"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Sunday, August 14, 2005

On the "random" JC

Welcome to the Church of JC (Joseph Ceravolo). Today’s sermon concerns the first section of Ceravolo’s poem “Ho Ho Ho Caribou.”

Ho Ho Ho Caribou
for 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 flying.


The dedication provides context. Though the first-time reader may not know that “Rosemary” refers to Ceravolo’s wife, he or she probably instinctually knows that poets usually dedicate poems to people close to themselves. The absence of a surname also indicates an intimate level of familiarity. “Familiar” is an apt word here—the poem is about Ceravolo’s family. Or the family in general and the father/husband’s role within the family.


And what of the title? Like much in Ceravolo, I would guess that the title was initially a phrase chosen for its aural effects. The long vowels lend a certain languidity to the phrase, slow down the pronunciation, almost force a speaker to linger on the words. Try to say it fast. This “training” of the tongue and eye is instructive, as the whole poem (and Ceravolo’s work in general) deserves a reading that lingers on the small bits, the phrasings, not just the semantic effects, but the aural/oral ones as well. Ceravolo’s playfulness peeks through in the title as well, “Ho ho ho,” probably makes many readers think of gangsta rap, but as this poem predates NWA, Slick Rick, and Ice-T, we must not get anachronistic on its ass. “Ho ho ho” is what Santa Claus says. And what guides Santa’s sleigh? Reindoor, aka caribou.


The poem’s first section sets the scene and reveals its method. The first line is a verb phrase missing a subject. Who leaped at the caribou? The Roman numeral “I” that precedes the first line provides a plausible explanation, though I think no explanation is needed. The important act here is the leaping; the poem begins already in motion. Some Greek or Roman guy, Horace, maybe, or Aristotle, or both recommended beginning poems in the middle of the action. They got this idea from an older blind Greek fellow. More verb phrases follow: “My son looked at the caribou,” “the kangaroo leaped on the / fruit tree.” A lot is going on here. The first person (second, if we count Rosemary) we encounter is the speaker’s son, looking at the caribou that is, ostensibly, the inspiration for the poem. The kangaroo, an aural cousin of the caribou replicates the action in the initial line, with more specificity. We have a subject (the kangaroo) and object (the fruit tree) and an action (leaping). The emphasis on motion, the in medias res (we now return to your regularly scheduled program, already in progress), is important here because Ceravolo, while always lyrical, always concerned with sounds, is very often a narrative poet. He establishes that he is writing a narrative poem by beginning with a quick succession of actions, actions already in motion. While the pure lyric poem meditates (on a dot, rather than in a line, to be Tralfamadorian about it) on a moment, or an emotional situation (looking at London sleeping from Westminster bridge brings a minor epiphany to Will Wordsworth). A narrative poem unfolds over time—motion, physical motion, a journey, is one of the most common ways a narrative unfolds. Maybe the only way. As I Lay Dying is a lyrical narrative.


Having established the narrative, the speaker introduces himself. The poignancy of the phrase “I am a white / man and my children /are hungry” is tempered by socio-economic and racial considerations. How important is it that the speaker is a white man? Why are his children hungry? Before we can fully consider what (if any) social commentary lurks in this phrase, the speaker informs us that this, his situation (being white and poor) “is like paradise.” The family situation. The family stranded figuratively (and maybe literally) in a desert place that is not entirely a desert place (fruit trees). The presence of the “white man” as central figure in the family drama. The confusion of the elements, the leaps in imagery (and the actual “leaping” in the poem), set the scene. A white man with hungry children in a wild, dangerous place that is also paradise. Familial love creates a paradise that transcends the less than idyllic (but more than a little whimsical) landscape in which Ceravolo has placed our family.


The final lines in the stanza:

The doll is sleeping.
It lay down to creep into
the plate.
It was clean and flying.

operate primarily on an aural level. Consonant + “l” sounds prevail: “sleeping,” “plate,” “clean,” “flying.” Rhyme: “sleeping,” & “creep.” Assonance: long “e” sounds. The “pitch” of the language here is turned a notch higher (if my ear is tuned correctly) than what comes before. This is a tonal shift brought about not only by apparently discontinuous imagery, but by the texture of the language itself. Note that I say “apparently.” The sleeping doll replaces the earlier non-image of “my son.” The doll, the son, lay down, and creeps into the plate. Once again, we have a verb phrase, this time a more complex construction. The doll sleeps, lays down, and creeps. Into a plate. Because it’s hungry. “It” in the last line can refer to the doll or the plate. If the plate is clean, it is empty. It may have once contained food (clean your plate!), or not. That it is flying is consistent with the other actions reported so far: looking, leaping, creeping, sleeping. These words also recall a sort of Edenic setting. Paradise, right? Crawling, creeping things. Birds of the air. Beasts of the field. Fruit trees.


It is one thing to say that you don’t like the poetry of Joe Ceravolo. It is quite another to say that you don’t understand it, or don’t “get” it. Emotionally, his tone is very steady, and much of the time he works with narrative that is at least as “understandable” as any Faulkner novel.


Jess said...

Nicely done. Have you heard JC reading? _All Poets Welcome_ CD has a couple(?) of his tracks.

Stuart Greenhouse said...

Nice engagement--are these some of the themes your dissertating on?

"I am a white/man and my children/are hungry/which is like paradise", as a statement, is a pretty neat argument against "paradise cannot be legislated", don't you think?

Anonymous said...
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Tony said...


Ha. See, this is what I do INSTEAD of dissertate. I like writing about poetry as long as I don't have to do it.

And I think, actually that the bit you quote does argue for legislation of paradise, at least on some level. Poet as namer. Ceravolo is doing his Genesis thing here and he uses the language like a man naming things for the first time.

I wrote this because Kasey Mohammad said that he didn't "get" Ceravolo. Coming from Mr. Flarf, I was forced to conclude that perhaps he hadn't read Ceravolo. He's not at all difficult to "understand," unless your formal expectations for poetry are very narrow.

Jess-- yes, I've heard that track on the _All Poets Welcome__ CD. You can hear music playing in the background.

Stuart Greenhouse said...

Me too! Which is kind of what I meant by 'paradise cannot be legisated,.

& I didn't 'get' how Kasey couldn't 'get' Ceravolo, but just kind of assumed in a semiconscious way we all have our 'I don't get it' poets; that maybe because Ceravolo writes 'pretty' in a way that Kasey isn't used to seeing written pretty, it jarred him.

Tony said...


Someone suggested to me just that--that Ceravolo's apparent "prettiness"/"simplicity" does not jibe with Kasey's aesthetic, that which prefers a more "difficult" poem.

However, the comment with which he dismissed it is the sort of thing that more mainstream types use to dismiss the type of work that Kasey seems to like and create himself--that it's random. Or nonsense.

So while he may not like Ceravolo for one reason, the language he used in dismissing him carried other connotations that complicated the dismissal.

If that makes sense.

marc breezeway said...

Was Ceravolo being expressive,
or was in some way for "some rules?"

The backwards reading, being that it's a narrative from the perspective of a post-mod "aztec"?

The grammar mirroring the "speaker's" confused, sensationalism, in the immediate?

There are different ways of looking at it!

Stuart Greenhouse said...

Makes sense to me.

It might be worth asking KSM for further explication.

john marc said...

I don't know if that's one of the voices: there are all of those narrative shifts.

Comparing himself to a dad, that goes without much food while others eat a pizza? Or...?...A suffering poetry.

The language seems to be the show, though.

"Pretty" is a weird topic in this sort of poetry.
Some find it pretty, others find it tangled,
cubist, drunk and "furry."

The dissasociation is a nightmare with substitution.
And sometimes, the narrator talks to cracks in the wall.


This is a really interesting blog, with some great poems by the blog holder.

Anonymous said...

Is the speaker of the poem, the white man, or is it somebody looking at the "white man" and telling you what they see?

Ceravolo was italian? Technically, white, and had a family...

sarcasm about "bringing home the bacon" ?..