Future Paths Unfollowed: The Poetry of Joseph Ceravolo & Laurence Lieberman (Part 1)

by R. Salvador Reyes

The Wayward Ones
Poets move like shoals of fish through the ocean of our literary history. Gathering along the currents of time, dividing into separate schools, exploring myriad paths forward—some break off to join different shoals, others dart away in tiny clusters, quickly collecting streams of new followers. But there are those few loners, the daredevils, the quixotic: the pioneers who wander wayward, diving into unexplored depths, unfollowed, and sometimes forgotten. Yet their journeys are often the most fantastically revealing, and, ironically, the most powerfully memorable.

The last 40 years have been a dark time for poetry’s solo wanderers. The medium’s plump shoals have gathered more momentum, each seeming to divide and grow again. Even as poetry’s readership diminishes, the shoals fill their ranks—every oversized, famished new school thrashing over the same shrinking supply of literary affection. And if we consider that poetry’s presently diverse, but ancestrally-related avante garde is ultimately not that stylistically dissimilar from the poetic explorations of Gertrude Stein or Frank O’Hara or John Ashberry, we could argue that these shoals have been traveling a bit too circularly over the last 40 years. Worse, their voracious appetite has left behind little affection for the wanderers.

If we do not want these quixotic figures to be forgotten, we need ask: who are they? Who are the poets who have followed the actual path (not the mimicked one) of adventurers like Stein, O’Hara and Ashberry—striking out on their own, shoals be damned? Of course, every poet’s view of these metaphorical seas is unique in its myopia. But when I cast back over the last 40 years of American poetry in search of the most gloriously singular journeys, I hear two voices above the rest: Joseph Ceravolo and Laurence Lieberman.

Mirrored Brilliance
A result of their magnificent uniqueness: Ceravolo’s and Lieberman’s poetry is, at first glance, wildly unlike each other’s. In some ways, they are diametric opposites—both in form and in the creative arcs of their careers. Ceravolo (a civil engineer who was born in Queens and lived much of his life in New Jersey) emerged in the late-1960s as a promising, in-the-wings figure of the hip, art-connected New York School poetry scene. But the attention from his first full-length book—the brilliant Spring in This World of Poor Mutts (Columbia University Press, 1968), winner of the first Frank O’Hara Award for Poetry—eventually began to wane. By the time he published his masterpiece in 1978—Transmigration Solo (Toothpaste Press), a small-press collection mostly written 18 years earlier while spending a gloriously-inspired autumn in the outskirts of Mexico City—Ceravolo was no longer in poetry’s spotlight. His admirers, though fervent, were mostly reduced to fellow New York School veterans. A decade later, Ceravolo died of cancer; he was only 54, and left behind just a handful of small-run, out-of-print collections.

But Ceravolo’s poems have remained vibrant and compelling enough to be passed on between generations of poets like a secret—like the hidden location of some remote, only-reachable-in-negative-tides mystical coastal cave. Stylistically, Ceravolo’s singular poetry is, on the surface, primarily cubist and insistently abstract. His strongest poems are typically short, no longer than a page: bursts of pure sensory aesthetic and graceful motion wound around a fearlessly-probing, celestially-agog voice. His best work is an inseparable mesh of boiled-to-the-bone wonder and fear, where every moment seems to come at you unexpectedly.

Conversely, Lieberman’s poems are heavily narrative on the surface. A true poet-traveler, the Detroit-born Lieberman (a long-time University of Illinois professor and a highly-respected talent who’s never been poet-of-the-moment) has spent the last 30 years of his 45-year career writing feverishly and exclusively about the lore, culture, lands, and people of the Caribbean islands—weaving long and sometimes epically-scoped tales drawn from his extensive explorations of those tiny, but distinct, story-rich nations. And yet, in masterful collections like The Mural of Wakeful Sleep (Macmillan, 1985), The Creole Mephistopheles (MacMillan, 1988) and Compass of the Dying (University of Arkansas Press, 1998) we find that beneath Lieberman’s engagingly narrative structures are lines and language that, like Ceravolo’s, leap from the page in all their cubist glory—layering every tale he uncoils with a sub-strata of craggy and sublime imagery that morph the poems’ adventurous, page-winding forms into abstract and powerful narrative mosaics.

Like Lieberman’s mirror, beneath Ceravolo’s obvious abstraction and from-all-angles, quicksilver imagery, his poems have a subtle, but firm narrative and linguistic architecture that holds everything together. His are not the random, stir-the-pot-&-let-the-synapses-fire, pop-culture or obtusely-personal snippets of imagery and phraseology that are the hallmark of post-modern poetic descendants like the LANGUAGE school. It is, in fact, Ceravolo’s commitment to an undercurrent of continuity and progression (both within and between poems) in collections like the gorgeous Transmigration Solo that gives his work its depth and allows him to coherently explore complex and larger themes despite the linguistically, syntactically and imagistically fragmented nature of the individual pieces.

Ceravolo’s Infinite Ephemera
The results of Ceravolo’s constantly opposing poles are poems that seem to hover at the border of visibility, flickering between states of solidity and abstraction—merging the earth-bound with the ephemeral in a way that reflects our mind’s inexact fusion of senses and thoughts. This simultaneously concrete and elusive voice can be heard in the opening stanza of Transmigration Solo‘s first poem, “Lost Words”:

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.
Moves paws, feet, nearby.
Closes this body in ground!

The combination of stark precision and purposeful oddity in the language invigorates the fabric of this seemingly familiar scene with an angular, striking distortion of image and motion that alters the landscape like a cubist painting. In addition, the stanza’s filmic “double-exposures” allow the lines to contain those simultaneous multiplicities like wonder and fear. Look at how the second line reverses the first: line 1 allows us to feel that we possess all we need right here, but the next admits the truth of the moment, thus transforming the first line from something seemingly present into something longed for.

And the stanza’s closing line achieves a similarly self-contradicting duplicity. It is at first an ecstatic realization of the pure visual and physical truth of the moment: that these two celestial bodies—the moon and earth—as they slide over each other, enclose him in between. We feel his tininess matched against their vast size, yet still sense an inescapable, enveloping connectedness within his field of vision that makes their vastness partly his own. But the line’s exclamatory joy cannot hide the darker exposure it also sears onto the page: the image of this same ecstatic creature buried in its grave. This grave transforms the opening lines yet again, providing a more-specifically ominous setting for their once sufficient, then truant, and now confining corners.

Creating this kind of brief universal oneness (a oneness he arrives at here after its stated absence in line 2) from an askew sewing-together of the fragmented, flickering, perpetually-moving pieces of a moment was among Ceravolo’s unique talents. And it is the motion in his poems—often from unlikely sources and taking unlikely paths—that brings these moments to sudden life, gives his descriptions that quality of a flowing holographic rendering of a distant, but momentarily-immediate place. In the stanza above, lines 3–7 reanimate the moment in just such a way: “as the field bulbs go out./Right nearby is a river./Moon exhaustedness    slow (BIG)/slides lawns of earth under./Moves paws, feet, nearby.” In line 3, the poem’s figurative walls suddenly fall away and we are transported from that comforting-cum-wistful corner to the disorienting openness of a field, one immediately transformed by another “double-exposure”: both growing dim as we see lit bulbs around the field go dark, and fading in time, because the line also suggests blossoming flower bulbs in the field either wilting or closing-up in the night. These two forms of simultaneous transformation—illuminative and temporal—spur the scene into motion.

And then a swing of the eye to a new border: “Right nearby is a river.” This border is linear, parallel, cornerless—it is also more supple, alive and dangerous than the cornered borders first conjured. Here is a mysterious path to somewhere else, yet we sense his apartness from it. The motion of this river is then mimicked by the almost glacially-observed movement of the moon [“exhaustedness    slow (BIG)”] as it slides above-head. Ceravolo’s placement and usage of the word “slides”—attending to the phrases both before and after it—allows him to magnify the sensation of this echoed river-like motion. These conjoined lines seem to cause the moon to flow in one direction while the earthly lawn below flows the opposite way. The cumulative effect is powerful: the visceral experience of the movement of these two massive bodies turning, one in rotation around the other.

This newly-celestial view transforms the adjacent river from a border into his peer. Which is appropriate, because in the next line he seems to have joined the inanimate—becoming another part of the earth that the animated, otherly “feet” and “paws” are now “nearby.” We can also see these creatures as different kind of river beside him: their path another border in motion, more evidence of movement & life that, paradoxically, he seems to be apart from while remaining connected.

This joining of earthly, lunar, human and animal forms coalesces in the frisson of that transcendent-but-ominous last line of the stanza: “Closes this body in ground!” Here in the space of its first eight lines, Ceravolo’s Transmigration Solo transforms a simple, waning, late-night moment into a microcosmically-epic, yet intimate and inter-looping, infinite and mortal journey though and around the vessels of being, space and time. This is what the wanderers can bring us: new and exotic visions of our universe—visions that can transform us as immediately as they enter our minds.

Connecting The Corners
In addition to his intricate inter-poem structures, Ceravolo’s collections create a strong intra-poem architecture that unites and expands the scope of the work as a whole. Both a linguistic economist and an intertwiner, Ceravolo weaves throughout his collections repeated images and language that become his poetry’s own mythology. These elements build and evolve as the poems unfold, each reappearance drawing new lines in the collection’s archeological sediment. For example, the corners from “Lost Words” reappear in Transmigration Solo‘s later poems, carrying their new complexity and heft forward into other landscapes—helping to inject a dose of that continuity and progression into the larger work. Appearing a few pages after “Lost Words” in the middle of the poem “Floating Gardens”:

“I’m happy”, I said to a big tree.

So we stand
on a ridge, it
has corners and we
wait in corners
of excellent summer,
unconscious manifolded igneous

And beginning the poem that follows it, “The Women”:

They have the corner
half seated on their thighs,
and long braids tied like drainpipes.
Their hair is a drainpipe
closed from rain.
In the corner of their eyes
is a building of grass.

When we arrive at these poems, the language of longing & comfort has already been infused into Ceravolo’s image of the corner. One of the great benefits of poetic economy—styles, like Ceravolo’s cubism, that rely on word sparsity—is that small moments like the opening stanza of “Lost Words” can achieve a magnified weight as they echo throughout the other poems. This helps those thematically-deepening connections between the pieces to flourish.

“Floating Gardens” is a poem of pure ephemeral joy, and an expression of youth’s reality-conflicted, but invigorating intimations of immortality. When we encounter Ceravolo’s corners again here—particularly after his blunt declaration of happiness—they now feel exactly like that longed-for comfort that was so fleeting earlier. And the specific power of this moment’s firmness in self (and in that self’s place in the universe) is secured by the snug placement of the ridge’s corners within the more-enveloping corners of the summer itself.

This evolving imagery provides a kind of fundamental narrative movement through the collection: a recognized & powerful need from the beginning of our story has now been, at least momentarily, satiated. And in the next poem the story takes another turn: we find ourselves outsiders again. The glory of the ridge is behind us, and here our mythological corners are possessed by mysterious others—natives of this land, who remind us in their uniquely-foreign posture of comfort that we still belong nowhere: “They have the corner/half seated on their thighs,”.

The women’s “drainpipe” braids are depicted like an elegant apparatus for diffusing the rain—like the self-contained shelter of a creature evolved to effortlessly interact with its environment. This makes these women appear to be more authentic beings of this land, beings who might hold in them the secret locations of a seemingly-distant inner peace: “In the corner of their eyes/is a building of grass.” Of course, in another wonderful paradox, the “real” image depicted here is simply the reflection of a grass hut in one of the women’s eyes. Thus, this perceived-to-be out-of-reach desire is also right there beside him, within the world in which he stands.

Last Words
As we journey with Ceravolo in these poems through his epiphany-filled season in a foreign place, we are transformed with him; his perfectly-titled Transmigration Solo becomes our own singular journey from one form of our being to another. It is a journey of constant flux—one in which we exist in a flickering state between anticipated consummation and impending cessation. And this impossible-yet-honest dissonance is on full display in the final poem of the collection, “Notes From St. Francis”. Not coincidentally, the real St. Francis bore more than a passing figurative resemblance to Ceravolo: a rebellious, quixotic outsider who devoted his life to poverty in order to spread his own purist version of the Gospel. St. Francis embodies the ideal of salvation through sacrifice & repentance. Ceravolo’s own suffering & sacrifice in chase of his purist muse is a dark undercurrent of his final collection, Millenium Dust (Kulchur Foundation, 1982). In the first several sections of that book there is, in fact, a powerful sadness under which the poems seem to wither. But the title-bearing last section finds a way to mostly shepherd the sadness toward a profound, gut-wrenching beauty.

In contrast, “Notes From St. Francis” (actually written on U.S. soil, 5 years after his 1960 metamorphosis in Mexico) was composed when Ceravolo’s darkly-infinite perspective on existence was still tempered by the exuberance of youth. The poem expresses its fearless embrace of simultaneous being and mortality in a shameless, gorgeously unencumbered voice. It begins:

In the world today
there is
no world so attached as I am
to worlds.

And the collection concludes:

We are gunning for extinction.
The sky is still bright
and all the animals running
for prehistoric sounds
believable in the passionate night.

Here it seems wiser to let Ceravolo’s words speak for themselves. Instead of more explication, I’ll share what I mostly like to imagine these days when I conjure Ceravolo: some failing fire escape or drooping front stoop in north Jersey, sometime around the year of the Bicentennial, some forgotten autumn, some late night after some long day. There’s a recording you can listen to online of Ceravolo reading 12 minutes of poems on just such a night during just such a season, in Lower Manhattan at the historic Ear Inn just before the release of Transmigration Solo. And you can hear it in his voice: the weight of things he’s seen in his mind. During some of the most recent poems spoken on that night, you can feel the burden of those visions. But near the end of the reading, he begins to dig in to some of the old work from his upcoming (but actually 18-years past) collection, and you can hear him fill with it—the truth of what he’s speaking, his belief in his words. In those moments, Ceravolo knows it: he’s created these magnificent objects. In the recording it sounds like maybe a couple dozen listeners, likely less, are gathered. Who knows what he thought then. Is this it? Will anyone else hear? I would like to tell him—yes, Joe, we hear.


Later this month: Part 2 explores Laurence Lieberman’s poetry.

One comment

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