The Collected Poems of Joseph Ceravolo

By Joseph Ceravolo, edited by Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers

Wesleyan University Press | 2013 | 560 pages

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


Late one night when my daughter and I were driving home on the nearly-empty highway in Montana, we saw the most astonishing moon.  Low to the ground and seemingly perfectly round, my daughter asked in wonder, “Is this what they mean by a blue moon?”  Indeed with its mysterious layering of color and bulbous, plump form it looked like something from a fairy tale, a child’s drawing… or maybe from a poem by Joseph Ceravalo.

Ceravolo’s poems have been missing (out of print) for many years now.  It’s hard to know something is missing until you learn it is missing, then it seems perfectly absurd—how could such good poems disappear? 

Apparently Ceravolo lived a modest life.  For employment he worked as a civil engineer (he lived in New Jersey), while writing poetry in his spare time.  Sometimes the places he visited for his work such as Colonia Ramos Millan near Mexico City penetrated his work with a sort of dreamy loveliness.  Often his poems seemed to come from ordinary moments with his family.  He didn’t seem to crave recognition, yet some of his poems wrestle with the idea of being “rediscovered” in some future time.  He declares his poetry--his “sympathies and despairs for/another generation to find.” 

This matter-of-fact tell-all is stylistically aligned with poetry of the New York School, a poetry made famous by Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, and Ceravolo’s teacher, Kenneth Koch.  The sly, seemingly simple poems of this movement combined frank assessments with a slice of irony.  So, even as the words grip with their simple force, the wry undertones of the lines choke with angst and humor.  Poets.org uses lines from a John Ashbery poem to illustrate this phenomenon:

Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

 The “OK, but which ones?” really make the poem for me.  Frank O’Hara wrote in this vein with his simple observations of New York City.  In his famous “Lunch Poems” he records just what he does, just what he thinks, marveling at his own ludicrous thoughts and ambitions and in the meantime somehow elevating these thoughts by expressing them so exactly.  Ceravolo shares these traits with the New York School, playfully making fun at himself without being “confessional.”  He writes,

“How long has it been
since I’ve seen you, noticed you
old friend hung
between my two legs.”
--from “Old Friend Hung”

 I resisted using this poem in this review because it seems too atypical, but it does demonstrate the playfulness in Ceravolo’s work, and besides I liked it.  It really doesn’t need much explanation either.  Suffice to say, it goes along with a series of delightful poems that were published in Ceravolo’s book Inri (1979).  These short, haiku-like poems spin magic with close observations of nature pressing against the more humble, mundane aspects of day-to-day life.  Here is another one called “O Moon”:

O moon
How ghost you are.
Come closer.
Let me kiss you,
And touch those lips
Of dry ice.”

This short poem is full of surprises—the line “how ghost you are” evokes the mysteriousness of the moon without being trite—and I love how the moon transforms into something else (possibly) in the poem.  In any case, I’ve heard that using a moon in a poem is risky, that the moon has been way over-written, but when I hear these lines I feel I will never look at the moon again without thinking, “How ghost you are!”

Likewise, Ceravolo writes about trees, the ocean, flowers, and moths.  In other words, he writes about nature and his subjects may seem to be typical of the pastoral or nature poems, but he does it in a way that harkens back to Blake, as he writes songs of praise for the elemental nature of things (I’m thinking of “Tyger, Tyger burning bright…”)

This is not to say that all of Ceravolo’s poems are the same.  As you go through The Collected Poems, the different abilities of Ceravolo begin to become apparent.  Although I have shared some of his short poems here, he has also written long poems, such as his book-length poem, Fits of Dawn.  Ceravolo introduces the poem this way, “If you can see it as a fusion of emotion and sound, of real life incidents represented in the grappling of new concepts…  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…” (1980).

This poem seems more “experimental” than others and relies on rhythm and sound to propel the poem forward:

Here own will are rain climb banal
off far ever
mis 'er tree yin dyer ee strain
positions camp alameda lone…”

As we see here, Ceravolos is perhaps influenced by e.e. cummings’ use of white space as well as his play with language.

Although Ceravolo is not a confessional poet by any means, there is a great deal of emotion underlying his poems.  He grapples with the big questions in life—what it mean to be here right now, how can a man do what is good, how can we live in the best way possible?  A Zen-like sensibility permeates the work, as Ceravolo guides us through the mundane moments of life—drinking coffee before work, arguing, riding the bus.  Yet these parts of life are not framed in a way to invite misery or succumb to despair.  Rather, his poems have a way of awakening you, startling you.

When I read the name on the spine of the book, “Joseph Ceravolo,” nothing came to mind.  But then after reading that he had worked with Kenneth Koch I turned to a children’s poetry book I have that was edited by Kenneth Koch.  Knowing that Koch was a fan of Ceravolo, I thought there might be one of his poems in the book.  Sure enough, not only was there a poem there, but it was a poem I had used to teach poetry with over the years.  Here are some lines from “The Wind Is Blowing West”:

I am trying to decide to go swimming,
But the sea looks so calm
All the other boys have gone in.
I can’t decide what to do.
I’ve been waiting in my tent
Expecting to go in.
Have you forgotten to come down?
Can I escape going in?
I was just coming
I was going in
But lost my pail

This is just one section.  The poem meanders in this way for quite some time with the young boy wondering what he should do.  One wonders—why is he afraid?  What is the big deal?  But then again, we have all felt angst over a seemingly easy thing to do.  The poem seems to be about life itself, how to embrace it, how to watch it while participating in it.  And asks what is the role of the artist?

Realizing that I had read a Ceravolo poem (and one I always marveled at) was a happy discovery for me.  It made me wonder: What other poets need to be rediscovered?

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