February 2004

Wendy Anderson

poetry

it was today by Andrei Codrescu

Reading these new poems by Andrei Codrescu is a lot like taking a remarkable road trip, where you visit your past and your friends, stop for a drink and engage in debauchery in the backseat, have heated and offbeat political talk, and generally crisscross wildly different states of mind. You do this while keeping a firm hand on the wheel of just what you want to say and how best to say it. One of the finer and lengthier poems in this collection, “the view from the baby seat,” in fact imagines a car full of invisible passengers “you don’t remember you stopped for/in nineteen-sixty-something/they’ve been in your car ever since/in all our cars ever since… you gave them a ride and they will/be with you forever.”

That sense of connection between the past, present, and future -- which may rise from whimsy to dead-seriousness in a single poem -- says a lot about Codrescu, whom many folks best know as a droll and insightful commentator for National Public Radio. He’s also an essayist, a novelist, a screenwriter, and the author of seven previous poetry books.

Nowhere are his gifts more evident than in “Lu Li & Weng Li,” a series of sixty-nine short poems written as if between Lu Li, an imperial court courtesan and Weng Li, a warrior, both living in China during the Mongol period. A “preface” to these works tells how the poems were “discovered” and translated into several languages, until it was also discovered that the translator never existed. It goes on: “Both Lu Li and Weng Li eventually took possession of Andrei Codrescu, who faithfully wrote down what they said… [they] are not a literary hoax. Granted, they arrived in English in an unconventional way, but they are here, regardless.”

And here they are, sounding as if from another time but with words real and immediate. In her opening lines, Lu Li writes, “lying on my back/the emperor’s astrologer on top of me/I thought of the stars/years ago as they foretold this/they could not tell/that their astrologer’s labors were in vain/even the stars have no say/in who works for them”

We feel firsthand Lu Li’s constricted life, her pining for Weng Li, her wit, and her strong sense of self-preservation, as in this wonderful moment:

for her services
the emperor gave his favorite
a silk farm
now she listens to the silkworms
spin the robes of the new favorites
in each one she hides an eyelash
when they wake another hair
has turned white on their heads
the new favorites age lash by lash
their bodies a field for her caterpillars
soaking up the moonlight of her loneliness.

Weng Li, meanwhile, is miles from home, burning villages and killing their inhabitants in the name of a mission he must fulfill without knowing why. To save himself, he writes exquisite poetry about what he witnesses, for Lu Li, and hides it from his men. He is finely drawn as both a realist and a keeper of beautiful words.

The same can be said for Codrescu. After the fall of Ceausescu, he went back to his Romanian homeland, after being gone more than 20 years, where he transmitted a series of commentaries for NPR. His poems allude to the turbulence of his history, as in “1968 for leonard cohen,” in which he attends a party on the roof of a hotel in Chelsea: “the girls began taking off their shirts/to dance/I was in heaven/I felt so glamorous/I was nineteen years old/and so was the world/I was but a year out of the old world/the ancient murderous world/dressed in black from head to foot/still mourning sorrows I was beginning/to forget. . . .”

In “wartime questions & answers in montreal,” we see him ponder paranoia and hypocrisy and presumably field questions from non-Americans about U.S. government policy, the fall of the World Trade Towers, media bias, and more. All of it is heady stuff, at times humorously, at times angrily, wrought. He ends the poem: “and to that bundle/of questions there are/several answers none/of which I am prepared/to give I’m not even/the press”.

A lot of the poems deal with politics, from the perspective of a man with two countries. Other poems speak to teaching and academia, youth and aging, and the wisdom one gains with age. Poetry is mulled, not always reverentially: “you get hurt where you are born/you make poetry out of it/as far from home as you can get/you die somewhere in between. . .” he writes in “a geography of poets.” In “on drunkenness,” he says: “I write poems sober/I read them drunk/Unlike many poets/Before me who wrote/Them drunk read them drunk/And even stayed drunk. . .”

He is aware that he is known and admired, and does what he can, as in “often after a public event,” where he is recounts being approached by young people with accents, who might say,

“… we are from bosnia
hungarians or jews my mother
was born near your city back then
it was another country

now we are from here what should
we do with our accents

do like me I say
keep talking

We certainly hope Codrescu does keep talking.

it was today by Andrei Codrescu
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 1566891469
144 pages