a wilderness of chances by michael cervas

picture of Michael Cervas

photo courtesy of Westminster School


In his third book of poems, A Wilderness of Chances, Michael Cervas does not shirk the heart of darkness, but still he glories in ecstatic moments such as the vision of a “plain white van” on the Mass. Pike advertising 1-800-RENEWAL. He celebrates renewals of all kinds, his words aptly joined by gorgeous lotus photographs by Jane Tomasello Toner. Jeffrey Harrison has written, “In these thoughtful poems, Michael Cervas searches both the past and the present for glimpses of ‘the latent beauty of ordinary things’ even while ‘telling us the awful truth’ about human suffering. Words, Cervas tells us, can sometimes ‘say / exactly what they mean // and also more than words can say,’ and in these poems he manages to pull off that paradoxical feat, showing us that, through careful observation and a patient lyricism, ‘what has been lost can be found again.’” Susan Lorsch adds this: “In A Wilderness of Chances Michael Cervas writes poems that make us notice the ‘exceptional ordinariness of things,’ poems that take their inspiration from the presence / presents of the ‘earth’s sweet body,’ from the tender ‘beauty and burden’ of memories of childhood, and even from the ‘always coming darkness.’ Cervas finds just the right words—at the same time fresh and familiar —like the ‘oracular orange’ of autumn or its ‘brittle leftover leaves’ which show us how

  Sometimes beauty comes
    not wrapped in shiny paper
      and tied with ribbons and bows,
  but in muted signs and whispers,
    in the routines of everyday life
      —the casual glances and little touches—
  the gifts of presence and love
    that dazzle not with spectacular
      flashes, but with open hands and hearts.”
  a wilderness of chances by michael cervas cover image
  Front cover photo by Jane Tomasello Toner

Cervas’s dazzling new volume of poems is just such a gift.

Michael Cervas teaches English at Westminster School in Simsbury, CT, where he also directs the Westminster Poetry Series and the Friday Nights in Gund Series, bringing living writers into the lives of teachers and students. Michael has a reputation for being a high-energy teacher, and that energy is exactly what he hopes drives his poems. Finding words that match and reveal the nuances of human experience is, he believes, at the very center of the human project. When he’s not reading, writing, or teaching, Michael can be found in his gardens, on the squash courts, or playing or listening to music. He lives with his wife Deborah on the campus of Westminster School overlooking the Farmington River, Talcott Mountain, and the great world beyond the mountain.

Jane Tomasello Toner, whose photographs grace the book, teaches photography at Westminster School, focusing on both traditional and digital photography as well as alternative photographic processes. At Westminster, she recently exhibited her photographs in the Chapel Gallery. Prior to teaching, she owned and operated her own commercial photography business. The photographs in this book result from years of fascination with a lotus pond near Wickford, Rhode Island, where she and her husband spend much of their free time. They are the parents of Evan and Alisa May.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-95-5

Copyright © 2015 by Michael Cervas and Jane Tomasello Toner

6" x 9" paperback, 88 pages



Copyright ©2015 by Michael Cervas and Jane Tomasello Toner


Every Tuesday after dinner that summer,
while my Father washed the dishes, my Mother
and Grandmother would gather us around

the bed to say a rosary. The carpet burned
my knees and often I lost track of where we were
as I mumbled the prayers under my breath,

fingering the purple beads and knowing
all the while that the Pirates’ game had already
begun — I could almost hear Bob Prince

shouting “You can kiss it goodbye!” as
my Mother reminded us to pray for the starving
children in China and for Billy Graham too.

Unaware of the bombs exploding daily
in the marketplaces of Algiers, or the string
of grisly assassinations in the Congo,

I prayed for good weather for tomorrow’s
Little League game, and maybe too for a base hit
for my team, the Braves of Reserve Township.


On My 56th Birthday

I can’t remember
many of the other fifty-five.

I know there’s an old cracked-edge
Polaroid sitting in a shoe box in the attic —

in it I’m wearing a dimestore coonskin hat,
just another imitation Daniel Boone
in the process of growing up to be ordinary,

surrounded by my screaming cousins,
looking up sheepishly from the covered table
as my Mom bends to light the candles.

Nothing at all from that endless wasteland
of my teenage years,
                                  a couple of scenes
from those surprise parties you orchestrated
when we were still wild with desire
and expectation,
                           but mostly they just fade
one into another until the candles
and cakes and off-key singing merge
into a single grayish snapshot
of mortality,
                   all except for one:
                                                that night
in 1971 when I’d come home from college,
nervous on a blind date with you,
probably half in love already,

the lights flashing on the dance floor,
your eyes flickering in the candle’s magic,
me touching your hand under the table,
the tips of my fingers barely
brushing the tips
of yours.


Picture of a pink lily

One of 21 lotus photographs appearing in the book as a multi-page “centerfold.”


After the piercing shoulder pain
simply refused to go away,

after the laparoscopic surgery
unearthed the deep caverns of cancer

snaking everywhere in his body,
after the wild ride of hope and despair,

the botched chemo, the interminable
visits to the ER, the coiled IVs,

my cousin chose to spend a final Sunday
afternoon at the Pittsburgh Zoo with his wife

and kids in the company of parti-colored
flowers and chattering wild animals,

all of whom, just like him, in the fullness
of life, would come to the same end,

eventually, but not on this peaceful day,
not here in the garden of the living.


My Father’s Last Words

After lunch on an unusually
sunny February day, my Father
suddenly clutched his chest

and fell forward at his desk
in the corner of a fledgling travel
agency in West View, PA —

just something to do after he’d
lost his job as an engineer
and maybe a sort of fulfillment

of a childhood dream to see
the world beyond the tiny
boxed-in houses of Troy Hill.

My sister-in-law heard him
say something just before
he collapsed, his face landing

on the map he’d stretched
out across his desk. I’d like
to think he’d been sailing

in his mind from island
to island over the wine-dark
waters of the Aegean,

planning a summertime
trip with my Mother maybe
when a bird flew across

the store’s front window
in a dazzle of light so bright
he rose up for a moment

to follow it, feeling the heavy
weight holding him down
just disappear, turning slightly

and saying Thank You.

In Love Again

Watch how sweetly they position
             themselves, side by side, on the couch,

their bodies barely brushing against
             one another. Listen as he says tenderly,

“Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mommy?”
             These are my in-laws, and I’ve known

them for over forty years. In all that time,
             I’ve never witnessed any signs of deep

love between them, not even a flash
             of the desire that must have sparked

when they first met. As long as I’ve known
             them, they’ve always slept in separate beds,

in separate rooms of their house, living
             as if they were roommates or cousins.

But now, after the cancers and the chemo,
             the thyroid operations and bypass surgeries,

now, when she has trouble remembering
             the facts of her life and he cannot walk more

than a dozen feet on his own, now they
             have fallen in love again, acting like shy

teenagers, holding hands and making eyes.
             It is a wonder to me, and a flicker of proof

that all is not loss in this world, or maybe
             that what has been lost can be found again.


Plain White Van

So now I’m daydreaming
my way along the Mass Pike
at the tail end of summer,
another school year looming
ahead of me like some
immense, inexorable cold front,
filled with all the usual
and the not-so-usual storms,
when I glance to my left
and see a plain white van
passing me soundlessly as if
out of a dream, floating
motionless, driverless
for all I can tell, without
any identifying marks
except a telephone number
in enormous black block letters
along the side of the van,
Call 1-800-RENEWAL,
and just like that I am locked
into the road, thinking,
yes, that’s exactly what I need —
renewal, for the muscle pull
that’s tweaked my sciatic nerve,
for the absence of spirit
threatening to paralyze me,
for the whole world’s weariness.
Yes, I want to start over,
to be driving steadily into
a vast wilderness of chances
that can only come once
in a lifetime, and somehow
it’s heartening to know
I’m only a phone call away
from my new life.