* this originally appeared in an online issue of Zoland Poetry, which seems to no longer be publishing. the wordpress software I’m using doesn’t maintain the integrity of Ceravolo’s line breaks, but they are close.
By Joseph Ceravolo | Review by Stan Mir
Wesleyan University Press | $35.00 | 596 pages | hardcover | ISBN 9780819573414
In spring 2005, a friend loaned me a few cassette tapes with readings by poets such as Clark Coolidge, John Godfrey, and Bernadette Mayer. Written on one of those tapes was a name, Joseph Ceravolo, only vaguely familiar to me at the time. The friend said that I should really check it out. He was sure I would like it. The recording, which dates from spring 1968, is now available on PennSound and is only seven minutes and forty-four seconds. Ceravolo’s brief reading, recorded at the poet’s Bloomfield, NJ home, arrested my attention with a voice both dreamy and determined, as the poet read over a stereo playing a range of pop and opera quietly in the background.
Over the next few weeks, I mentioned to some friends my newfound enthusiasm for Ceravolo’s work. One of them said he had a PDF of Fits of Dawn, first published by Ted Berrigan’s “C” Press in 1965. Did I want him to send it my way? Sure. The only caveat, he insisted, was that I could not under any circumstances share the document with anyone else. It did not take me long to realize that this hush-hush tone had been keeping Ceravolo’s reputation alive for quite a few years. Part of the tiptoeing around the work was due in part, so I had heard, from the poet’s widow, Rosemary Ceravolo, keeping a tight hold on the publishing rights. Because of this there has been a small audience for Ceravolo’s work, but it has been a devoted one. Prior to the publishing of the poet’s Collected Poems earlier this year, the only other book of his that was affordably available was a selected poems, The Green Lake is Awake, published in 1994 by Coffee House Press, which focused mostly on the poet’s work from the 1960s. Now the bulk of Ceravolo’s work is in one place, and safe to say, a devoted following will grow.
The Collected begins with a brief introduction by David Lehman who informs the reader of some basic facts. Ceravolo was born in Astoria, Queens in 1934 to immigrant parents from Calabria, Italy. In 1954, he graduated from City College. While in the U.S. Army Ceravolo was stationed in Germany and began to write poetry. Lehman also points out that the poet took his first poetry workshop with Kenneth Koch at the New School in 1959. Less than ten years later, Ceravolo would win the first Frank O’Hara award, sponsored by Columbia University Press, for Spring in This World of Poor Mutts, still perhaps the poet’s most read work. For his working career, he was a civil engineer.
One can see reading the Collected that Ceravolo’s sensibility formed during the 1950s & ‘60s. As the Abstract Expressionists explored the materiality of paint, poets in the so-called New York School did much the same with language. In the book Transmigration Solo, containing poems written in Mexico in 1960 and New York in 1965, the poem “Feast of Visions,” exemplifies the poet’s early explorations of language as material:
Seizure! blue wailing
questionnaires of noonday
under the rotting trees.
Gracias mis amigos,
the river holds much mud
and he works for el gobierno
riding a bicycle.
Ceravolo delights here in the sounds of both English – “Seizure” and “questionnaires” – and Spanish – “Gracias mis amigos” and “el gobierno.” Worth noting is that Transmigration Solo was published in Ceravolo’s lifetime, but not until 1978. By then, Ceravolo had already published a few books. The editors of the Collected, Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers, have made a wise choice here to arrange the poet’s books chronologically rather than by publication date. This decision allows readers to develop a more sophisticated view of Ceravolo’s evolution as a poet.
Fits of Dawn was the first book in Ceravolo’s lifetime to see print. Then, and now, the book is wild, a taste of Stein with a touch of Coolidge, though Ceravolo comes chronologically between them. What differentiates Fitsis the poet’s interest in primeval expression. The original cover of this book, reproduced in the Collected, renders what looks like cave art with a disproportionate sun blazing awfully close to a hairy porcine creature while a lanky stick figured man and a one-legged bird hover to the left. In the lower right, the title of the book and the poet’s name. The accompanying epigraph, by C.G. Jung, reads, “He did not think, he perceived his mind functioning.” Below that: “Dedicated/to the Release/from Suffering.” Book I of Fits begins with these lines attributed to “Bushman”:
Thou son of a great woman
Thy body looks like a cow’s body,
Thou big acacia with large branches
Thou red bull,
Thou son of a red she-bull,
Thou who didst drink my milk,
Thou to whom I did not give my breast slowly
In this passage, Ceravolo harkens back to the prehistoric when, according to Clayton Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse, there was supposedly a shorter emotional and intellectual distance between the animal and the human. Eshleman writes quite eloquently, in that book, about the prehistoric art found within the caves of southern France. In some of the cave art, there are human figures with stag heads, which represents, for Eshleman, a struggle in the movement from wilderness to civilization. Notably, the eighteen-year-old Marcel Ravidat and some friends discovered the most famous of these caves, Lascaux, in 1940. Did these caves actively capture Ceravolo’s imagination? Difficult to say with a book like Fits, yet it is hard to deny their presence in his work.
Much of what happens in Fits lacks coherence in the traditional sense. In other words, the reader feels language as the place of action rather than experiencing language as the vehicle for a narrative:
How I lift yesterday
the maybe pland-o g-dumb
imposable ness hop will
Reach unbade menacuric look
dome it healthy shafe amomry
attack renear close brick benigher
tuyeres ayer hier bare
For readers of Spanish, it is possible to see the last line of this passage as a play on the word “tuyo,” which depending on context is either an adjective or pronoun for “yours.” The end of the word, “tuyeres,” also contains “eres,” which is a conjugation of the one of the Spanish verbs for “to be.” But, the word “tuyeres” is actually a word in English for a pipe through which air is blown into a furnace. What makes Ceravolo’s play more apparent here is the fact that the next word, “ayer,” is the word for “yesterday” in Spanish. ThroughoutFits, the astute reader will notice pure as well as bastardized Spanish again and again. In this regard, the placement of Transmigration Solo before Fits primes the reader for the appearance of Spanish in the latter.
After freeing himself of standard syntax and usage in Fits, Ceravolo went on to publish two additional books in the late 1960s, Wild Flowers Out of Gas, a chapbook from Tibor de Nagy, and the previously mentioned Spring in This World of Poor Mutts. One of the poet’s most well known poems in the latter is “Ho Ho Ho Caribou,” with these as its opening lines:
Leaped at the caribou.
My son looked at the caribou.
The kangaroo leaped on the
fruit tree. I am a white
man and my children
which is like paradise.
The doll is sleeping.
It lay down to creep into
It was clean and flying.
Throughout the rest, of his career Ceravolo continues to include his family life in his poems, quite often with an energy and eccentricity similar to the passage above. At the same time, the poet’s work shows a deepening interest in Christian spirituality.
After publishing Spring in this World of Poor Mutts, Ceravolo began work in 1969 on a long poem, The Hellgate, which shows the poet continuing his engagement with Christian theology. Until now, the book only existed in handwritten manuscript. In the second section of The Hellgate, “Departure,” Ceravolo includes a playful litany that begins with the following:
O God let me pray for you
O rock let me pray for you
O broken branch
O cumulus let me pray for you
With some poets, it may be easy to write this litany off as a received literary move and nothing more. When taking into account Ceravolo’s 1979 chapbook INRI, the Latin for “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews,” the reader cannot simply ignore this interest. The poet Joel Lewis, in a note at the Electronic Poetry Center, has even gone so far as to claim Ceravolo “the great religious poet of our time.”
Work such as Ceravolo’s bucked the Eastern spirituality trend in the 1960s and 70s, exemplified by poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, and the founding of the Naropa Institute in 1974. With this in mind, it is no stretch to wonder if Ceravolo’s selected, The Green Lake is Awake, published after the poet’s death, did not include much of the work after the 60s because of its more obvious Christianity. Possibly, the work from the 70s and 80s is ignored because of what seems to be a decrease in Ceravolo’s experimentalism through the 1970s, and not from the increased religious content. Whatever the case, the Collected provides the range of the poet’s work for the reader, if one wants it.
In addition to The Hellgate, the Collected contains the previously unpublished Interior of the Poem from 1971. As editor Parker Smathers points out in his Editor’s Note, the backstory for the poem is unique. Ceravolo dictated the poem to his wife one weekend while painting their kitchen. Here is the first stanza:
My hair is black, my eyes are black,
I am the dictator of the poem.
The poem is in front of me
I am writing on its face.
The soul of the poem
is inside the soul
which is inside the poem.
There is no mystery to me
because I can be seen.
The poem continues for just over five pages. Along the way the reader gains further understanding of Ceravolo’s relationship to his poetry: “Where do I end/and where do I begin?/The poem is talking, I am not./When will it stop/so that I can talk?” In Jungian fashion, just as with Fits of Dawn, Ceravolo lets his unconscious shape the poem.
The last book in Ceravolo’s lifetime to see print, in 1982 by Kulchur Foundation, was Millenium Dust. Many of the poems in the book are interrogative, showing concern for the fate of man and his soul. For instance, “Cross Fire” ends with this question:
What have I gained
by lying in this abyss,
waiting for the masonry
to show a little slit
for my soul to get through?
In this book, Ceravolo also moves away from the fanciful wonder that many would associate with his earlier work. In its place, there seems to be a sense of resignation, but instead is actually a wonder grounded in what one can know and what one cannot, as seen in the first two stanzas of “Longer Trip”:
I found out
that the ducks on the ocean
are ospreys resting
on their longer trip.
To where? I don’t know.
My son said
a kite can reach the full moon,
and a sea gull can,
and a bullet can,
but he wasn’t kidding.
The Ceravolo of the 1960s most likely would have not included the last line. Tonally, and this grows more apparent the longer one spends with Millenium Dust, the poems are richer than the early Ceravolo. Does this mean that one period of the poet’s work is more rewarding than another? No. Ceravolo’s concerns changed, as anyone’s would over the course of a life. Just because the nature of the poet’s fancy changes does not mean the poet has lost his stuff. Complexity is not static. And neither should the poet be.
If one needs further proof that Ceravolo was kinetic in his work, the editors have included Mad Angels, which like The Hellgate was in handwritten manuscript until now. This book contains poems written in the last twelve years of Ceravolo’s life; he died September 4, 1988 from bile duct cancer at midlife. Where the poet may have been oblique with story in his early work, he does not shy away from directness in these late poems. “Darkness Ode,” from March 26, 1986, begins with a narrative of remembrance:
He was in his 70s then
and he told me that 25 years
before then the doctors told him
he had only a year to live.
As the poem progresses the reader learns that Ceravolo knew this man, a black custodian at CCNY, when the poet was 19 or 20. While “Darkness Ode” may feel as if the poet was eulogizing his own life, this is largely coincidental, as it seems that his death was not imminently expected. Ceravolo goes on in the poem to call the custodian “noble and one of the great men.” In the details that follow are possibly Ceravolo’s preoccupations, embodied in this man:
I remember him as if he were here
leaning on the dust mop
every word relating to life.
I think it was he
who got me through the first 2 years.
Remember him in the daylight
as he reaffirmed my feeling that there was spirit.
From Transmigration Solo to Mad Angels, Ceravolo kept returning to life and spirit. He married, had a family, engineered roads, and wrote poems, all these more or less the concerns of a life. All the while, Ceravolo wrestled with suffering and salvation, whether in the imagined primeval of Fits of Dawn or the questioning ofMillenium Dust. These concerns cause Ceravolo to stand a bit apart from New York School compatriots such as Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. As word of Ceravolo’s work spreads, thanks to the publication of the Collected Poems, it will be interesting to see how much the poet’s spiritual concerns matter to his readers when so much of what has drawn readers in over the years is his playful disregard for typical syntax and the feeling that Ceravolo could say anything and it would sound wonderful. For this reader, the poet cannot be broken into parts. Without spirit one cannot have the concerns of a life.