ANDREI CODRESCU’S RECENT The Poetry Lesson (2010) begins with a delicious parody of the college poetry workshop: a class for those who evidently want to learn how to write “poetry” (or just need a course credit), but have never read any, never so much as heard of Ezra Pound or Allen Ginsberg, much less Baudelaire or Sappho. The situation is a recipe for disaster but Codrescu turns it into a hilarious comedy as the ignorant but technologically sophisticated students teach their professor a thing or two.
Codrescu’s sardonic wit — his ability to pinpoint the absurdities of our culture and to laugh at himself in the bargain — is well-known to the NPR audience: since 1983, he has been delivering, in his guttural Rumanian accent, short weekly exposes of cultural (and sometimes individual) follies. Here is a recent one:
The cover of the latest Smithsonian Magazine proclaims the future is here. Well, commentator Andrei Codrescu agrees and says it feels like the 1950s all over again.
ANDREI CODRESCU, BYLINE: That was the last time the future was really big. Back then, it arrived in your house with washing machines and television sets. And ever since, it’s been either going away with a market bust here, an assassinated president there, a couple of useless wars and then trying to make a comeback with princess phones, television remotes, the Dyson vacuum cleaner and Wal-Mart, heaven on Earth, made in China.
But now, it’s really, really here. It’s a tracking device. It’s making you friends with everyone on Earth. It’s a drone disguised like a house fly that can shoot you down if you talk back to your dad. It’s a newly discovered planet of microbes in your gut. It’s a 3-D printer that can reproduce you, should you wish to outlive yourself. And it’s not even as far as the TV remote. It’s in your pocket.
The future is really, truly here. It has consumed all your time and all the time credits it gave you for your future. Please buy the Smithsonian app and call me in the morning. I know this future. I’ve been working for it since I was born and against it as soon as I could talk. Happily, the 1960s will be back soon.
This absurd world of drones disguised as house flies that can shoot you down if you talk back to your dad is also the world of Codrescu’s poetry. Even though he has mastered so many genres — novel, short story, cultural memoir, biography — poetry has always been his first love. His new book of poems So Recently Rent a World runs to more than 400 pages, containing a 94-page portfolio of new poems, followed by extensive selections from his earlier books and chapbooks, beginning with Personae: License to Carry a Gun, which won the Big Table Poetry Award in 1970.
Big Table was one of the many alternative presses founded in the ‘60s and Codrescu, as he tells us in the various prefaces included here, was proud to be part of the counterculture, especially the Beat scene of New York and San Francisco, with its speech-based free verse, its colloquial idiom, and its taste for improvisation. The young Codrescu seems to have taken quite literally Allen Ginsberg’s precept, “First thought, best thought.” For Ginsberg, this claim was more bravado than reality: the Howl! manuscript, for example, reveals painstaking revision throughout. Codrescu is more casual: he has never paid much attention to the niceties of line breaks or sound structures, and he seems to write his poems as quickly and easily as he does his NPR columns. Not every poem, consequently, is as fully realized as it might be. A poem like “history and (poetry) class” carries on the playful dialogue of The Poetry Lesson, with passages like the following:
there is only a slight vowel difference between fetal and fatal
that difference is YOU
if buzzards had $ would they eat carryout
(goes for crows too)
are crystal amber and ginger the three muses of the strip mall?
Line by line, these jokey poems are great fun to read, but they may not have much staying power. Still, like the seasoned magician he is, Codrescu always has a new card up his sleeve. In the very next poem, “blue jew notes,” a set of linear word games (on the name “The Grateful Dead”) is followed by a sudden shift to epigrammatic prose:
in the 20th century we feared machines for becoming like people,
and taking over, but in the 21st we have become more like machines,
So we no longer fear them; we perceive them as ideal rather than scary.
They have taken over. My body, my machine. The only thing that stood
between our perfect union was psychology, but pills have gotten rid of it.
The impact of this diagnosis depends on what is not said: no blame game, none of the moralizing or us-versus-them self-pity, so frequent in contemporary lyric. And now the poem modulates into a chant:
7.18.10 blue jew at boston diner 2009
a blue jew
a horny jew
a jew with blue balls
an old boston jew
where the snow is blue
the blue-cheese burger
overdone by the black-blue
short-order cook from benares
with the blue elephant inked on her ankle
the sky is blue in benares
the snow is eggplant blue in boston
oh blue jew blue jew
the books are dusty and blue
you read them when they were new
oh daddy Sylvia way outrhymed you
The model for this litany is probably Anne Waldman’s “Fast-Speaking Woman” — Waldman was one of Codrescu’s earliest influences — but whereas her list poem displays a serious Whitmanian energy, Codrescu takes the Dada route, shifting from his opening rhyme — “a blue jew” — to “jew with blue balls,” the “blue-cheese burger,” and so on. But the poem is by no means random: its allusions — to the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht “Benares Song” in Mahagonny, to the Beacon Hill “snow” poems of Robert Lowell, and, in the last line, to Sylvia Plath’s famous “Daddy,” whose dominant rhyme sound (“you”/ “shoe”/ “through”) it echoes. It is also possible that Codrescu knew Charles Bernstein’s “anagrammatics” on the name “Walter Banjamin” in the play (more properly, libretto) Shadowtime (Green Integer 2005), which takes Benjamin’s life and work as its subject. Bernstein’s list poem begins: “I’m a lent barn Jew / A mint bran jewel / A barn Jew melt in / rent Jew in balm / A Jew lamb intern. . . ,” rigorously following the anagram rule which yields lines like “Rat bam Lenin Jew.”
Codrescu prefers to break all rules, his own included, and let the chips fall where they may. As a teen-ager in Ceausescu’s police-state Romania, Andrei Perlmutter (his name before he escaped the Communist world as Andrei Codrescu) absorbed the Surrealism that was then the poetic mode associated with revolt. “Blue jew” is prefigured in a poem in License to Carry a Gun called “blue”:
blue is female green, receiver
blue is insects, flesh creation
in my purest darkness.
the spoons are blue in my sleep,
bordering blue on extinction.
a square of sky cut by the size
of my guilty head.
The surrealist strain never quite disappears from the lyric of this exile poet — a poet who has learned early on that one must speak in code if one is to survive. “Everything I do is against meaning,” begins a poem from a 1970s chapbook:
This is partly deliberate, mostly spontaneous.
Wherever I am I think I’m somewhere else. This is partly
to confuse the police, mostly
to avoid myself. . . .
Mostly to avoid myself: as Codrescu wryly notes in the introduction to So Recently Rent a World, “the disposition of my first person singular” has haunted him throughout his career. As a 16-year old in Romania, he recalls, the intention of his “I” was “to set himself against the accepted first-person singular of any authority, parental or statal.” But surrealist mystification soon gave way to the Dada playfulness learned from that other famous Romanian poet Samy Rosenstock (aka Tristan Tzara), and in more recent years to a more trenchant satire that depends on closely observed realistic detail, as in “french quarter morning,” where we read:
one-thousand people die every ten seconds
on call-waiting to their HMOs
listening to christian soft rock
Indeed, among Codrescu’s recent poems, we find a turn to the elegiac, the memory poem that recognizes, with a shock of recognition, that, however consoling the comic mask, it may be that, in W. B. Yeats’s words, “there’s more enterprise / in walking naked.” Let me conclude with the history poem “bridge work:
the bridge over the drina
a unesco tourist attraction
and the title of a marvelous novel by ivo inadric
joined christendom and islam for six centuries
witnessed and withstood
the assassination of archduke Ferdinand
the first world war
dynamiting by austrians
the nobel prize for literature to ivo andric
and looked like the bridge might make it out of history
into the 21st century
but the 20th century wasn’t done with it
yet to come were
the visograd genocide
the mass rape of bosnian women by serbs
and a new bridge of corpses over the drina
parentheses not closed
a pregnant pause
In Codrescu’s world, there is no progress, no light at the end of the many dark tunnels through which he has made his way. Most of the time, one reacts to this situation with all the laughter one can muster, with parody and burlesque. But occasionally, as one grows older, it’s time to tell it like it is. That, in any case, is the “bridge work” of the new poems in this impressive collection, and it is surely the case that for Codrescu, “parentheses not closed.”