What the eye sees and what the mind remembers has changed with the takeover that technology has meant in our lives but we, as 21st century humans, are nothing if not persistent. As the pace of life seems to quicken, each moment takes on a seeming greater importance as the flickers of our existence speed up. Technology has closed gaps but also created a new abyss.
The original daft punks, poets have traditionally held as one of their roles gatekeeper for collective memory, although poetry also obviously provides pleasure and has no need to be useful in a strict sense. Andrei Codrescu's poetry serves several unique functions in addition to providing pleasure. It's an invaluable record of what the writing life of this poet became, which is transformative, as well as the details of how life on planet earth has changed in the past few generations as our 21st century lives become more complex. All of these facets are preserved here. Yet
memory disregards context
it is an enemy of experience
therefore unreliable and since
basic memory is a condition of survival
i assume that we survive
in spite of experience
when one forgets as a philosophy
each forgotten thing is raised to the status
of a god (i.e. objective condition)
and makes everyone else remember<
things that they haven't experienced
some memories bring with them brand new
from the original contexts in which they occurred
and thus set up the conditions
for brand new memories
most things endowed with memory die
prenatal memory is common property
but it is not
words and pictures are the only
things one can forget at leisure
and look up later
His underlying worldview always seems a bit more Buddhist and less Freudian. Codrescu emigrated to the United States in 1966 from Romania and his time here has sharpened his eye rather than dulling it. If he sometimes seems like the canary in the coal mine of our consumer driven society, he performs that operation with much humor, although of the black variety.
a petite histoire of red fascism
are made by energy.
The inert masses
know nobody & not
themselves. Nobody &
Not Self are well worth
knowing but connecting
them takes energy
so they are known
only by their masks
of inert proletarian
statues. The people
with the most energy
to know the statues.
The statues are well-known
by the inert masses.
The people with just
a little less energy
are then employed
to interrogate the inert
proletariat. One energy
grade below, the police &
energize the inert mass
which is now for the
first time broken up
Breaking it up releases
to respond to questioning.
The police level then ex-
tract a primitive narra-
tive from the recently
inert & this narrative
generates enough energy
& excitement to produce
a two-level discourse which
makes sense to the upper
energy level. New
energy is created & soon
the top echelons are
introduced to the dis-
courses of Nobody &
Not Self. Together,
the brass & the mass
envision the statues:
the energy of the mass
will henceforth be em-
ployed to make statues
of the brass.
It's this production, procreation, which provides the only new energy, which provides fresh resources to serve as grist to be thrown back into the mill of the system. In a sort-of circle jerk of meaningless repetitive political motion, the masses exist only to validate the worthless existences of the rulers. This cycle of manipulation is commemorated by the observance of hollow statues but in a complete breakdown of life over time the manufacture of these simulacra has become the only occupation. Life is a pursuit of energy, an increasingly rare commodity, and happiness no longer figures into anything. Not a poet to ignore the absurdities of American life, Codrescu at least gives us a laugh, while diagnosing some of the maladies of our current social condition.
Codrescu has always been able to quickly slip into and out of various personae. His first book was written in 1970 in fact from the perspective of a persona of his own invention, Julio Hernandez, a Puerto Rican living on the Lower East Side of New York. As an immigrant himself, it's no surprise that he writes that Hernandez "hovers saintly on the edge of all my action." Codrescu uses the persona of Hernandez to navigate what he calls "prison reality."
(p. 101)from a trilogy of birds
in birds is our stolen being, from summer to summer
they carry on my destruction, more obvious
as i get closer to death.
in the kitchen powerful lights stay on at night
watching the summer passage of birds.
the sea contains
their thick excrement, our longing to fly,
the sea changes color.
weak ships over the water.
i am seasonal.
i offer poisoned lights to passing birds
through the guarded door of the kitchen.
it suddenly opens.
i catch the sea when it is taken away
by disciplined clouds of birds.
In this world of new identities it makes sense that birds symbolize our desire and longing for some indefinable escape. If Codrescu's poetry has represented to some extent a mordant or ironic paen of the schizophrene, this observer has loved it. By providing this illogical logic, often using a surrealist lens, Codrescu illumines just how fractured our lives have become. He does so with a deft painterly touch. In his poems, image and metaphor usually figure large. As with Artaud there is a grand gesture at play.
I have been altered like a suit
to accommodate a much larger man.
Dedication & appalling motives support this enlargement
like crossbeams in a simple church in Transylvania.
I have gone against nature
and now I have fur.
I am the most ruthlessly hunted
but the most ecologically abundant animal.
My name is victory over mother and father.
In the transformation that Codrescu assumes, to the extent we are able to bear it, may be recognized, if anything, a suit of mirrors. Although in this poem the implication is that a Romantic victory over the pitfalls of the preceding generation involves a feat that might look similar to lycanthropy. The poet is tasked with a dangerous role and she may even be metaphorically hunted for it.
An epigraph by Romanian poet Mircea Cărtărescu to a later poem (p. 393) called "Walnuts," reads "I don't like the substances from which poetry is made… you have to consume your own self too much… the truer prose writer consumes others." If Americans seem to like writing poetry but not reading it, this epigraph may hint at the reason. Codrescu provides the kind of self-analysis in his poetry that recreational readers of best seller lists would find repellent.
Codrescu, in his poem "Epitaph" (p. 222) hints of a poetry that doesn't exist to placate the masses.
he was a young guy with surrealist connections.
this tombstone does not lie
it merely stands imbedded in the sweet dark stew
waiting for the connoisseur
...in 1913, a jewish boy
fresh out of the ghetto of moineşti in the kingdom of romania
bursts into a concentrated violence of guffaws before the swiss
releasing centuries of repression and fear combined with a strict
alphabet that until now left no airy gap for youth's springtime
and he does so in public, the war be damned and propriety, too.
he is staring at the nude legs of a mannequin bei in a shop window
and it's cracking him up: her beige ceramic ankles signal
the death of his required ancestral gloom.
lenin gives him a look as he ambles toward the library.
death is suddenly upset and sets her minions to work.
we must recover tzara's laugh! we know what happened later.
Other than humor and prescience, Codrescu has always excelled at producing some of the most memorable imagery of any living poet.
toltec submarine with dragonfly wings
mating with two or three of your kind on the wet ass
of the beloved floating downstream on a frog floatie
He's able to diagnose our maladies on the grandest of scales but the bedrock of his dark, yet amiable, agenda is a talent for the razor sharp one-liner:
I had a youth once
I was very good at it
At their best, Codrescu's poems carry a sublime disorder that can seem simultaneously elegant and grotesque. In his poem "intention" for the poet Tom Clark he writes
Poems be not intended
therefore I be always writin
is to order which is why
it is important to make
without a plan. Intention
lands one in bed with cliché,
which is somebody's old plan
to bed somebody else's old
In Codrescu's bendable world we are all allowed to try on his insouciant thoughts and walk around in them for awhile. If you find his clothes out of fashion, it may be that he's always been a few steps ahead. He is one of the most well-known poets in the world but seems most at home in those liminal spaces that defy description, but this is a poet whose gags are quite serious. In this new and selected book of poems, Codrescu is still one of our most skilled interlocutors and he sings above the abyss skillfully, reminding us that:
There is only one subject: the abyss between theory and practice
The abyss is interesting: both theory and practice suck.