The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Joseph Ceravolo Collected Poems (2013)


‘Generally described as a second-generation member of the New York School of poets, American poet Joseph Ceravolo, born in 1934, is actually closer in age to the first generation. Ceravolo was born in a sort of middle-time, like Ted Berrigan (also born in 1934). Although his literary tropes and ideologies were not so different from those of the first generation, he did not continue to pursue that generation’s attention to verbal play in his later poems. His 1967 work Wild Flowers Out of Gas is intensely lyrical, as is 1965’s Fits of Dawn and the brilliant, award-winning volume, Spring in the World of Poor Mutts (1968), and these works were also verbally innovative Yet, like the second generation poets, Ceravolo eventually abandons youthful and playful poetics to create a more personal writing.

‘Moreover, there’s something unique about Ceravolo’s poetics, an outsider sensibility, as if he hadn’t fully dedicated himself to the literary innovations the first generation Manhattan and Long Island-based writers were attempting.

‘Ceravolo was neither a poetry teacher nor an editor of poetry journals, as were so many of his contemporaries. He worked for most of his life as a civil engineer. He lived not in Manhattan but in Bloomfield, New Jersey, with his wife and children, haunting the territory of William Carlos Williams in Paterson and Weehawken Park, and expressing his kinship with Williams and Walt Whitman, both unlikely influences for a New York School writer.

‘Born into a deeply religious Italian family, Ceravolo’s intensely romantic sensibility further distinguishes his work from the New York School poets (with the possible exception of Bernadette Mayer). The standard New York School influences — the art world, New York street life, and cartoons and pop culture and, later, postmodern transformations of these concerns — barely appear in Ceravolo’s poetry.

‘Even in the early experimentation of Fits of Dawn, in which he plays with sound and association, there is something different about Ceravolo’s tone. Prior to the experiments of the avant-garde Language poetry school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his manipulation of language and word choices distance his work from standard New York School experiments:

Ache outsent insistment palm Papa

nothing jobular at vanim

Villain! Jabel violin

Of chaining reachness carvey kid


Go! Run! Bay tacxico

rigor rubbing outset hapbel

queer carun kiakiha cheek

vine chain notion,

ruts who peyon

toxic anger catch

Beat tan fon reshuffle

rugged helical tone torture


‘While this poetry may be difficult to interpret for many readers, the passion beneath it seethes like an emotional volcano. Where is the “ache” coming from, and who are the “villain” and the “carvey kid.”? Why are we told to “Go! Run!”? And who or what is the subject or object of the “queer carun kiahika cheek”? Why is there a “rugged helical tone torture” and from what does it emanate? And from whom is the “toxic anger” coming?

‘By the time he published his award-winning volume, Spring in the World of Poor Mutts, Ceravolo had turned his romanticism into complex love poems, such as “Ho Ho Ho Caribou,” a joyous celebration of his wife and children (dedicated to Rosemary):


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 lying.


Caribou, what have I

done? See how her

heart moves like a little

bug…….under my thumb.

Throw me deeply.

I am the floes.

Ho ho ho caribou,

light brown and wetness

caribous. I stink and

I know it.

“Screw you!….you’re right!”

‘The joys he expresses earlier in the poem, however, are counterbalanced as he demonstrates his failures as a human being. And throughout this book he visits black bars and other places where he is seeking out something we can’t quite know but are encouraged to try to imagine, a world clearly outside of his more conventional life.

‘Despite his love of his wife and family, the poems in his later volumes of the 1980s reveal an equal sense of guilt, perhaps for other loves he can’t quite express or admit to, or perhaps simply as a narrative device. In “Road of Trials,” for example, again a poem dedicated to Rosemary, he writes:

I cry

yay test hell cry of

tubes like boiling


I want to touch

you but can’t

‘This sense of distance grows throughout his oeuvre as he appears to express“feminine” feelings, often casting himself in the female role in poetic descriptions of the sex act. Lines from “Nude Madness” from his 1982 collection, Millenium Dust, prefigure Pedro Almodóvar’s 1989 film, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down:

Nail me to this rock!

Would it hurt too much?

Would it be a cushion

against reality

a self consciousness

of the human body

and human movement

a game of cheating sexuality?

It scares me more to think

of the nucleus of an atom

than to imagine a revolution.

‘The short poems that comprise the final sections of this new anthology, gathered as Mad Angels and Hellgate, show the poet looking to his children, their lives, nature, and the sociopolitical issues of his surrounding world, as source material. These poems are brimming with anger at US politics. Still, there are moments of deep self-doubt, and a fear of his personal appetites, expressed through radical disjunction in language:

Domination in creation

The stars are clear tonight

We live in a house

we dwell in a cave

deep in the dragon’s soul.

‘Ceravolo died of bile duct cancer in 1988 at the age of 54 in 1988. In much of his work, he seems to be on an almost religious pilgrimage, moving away from the center of his life and family, then back again. As readers, we want him to enjoy the pleasures of his life, but we realize that if he had, we would be denied the complexity of his poetry. One can only wish that he had lived longer to express more of what his incredible talent had promised.’ — Douglas Messerli



Joseph Ceravolo Website
The Joseph Ceravolo Project
Audio: Joseph Ceravolo reading his poetry @ PennSound
JC @ The Project for Innovative Poetry
Joseph Ceravolo @ Goodreads
Jerome Sala on JC @ espressobongo
Three poems by JC @ American Poetry Review
‘Reading Joe Ceravolo’s ‘Migratory Noon’ with Ron Silliman’
‘Poetry as music: A different way of thinking’
Buy ‘Collected Poems’


Reading for the Collected Poems of Joseph Ceravolo
With David Lehman, Charles North, Ron Padgett, Anselm Berrigan, Peter Gizzi, David Shapiro, John Perreault, Eileen Myles, Susie Timmons, Timothy Donnelly, Jordan Davis, Ariana Reines, Corina Copp, Corrine Fitzpatrick, John Coletti, Thurston Moore, Anita Ceravolo and Parker Smathers.


Letter to David Shapiro, 6/29/65


Dear David,

I was so glad to get your letter. We never did meet at Weequahic Park for lunch but they’ll be other times for that. I used to go to the park every day and write. Each day I’d write a few lines of what I thought was a complete poem. Then I put them all together and called it The Green Lake Is Awake.

Anita is crying now. Paul is sleeping and Rosemary is getting ready for bed. She has it pretty rough being with them all day long. We seldom get out. Sunday we went to the movies of 8th St. N.Y. and saw The Red Desert by Antonioni. It’s a beautiful film about a woman or women in general, and how they are so confused in this world or the anti-nature world that man trys [sic] to make for himself. Sometimes it’s such an unnatural world where none of his real feelings come through. On the way out of the movie we met Ted Berrigan going in. He is publishing my long poem and it will probably be out next month. Rosemary made a beautiful cover for it. It’s called FITS OF DAWN. I’m starting to get nervous and excited about it.

I read your poems a number of times. Of the three little ones I liked “What do you say, bank named for a cripple” etc. best. Of the long one part I I liked better than part II. In fact I found something nice in all of them but sometimes a line or word brought me down and I couldn’t get with the reality that you must have felt. What I mean is at the sacrifice of making it a sure poem, you may have taken something from it. What I felt most was Part I.

I think I’m obsessed with reality, I don’t mean realism but that sense of reality, like “I’m really here and I feel it” even though I can’t explain it. Something like that. Which everyone feels and you recognize it when you see it in a poem.

As for my own poetry, I haven’t been writing much at all. Maybe it’s working inside me but who knows. Sometimes I think maybe I’ve done the best I could and everything [cut off in photocopy] through my head. I go to the clinic at 9:00 pm on tuesday night and talk to my psychiatrist for an hour. Many unsettled things. Who wants to transmit my neurosis to my children? or hold back love to my wife? I’ve had needed to go for a long time and finally I’ve done it.

I just can’t wait for my vacation. We are going down the shore. The Jersey shore is so beautiful. We went to North Wildwood last year and that water and sand and us playing in the sand is on my brain.

Tell me about where you are. Is Julie with you? I hope she’s all right. That was a pretty big experience she went through; and you too.

A Music & art form. It sounds great. Or is it — not as good as it sounds. That word I obliterated was “boring.” I didn’t want to give you any ideas. But I can’t really imagine it.


1. Newark reservoirs are very low. Everyone is walking around dirty.
2. Paul is always dirty but gets a bath every night and a shower.
3. Every time the weather is really hot the fish in the lake keep jumping out and you think you saw something but it was real.
4. Rosemary is almost finished with therapy. Her husband is just starting.
5. No amount of wisdom or learning can make a person live in the present. He just has to live.
6. The west does not understand the east.
7. Nor does the east             “                 the west.
8. They are both the same — naked.
9. Poetry is a flock of geese flying out of formation being in formation.
10. This news is bullshit. But it was real?

Regards to Julie. Love from Rosemary.






Joseph Ceravolo Collected Poems
Wesleyan University Press

‘Like an underground river, the astonishing poems of Joseph Ceravolo have nurtured American poetry for fifty years, a presence deeply felt but largely invisible. Collected Poems offers the first full portrait of Ceravolo’s aesthetic trajectory, bringing to light the highly original voice that was operating at an increasing remove from the currents of the time. From a poetics associated with Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery to an ever more contemplative, deeply visionary poetics similar in sensibility to Zen and Dante, William Blake and St. John of the Cross, this collection shows how Ceravolo’s poetry takes on a direct, quiet lyricism: intensely dedicated to the natural and spiritual life of the individual. As Ron Silliman notes, Ceravolo’s later work reveals him to be “one of the most emotionally open, vulnerable and self-knowing poets of his generation.” Many new pieces, including the masterful long poem “The Hellgate,” are published here for the first time. This volume is a landmark edition for American poetry, and includes an introduction by David Lehman.’ — WUP




All this summer fun.
The big waves, and waiting
(the moon is broken)
for the moon to come out
and revive the water. You look
and you want to watch as
men feel the beer breaking
on their lips, and women seem like
the sun on your little back.
Where are you closer to everything?
in the plants? on the photograph or
the little heart that’s not

used to beating like the waves’ foam?
A wasp is
looking for a hole in the screen.
No. There’s no man in the lighthouse.
There’s no woman there, but there is
a light there; it’s a bulb.
And I think how complete you are
in its light. Flash……… Flash…..
And I think of how our own room
will smell; You lying on one bed
and we in the other,
facing the… flash…..


Love Song

Like a punch in the face
planetary lights and stars,
do I see Spring.
The ground is frozen.
Dawn like the colors of an old fire
illuminates the south-east.
The ground is frozen solid,
yet not to permafrost,
yet not to this inner core
which glows like coals for you.
Overcast comes, overcast goes
the ground is frozen but not the core,
but not your eyes
which glow like coals
but not to permafrost.


Where Abstract Starts

I sit here it is 4:00
Should I say it?
Death occurred to me
And the fit over bounded
My physical thought
As I lie here


Great Plains

What, no one here? No one
around here? No buffalo?
Like sleeping on the toilet bowl…
Drifting toward love…

The dogs are out this morning
jumping on top of each other
Is there a real release with them?

But, no one here.
There’s no buffalo, only dogs,
this morning, where dawn
and a wild wild bird fly away.


Autumn Torches

Monday morning in the Americas
cloudy bright, cloudy bright,
cloudy bright, clouds to bright.
The earth people going to work.
So this is what it’s like
to be in a trance awakened by the fires
and silence in the cold
with soft voices disappearing.
The day coming on like an intoxication
with no control on the watery shore
of struggle in autumn.
Monday morning
the screech of my eyes
opening into dawn
My eyes speeding to the woman
standing over me;
In my ear
a mother and father returning
for an instant, the bread and coffee
on the hot stones
in the next room dream.
I have turned in my sleep.
Do I enter the deep?

Monday morning creation ascending
to celestial paradigm
in the conflagration
of dumped computers
and magnetic erasure of world data.
The coffee staining
the arms straining,
a ladle pouring
ingots in the noise.
The strength returning
to the center of the crossed body
Another kiss another sigh
Monday morning:
in the sky
a bird’s cry.



Nothing exists that does no empty.
Who are you feeling?
Who do you bite in the morning?
Our health?
when we’re sick

is the body coming.

Our love,
a mountain fuming
in the ocean

like a graceful race such as
black. When the shores overtake
in the continent.
When the heroes are phony,
and our house less than rubble
will there be a bite, a memory still left?




p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I wonder if he knew Jack Smith’s work? The first time I saw ‘Pomegranates’ was way back at a screening held by an Armenian activist group at the Los Feliz theater that was a benefit to raise awareness of his imprisonment and money to get him a retrial. Yeah, it’s a true masterpiece. Btw, I got everything fine via email, and we’re set to go. Everyone, FaBlog takes on the whole masks vs. no masks US-based deal in a little ditty entitled Mask-O-Phobia. ** Misanthrope, Kind of figured. So often do, ha ha. Same here on the sudden ups and downs, thank god. I guess it’s not a hurricane anymore? Suppose it’ll still bring a drenching. I guess because one walks to a lot of places where one is going here in this cozy big city, I’m out a lot. Well, did that prize car pan out? Lots o’ luck. My weekend was hardly glorious, but it did the trick. Yours? ** Bill, ‘Pomegranates’ is incredible. The two shorts he made just before it, ‘Kivski Freski’ and ‘Hakob Hovnatanyan’ are beautiful too, and his subsequent feature ‘The Legend of the Suram Fortress’ is pretty great as well. Did you sort the technical problems? Yeah, California seems to be a total fucking mess. So sorry. ** JoeM, Hi. Did you ever see images, or maybe video (?), of the collaborative performance piece Shane did with, I think, Martin Bladh where Shane played a Nilsen victim and Bladh played Nilsen, and Shane got symbolically ‘snuffed’ on stage? I think I was thinking of it more than of his writing. I could be wrong, but I think I read somewhere that Shane has another book coming out next year with Infinity Land Press? I’m not absolutely sure about that though. He is really prolific. Kind of amazingly so. I think moving to the UK, if he still lives there, is really suiting him. ** h (now j), Hi. ‘Pomegranates’ and the films from that period are stunning. His early films and the films he made post-prison aren’t as great, imo. In general, it’s been a lovely, mild summer with one horrendous day last week and apparently one or two horrendous days coming this weekend. Could be worse. My trip? You mean to Rennes? It was good, just working with Gisele on her upcoming theater piece, an adaptation of a play that Robert Walser wrote when he was a teenager. It still needs a fair amount of work, but there’s time. I hope you’re getting through the summer in one mega-piece. ** _Black_Acrylic, Very nice, that park. About half of the Parisians wear masks outdoors now, but the social distancing is quite good. I don’t do outdoor  masks myself. Rumor is that we’ll be mandated to wear masks outdoors soon though, or if the cases keep rising a little bit as they currently are. Stay ultra-safe. Did you end up watching the Higgins doc, and was your dad swayed? ** Okay. If you don’t know the work of the wonderful and very strangely undervalued New York School poet Jospeh Ceravolo, you really should, and today offers you a chance. See you tomorrow.


  1. Golnoosh

    What a gem; thank you for introducing him, Dennis. His poetry sounds sublime and so does his voice. There is also something really refreshing and affirming about the fact that he was a civil engineer and not a poetry editor. Very tempted to purchase his collected poems now. I especially love the last two stanzas of Nothing… Do you have a favourite book/ poem by him? The Green Lake Is Awake also seems really good…

  2. David Ehrenstein

    This is fascinating. Ceravolo is new to me and I can’t quite figure out why. Lost in the Poetic Shuffle I suppose. His work is lovely.

  3. Misanthrope

    Dennis, Hey, hey, hey, good stuff today. I likey.

    Yeah, should be just a lot of rain when the storm reaches us. Think it’s hitting FL as cat 1 hurricane? We’re supposed to get up to 5 inches of rain through tomorrow. After that, it’s sun and then scattered T-storms until the weekend. I’ve checked and secured the gutters and all that on our old house.

    Ah, the prize car…was but an illusion. Think the guy led David on a bit over the phone and got his hopes up, but I don’t think there was malice involved. In the end, they wanted proof of 6 straight months of employment and 3 straight months of pay stubs. He doesn’t have either. So we’re going back to the private seller route. Hey, the boy aims big, but he’s not gonna find a place to bankroll a loan with his financials without trying to fuck him over a hot, steaming barrel.

    Onward and upward.

    My weekend was okay. Grilled out Saturday…and found a black widow spider under the grill. I’d seen the web there for a while with leaves and shit in it but never the spider. Saw it Saturday, thank God. Better than reaching under there to open a vent and grabbing that fucker, which was entirely possible because that’s right where it was sitting the next day. My mom made me terminate it via boot heel after I captured it in a jar, took pics, and sent said pics to friends. RIP Mrs. Widow.

    Also fell into my one bookcase in the dark and knocked two shelves down, which I repaired last night. I took my shoes off and stepped on my dumbbell, hitting the most painful part of this callus on right foot…and just lurched forward and over into the bookcase.

    Another thing that happened was I found two deeply etched scratches on the back bumper of my car. Some fucker obviously backed into me in a parking lot somewhere and took off. I bought this car brand new two years ago and now it looks like shit back. Fuckers.

    So yeah, great weekend all the way around.

  4. JoeM

    ‘Did you ever see images, or maybe video (?), of the collaborative performance piece Shane did with, I think, Martin Bladh where Shane played a Nilsen victim and Bladh played Nilsen, and Shane got symbolically ‘snuffed’ on stage?’

    I must have because I see/read all his stuff eventually. But I have a terrible memory. I mean these days I have to Google very famous people’s names etc. I suspect it was Bladh’s idea. But who knows. He certainly has every right to use Nilsen. It always surprised me that Shane wanted Nilsen to get freed. His mother certainly didn’t.

    ‘I could be wrong, but I think I read somewhere that Shane has another book coming out next year with Infinity Land Press?’

    Probably. He’s had a few great art books published by them. He’s comfortable with that. The Infinity people are great. He needs to find a nice independent fiction publisher he’s comfortable with.

    Regarding memory: Stephen Fry said he read and loved that Booker winning novel by a fellow Jewish writer – Howard Jacobson ( I nearly had to Google him) – but can’t remember a single thing about it. I can do that – forget entire novels/films TV series not long after I’ve read/seen them.

    I was going to mention that Hurricane TV doc that Ben did. Weird coincidence.

    There was also last week a documentary on the Murdoch dynasty. Roger Ailes, disgraced, fired head of Fox, used to have snoop cameras on all his employees (plus in his own home – snooping on his wife and children). He was watching James Murdoch (the son who just recently left the empire completely due to his – relative – liberalism). James was smoking. Someone who was there when Ailes was watching this reports that Ailes said: “Don’t tell me that mouth hasn’t sucked cock”. Hmm. Wonder why that would, uh, bother him so. And wonder how he could tell…

  5. _Black_Acrylic

    I’m a poetry neophyte so no surprise that Joseph Ceravolo is a new name to me, but I’m really enjoying these glimpses at his work.

    The BBC Higgins doc repeated last night was something of a dud, very much a sanitised version of his life that never went in deep. Some compelling testimony from his family but I’m sure the dirt was avoided to secure their participation. That blog day last week told his story in a way more complete manner. My dad declared himself uninterested and never watched any of it, which is his loss as far as I’m concerned.

    You’re a fan of the footballing great Zidane, right? At the weekend I happened upon this sweet 2 min clip from 2014 that shows Zizou backstage discussing tactics with the current Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa. You can see in that short exchange how highly MB is regarded by the very highest in the game, and I still can’t believe he’s in charge at our club.

  6. cal

    Hey Dennis, thanks for yesterday’s post. I’ve been wanting to see more of Parajanov stuff. Color of Pomegranates is an influence on the first Poz book, which has been on the mad backburner to let the imagery really seep and expand. I love your poetry posts, been trying so hard to understand poetry but it’s still so elusive to me. Do you like Joan Crawford? I came across this video of her reading her autobiography and it made me think of you for some reason
    Have a good day!

  7. Steve Erickson

    My doctor told me to stay away from computer screens so this will be quick. (I made a post yesterday which never appeared.) The surgery went OK, but it took much longer than I expected. I didn’t leave the hospital till 1:15 PM. I’m seeing the doctor Wed. afternoon – New York’s getting with a tropical storm tomorrow – and I have a long list of things I can’t do till then. I’m pretty exhausted now.

  8. h (now j)

    Thank you for this beautiful post today, Dennis. I see Joseph Ceravolo’s poems are very painterly and also emotionally vulnerable. Love the melodic repetition and spatial spread of some of words, also. And the nuance feels modest and minimal despite the evocative strength. What a gift! I try to not buy more books lately but I’m sold. Well, it’s a little embarrassing that I hadn’t encountered Ceravolo’s poetry before. He’s born in the area, Astoria, Queens, where I used to live before I moved in Brooklyn a few years ago.

    My summer, since the last time I spoke with you, has been okay. Not too delightful, obviously. But writing and reading pretty solidly. I’m trying to get more quality work done in August, though, before teaching and other institutional obligations resume… I’m glad your trip to Rennes was productive and you are enjoying a gentle summer over there. Enjoy some gelato for me. We are anticipating a tropical storm later today (as Steve wrote above), I’m mentally cowering a bit right now. Hopefully, it won’t be severe.

  9. joseph grantham

    wow, looks i’ll be buying another book today. thanks dennis, these are great.

  10. chris dankland

    “we dwell in a cave
    deep in the dragon’s soul”

    is such a beautiful phrase…thank u for introducing it to me. i definitely will be checking out more of ceravolo when i have more time.

    things are pretty hectic and crazy right now — i finished my 2nd day of school today, which is all online through zoom classes. some things are cool about it and some things aren’t so good — but either way the entire educational infrastructure has had to completely revamp how it does almost everything (which i think is mostly a good thing to be honest), so needless to say there’s still a lot of confusion and stress and road blocks. personally, i think our school will be doing this for most if not all of the year, because I don’t see anybody really doing anything to get the virus under control. so ridiculous to think that u could open up schools like normal and not have to immediately shut them down again.

    i’ll give u a report later down the line about how things go. today felt much better than the first day of school, so that’s really positive. pretty weird and memorable time to be teaching, and pretty weird to be a student too.

    what were u like in 5th grade?

    anyway just wanted to pop in and say hello !! i hope your morning is awesome 🙂

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