line of Jarnot’s sequence has to be on Susan Gibb’s site, in her 2004 piece “Writing: As One Reads,” where she quotes a source I can’t find:
Katey at One Good Bumblebee says, “And if I write out Lisa Jarnot’s complete Sea Lyrics longhand because mere reading isn’t good enough dammit, it’s okay.”