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The Complex and Passionate Poems of Joseph Ceravolo

Ceravolo worked for most of his life as a civil engineer and brought an outsider sensibility to his poetics.

Generally described as a second-generation member of the New York School of poets, American poet Joseph Ceravolo, born in 1934, is actually closer in age to the first generation. Ceravolo was born in a sort of middle-time, like Ted Berrigan (also born in 1934). Although his literary tropes and ideologies were not so different from those of the first generation, he did not continue to pursue that generation’s attention to verbal play in his later poems. His 1967 work Wild Flowers Out of Gas is intensely lyrical, as is 1965’s Fits of Dawn and the brilliant, award-winning volume, Spring in the World of Poor Mutts (1968), and these works were also verbally innovative Yet, like the second generation poets, Ceravolo eventually abandons youthful and playful poetics to create a more personal writing.

Moreover, there’s something unique about Ceravolo’s poetics, an outsider sensibility, as if he hadn’t fully dedicated himself to the literary innovations the first generation Manhattan and Long Island-based writers were attempting.

Ceravolo was neither a poetry teacher nor an editor of poetry journals, as were so many of his contemporaries. He worked for most of his life as a civil engineer. He lived not in Manhattan but in Bloomfield, New Jersey, with his wife and children, haunting the territory of William Carlos Williams in Paterson and Weehawken Park, and expressing his kinship with Williams and Walt Whitman, both unlikely influences for a New York School writer.

Born into a deeply religious Italian family, Ceravolo’s intensely romantic sensibility further distinguishes his work from the New York School poets (with the possible exception of Bernadette Mayer). The standard New York School influences — the art world, New York street life, and cartoons and pop culture and, later, postmodern transformations of these concerns — barely appear in Ceravolo’s poetry.

Wesleyan University Press’s 2013 volume on Ceravolo, co-edited by his wife, Rosemary Ceravolo, and Parker Smathers, offers an in-depth retrospective view of the author.

Even in the early experimentation of Fits of Dawn, in which he plays with sound and association, there is something different about Ceravolo’s tone. Prior to the experiments of the avant-garde Language poetry school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his manipulation of language and word choices distance his work from standard New York School experiments:

Ache outsent insistment palm Papa

nothing jobular at vanim

Villain! Jabel violin

Of chaining reachness carvey kid

…..

Go! Run! Bay tacxico

rigor rubbing outset hapbel

queer carun kiakiha cheek

vine chain notion,

ruts who peyon

toxic anger catch

 

Beat tan fon reshuffle

rugged helical tone torture

……….

While this poetry may be difficult to interpret for many readers, the passion beneath it seethes like an emotional volcano. Where is the “ache” coming from, and who are the “villain” and the “carvey kid.”? Why are we told to “Go! Run!”? And who or what is the subject or object of the “queer carun kiahika cheek”? Why is there a “rugged helical tone torture” and from what does it emanate? And from whom is the “toxic anger” coming?

By the time he published his award-winning volume, Spring in the World of Poor Mutts, Ceravolo had turned his romanticism into complex love poems, such as “Ho Ho Ho Caribou,” a joyous celebration of his wife and children (dedicated to Rosemary):

I

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

are hungry

which is like paradise.

The doll is sleeping.

It lay down to creep into

the plate.

It was clean and lying.

VI

Caribou, what have I

done? See how her

heart moves like a little

bug…….under my thumb.

Throw me deeply.

I am the floes.

Ho ho ho caribou,

light brown and wetness

caribous. I stink and

I know it.

“Screw you!….you’re right!”

The joys he expresses earlier in the poem, however, are counterbalanced as he demonstrates his failures as a human being. And throughout this book he visits black bars and other places where he is seeking out something we can’t quite know but are encouraged to try to imagine, a world clearly outside of his more conventional life.

Despite his love of his wife and family, the poems in his later volumes of the 1980s reveal an equal sense of guilt, perhaps for other loves he can’t quite express or admit to, or perhaps simply as a narrative device. In “Road of Trials,” for example, again a poem dedicated to Rosemary, he writes:

I cry

yay test hell cry of

tubes like boiling

meat.

I want to touch

you but can’t

This sense of distance grows throughout his oeuvre as he appears to express“feminine” feelings, often casting himself in the female role in poetic descriptions of the sex act. Lines from “Nude Madness” from his 1982 collection, Millenium Dust, prefigure Pedro Almodóvar’s 1989 film, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down:

Nail me to this rock!

Would it hurt too much?

Would it be a cushion

against reality

a self consciousness

of the human body

and human movement

a game of cheating sexuality?

It scares me more to think

of the nucleus of an atom

than to imagine a revolution.

The short poems that comprise the final sections of this new anthology, gathered as Mad Angels and Hellgate, show the poet looking to his children, their lives, nature, and the sociopolitical issues of his surrounding world, as source material. These poems are brimming with anger at US politics. Still, there are moments of deep self-doubt, and a fear of his personal appetites, expressed through radical disjunction in language:

Domination in creation

The stars are clear tonight

We live in a house

we dwell in a cave

deep in the dragon’s soul.

Ceravolo died of bile duct cancer in 1988 at the age of 54 in 1988. In much of his work, he seems to be on an almost religious pilgrimage, moving away from the center of his life and family, then back again. As readers, we want him to enjoy the pleasures of his life, but we realize that if he had, we would be denied the complexity of his poetry. One can only wish that he had lived longer to express more of what his incredible talent had promised.

Collected Poems: Joseph Ceravolo (2013), edited by Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers, is published by Wesleyan University Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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