Joseph Ceravolo. Transmigration Solo. Toothpaste Press, 1979.
By Amish Trivedi
I’m not entirely sure what the definition of a “cult” is, though I suppose I could just as easily look it up. However, I would rather say what I believe a “cult” to be, and that is something that has a decent following but that remains largely hidden to the public. The Rocky Horror Picture Show no longer constitutes a cult to me, mostly because we all know people who go at midnight, dress up, and yell “virgin” at the screen. Face it: it’s not a cult. It’s mainstream.
When I first heard of Joseph Ceravolo, I was sitting at a table in the English department building at the University of Georgia with Graham Foust, who was in the midst of going over my poems with a few other students. One of my poems apparently reminded him of the New York poet’s work, and he suggested I look up Transmigration Solo.
Sitting later in the reading room of the UGA library’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I held in my hands Transmigration Solo #36 of 1100, signed by Ceravolo with a tiny “36.” on one of the final pages of the book.
I could see what Graham meant: I did see something similar to what I was doing in Transmigration Solo, but much better executed than anything I’ve done since. I probably didn’t even put pen to paper for a bit, thinking that everything I could do wouldn’t be what Ceravolo had already done.
But I could also see why Ceravolo wouldn’t come up in everyday conversation. There was something strange about what he was doing with his poetry, and to this day, it seems that Ceravolo’s “popularity is limited to the community of writers,” to quote Wikipedia of all places. Something about this phrase indicates to me that Ceravolo attaches on another level. He’s a poet for poets. He’s like one of those old bluesmen you hear Keith Richards mention, and though you don’t go out and buy any records (if there are any), you leave an open file folder for the name in your head.
But what is Ceravolo doing that is so different than those around him? I mean, couldn’t any of us die early and end up being revered by a bunch of other poets? Maybe he’s not really all that interesting, but it’s fun for poets to say, “Oh, have you read Ceravolo? No, of course not. You’ve probably never even heard of him!”?
I don’t think so. One thing Ceravolo isn’t is a cult of personality. Most of us know hardly anything about the man himself. If asked to describe him to a sketch artist, I would have a difficult time remembering the few pictures of him I’ve seen.
Part of what makes Transmigration Solo the ultimate in cult books is that you’ll probably never be able to find it. In fact, unless you come upon a copy at a used bookstore, or someone really amazing and awesome finally gets the money to reissue it, you’re going to end up spending hours down at a rare book room.
But Ceravolo makes the trip worth it.
Written in and about the Mexico of 1960, Transmigration Solo shows Ceravolo as an outsider, the traveler. Consider “In Full View of Sappho”:
outside. I am caught up
in you, I admit it.
How different it all is.
Many of the poems in Transmigration carry with them the sense of motion, though not necessarily a direction. There are lots of parks, images of birds and flight, as well as other elements of the natural beauty of Mexico. “Migratory Noon” invokes an image of the desert and Mexico City, where Ceravolo lived:
Cold and the cranes
Cranes in the
like cellophane tape
Ceravolo writes in his introduction to Transmigration Solo that he “had never felt as strong a connection between myself and a city. Nothing could move me from there.”
Ceravolo’s structures hang together, but barely, which seems out of place for someone who is a civil engineer. The poems seem to be leaning towards a set form, but seem to have missed some mark set by the author (perhaps explaining the delay in his publishing of the poems). The forms dwindle quickly and what is left is an often jarring nature to the poems, for example in “Descending the Slope”:
Do you have guts?
Yes I have guts and a balloon.
We underestimate the process.
The poem “Transmigration Solo” includes a reference to the character Arjun from Mahabharata:
See the black bird
in that tree
trying out the branches, puzzled.
I am up here with you
puzzled against the rain
blinking my eyes.
As a child, Arjun and his brothers are practicing shooting with an arrow and a bow. The instructor asks each boy what he sees in the tree and while others answer either “leaves” or “a bird”, Arjun responds that he sees the eyes of the bird. He is told to shoot and kills the bird instantly. I illustrate this point because I feel that Ceravolo too sees his own direction, but that like Arjun, there is some hesitation (later in the Mahabharata) that keeps the poet from achieving his goals. However, in the end, Ceravolo ends up where he should be poetically.
Transmigration Solo, I believe, is an attempt to remain in an older, less conversational style, perhaps reaching back to Whitman more than other New York School poets had. Where he differs, however, is that in attempting to perhaps measure himself in terms of others’ writing, he has created a new style for himself, explaining again why he is in many way separated from other poets of his generation. While obviously others in the New School have gained more prominence that Ceravolo, to an extent their poetry is now seen as much more cliché than Ceravolo, perhaps due to the reputation of his poetry as being less immediate and accessible. He does not move towards a Confessional style, nor an aloof style, remaining in motion around the two. Whomever wrote the Wikipedia entry even says that his work is “often less directly humorous” than other poets of the New School, suggesting that perhaps Ceravolo lacks a friendliness to his poetry that allowed others such as Koch or O’Hara to thrive while Ceravolo remains in the shadows.
I doubt much of anything can be done to raise further awareness of Ceravolo’s work as there seem to be various high hurdles. His family seems to be keeping the proverbial lid on his work, perhaps happy with the minimal level of interest others have in him. I’ve talked with others who would love to see new editions of all his work, but we’re discouraged by others’ attempts at reaching Ceravolo’s wife. And while other works are more widely available, such as Spring In This World of Poor Mutts or the selected poems of The Green Lake Is Awake, a book such as Transmigration Solo is more or less a rare find, and more than that, a rare piece of conversation.