Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: Joseph Ceravolo, Collected Poems

Joseph Ceravolo. Collected Poems. Edited by Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers. Introduction by David Lehman. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013. $35 hardcover. $16.99 eBook. xxxi + 560 pages.

Joseph Ceravolo (1934–1988) was a poet of the New York School’s second generation — whatever that means. (As the variousness of the poets grouped under that label becomes more recognizable, the label becomes little more than a quick note as to time and place.) Living and writing apart from po-biz, the institutional networks of favor (curried) and favors (traded), Ceravolo devoted his energies to his family, his poetry, and his work as a civil engineer. It seems that at some point he even took leave of the Lower East Side poetry community borne of the New York School.

The appearance of the Collected Poems follows a pattern of publication that we’ve seen with the work of another second-generation New York School poet, Ted Berrigan: early aboveground publication, followed by fugitive books from small poet-run presses, a posthumous selected poems from a trade press, and a collected poems from a university press.¹ Ceravolo’s Collected includes six previously published books and a large number of unpublished poems, most notably the twelve-year accumulation of Mad Angels (1976–1988). The Collected roughly doubles what had been available of Ceravolo’s work.

The Ceravolo familiar to me is the maker of poems whose surfaces look something like these passages:

Arrange the geological brush, the wasp,
the part that makes it,
and out with a dog noise,
a night and the airplane lung.    (“Life of Freedom”)

flea you say
“geese geese” the boy
June of winter
of again
Oak sky    (“Drunken Winter”)
These surfaces are made largely of nouns and verbs and prepositions, parts of speech glued together, so to speak, to make wholes with no obvious contexts beyond themselves. Such poems suggest cubist miniatures, presenting everyday materials in new and unexpected ways. One of my favorite short Ceravolo poems in this vein is “I Like to Collapse”:
   Saturday night      I buy a soda
Someone’s hand opens    I hold it
It begins to rain
Avenue A    is near the river
So much to consider: notations of time, place, and weather; the parallel lines of street and waterway; and a moment of commerce — or is it intimacy? Is the hand waiting for payment, or to be held? Is the first “it” the hand, or the can? Are we following a lone pedestrian, a couple in love, or a parent and child on a schlep in the rain? Part of what’s needed to find pleasure in such poetry is a willingness to be happy with unanswered questions.

Reading through this volume, I now find such poems far from typical. Ceravolo was always the most oracular of New York School poets, with bursts of language that suggested the influence of Kenneth Koch (one of Ceravolo’s teachers):
Flare! prostrates! thirsty!
Undoing!    (Fits of Dawn)

O flower of water’s vent!    (“Passivation”)
But Ceravolo’s frequent “O” (twenty-two poems here begin with one) is no Kochian joke. The Collected Poems suggests that Ceravolo’s apostrophizing, exclamatory energy is deeply rooted (as is Koch’s) in the poetries of Romanticism, early and late. I hear William Blake:
with the performing angel
on the hill of paradise
already seen from a garden’s ray    (The Hellgate)
And Walt Whitman:
I’m far from a window.
Yet I am window and
feel the multicolored pushes
through open window self.    (“Floating Gardens”)
And Jack Kerouac:
ah chirp of seen
Bang my tide    (Fits of Dawn)
And in the title Mad Angels and in much else, Allen Ginsberg:
O holy mass, o holy waters
O holy woman, man, and rain    (untitled poem)
Romantic influences are everywhere in the later poetry, which is marked by a primal vocabulary — sun, grass, tree, wind, heart, dirt, body, blood — and greater plainness of statement. It is as if, after making beautiful, mosaic abstractions, Ceravolo has begun to sketch and paint and photograph. The poems of INRI (1979), twenty syllables apiece, are full of pith and wit:
This morning I could
walk and walk.
That’s freedom.
But I drink this coffee
before work.    (“Freedom”)
The last poems in this volume, gathered under the title Mad Angels, move toward greater expansiveness. Many contain observations from Ceravolo’s weekday commute from New Jersey to New York, as he notices fellow travelers and the urban scene:
           Elizabeth! Elizabeth!
What dreams the American spirit
had for you    (“Railway Box (Deo Te Salve)”)²
There are translations from Saint John of the Cross, poems that comment on events in the news, poems of love, sexual and familial, and moments of shining clarity:
A guitar of noon, a guitar
of lightning,
a guitar, aloft!    (“Guitar Ode”)
As a much younger reader, I was delighted to realize that it wasn’t contemporary poetry I disliked but one version of it: the genteel domesticity of the so-called workshop poem, the little anecdote dressed up in strained metaphors and similes. Ceravolo’s Collected Poems is an antidote to anecdote — a poetry of energy and invention that risks everything. Here is life and food for future years.³

¹ The relevant Berrigan publications: the Grove Press edition of The Sonnets (1967), the Penguin Selected Poems (1994), and the University of California Press Collected Poems (2005). Ceravolo’s Spring in This World of Poor Mutts (1968) was published by Columbia University Press. A selected poems, The Green Lake Is Awake (1994), was published by Coffeehouse Press.

² It helps to know that Elizabeth is a city in New Jersey.

³ This sentence adapts two partial lines from William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”: “in this moment there is life and food / For future years.”

[Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of the book. Cover image from the publisher’s website.]

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