“I am a farmer and know the value of a gentle rain that causes wheat and other fruits of the earth to grow. But the human soul isn’t like the earth. The soul needs storm and fire and dizziness.” Elie Weisel wrote that in The Gates of the Forest, his most exquisite novel, and the poems of Joseph Ceravolo blaze with the spirit of someone who would agree.
Born in 1934 to Italian immigrants, Ceravolo got an engineering degree, served in the Army and wrote ardent, engaged poetry until shortly before his death from a brain tumor in 1988. He studied with Kenneth Koch, and won the first Frank O’Hara Prize for Spring In This World of Poor Mutts. He was always considered something of a “poet’s poet,” appreciated with detailed loyalty by writers who felt hugely grateful to have been introduced to his work. Collected Poems is the banquet with all the courses to validate their enthusiasm.
Koch called a Ceravolo poem “an amazing perceptual archaeology,” and that’s a good place to begin, with its engagement of what one senses (perceives), and also what one must dig for. Ceravolo’s combinations of words, line spacing and the music they make both amaze and stop breath.
“Passion for the Sky,” from the O’Hara Prize volume, gives a brief glimpse of how so much comes together with so little :
It is a flawless love poem, for the person who is loved and for other offerings night holds.
There is an almost relentless urgency in every line, demanding a level of being awake that could be enervating, but miraculously isn’t. With Ceravolo reading becomes both energizing and, more often than not, a time-out to praise, as well as a respite from surroundings. “Dive in!” I want to shout in response to “Inland:”
This poem makes me think of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” as do other Ceravolo poems, in part because, deliberately avoiding stardom, he lived in mundane Bloomfield, New Jersey, where typical Springsteen fans lead lives of unheralded emotions . Bloomfield is close enough to New York to satisfy many appetites, and Ceravolo was an eager consumer, admiring Ted Berrigan and absorbing the grit and rough beauties that the area had to offer. He was also not completely immune to the lure of surface glitter, and posed for Francesco Scavullo, the lens master best known for glamming up Cosmopolitan Magazine for many years. The Wesleyan staff was wise to use one of Scavullo’s smoldering portraits for the cover of this book, as a way help hook a new generation on a talent that ranks with the best that American letters has to offer.
“End of the World” could be about any place, including the industrial parts of New Jersey not far from where Ceravolo lived and worked :
This is the kind of poem that makes me ache over the fact that Ceravolo is not with us to share a bill with Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Ed Roberson and other living masters. His physicality is ever-present, sometimes with the plain elegance of “Lethal Sonnet:’’
Ceravolo was a man of many parts, laboring to unite a whole and to do it with integrity. Engineering is an occupation that has more room for poetry (think precision, dedication, symmetry, and a lust for questions and answers ) than one might immediately assume. He made room to fall in love, to marry and have children and be attentive to those he loved. He fed his muse in ways that honor the sacred without ever crossing the line into a slackness that bruises the raw holiness he sought, found and celebrated. Sometimes his short poems say it best :
Sacrifice love and record position
The goats balance
On beautiful mountains.
At dawn whatever light
returns, my heart
becomes quicker and quicker
in the night.
He was also wounded by events beyond his control, taking them in as if they were his own, as if suffering for them could somehow heal individuals ripped apart by the decisions of others. “Lament #2 for Lebanon” is too long to quote in full, but like almost everything in this collection, shows bravery, balance, and pure art:
Tomorrow night before the winds blow down
the hungry trees : they’re swaying in the mist,
I want to stop this grove from filling.
Stars in our sleep ride the massacre
in corners of destruction’s nest.
Suns of chords
like dialysis or death.
land of wood,
defoliated dreams, decapitated screams.
land of wood
Like a pawn you lie
in the middle of the beast,
in the midst of an
old land of sorrows
of controversy crossing the soul.
A dark walk in the desert!
A scorched memory’s toll!
The entire piece is about twice what you see here, and is, like every word in this volume, (including David Lehman’s rigorously appreciative introduction) a “scorched memory” and well worth the price, the toll of time spent with this incendiary material.