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In 2002, when two Pleiades editors solicited work for Dark Horses, an anthology of unjustly neglected poets, I was not the only contributor who put in for Joseph Ceravolo, but my hand went up first, and I got to praise this overlooked genius of American poetry.1 A master of lyric concision, Ceravolo enjoyed a stronger connection to childhood and the child's perception of the universe than any poet since Theodore Roethke. In the 1960s and early 1970s, which appears to have been his Abstract Expressionist period, he used simple words and phrases but linked them unusually or leaped elliptically to achieve a sublime innocence. A six-line poem begins: "O moon / How ghost you are." A liberal use of exclamation points and a crafty sureness in the line-breaks contribute to the effect, as in the close of an early poem: "How are / you growing? / No better to in a stranger. / Shack, village, / brother, / wild provoke of the endurance sky!" All the pathos of childhood informs the moment in "Ho Ho Ho Caribou" when the speaker says, "Like a flower, little light, you open / and we make believe / we die." In short, Ceravolo was a homegrown original, possessing an utterly distinctive style.
The claims I would make for Ceravolo today are as great, and now there is twice as much evidence to back them up. Until now, only a limited portion of his work — the mostly small-press editions that appeared between 1965 and 1982 — has seen the light of day. Edited by Rosemary Ceravolo, the poet's widow, and Parker Smathers, the Collected Poems gathers the far-flung fugitives and adds the crown upon the his lifetime's effort. During the last twelve years of his life, Ceravolo accumulated several hundred pages of poetry, some titled, some not, almost all dated, and under the working title Mad Angels: 1976–1988. It is the appearance of these poems that makes this a particularly momentous occasion. We will, in the light of the Collected, need to revise upwards, not only our estimate of Ceravolo's achievement, but also our understanding of his singular place in modern American poetry.
Born in the Astoria section of Queens, New York, in 1934, the first son of immigrant parents from Calabria, Italy, Ceravolo graduated from City College in 1954 and began writing poetry while serving in the U. S. Army in Germany three years later. He wrote poems while on all-night guard duty in a stockade tower. A civil engineer by trade, he took Kenneth Koch's writing class at the New School in New York City in 1959. Koch's teaching had a strong and lasting influence on him. Frank O'Hara called him "one of the most important poets around," and it was fitting that Ceravolo's debut collection, Spring in This World of Poor Mutts, won the first Frank O'Hara Award in 1968.2 (Koch and John Ashbery judged the award named after their late friend.) It is a book I have long loved, and it would suffice to establish Ceravolo's reputation even if, in his clandestine way, he hadn't added to it substantially in subsequent years. The publicity-shy poet lived quietly with his wife and three children in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He had a powerful dislike of the "phony." He was fifty-four when he died of an inoperable tumor on September 4, 1988.
In 1994, The Green Lake Is Awake, a volume of his selected poems, was published with an admiring foreword by Kenneth Koch. According to Koch, a Ceravolo poem was a sort of "amazing perceptual archeology," its effect almost mystical. "It faded like the mirage of a gorgeous building: then, as soon as I reread it, it was there again," Koch wrote. He singled out some of the linguistic "oddnesses" in Ceravolo's poems: disjointed phrases and incomplete statements, which occur often in a "context of simplicity, quietness, and directness." Koch pointed to the materiality of the language in such a poem as "Drunken Winter," quoted here in full from Spring in This World of Poor Mutts:
Oak oak! like like it then cold some wild paddle so sky then;
flea you say
"geese geese" the boy June of winter of again Oak sky
In these and other poems of that period, the words seem as physical as objects and as strange. It's as if the poet were practicing, naturally and without calculation, a sophisticated poetics of substitution, erasure, and merger, suggestive of meanings beyond the powers of paraphrase.
If Ceravolo remains a secret ardor, it is in part because he resisted calling attention to himself and in part because the New York School, with which his name is associated, has not yet received its full due from academic critics. I love his simplicity — his apparent simplicity, I should say. In reality Ceravolo is, as he writes in his poem "Happiness in the Trees," "no more / simple than a cedar tree / whose children change / the interesting earth / and promise to shake her / before the wind blows / away from you / in the velocity of rest." The full complexity of his personality is on display in the writing he did — sometimes with an air of improvisation — in "Mad Angels."
A spiritual journey in verse, an unedited transcript of a poet's embrace of all things, from nature in its glory to his own mortality, "Mad Angels" will astonish even devoted admirers. It turns out this poet of laconic grace was also a secretly prolific practitioner of daily writing in the approved New York School manner, except that he sounds like no other member of the tribe, even when he writes an elegy for Ted Berrigan ("there are no special worlds / for a poet when / he dies or when you die / he goes where you go"), when he relates a boyhood memory ("When I was a child / I thought a handgun in a holster / and the lead-colored bullets on the belt / was one of the most beautiful things / made by man"), when he initiates a self-styled serenade with an exclamatory "Ah shit!" or when a garbage truck collides with the blinding sun on a city street, yielding an unexpected epiphany. Here is the whole of "Sun." Note the strategic use of blank space in the third line:
A garbage truck across the road turns into the traffic, the avenue a burst of solar blindness.
It is the birthday of the universe.
Ceravolo is unusual among contemporary poets in the depth of his spirituality. "The Holy Ghost is in my nerves," he writes. Transgressions rhyme with confessions, "holy lightning in the forest" with "mea culpa on the chest." The liturgy of morning includes "ecstasy," "eternity," and "benediction," but also a fair amount of "dirt," as in the poem of that title from July 1982:
Dirt on shoes The simple life When fears come like a trembling of rocks the earthquake is my bride
The sought-for ecstasy is as real as it is crude in "Body Jet," where the poet is watching a bird in its flight:
Weeping at the crude greatness ready to take off on the wetness all alone
I burn at the take off so invisible a god, off the ground into air I moan
It's the most crude thing of fears I have ever seen in life this emulation of strife of a bird
Although it scares the shit out of me it is close to ecstasy
Ceravolo's poems are greater than the sum of his influences, which in his case would seem to embrace the Gospels and the Catholic liturgy, William Blake's prophetic poems ("A vestal virgin melts the sword of communism / a large spider / dissolves the temptation of capitalism / both drowned by a sunbeam"), Shelley ("as if I finally / understand you / creator, destroyer, preserver"), William Carlos Williams ("A frog is kissing / surface of the water / from underneath"), Gerard Manly Hopkins ("Be uncovered! / Hoe with look life!"), Zen ("Without god there is no god. / Forget everything!"), and the poets of the New York School ("This morning Walt Whitman / walked past me / Ed Poe sat next to me with a coffee / Emmy Dickinson watched / TV with me in amazement").
A "Street Wise Romantic," as he puts it in the title of a late poem, Ceravolo is alone with a universe of death and mystery, unreported miracles and unobserved raptures. He attends alone and unobserved when, for example, a "hero" is buried —"a county policeman / shot on interstate 280 while / stopping a car"— in as affecting and unorthodox an elegy as I have encountered in many years ("Libera Me"). There is the love of "Amor & Psyche" where "there still remains the kiss / like the fires of a candle, / or a forest in seclusion, / or a migration lost for ages." But in the land of unlikeness it is the life of the spirit that is chronicled. The poet alone hears "songs that even nightingales / didn't know / or even the gods learned / for their created." The "you" in his poems is vast, divine, and worthy of prayer. "Deliver me in the pure waters / of sudden joy / when for no reason / it be OK to die / and never return."
Ceravolo's poems are lean, full of working nouns and verbs stripped of modifiers. He is unafraid to end a poem abruptly. He can move from whimsy to high tension in a line. He favors the vernacular yet speaks of the gods as Hölderlin might. He is on intimate terms with the wind and the sun and is able to "rejoice / in [his] deximil / of time." Yet none of this finally explains the magic of these poems — how they transform the commonplace into the extraordinary or why they make this reader feel he is in the presence of a natural poet, for whom poetry came as freely as leaves to the tree. His last poems are heartbreakingly beautiful.
No one sees me. I am just here,
my foot a decoy for compassion my sympathies and despairs for another generation to find.
Excerpted from "Collected Poems"
Copyright © 2013 Estate of Joseph Ceravolo.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsTRANSMITIGATION SOLO (1960 – 1965)
Life of Freedom
Sleep in Park
Descending the Slope
Feast of Visions
Lights of Childhood
Romance of Awakening
O Heart Uncovered
His Universe Eyes
Dinosaurs of Pain
Starting Up Again
Chains of Mountains
In Full View of Sappho
Spell of Eternity
Note from St. Francis
"WATER: HOW WEATHER FEELS THE COTTON HOTELS"
FITS OF DAWN (1965)
"The green lake is awake . . ."
The Crocus turn of the gods
A story from the Bushmen
WILD FLOWERS OUT OF GAS (1967)
White Fish in Reeds
In the Desert
The Wind Is Blowing West
A Song of Autumn
Spring of Work Storm
Autumn-Time, Wind and the Planet Pluto
A Story in Winter
The Plant Is Growing
Is It Impossible to Know Where the Impulse Has Originated?
Not a Baby
Wild Provoke of the Endurance Sky
Dangers of the Journey to the Happy Land
In My Crib
Don't Break It
Happiness in the Trees
The Book of Wild Flowers
SPRING IN THIS WORLD OF POOR MUTTS (1968)
It Is Morning
Caught in the Swamp
After the Rain
Heart Feels the Water
In the Grass
Ho Ho Ho Caribou
Fill and Illumined
When the First Tree Blossoms
Before It Is Destroyed
Passion for the Sky
Road of Trials
Pregnant, I Come
Both Close by Me, Both
Spring in This World of Poor Mutts
Lonely in the Park
I Like to Collapse
Soul in Migration
The Green Lake Is Awake
THE HELLGATE (1969 – 1975)
Part IIIThe Bridge of the Dead
"INTERIOR OF THE POEM" (1979)
Hard or Soft
Unable to Move
Pass Me By
Cuando Amenecer El Sol
Old Friend Hung
The Gods in Me
End of the World
If I Can't
The Forest Wetness
Runs Me Over
A Cave Man's Dream
The Winds of the Comet
Negative Mountain Peak
Ghost of Spring
MILLENIUM DUST (1982)
WINDS OF THE COMET• Volcano Tears
A Last Song
Sleeping by the Rocks
Drunk on the Brain
The Spirit Mercury
Escape to Atlantis
Winds of the Comet
Fire of Myself
Body of Earth
Not Afraid of the Dark
Generations of Clouds
APOLLO IN THE NIGHT
Storm Breaking Over
Cold Night Alone
Time on Earth
Instantaneous Takes Time
That's Where It Is
Voice on My Birthday
Illuminant before Dawn
Apollo in the Night
A Railway Stop
Sacred and Profane
Ignition of Dawn
Hymn to Earth
Birth in the Dunes
To Open Regions
Not Really Punishment
Glass and Steel Structures
The New World
No More People
MAD ANGELS (1976 – 1988)
1976 – 1982
What It's Like
Rte 3 into N.Y.
Just at the Beginning of Summer
Words from a Young Father (Leaving Body)
Assimilation in the Streets of This City
"In one day everything's green . . ."
Railway Box (Deo Te Salve)
"The night gets lonely . . ."
Crazy in the Night
"Taking me away . . ."
"Tie one on, tie it on . . ."
Middle of Winter (off the Hudson)
"It only takes a machine . . ."
Verses of the Soul Suffering to See God
Rain Forest Ode
Earth So Beautiful
"Hold me light, hold me tight . . ."
To the Death of a Poet
"Where have I got time . . ."
Double Blind Concerto
"The first August day is over . . ."
"Rain cycle, hold my brains . . ."
"I hear the music from below . . ."
It's Only Glue
Builders or Large Moon Rise
"Here's a traveler in the womb . . ."
"All winter the . . ."
"Do a little job . . ."
"The squirrel leaping frightens . . ."
"Sunny day with ice . . ."
Lament No. 3
Above Clouds Above
"The pains of children . . ."
"Where am I now? . . ."
Serenade No. 1
Why God Should Know the Gods
"Floating emotions . . ."
"O ancient Rivers . . ."
Simple Creation I
"Minor eruptions in the air . . ."
Dead Sea Scrolls
"If I left . . ."
"The migration flaps . . ."
"I lean on my bus . . ."
"How can I disconnect . . ."
"O world without light . . ."
Street Wise Romantic
A Piece of Glass
"Happy heart that sows the breeze . . ."
"My intellect seems to breathe . . ."
If You Loved Me
"Seagulls are in from the sea . . ."
Pages of Storms
"Tile floor, open glass . . ."
"Dried up and dogged . . ."
"I'm not weeping and weeping . . ."
"This is not the place I want to be . . ."
"'Du bist in meinen Blut' . . ."
"9:01 . . ."
"The streets against their stomachs . . ."
"On a night in a distant country . . ."
"I am not able to move . . ."
"Closer and closer to the ground . . ."
Rain & Wolves Inhabit Me
All at Once
"There is no way . . ."
Dragons and Dungeons
"Dry leaves, light trees . . ."
Travelin' Blue Highway
"Volcano mud covering exquisite bodies . . ."
The Comet Returns
The Muscles of Animals
"Where are we headed? . . ."
Melody for Food
"Lazy bodies with hidden knives . . ."
Amor & Psyche
Portrait Painter Realistic
"Calm me! . . ."
"The Great Lakes are rising . . ."
"I walked out. It was raining . . ."
"Turn me around in your hands, O wind! . . ."
"I have a bad day today . . ."
"Looking at beetles and ants . . ."
"Smoke rises like claws that lock me in . . ."
"The purple plant, leaves thick . . ."
Hymn to Rain
"I work in a dreamscape of reality . . ."
"The best time is when the body . . ."
"Song birds . . ."
"Does loneliness take over the body . . ."
World War II
"Route 3 and lonely . . ."
"Between a rock and a hard place . . ."
"Am I a fool in the temperate sun . . ."
"Old world, there are roads in front . . ."
"Grind away, trumpet, beat away . . ."
"How could the comet be . . ."
"Under high tension towers . . ."
"Hardly a lightening flies overhead . . ."
"My deepness away from you . . ."
"What is a year ending? . . ."
"Overpayment, underpayment, Florida lakes . . ."
"It is cold, it is cloudy . . ."
"Consecrate the birds . . ."
A Child Story
"I saw a red tail hawk . . ."
Mother & Father (Simple)
Hotline for Youth
"As if snow could cleanse . . ."
"It's the quiet that we . . ."
"Tundra and deer, liberty and fear . . ."
Notes on the 20th Century Scientist
"'Crazy nut,' the girls said . . ."
A Young Couple
"Morning breaks . . ."
Cat of Eternity
"The multitudes betray the fallen city . . ."
"Slowly my love . . ."
An Old Testament
To a Dogwood Tree
"The morning is warm . . ."
"Dark inside me every day . . ."
"Take away the hours of creation . . ."
"Tunnels are closed . . ."
"Somewhere between a missile . . ."
"Million dreams, billion nights . . ."
"My arms are heavy and I feel . . ."
"Too many times there is . . ."
"Resurrect, reserve, resound . . ."
"Thank the gods for life . . ."
"Hidden underground in a frame . . ."
"All the stars will be gone . . ."
"Swamps and people live in a lake . . ."
"Turn the screw, bang the nail . . ."
"8:27, have a language, that bundles . . ."
"When you can choke off the under- . . ."
"A man listens to music next to me . . ."
"Happy heart that sows the breeze . . ."
"Song birds enter the morning . . ."
"When I think of all the fuckin' hours . . ."
"When a spirit comes to me . . ."
What People are Saying About This
“To read the poems of Joseph Ceravolo is to stride in radiance and through a coronal of colors, all of them tender. And yet his tenderness and the purity of his vision are not fragile, not ephemeral. Ceravolo is the strongest of American poets, the Villon of our apocalypse. His color is words, but his shape is the shape of action.”
"Joseph Ceravolo's poetry, like the very best poetry, is at once timeless and contemporary, magical and truthful, visionary and real. One never ceases to be moved and astonished by his highly original poetics. His work is always revelatory. Always."Peter Gizzi
"To read the poems of Joseph Ceravolo is to stride in radiance and through a coronal of colors, all of them tender. And yet his tenderness and the purity of his vision are not fragile, not ephemeral. Ceravolo is the strongest of American poets, the Villon of our apocalypse. His color is words, but his shape is the shape of action."Donald Revell, author of Pennyweight Windows: New & Selected Poems
“Joseph Ceravolo’s poetry, like the very best poetry, is at once timeless and contemporary, magical and truthful, visionary and real. One never ceases to be moved and astonished by his highly original poetics. His work is always revelatory. Always.”