G. C. Waldrep
The History of Violets. By Marosa di Giorgio. Trans. Jeannine Marie Pitas. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010.
Diadem: Selected Poems. By Marosa di Giorgio. Trans. Adam Giannelli. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2012.
A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind: The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton. Alfred Starr Hamilton. Ed. Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal. Northampton, MA: The Song Cave, 2013.
Collected Poems. Joseph Ceravolo. Ed. Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers. Wesleyan, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013.
As an all-but-recovered social scientist with a PhD in history, I often find myself wondering just how the social system we associate with “poetry” works. There are the journals; there are the presses—large and small; there is AWP, think of it what you will. There are small knots of readers and critics spangled from Manhattan to Missoula. What we think of as “literature” is a conversation among voices, some living and some dead. I find this basic dynamic refreshing, in part because history will eventually take care of the provocative welter of verse in which anyone who cares about contemporary American poetry is necessarily immersed. We are competing not with one another, but with the void: and the good money is on the void.
One recent index of nearly every poet’s existential anxiety about his or her oeuvre has been the rise of “recovery projects,” attempts to resuscitate this or that poet, this or that body of verse. The journal Octopus has been featuring recoveries since its inception, and Pleaides has established a press imprint for expressly this purpose. As even senior, established voices become lost in all the clamor, it’s easy to wonder: what else have we lost? Who are we missing?
Alas, there are very good reasons why most “lost” poets and poems were mislaid in the first place, as a cursory reading of random back issues of Poetry magazine from the 1940s will make clear. And yet we keep searching, hoping for the resurrected voice that will astonish or enchant.
Properly speaking, Marosa di Giorgio’s poetry was never “lost” in English, because it never made it into English in the first place. Two recent collections in translation remedy this oversight, which in retrospect seems remarkable. We didn’t know we’d missed her.
Di Giorgio (1932-2004) spent the first two-thirds of her life in and around Salto, which ranks as Uruguay’s second-largest urban center (a somewhat dubious distinction) and which di Giorgio herself described as “a city located near the water and the moon.” She began writing poems as a schoolgirl and later abandoned her university studies (in law) in order to devote herself to poetry. Although her writing was published during her lifetime in fifteen collections of verse, two volumes of short stories, and a late, lone erotic novel, she seems, like Whitman, to have considered her output as a unified whole, more or less. Her verse consists overwhelmingly of what we might call prose poems, untitled lyric fragments that evoke the countryside and extended family of her childhood in mystical, sensual terms. The poems are neither realist nor fabulist: as Jeannine Marie Pitas, one of her translators, succinctly puts it, “The frame of reference that these poems present is the only reality she knows.” Her intelligence is a sacralizing alchemical force.
Pitas’s translation of di Giorgio’s fourth collection, The History of Violets (1965), was released in a tidy bilingual edition from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2010; Adam Giannelli’s more generous selection from across di Giorgio’s oeuvre appeared from BOA Editions in late 2012. At their most basic, di Giorgio’s lyrics are vignettes drawn from childhood and burnished with a parabolic mysticism that aligns them with the Surrealism of Robert Desnos or Max Jacob. Thus:
Last night again I saw the chest of drawers, the oldest, from my grandmother’s wedding, my mother and her sisters’ youth, my childhood. There it stood with its high mirror, its baskets of paper roses.
And then the white chick—almost a dove—flew from the trees to eat rice from my hands. She felt so real to me that I was going to kiss her.
But then, everything burst into flames and disappeared. God stows his things away safely.
(The History of Violets, p. 31)
Di Giorgio is one who, like Blake, sees angels, explicitly and extravagantly. But mostly what she sees are flowers and maternal relations: the poems in The History of Violets offer a hypnotically revolving cast of lilacs, lilies, gladioli, aunts, sisters, and grandmothers, over which presides “the moon, quiet, treacherous, in its cave of quinces” (p. 33). Eros, threat, and wonder mingle; di Giorgio seems distinctly uninterested in parsing their differences. The angels, when they appear, are faintly predatory and wholly incomprehensible, stealers of honey and layers of pink eggs (p. 73).
All this is quite heady and could seem twee, but somehow in di Giorgio’s luminous, hypnotizing prose, each poem comes to seem like a carefully cast spell, a precise intoxication that lingers uneasily at the edge of consciousness. To read a poem by di Giorgio is to encounter the exquisite beauty of an exotic plant that may or may not prove lethal. A later poem, translated by Giannelli:
My mother said, “There’s a leg hidden in this house.” And that was all she said. I searched in vain. Every which way. But when I was sick with a high fever, I got out of bed and opened the armoire. And came across the leg. Neither thick nor thin, it looked like a man’s or woman’s. It was wearing an odd shoe and sock. Mama appeared and filled in the particulars, she said:
“It’s a baby chick’s leg.”
I thought back to all the chicks I’d seen in my life, of different colors, and they all had small, scrawny feet. I exclaimed:
“A baby chick?!”
Mama replied, “I don’t lie. I detest lies. They should be punishable by death.”
I went back to bed and slept and felt better and was cured.
And I didn’t know what kind of leg it was, if it was there, if it wasn’t, I didn’t know where it was.
(Diadem: Selected Poems, p. 147)
Is this a dream transcription? A parable? A hallucinatory relict of childhood fever? Does it matter? In another late poem, the speaker and her family await a visit from the Soul, but when the Soul arrives, it is terrifying: “I was the last to scream and by accident I touched one of the Soul’s hands, which had many fingers, so many, like pistils, almost a hundred” (p. 159). The Soul merely looks at the speaker and then departs, no more legible than before its visit. To read di Giorgio—especially in quantity—is to enter a dark house with a leg hidden in it, knowing all the while the Soul is out there somewhere, with its hundred-fingered hands.
Alfred Starr Hamilton (1914-2005) presents as a true outlier, someone who (like Besmilr Brigham) published sporadically in the 1960s and 1970s—a single full-length collection was published during his lifetime, by Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Society in 1970—and then slipped entirely off the American poetry radar. He grew up reasonably well-to-do in Montclair, New Jersey; somehow flunked out of the military during World War II; and only held a few jobs during his lifetime, most notably as a Fuller Brush salesman in the 1930s. Mostly he stayed in the family home (later, in a rented room at a nearby boarding house) and wrote. He wrote poems; he wrote long letters to the few editors to whom he entrusted his work; he wrote to the Montclair police department. What appears in A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind: The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton is only a tiny fraction of his output drawn from his one published collection, two chapbooks, and a few manuscript sources that survived him, including a final notebook he kept in a nursing home. The vast majority of his work has disappeared.
Hamilton clearly had psychological problems: an armchair diagnosis of something on the autism spectrum seems reasonable, although one of his nieces also recalls “the day by day evolving of his fear of the wind, his fear of bees, and his dislike of string beans.” He was also a crank who proudly touted his dishonorable discharge from the military, called himself a Socialist, and was arrested in 1961 for refusing to seek shelter during an air raid drill as an act of civil disobedience. (He politely notified the Montclair police in advance.) In a 1969 poetics statement, he wrote “Poetry is another world. Poetry is the story of the soul. Poetry is the story of the psyche. Music is the sound of the soul. Painting is the picture of the soul. I like Verdi and Botticelli for music and painting. I am never a friend of war.”
Hamilton also declared “Poetry is the story of the search for freedom.” Judging by the poems, he was free indeed, in spite of his circumstances (financial, psychological, or otherwise). As Geof Hewitt, who met Hamilton, observes in an introduction, Hamilton “lived in metaphorland, often speaking in metaphor.” Many of his shorter, gem-like lyrics consist solely of metaphor:
I wanted to find a little yellow candlelight in the garden
(A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind, p. 51)
Why didn’t you say an inkstand
Why didn’t you say all of this was for the blue sky
Why didn’t you say a sheet of writing paper was for a cloud
There’s a gnomic tendency in Hamilton’s best poems; when he refers to “the living muscle that clung to the starlight” (in “Where Resides the Sinewy Lizard,” p.109), the poem permits no clear idea of what he’s actually referring to, but—I want to go there, wherever that is.
There are weak poems in A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind, but they are in the minority; the better poems are dark dahlias that glitter at the reader, often in the form of sphinx-like statements, questions, and repetitions. The result can resemble early Michael Palmer, as in “Summer” above or “Sundown” below. My preference runs often to the shorter lyrics, such as “January Parlor,” which now ranks as my very favorite poem about winter:
But a snowflake stayed on one’s lips
I talked to a golden jar of white roses
That stayed in the January parlor
I’ve spent months pondering this lyric; suffice to say that this is Eliot’s objective correlative quietly elaborated upon until it becomes a seamless texture of image, affect, and experience. Hamilton does more with three lines here than many poets do in a lifetime’s work.
Perhaps the most moving poems in this collection are in the last section, culled from Hamilton’s final notebooks dating from his last days in the nursing home when, we are told, he was otherwise “fairly uncommunicative.” The lyric impulse is even more pared back than before: it feels flensed, as Hamilton worked obsessively through one final, exigent problem of invocation and form. Eleven of the thirteen poems in this section end on the word “soul,” including this one:
I thought of the pacific
I thought of the island in the sunset hours
I thought of the golden bees that sing in the evening sunshine
(I thought of the golden bees that sing in the sunshine out west)
I thought of the golden bees that sing in a boy’s long hair
I thought it can be done
I thought it can be said of the soul
It is perhaps worth noting that the two poems in this section that do not end on the word “soul” end on “glass” and “adventure,” respectively.
The editors of this volume describe Hamilton as a “mystic” poet, but that strikes me as not quite right, unless any poet who insists upon a metaphorical frame of reference is “mystical.” In their simplicity, Hamilton’s poems seem to me to parse the subtle difference between the childish and the childlike: each of them is a little nursery rhyme for the apocalypse. If for di Giorgio the soul was a terrifying, vagrant, palpable but inhuman presence, for Hamilton it is a goal, an achievement, the end result of a process of thought, speech, and composition. “Sundown”’s last couplet—“I thought it can be done / I thought it can be said of the soul”—might stand as Hamilton’s ars poetica. What is possible? And what may be said of the soul, so late in our shared day? A wrong turning may take us elsewhere, to “glass” or “adventure.” But can any turning be a wrong one? Hamilton’s poems suggest possibly not, possibly not.
I first encountered Joseph Ceravolo’s poetry in 2003, by accident, in the form of The Green Lake Is Awake: Selected Poems (Coffee House Press, 1994), then the only volume of his in print. It left a mixed impression, but at least one poem, “Ho Ho Ho Caribou,” struck me with such visionary force that I copied a few of its lines into my notebook: “I am a / white man and my children / are hungry / which is like paradise.” This is an astonishing statement. In winter, in Iowa City, it was also an assertion I could relate to, even without children of my own.
Now Wesleyan University Press has honored Ceravolo with a deluxe clothbound Collected Poems. It’s doorstopper, weighing in at 546 pp.: not quite as imposing as the recent Robert Lowell and Robert Penn Warren Collecteds, which it physically resembles, but clearly a publishing event Wesleyan intends American poets to reckon with.
Ceravolo (1934-1988) is less an outlier than a neglectorino: someone who participated actively in the small-press scene of his day but whose work fell into neglect more or less upon his demise, in Ceravolo’s case from an inoperable tumor at the age of fifty-four. Ceravolo was the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in Queens, and spent his adult life in Bloomfield, New Jersey (less than two miles from Hamilton, although there’s no evidence they ever met). In his introduction to the present volume, David Lehman also trots out the word “mystical,” quoting Kenneth Koch to the effect that a Ceravolo poem constitutes an “amazing perceptual archeology” characterized by leaps of syntax and enjambment. Lehman blames Ceravolo’s obscurity on the poetry world’s failure to appreciate the New York School (“with which his name is associated”) in its prime, but it also owes something to Ceravolo’s retiring nature as well as his decision to pull back from publishing at mid-career. For twelve years, from 1976 until his untimely death in 1988, he worked on a major lyric collection, Mad Angels: it appears in print here for the first time, a quarter century after the fact.
During his lifetime Ceravolo was best known for Spring in This World of Poor Mutts (1968). It’s still his best work. The earlier poems reprinted here are characterized by either an affable, New York School peripateticism—they sound like Frank O’Hara’s B-sides—or else a self-conscious attempt to be “experimental,” as in Fits of Dawn (1965), which now feels quite distant and dated in its word-salad gestures. The electricity of Spring in This World of Poor Mutts, though, holds its own against any poetry of the period. With the brief and delicate lyrics that compose the bulk of this collection, Ceravolo’s voice achieves a kind of brittle distinction; in a handful of mid-length lyrics, including “Ho Ho Ho Caribou” and the title poem, he uses disjunction and enjambment to advance a poetics that combines Eros with a peculiar American domesticity. An excerpt from “Spring in This World of Poor Mutts”:
Walk home with the
animal on my shoulder
in the river, the river gets
deeper, the Esso gets
family and animal
and parents along the river.
Oh, imagination. That’s how I need you.
In these lyrics, external, autobiographical reality and a life of the imagination merge almost seamlessly. The poems turn in crazy directions and curtail themselves:
LONELY IN THE PARK
A sore of love.
That I’ve found. Formula.
From cell to cell. From play. Enzymes.
(Collected Poems, p. 166)
At their most verbose, Ceravolo’s Mutts poems take on a Whitmanian sheen; Ceravolo’s speaker, his “I,” delights in physical and existential presence equally, declaring himself through a song that is “transitory; / a bird to / his mathematics and / song memory.” “My song’s / had enough,” he continues: “My song is / enough plow courage / against my soda is loud and / cares like a stable horse / out of a thunderbolt” (167). Syntax goes by the wayside as a rude self elbows its way into a new world. I wish I had more space to illustrate how Ceravolo’s best poems unfold.
Not every poet is best served by a Collected Poems. Lowell and Warren, Yeats and Auden: in their Collecteds, the vital poems are buried under reams of more or less inert matter. The problem with Ceravolo’s later work is that it never again reaches the inventive, electric heights of Spring in This World of Poor Mutts. In The Hellgate (1969-75), a long poem that also appears here for the first time, as well as in the last two collections published during his lifetime (INRI  and Millennium Dust ), all the syntactic compression that made Mutts so irresistible is smoothed out. The poems of Millennium Dust aren’t bad, exactly, but they’re flaccid (a word I used advisedly, given Ceravolo’s references to heterosexual male desire). There are bits of the old fire, as in the opening couplet of “Night Birds”: “While the animals rest / do we have the right to divine life?” (p. 307). The Ceravolo of Mutts would have taken this and careened in delightfully, even deliriously unexpected directions; the Ceravolo of Millennium Dust concludes pensively that “maybe they are far / from their family. Maybe that’s why they’re late / or are they just night birds / come here like they do / every night, like we do.”
The 1970s were not kind to American poetry, and Ceravolo’s late work is, regrettably, an organic part of that prevailing unkindness. The flaccidness begins to give way to fatuousness. Ceravolo apparently intended Mad Angels: 1976-1988 as a poetic daybook that would add up to something like mythic stature through the accumulation of daily gestures. The earlier poems are decent, often affable—much in the vein of Millennium Dust—but over and over they yield to didacticism in their final moments, collaring the reader with existential glosses. In the 1980s we begin to see a sprinkling of poems that are quite simply—actively—bad. By 1984 the bad poems are crowding out anything even remotely memorable, and the last three years of work are a complete wash. These bad poems alternate between vague and fatuous abstract pronouncements and references then-current events. The formal rhythms are still there, but the imagination has fled entirely. It’s like a rerun of 1980s news flashes: famine in Ethiopia, the Cold War, the 1988 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Charles & Diana’s wedding. When Oppen said “all this is reportage,” he did not mean “The police from all over / gather for the funeral / of a country policeman / shot on interstate 280 while / stopping a car” (“Libera Me,” p. 415). There are occasional pleasures in Mad Angels, such as the melancholy post-Imagism of “Rain & Wolves Inhabit Me” (pp. 452-453). But Ceravolo and his poetic reputation would have been much better served by a judicious selection from this late work.
As a document of a minor New York School poet—which is really all the Ceravolo of this Collected Poems can be—Wesleyan’s volume is a valuable and welcome contribution. But it also highlights a splendid moment in the poet’s oeuvre by unintentionally emphasizing its brevity. Ceravolo had no idea what to do with that moment, in the moment: that vivid impulse, that palpable revolution of syntax, Eros, and form. Spring in This World of Poor Mutts could have changed the course of American poetry—like Berryman’s Dream Songs or Ashbery’s Some Trees or even Lowell’s Life Studies—but it did not. It did not even save Ceravolo from his own worse instincts. As with Denise Levertov, in the end it’s his weak late work that will prevent him from attaining the status and durability his best work would otherwise deserve.
And what of the soul, qua soul? As it happens the Ceravolo of Mutts had something to say about the soul, which perhaps provides an epitaph for his work as a whole:
Poverty needs us in
of our body,
driving the jobs of the helpless to
the grainless without weapons.
our bodies stay awake
in the light.
Positions, interventions, work,
riots and leaves around us.
O the hungry body
of our souls
marooned like a polar flower.
We are back to di Giorgio again: our souls, collectively, add up to only one body. It’s out there, and it’s hungry; it’s even vaguely vegetative. But it’s marooned. It will never find us, and we are unlikely ever to stumble upon it. In his one clairvoyant moment Ceravolo apprehended this, even as he went through the daily motions of being a husband, a father, a worker, and a poet. We should be thankful for that moment, those poems—and to Wesleyan for bringing them back into circulation. But we should also be mindful of Ceravolo’s larger failure: sic transit anima.