New Work

By Andrei CodrescuOctober 15, 2013

New Work

FROM: The Art of Forgetting 

The Art of Forgetting is a radical redaction of current thinking in neurology. Like the The Art of War, it provides a practical means of practicing “forgetting as healing,” it redefines the archive(s) and presents the End as a gate to action.


1. call it the art of forgetting

i wrote my first autobiography
when I was 23 years-old
   because I wanted to record the amazing things
      that had already happened to me
         to provide the writer i was planning to be
            with an initiatory infrastructure
                 good enough to build a life on

i recorded the homeric deeds of a hero who had lived
            through being born
after a war that killed his grandparents their friends
   and their world
      leaving only the shaken and tender flower
         of my mother's (pretty) body
to swell with the seed of what was surely an agent
   of forgetfulness

she bribed (with a pack of Kent cigarettes)
      the angel with the finger on the lips
         to be late at my birth
   (the story begins in utero)

growing up in a communist country
   born itself of an ideology of forgetting
      that wasn't art but the brutal eradication of memory
         through numbered dictums that looked like verses
            but contained no music or beauty

escaping the rhythmic swings of the whip of ideology
   and the formal poetry of mined frontiers

to come to the U.S.
   where my world had never been forgotten
      because it hadn't even existed long enough to be remembered
         by any but its refugees who tried to forget it

and in the course of time did
   using black magic

but i a traitor to refugees who was also an enemy of memory
   got a reputable publisher to commission
      my autobiography

a task that was at the age of 23 a pure act
   no axe to grind
      not enough life to have slowed long enough
         to be the subject of reflection
            or any other retrospective
no acquaintances numerous enough to care
   except putative imaginary readers
      who far outnumbered the real people i knew

this book i would consult in the future when
   having lived long enough to forget
i might regard the young author from a fond distance
   to see if among the things he'd remembered
      were some i remembered still

four decades later i did remember
   that when i wrote this at 23
      i had occasionally caused the facts
to report the young hero’s triumphs
   over the secret police the immigration authorities
      the english language and unrequited loves
instead of the disasters i am sure they actually were

these adjustments were made for the sake of my future readers
      so that they would not emulate goethe's
         young werther into the abyss

      in defiance of love fulfilled yet hopeless
         my young andrei remembered himself
            in the third person

and modestly called the story of this person
“the life & times of an involuntary genius”


   my next autobiography
      was going to have earned enough memories
         to display itself in peacock glory
in the first person singular
   i promised myself

it would pick up at the exact suspenseful moment
   where my first three-hundred million years
      of remembering what "he" had gone through
         had left off
while encompassing them naturally in the syntax of wisdom
   that is the tender or (hopefully) rough scab
      grown over the wounds of historical and oedipal hurt

but then i read joe brainard's book "I Remember"
   and I decided
      the hell with therapy
         display only the truly remembered facts

rewrite your life only as record
   of bodies clothes faces mustaches scents and snatches of song
      no literary ornament
         a nonlinear atemporal memory without a hero
the world I grew up in was strange enough without me
   and so was the world i was presently living in

but then I forgot about joe's masterful "I remember"
   my life had decided to follow the script of the infrastructure
      i invented in my first memoir

i wrote instead "in america's shoes"
   a memoir-manifesto in the second person
      addressed majakovsky-like to my forgetful fellow americans
who forgot as a mission of their culture by worshipping the future
   which could not be worshipped while encumbered by the past

i was already 32 year-old by then and an american

and thus manifesto-like passed memories and memoirs
   created written and forgotten
      with pronouns at the helm of my directionless life
         atop agitated waves on the uneasy ocean
            of things remembered then forgotten
               at a pace without apparent rhythm
                  an art improvised by time


   forty years later I wrote without intending to
      a fourth autobiography
         in the footnotes of an essay about writing

an essay that required more and longer footnotes as my ideas
   caught themselves and were bound by a dark underworld of seaweed
      beneath their crystalline unfolding

the seaweed of a writerly memory that refused ideas
   without anecdotes & memory
this seaweed autobiography i realized
   had its own agenda of wanting to reprise
"the life & times of an involuntary genius"
   to maybe capture the 23 year-old hero
to see how he had fared all those years i had forgotten him
   or there may have been in this the sinister intent
      to hold up to the tribunal of experience

and thus without rereading
that heroic saga of the youth
   who held casually in his hand
      the reins on the horses of wrath & forgetting

i tried to recall what he had written

had he gotten any wiser these forty years or so
   or just less casual
      as he became i

at sixty-five years of age in year 2013 c.e.
   i pulled from the mass of swaying seaweed
      things I remembered and mythicized
         in 1970 a.d.
            without rereading the book

what was going to be originally an essay outside pronouns
   or main character
about the disposition of my archives
   was becoming
      a compulsion born of the archival material itself
         to justify its existence by the recall of a life
whose writing had undergone a stupendous journey
            from calligraphy to infinite digital reproduction
               and that my life as such
               though only a footnote to that journey
                  of tiny black letters across time's uneasy work

demanded its stories
   now that the horses of wrath had seemingly galloped away
      and i was just a man and a dog tossed in a barque made of books
         following an alphabet instantly erased by wind

it wanted to know of me
   what he had wrought
did he at 23 remember anything or everything?
   what force made him create the sea on which i foundered?

without rereading i remember only
   that even at 23
i had aspired to change my life with writing
      and knew even then that the things that had already happened then
         happened to a writer

my new book “bibliodeath: my archives: (with life in footnotes)" 
      is a reflection on the art of forgetting
         in effect an ars memoriae
            that like giordano bruno's theater of memory
              described in frances yates' magnificent book
reprises memory not as the raison d'être or the witnessing of a person
   who found his times interesting or himself important
but as a compulsive draw to the memory of memory and the intentions
   that animated them
      to make them a life

writing is locked in a tight race with the brain's natural march to oblivion
   tiny letters appearing and sinking under waves
      forever trying to stay ahead of the natural squall of forgetting

the brain provides this service gratis

   any art of memory
      must also be an art of forgetting
         things dearly paid for by you and i and he and them


2. an exercise

for most people with jobs
   whose occupations require a sharp exo-memory
      (an exo-skeleton of the mind, ie school)
         forgetting is a tragedy
like when you doctor
   lose your etherized patient on the operating table
      not because you forgot eliot
         or shakespeare's birthday
but because you can't remember what your nurse is wearing
   under that mute desire to undress her

but if you're a poet
   forgetting is your instrument
      for cutting into the flesh of your sick time
         and its tangled and complex ideas
connected to memories not chronological
   half-forgotten foggy moth-eaten
      passing through you in waves to some other place

your words may be doing a creditable job
when submerged complications erase them
   rogue waves of forgetting
      what you were thinking writing
you stop take a breath
   and resort to a footnote


3. how does a forgotten word generate a footnote?

you're stuck:
you can't remember the word "monkey"
but know that humans or something like humans
came from it
it has a tail and comes in different sizes and colors
it lives in trees and is used as an endearment and an insult
it has fur and it peels bananas and has roles in cartoons

you remember all that goes under the english word "monkey"
though the word "monkey" is gone
you know that much lives in that word
you'll google yahoo or bing
or ask your partner sick of the question
"what do you call that thing?"

so you footnote instead the forgotten word
   to reveal memories and context

if you're plurilingual
   the lost word
reveals the rose quartz rock underneath
   the sand of abstraction blown away by wind

the footnote swells pushing like lava
   through words already written
words pushed aside on either side
   of the volcanic eruption in search of "monkey"
will get back up into the sentence
only when "monkey" is found
but the sentence will sport a mountain then
   an outcropping
it has become topography
who needs "monkey?"

remember only the word "palimpsest"

the unconscious teems with footnotes
   most words like most languages were (are) forgotten
potential eruptions disrupt every word

the moment forgetting happens
your splendor is on the job
raking life in an attempt to recover
the word it no longer wants

it occurs to me a poet
that all persons to whatever time-task bound
can keep a kind eye
on forgetting

they will be rewarded by a flexible unconscious
that allows footnotes to erupt
to be thereby enriched by the vision
of all that lies beneath words and narrative convention

the surface story that follows the logic of language
expands à la peacock tail into footnotes
to recreate lost worlds the agreed-upon name
has worked for millennia to erase

goodbye words full of stuff you've hidden!
ciao, monkey!

after doing this for a while you notice
all kinds of fun true things in small type plus real good info

the main text starts shrinking
as words are peeled back
revealing their lidded universes

down with abstraction! cry us the marchers toward death

you can be sure that we will be devoured in the end
by the shark teeth of surfacing memory
the force of links will tear us up
but we'll die rich

grandmother is a link
   “grandmother is monkey plus outer space”
ted berrigan wrote
the exercise of excavating "monkey" to find her
will pleasantly occupy us until we die
not from a disease or a symptom of ageing
but from the heart-stopping wealth of discovery.



FROM: dan shafran's guide to eminent vagabonds and exiles in sweden


1. lenin

after 20 hours of flying
    before i even checked into my hotel
 dan had me driven from the airport
    straight to the royal library in stockholm
       where he works

he led me past carrels filled with silent scholars
   to a plain wooden table in a bare small room
      it was the table where lenin-in-swedish-exile worked
          having signed himself in the register of 1907
              as j. frey
              and as ulyanov in 1910

when i stretched my hands over the plain oak surface
   polished by the hands and shirt-sleeves
      of the founder of the soviets
 his resonant voice came booming into my brain
    with the command to now visit
       all the libraries of his many exiles
            and write a poem in each of them

and since i was now in his second
      the first having been the british museum library
         where he had signed in as richter
              i owed him a poem immediately

lenin boomed with rhetorical intransigence
    that having read my poem about his british library stint
    (that ghosts read all about themselves is little known)
 he had now instructed dan shafran
    (in the same booming mempsychotic fashion)

to hand me a folder of documents about his well-documented
   exiles to sweden

which dan did

   well-documented indeed
      were the houses he'd lived in
         no longer there
 but photographed just before being demolished

there were others
    never photographed
       that had become mythical in stockholm
           lenin had slept everywhere in stockholm
              in the swedish version of "washington slept here"

(though it is known that he rarely slept and always studied)

   concluded the booming lenin voice in my brain
   you must now go to zurich
      to the library of my other bitter exiles
         and write another poem

i tore my hot and itching hands away from the mediumatic table
    terrified of the enormous task before me
    after 20 hours of flight
 and i had the brief thought that the best mediums
    were exiles from lenin's utopia
          people like dan and myself
             who had barely escaped the thoughts
                born in him in this library
                   and we carried photographs of those thoughts
                       in our minds long after the utopia had been demolished

and still lenin the iconic figure of our youth
    broadcast well to us
           in the socialist kingdom of sweden

(for one thing it wasn't far from russia)

but I didn't become truly scared
   (though the palms of my hands itched with the need for a pen)
   until dan told me that soviet tourists in the 20th century
 each with a flower in his hand
    waited in long lines for many hours
      to lay this flower on lenin's oak desk
 having travelled for days by bus direct from the kremlin
     where they had laid more flowers on his glass tomb

this was their reward for being heroes of labor
and so with hands calloused by steel and shovel
   they tenderly laid their grateful flower
      on the work table of the great dead comrade
         for whom they had become labor heroes
            and spent long nights on hard snowy roads
               cupping a tender flower

and here i was
   with my bourgeois complaint
       20 hours in flight

what is that to a century of dead tired subjects of a library scholar?

ok said dan
   this is the 21st century
      you can go to your hotel to sleep now
         there is always time for a  poem


2. rené descartes

an icy day in stockholm
   even the locals say so
      but dan takes me to a graveyard
         surrounding an old church
            and points to the frigid granite profile above the door

rené descartes
 in trouble with the pope
   in trouble with the dutch
     having gotten a servant girl in trouble in amsterdam
       his daughter francine dead of scarlet fever
           in trouble with pascal who accused him of getting rid of god
              migrating from one teaching gig to another
                 nassau bavaria paris dordrecht
 never without admirers
 chief among them princess elisabeth of bohemia
 to whom he dedicated principia philosophae in french in 1647
 in the hope no doubt of a permanent roof over his head & a subsidy
    rené continued to vagabond with his pen always moving
    a step ahead of the inquisition that had gotten galileo
    and thinking that he finally found the right princess
       he hired to tutor princess christina of sweden
          who may or may not have been the right princess
             he never found out
                shortly after arrival to the palace in stockholm
                   he took a philosopher's walk on an icy day
                      and died of pneumonia
 not necessarily because of the bone-chilling wind
 but because of the protestant princess' insistence that he rise
 early for her lessons
    he was not a morning person
 after he died he was interred in a graveyard used for unbaptised infants
    because he was a catholic in a protestant country

after he was thus reposed princess christina abdicated her throne
and converted to roman catholicism
   but she'd have done better to sleep late and learn in the afternoon
it was her schedule not god
   that killed descartes
      his books were already blackindexed by the church
         and as pascal noted rené wasn't much for god

nor did the french let him rest long
   they moved his remains
   (on an icy day)
     intending to bury him in the pantheon
        but meanwhile
           (a meanwhile that is still ongoing)
he rests between two monks in the abbey of st. germain-de-prés
   a bohemian vagabond to the end

and because my teeth were chattering
   from the baltic sea wind of march 2013
   four hundred years and some since the author
      of "passions of the soul"
        had exited his body
 we went inside the church where the ushers waved us gracefully in
 just as a chorus of beautiful young swedes
 soared unto the glorious finale of bach's magnificat
    to a great standing ovation and loud applause

they are not applauding for you
   dan said

i know that
they are applauding rené descartes

LARB Contributor

Andrei Codrescu is the author of Messiah, a novel, and Whatever Gets You through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments. His most recent books are Bibliodeath: My Archives (with Life in Footnotes) and So Recently Rent a World: New and Selected Poems.


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