Edited by Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers
Wesleyan University Press ($35)
by Patrick James Dunagan
For the last few decades Joseph Ceravolo has remained a much celebrated but relatively underground figure associated with the so-called second-generation New York School of Poets. Those readers who have taken an interest in him have usually been led to do so from either word of mouth or after having come across his work in Ron Padgett and David Shapiro’s 1970 An Anthology of New York Poets. Yet it has been maddeningly difficult to get a hold of his books; nothing has been in print for years. Outside of the much too slim selected poems The Green Lake is Awake (Coffee House, 1994) or the handsomely published Transmigration Solo(Toothpaste Press, 1979), purchasing a used copy at a reasonable price was near impossible. Now and then a photocopy or scan of a collection such as Fits of Dawn, issued by Ted Berrigan’s C Press in 1965, floated around. Those occasions were, however, few and far between, besides being only available to those “in the know.” For these reasons and more, the upcoming publication of Ceravolo’s Collected Poems has been generating quite the buzz of expectation, and in no way does it disappoint.
Everything has been included here. Individual books are presented in chronological order of composition. Even the cover art of published books has been tastefully reproduced. There’s no way that this offers the same feeling as actually handling the rough edginess of Fits of Dawn in the original 8 1/2” by 11” mimeo format, or the near sublime beauty of the hardcover Spring in This World of Poor Mutts (winner of the Frank O’Hara Award, Columbia University Press, 1968), but it’s still a very nice touch. Incredibly, a major early long poem The Hellgate, along with Ceravolo’s final sequence of poems titled Mad Angels—written from 1976 until his death in 1988, and which takes up the final 200+ pages of the Collected Poems—previously existed only as handwritten manuscripts. That single fact alone makes this one of the greatest publications of formerly unavailable poems by an American poet since Frank O’Hara’s own Collected Poems. While there’s been no mention of further material yet to be brought to light, the hope of a significant body of unpublished letters, journals, or other ephemera tempts the imagination.
Having Transmigration Solo open the Collected is a reminder that this small volume, published later in Ceravolo’s life, actually contains his earliest work. The Preface he composed at the time of publication strikingly expresses how a poet feels about place, caught up between the allure of a foreign environment and the strong pull homewards:
In the fall of 1960 I lived in the Colonia Ramos Millan, an outskirt of Mexico City. I had never felt as strong a connection between myself and a city. Nothing could move me from there. One day I saw Iztaccihuatl rising from luminous clouds more beautiful than light, and I wanted to climb it. I never did. Gradually I became homesick, smelling the leaves of the northeast, smelling an Autumn that wasn’t there.
The poems provide evidence of the scenes which struck Ceravolo so strongly, and make it possible to imagine how Ceravolo, when reviewing them in order to write the Preface, was returned to the time of their composition. This is from “Invisible Autumn”:
The way the sun comes up,
the sun leans.
The sun leans less than
in the north, but one lean
is as good as another.
Now it’s autumn, but
You would never know.
In “O Heart Uncovered” appear lines which no doubt reflect Ceravolo’s vision of “Iztaccihuatl”:
For the first time
we see the mountains
with snow on them pulling away
from the mountains and clouds.
Also included here is an Introduction to Fits of Dawn which Ceravolo composed in 1980 for a possible republication of his first published collection. This bit of hitherto unpublished prose proves to be indispensable. The poems in this work are markedly disjunctive, wildly at play between recognizable language use and inventive mixing of punning affectations with concussive effects of partial or ‘made-up’ words. Since the time of its publication up until the present, it has been instrumentally inspiring togenerations of poets, from a young Clark Coolidge to recent “Occupy Wall Street” poets such as Filip Marinovich.
you gone findly hinks cap toll ocean
wounded: hound th’morning
swallow cruise hemn at-last-a
playing by upper
time feel extra win
bounce excel rapes fenal digibex
Nucker can plant ivy pero jive
Ceravolo’s Introduction stands as a remarkably clear indication of his thought processes back of the writing, ranking right up with William Carlos Williams’ Introduction to The Wedge, as forceful of a declared conscious engagement with self-directed poetics as any the good doctor ever offered. Addressing “21st Century & Beyond Readers,” Ceravolo pleads the case for his forward looking pyro-poetics:
Since music was the main impetus of my soul, I tried to steer or redeem American Poetry, with all due respect & love I had for it, from the path of forced visual poetry or the Image as poetics, to that of the inner sound I physically and mentally felt reverberating inside. Not that I tried to eliminate image. I knew too well the image can be the most lasting component of the poem.
With Ceravolo’s Collected Poems at hand it is at last quite clear that he is a deeply spiritual Catholic poet—not strict Catholicism as in the case of 19th-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, say, but rather Catholicism suited for our post-Vatican II modern day era. This is a central element that should be welcomed in any discussion of Ceravolo’s work, as it provides an exciting route for deeper engagement within the reader’s experience. For instance, the opening sentence of Hellgate reads much like an alchemical text of the richest religious and spiritual dimensions, where Ceravolo appears in full grip of the poet’s shamanic powers:
Being of sound body & sound mind
in my 35th year,
with the sounds of sparrows,
with the lights of summer falling south
with the performing angel
on the hill of paradise
already seen from a garden’s ray,
with the sense of children,
with the dream of their breath still clear,
with God clearing away
the leaves in my heart,
with God cleaning away the computers
from my breast and penis,
with color and darkness of color,
with the sound of sparrows ready,
with the blue jays cutting the trees
with the cicada foreign and metallic
in the trees, with moans,
and hearts feeding sky,
insulin and mercury renewed in bed,
in arms reading the salt ocean
or swallowed, with dragons’ eggs
nesting in those arms,
with fire transmuted into birth,
with earthquakes of pulse,
with deluge of new life
dragging through the sea,
on loneliness in the street’s tumult
and night mist spread.
To have written in 1969 a line such as “with God cleaning away the computers / from my breast and penis,” which pertains so much more to today’s cultural dead zones of Facebook and XXX-sites than to any known experience of that time, demonstrates the extremely chilling haunt of prescience which abides throughout Ceravolo’s work.
Reading through the previously unpublished, only handwritten Mad Angels it becomes readily evident how completely at home Ceravolo had become with his writing. Ceravolo’s hold upon earlier finesse falters. The lines lose in poetic strength what they gain by way of personal statement:
Have I fooled myself again
for the last time?
A taste burns into my body
Don’t say soul
when you mean body
Both may turn to spirit.
If perhaps the later poems do feel a little too comfortable and easy, readers should at least be assured that Ceravolo was ever aware of the territory his work had entered: “One doesn’t worry about success or failure, only the motion of the gods feeding the words, and that freedom, that freedom.” (“July 15, 1986”)
Again and again, Ceravolo’s poems betray the vision of a prophet—forward looking, yet as is typical with any seer, full of warning. The poet in Ceravolo heartily accepts any and all foreboding. “Note from St. Francis” opens with a cheerful embrace:
In the world today
no world so attached as I am
Yet quickly turns to mentioning “our hairiness” and “our coarseness” closing with lines full of a foreboding which contemporary readers will find as entirely relevant to today’s headlines full of government proposals for oil pipelines and off-shore oil rig disaster:
We are gunning for extinction.
The sky is still bright
and all the animals running
for prehistoric sounds
believable in the passionate night.
It’s hard to find a more suitable, or darker, lullaby for our future, a warning call so beautifully human and direct. All these years, spilling over through generations, Ceravolo’s poems have been awaiting a much wider audience; may it never be too late for such deserving poetry to locate and transform new listeners.