Saturday, April 03, 2010

Since I'll probably get a little behind with my "C" and "D" reading in the next couple of days, I thought I'd post an alternate "C" for the moment: a little musing on Joseph Ceravolo from a couple of months back. Since writing it, I've been reading JC more extensively, and he's become one of my favorite poets.


I’ve just been reading the selections of Ceravolo’s work in the anthology From the Other Side of the Century (the most valued book I own). Here’s the first of ten sections that make up “Ho Ho Ho Caribou:”

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 flying.

I find this powerfully disorienting; it gives me the “where the hell am I?” feeling, one of the main things I want out of reading poetry. How does it do that?

Here and in the rest of the poem (and most of Ceravolo’s work in this anthology--I haven’t read much elsewhere), there’s the impression that language isn’t working smoothly and naturally. Normal language use has been impeded, and it takes effort to construct grammatical and syntactic units; the words are heavy, not easy to move around. What impedes the process is the sense the language wants to convey, in general a “sense of reality” intensely felt, more real than “natural” language. Not an impedance felt as difficulty or loss. The reality experienced: the intensities of language itself in its coming-to-being, each time that there is something to be said. The feeling of the words coming to mean things as that happens.

The first line comes out of nowhere in a startling fashion. The subject is replaced by the high energy of the verb--and when the verb’s object turns out to be “caribou,” we assume that this is a predatory situation. The grammatical parallelism of the second line carries that energy through so that “leaped” echoes unsettlingly in “looked,” son and predator brought into a conjunction that could be read in various ways.

The echo of “caribou” in “kangaroo,” of course, doubles their grouping as “exotic” animals to be looked at by the “white man” and his children. That sonic echo, combined with the slight wrongness of “on” in the third sentence, builds the sense of language being manipulated as if it had never been heard before--how can we combine these words, these parts of speech? Language here is palpable and strange, almost incantatory, as if the poem is a spell or an alchemical experiment. There’s the sense that it’s more a matter of how the words feel and what they do than of what they mean. “The kangaroo leaped on the fruit tree” has the ring of a fable or folk tale to me; I can hear it being told in that incantatory mode. That sense is heightened by the next sentence, which seems to place the “white man” in contrast to the sort of aboriginal environment in which he’d assume these animals to be found.

“The doll is sleeping” seems like another instance of tentatively working with the strange materials of language, feeling out the possibilities of the predicate. “Is like paradise.” “Is sleeping.” This magical awkardness heightened by the tense change and the two verbs, so unlike either “leaped” or “looked,” in the penultimate sentence. That sentence also giving a “back story” to the doll, explaining how it ended up asleep. Then “it was clean and flying,” as if building on its predecessor, but in contradiction to it (“flying” vs. “asleep”), so that this final sentence becomes another instance of linguistic exploration--here of adjectives, the first denoting a property and the second a state of action very different, again, from “leaping” and “looking.”

Amplifying all this: the breaking of the poem in two by “are hungry” (the only line that neither begins nor ends a sentence, and the first proper adjective), its dissonance with “paradise” that sets off the second half, in which disturbances, I think, are greater than in the first half. The contrast of “doll” with both animals and children, and the little system those nouns make. The connection of “plate” with “hungry.”


  • At April 5, 2010 at 11:17 PM, Blogger Curtis Faville said…


    I can still remember how excited I was when I read Ho Ho Ho Caribou in the Paris Review all those years ago.

    I am a white
    man and my children
    are hungry
    which is like paradise.

    Ceravolo had an original sense of feeling and lyricism which was completely, completely unlike anything I'd ever read before.

    He could make you feel utterly strange, endorphin-laden sensations that no one else even knew about. It was mind-boggling.

    Then the guy died of a heart attack, I think in his early Forties. He hadn't published a lot, his total work goes to about 100 pages I think. When I was in college, I found a cache of Tibor de Nagy pamphlets at a co-op book nook--there must have been about eight of them, and I got all of them except Joe's and Tony Towle's. Now those books each cost in the hundreds of dollars apiece.

    How to account for the magic he projects in his words?

    I've never read a serious review of his work, or a consideration of how it "fits" into the time of its writing.

    Write more about him!

  • At April 6, 2010 at 11:37 AM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Thanks, Curtis! I intend to. There's still nobody writing who seems take Ceravolo as a model for what's possible. In a way, that makes me lucky, since I could stumble across it in a state still pretty fresh, not too far from it popping up in PR. I think it's just utterly amazing work.



  • At April 6, 2010 at 12:28 PM, Blogger Steven Fama said…

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for this discussion, which has once more sent me back to Ceravolo's poetry. Ceravolo's poetry, I agree does have the effect of making the reader think, 'where the hell am I." I appreciate you taking a closer look at that.

    Personally, I'm not looking for anyone to "model" their poetry after anybody, including even someone as singular as Ceravolo. People have to come to themselves, themselves.

    As maybe you know, but which I would like to point out just-in-case, Ceravolo is very much in dialogue with poets today.

    First, there's Joseph Massey. Massey's Poetry Society of America statement mentions Ceravolo (among mnay others) and also prints a poem about listening to Ceravolo.

    See also John Olson's discussion of Ceravolo, here.

    Also, Amish Trivedi's Recovery Project piece on Ceravolo, here.

    And then, five or so years ago, in Philly, John Colleti, CA Conrad, and others got together for a Ceravolo event (scroll down to "Reading Report").

    Ceravolo is alive and well!

    I can't link to it, but I'm positive the poet-folks of Philly (CAConrad

  • At April 6, 2010 at 3:39 PM, Anonymous Ron Czerwien said…

    Hi Andy:

    Nice piece of analysis on Ceravolo. Someone who works in my building mentioned him to me a year ago, and I picked up a copy of The Green Lake is Awake from Coffee House Press. It's an amazing book for its time, and it sounds so contemporary. It's a favorite. I echo Curtis, please write more!

  • At April 6, 2010 at 3:45 PM, Anonymous Ron Czerwien said…

    What I meant to say was it's his poetry that comes across as so amazing for its time, etc. The Coffee House book is from 1994, of course.

  • At April 7, 2010 at 2:36 PM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Thanks for the comments, fellas.

    Steven: yes, I was uncomfortable with my previous comment when I (hurriedly) wrote it. It's probably hyperbolic and/or untrue. There does seem to be a recent engagement with JC's work. And it's not imitation/modeling I'm thinking of, exactly--more of a link with that kind of feeling for language as a palpable, resistant stuff--more a seeking of the kind of strangeness that results from that sense. A poem needn't read like Ceravolo to achieve that.




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