Joe Ceravolo’s poems are like the old lady who helps a boy scout across the busy street. They are also like the truck driver who stops his truck to let them cross safely, toots his horn and waves. They are also like the nickel in the boy scout’s pocket that was not bent by being run over by the truck.
Previously published in Kulchur 5, no. 18 (Summer 1965): 105.
I wrote this little appreciation in 1976 for the Poetry Project magazine The World. I’m pretty sure it was the second piece of prose about poetry I had ever done. This was a special issue (#30) of The World devoted to reviews, interviews, etc. For all the poetry written and published around The Project from the late ’60s through the mid-'70s, there was little interest in criticism or poetics, both of which smacked of the Establishment. I know that I absolutely loved the poems of Joe’s that I had seen, the three early collections plus a few in magazines like Locus Solus, Art and Literature, and Big Sky, and I remember wanting to do a lot of quoting.
To me, Joe had a miraculous decade when he was one of the most original poets writing; Fits of Dawn (C Editions, 1965), Wild Flowers Out of Gas (Tibor de Nagy, 1967), and Spring in This World of Poor Mutts (Columbia U. Press, 1968) still belong with the best poetry of the past fifty years. I didn’t get to know Joe till the 1970s, but it’s clear that in the ’60s poems burst out of him, torn up and beautiful in Fits of Dawn, a little more connected (though by no means coherent) and beautiful in the others. I happened upon the Tibor de Nagy chapbook first and it bowled me over. When a couple of years later someone xeroxed Fits of Dawn for me, its explosions of language, feeling, meaning, and non-meaning (I’ve always suspected that a fair amount of the book was generated by fake translation), bowled me over anew.
When six of us got together twenty years ago to put together a Selected Ceravolo for Coffee House (Larry Fagin, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, David Shapiro, Paul Violi and I), I remember how exciting and inspiring it was — not just batting things back and forth but reading the poems and hearing them read aloud. Unsurprisingly to me, we wound up choosing almost all poems from the ’60s. Clearly Joe did extraordinary work after that too, and some of his later poems — though I would argue, more often parts of poems — are up there with the early ones, more of which saw the light of day with the publication of Transmigration Solo (Toothpaste, 1979). I remember going through a whole bunch of Joe’s very short poems that same year with Paul and choosing things for INRI (Swollen Magpie) beginning with “O moon / How ghost you are,” which is as magical as anything Joe ever wrote.
Joe Ceravolo and I read together at the NYU Loeb Student Center in a Sunday afternoon series organized by Kenneth Koch. Joe read his poems over excerpts from Italian opera played on a small cassette player. I read from a long poem in progress, subsequently lost, that included snippets from that morning’s New York Times Book Review. (I recall Ted Berrigan laughing loudly in one of the front rows as he recognized the phrase “just one more piece of gone goop.”) Afterwards, Edwin Denby came up to Joe and me in the hallway and said, “How unusual — two young poets interested in history.”
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.