APRIL 18, 2019
RECENT WORKS BY Andrei Codrescu, like Bibliodeath: My Archives, Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments, and The Poetry Lesson, blur the lines between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, playing with the expectations and assumptions of readers and critics. There are seams between genres, of course, but in a way there are seams between sentences and words, and these books revel in those seams, exploiting the unease readers feel when they don’t quite know what they’re reading. By liquefying the ground beneath his readers, Codrescu gives them the opportunity to swim through meaning of their own making, and to sink into his linguistic quicksand. But it might be a relief to those readers who first came to Codrescu’s work through his poetry, whether through earlier books or his career-spanning collection So Recently Rent a World, longlisted for the National Book Award, to find recognizable poems in his latest collection: no time like now: poems.
no time like now documents Codrescu’s return to New York City after almost 50 years and all that has changed in the city and in the world since he last lived there. In a note included in review copies, Codrescu writes:
I wrote my first book of poems, License to Carry a Gun (Big Table, 1970), when I first lived in New York City, 1967–1970. Those were troubled times and I was 21 years-old. Decades later the city has changed and the times are still troubled. These poems, 2016–2018, try to find out just how changed my dear city and how troubled my days.
The poems drop in on a memorial reading; wander among buildings and businesses that have closed, moved, or been torn down; and visit the past as an older voice considering, reevaluating, and even celebrating remembered events. no time like now is a nostalgic collection, but one that sees nostalgia as an opening movement for more thoughtful exploration, recognizing, even celebrating its inherent melancholia.
Codrescu’s nostalgia is on display in the opening lines of “2017 benjamin arcades at the jewish museum”: “I liked this museum better when it was near / the ruins of the Two Towers just after Armageddon. / It’s uptown now and it still smells of borscht / and is nostalgic after Katz’s deli.” In “i stumbled into a reading in a bookstore in the winter of 2016,” Codrescu dives deeper into that longing for what once was, examining “a bridge in a group photograph and how both bridge / and group had been blown up and were no more.” Here, nostalgia appears like a bridge to our past, however “a bridge is a means / of passage over a ravine or over a river if you make it not.” Codrescu deepens our understanding of nostalgia later in the same poem by writing, “nostalgia grew everywhere like a creepy weed filling the bookstore.” Here, the more unusual simile, comparing nostalgia to a weed which is only a weed if it grows quickly and we don’t use it, complicates nostalgia further, creating a slippery, inherently unstable concept.
Though no time like now seems like a surprisingly straightforward collection, especially in relation to Codrescu’s recent work, that instability appears in even seemingly straightforward poems. Distant, disconnected, and adversarial ideas and images juxtapose. Line breaks force ungrammatical relationships between words. Subjects and objects don’t always agree. Linear logic is optional. The best poems in no time like now celebrate the multiplicity this instability creates. As Codrescu writes: “The weakness of the / human illusion of singularity is a threat to the tall beings sent by the / gods to tear up the biofilm.”
As a means of resisting “singularity,” Codrescu leverages poetry’s flexible grammar to create potent ambiguity, as in “I can go into business now: there are so many books. / They are all about the future when no one will read them.” Here, the absence of a comma before “when” multiples the meaning, letting you read the line as if the books are about a time in the future when no one reads them and as if the absence of readers determines their subject. Elsewhere, he juxtaposes powerful and unsettling images: “You are a spider who kills like a dictionary / and I’m a small country made out of words.” In “flat is dead,” Codrescu pushes the power of juxtaposition to two distinct scenes; one in New Orleans “where a motley crew of gutter-punks are drawing with colored chalk,” and one of the artist Louise Nevelson “watching cows trudging home tired.” The reader is left to create the connection. Maybe there is something about the foundness of the punks and the found objects in so much of Nevelson’s work. Or a connection in the form of another juxtaposition: the colored chalk in contrast with Nevelson’s black-and-white palette. Perhaps the relationships between the stanzas are derived from the relationships within the stanzas, and we need to explore the relationship between the punks and their dogs in one stanza and Nevelson and the cows in the other.
For some readers, this commitment to multiplicity can feel chaotic, but Codrescu does not leave them completely rudderless. The poem “on form” suggests a relationship between the reader and the poems that opens vast possibilities for making meaning: “Read it backwards and you are free just like you were before / you came into this kind of hell. There is no class but the sonnet lurks / somewhere like a naked woman behind a curtain on the third floor / of the building across the street.” Can’t find your bearings in a poem? Read it backward. Searching for an interpretive entrance into a particularly inscrutable poem? Redistribute the lines to create spatial associations and linguistic rhythms that speak to you. The seven sentences that make up “on form” can be broken into 14 lines. As Codrescu implies in “nothing is complete now without architecture,” poems are like cities: you don’t need to move in straight lines or follow obvious directions. You can be a flâneur in a poem as well as you can in Paris.
And yet when it comes to navigating 21st-century New York City and the new media environment, Codrescu often falls flat and his penchant for multiplicity collapses. Like many non-digital natives, Codrescu doesn’t seem to understand social media, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but the poems about it feel like someone holding a fish at arm’s length. Codrescu puts scare quotes around terms like “social networks,” “friends,” and “likes,” as if they require punctuational prophylactics. This makes it difficult to trust his ideas and images, especially given his description of social media as “podiums-cum-megaphone-for-naked-speakers,” which, though true, feels unoriginal and overgeneralized. He also describes the rise of social media as “yet another grand moment of de-evolution.” These critiques seem at odds with the poet’s predilection for complexity. One can reject social media without dismissing it (and its users) completely.
Codrescu describes his relationship with topical writing in “the twelve-line sonnet needs you”: “I like my verse clean and the sonnet a little dirty… / After that I can take up social issues and spring emotions into them like a faucet in the park.” Having this earlier in the collection would have made it easier to read Codrescu’s social critiques more generously — as secondary concerns that are containers for other ideas. But even with that framing, Codrescu fails to provide a complex or new perspective on the complex relationship between technology and humanity. “Do you / remember memory? In the old days everybody had that under their hat / not like now in their pocket with the dying battery.” Positioning technology as merely a barrier to memory seems just as misguided today as it was when Plato argued that writing on paper would demolish human memory.
This flatness applies to other considerations as well. Throughout the collection, Codrescu critiques social media, marketing culture, the credit card economy, and gentrification as though fulfilling an obligation. Though these poems generally don’t succeed, I agree with Codrescu’s sense of obligation and admire his willingness to write toward an understanding he does not yet possess.
Interestingly, his less “timely” poems allow him to connect more deeply with these themes. The line “and back then I could barely impersonate the idea of me,” from “real history,” is a better phrase for the anxiety of being an authentic self on social media than any of his direct engagements with tweets and likes. In “the twelve-line sonnet needs you,” his observation that “we’ll never be sharp enough again to see it as fine as it once felt,” is a haunting and articulate description of the inexorable gap between an experience and its sharable image. Even in some of the weaker poems, like “no smoking sonnet,” there are moments when Codrescu’s brilliance shines through almost in spite of himself, as when he tries to disparage likes by describing them “as if a sheep was nothing but a fur hat and a side of mutton.”
Poetry allows you to hit targets far beyond the apparent field of view. In “string city,” Codrescu revisits potent and specific images from his short time in Detroit, the first place he lived in the United States after he emigrated from Romania. He remembers the “parking lot at MacDonald’s,” “the smoky dark strings of the Writers & Artists Workshop,” “a violet man busy cutting strings of light into powdered heroin / on the soon-to-no-longer-to-exist 12th street,” and “mauve fake strings in every color on Plum Street.” He would leave Detroit later that same year for New York, where he would write and publish his first book, License to Carry a Gun, in 1970. He left New York for the West Coast and eventually moved to Baltimore, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge, founding the literary journal Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Books & Ideas, becoming a contributor to All Things Considered, and publishing about a book a year for the next several decades. But throughout it all, he felt “strings” tying him to back his experiences in Detroit as if he were a “puppet” to those potent images. “string city” is interior, idiosyncratic, and, to borrow a phrase from the poem itself, “cacophonous and beautiful.” The poem feels unstuck in time, as if through its specificity it is about any time and any place — Baltimore, New York City, and wherever you are — as much as it is about Detroit. In pulling on these strings, Codrescu lands on a powerful statement on how we can interact with the contemporary world he struggles to write about: “I was new in America your strings vibrated / in a newness new even to the new world / a world that must be courage itself or die.”