Sitting in TriBeCa, I open my recently received copy of the Joseph Ceravolo Collected Poems. I am here with my beautiful fiancée Danielle who is doing work of her own next to me at the table. Now and again, she pulls at a cup of green tea and, now and again, I do the same. I can feel the caffeine rush more than usual and question if this is the right state of mind to enter into a massive collection of notably dense poetry. I conclude: probably not, but then again, I think, what is the right state of mind to enter into a massive collection of notably dense poetry? Probably none. I wonder. The steam rises in twists from my Michigan State coffee mug and I wonder if it does the same once it’s inside my belly.
I’ve already read the introduction twice. Written by David Lehman, the great champion of American contemporary poetry, I read it once on the subway on my way to a hot yoga class on the upper east side and then again, shamefully, early one morning on the toilet in Bobst library. As I begin it again, I make a note in the left-hand margin, reminding me to only use David’s words as a jumping off point for my own - not to let his introduction complete funnel my review. It reads: *DON’T REWRITE LEHMAN. BE YOUR OWN MAN. However, it’s a difficult task, and my body shakes with anxiety when I hit the end of his very first sentence: “ [Toward an anthology] of unjustly neglected American poets,” Lehman writes, “I was not the only contributor who put in for Joseph Ceravolo, but my hand went up first, and I got to praise this overlooked genius of American poetry.” Fuck, I think, there goes my first line, and I turn to my computer and delete the first sentence in my Text Edit doc. - simply, “Joseph Ceravolo, the unsung genius of American poetry, final gets his due with his newly released (Wesleyan books) Collected Poems, and I am honored to be the first to give it.”
I kiss Danielle and read through David’s introduction again, this time taking notes on some of the key points he brings up in Ceravolo’s work. In my black Moleskin I write down a few bullet points, completely realizing how in-over-my-head I am by trying to write intelligently on poems of this magnitude. Secretly I think, no one should ever write criticism on art this great - art this great should simply be read by everyone alive in the solitude of their days, over and over again, and thus, become woven into the fabric of their cognitive experience by instinctively recalling the poems and then applying them into their daily actions... still, I jotted down some notes:
- Line Breaks - Duality of the line - wordplay - materialization of language - creation of new nouns and, in turn, new experience - imaginative capacity- stark but complex images achieved through few words - conceptual ideas’ ability to open up into larger and more complex mental spaces and, as a result, shoot the mind off into new, interesting rooms.
Transmigration Solo: I read the preface written by Joseph himself in 1978. He states in the end that in the collection, he has created “a brewing of diverse particles into the whole.” With this in mind, I venture onward to poem number one (Lost Words) with the aim of reading the entire Collected in perhaps a single sitting. Yet, to my chagrin, I spend over a half-hour with this poem. “One corner is enough. / There isn’t one / as the field bulbs go out. / Right nearby is a river. / Moon exhaustedness slow (BIG) / slides lawns of earth under.”
My mind goes wild during and after reading the poem. I struggle to make any immediate sense of the three stanzas I’ve just taken in, outside of the traditional “letting the language wash over you” technique that seems so en vogue and acceptable with so many of us. With still over 500 pages to tackle, I refuse not to give each singular poem its due. I read the poem over at least three more times. I break it down. I think of the interchangeable boxes and rooms we as creatures have no choice but to occupy and the walls that potentially define them - the moon (wall one), the ground (wall two), the river (wall three), Sunday (wall four).
I’m proud of my reading, and so I read the poem out loud to Danielle. She is struck by the same notion and comments on a line in the final stanza, “There’s not enough words left, / although it seems enough / like grass inside me: / where the moment / is a terminable river / and bush come home.” She is curious about the representation of space inside the physical body and how it is so similarly held and represented to the space outside the physical body. I agree, and she kisses my neck all the way up to my earlobe.
For the next few hours I read straight through, giving each poem the respect of at least a moment’s contemplation to collect what I have gained from having read it. I read all the way through INRI, arguably my favorite of Ceravolo’s books, and stop to gather my thoughts on the whole. I don’t know what to do next. Next to me, Danielle is still occupied with her studies. I like how the lamp hanging overhead seems to catch inside her red-green-blue diamond-like earrings. I think about Joseph and all the poems in his books that were dedicated to his wife Rosemary. I’m struck at how beautiful a thing it is to be a poet in love and how lucky the world is to have known Joseph Ceravolo in love. I reread a poem from Spring in this World of Poor Mutts and marvel at his ability and bravery to end a poem as he does here:
Pregnant, I Come
I come to you
with the semen
and the babies:
ropes of the born.
I rise up
as you go up
in your consciousness.
Are you unhappy
in the source?
The clouds sputter
across the ring.
Do the birds sing?
-- Ian Brown
(The second part of this piece will be posted tomorrow.)