NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Jealous Witness by Andrei Codrescu
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2008)
Born Andrei Perlmutter in Sibiu, Romania; poet, novelist and essayist Andrei Codrescu published his first poems in Romanian under the pen name Andrei Steiu. In 1965 he left the country to escape from the communist regime. After a brief stay in Italy, he emigrated to the United States and settled in Detroit. In 1967 he moved to New York and published his first poems in English under the name of Codrescu. He moved to San Francisco in 1970, lived for a time in Baltimore and now resides in New Orleans.
His coverage of the 1989 Romanian Revolution for National Public Radio and ABC News’ Nightline won him critical acclaim. The New York Times has described him as “one of our most magical writers”.
Prior to his retirement in 2009, he taught at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Baltimore and Louisiana State University where he held the post of MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English.
Jealous Witness is in four sections but the content is wide-ranging. The first section has an immediacy about it that is intoxicating. A lengthy preface on geography leads the reader into the main substance of the subject matter: the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.
As Codrescu points out in his preface, imaginary geography is …the prime mover” --the ability of the poet to imagine a landscape when all the landscapes have already been measured and mapped out. The series opens with a catastrophe sonnet in which Codrescu charts the history of New Orleans going backward in time to the point where it was
…….just the greatest swamp a drunk
Frenchman ever dedicated to his sun king
Fridges to heaven aptly describes the havoc that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on all things electrical when the power lines went down:
under the silver moonlight
fridges line the street
far as the eye can see
they are still full of meat
more toxic than you and me…
the scene is almost surreal and then it takes a political turn which at once enlarges the scope of the piece and ramps up the intensity:
dick cheney inside
and president bush too
and that FEMA guy too
tape them doors shut
so they won’t come after us
full of maggots and good news…
In the mold song Codrescu effectively describes the rot that had set in so quickly:
it was one of a kind
the earliest map of the united states
it was hanging right here on the wall
the mold ate it all
in one gulp the mold ate it all…
The sense of disconnection and isolation from the rest of the USA is felt in mother quarter where the poet says:
I’ve pulled away from the USA
and set my anchor in the Quarter…
Compassion for the plight of animals in what to do with your goat in a drowning world, is juxtaposed with the ugly face of human greed -- each to his own -- in looting wall-mart. In the coffee house philosophers there is the comment that Katrina has effectively wiped out the hard-working middle-class so that
only the very rich and their servants will remain.
The desperation of people clutching at straws is effectively conveyed in the town meeting with its pleas for help before the Mayor:
mr mayor I knew your mama
don’t you do me wrong
mr mayor we went to school together
you broke the rules I didn’t tell
mr mayor I voted for you
and all my people knew your people…
There is also a recognition in some of these poems how disaster can reunite a people in distress. In tale of two cities Codrescu observes:
this is a tale of two cities
that didn’t even speak each others’ names
before the deluge
one was empty big and pretty
the other poor proud and artsy
but that was before the deluge…
The second section, “jealous witness,” allows Codrescu the opportunity to indulge in verbal pyrotechnics: the poems in this section positively bristle with a bold imagination and, at times, an irreverent wit. In visitors from the dancing world:
the dancers we are about to meet
are fourteen thousand and twenty thousand years old
but look fourteen in their frayed satin slippers no hips round eyes
they have danced a number of universes some of which have exploded
and tender others just being powered for use by life forms like ours
they visit us because we are one of their earlier creations
they don’t use the door they come in the window
or like last time through a crack in the roof…
In the middle of all this we find Diaghilev:
a master of luminous dots infusing them with power.
The third section, “il maoismo (1971),” contains a series of poems on China. They were written so long ago that Codrescu freely admits that he doesn’t even remember writing them: “I imagine that they had something to do with paranoia about China’s nuclear bombs and about the Bay Area Maoists one ran into on the streets. I’d moved to San Francisco in 1970 and I spent a lot of time in Chinatown, which may have led to some dreams or nightmares with Chinese motifs.”
A compact poem at the end of this section, taut in its imagery, stood out for me. It is called Morning and, by way of explanation, Codrescu says almost as an afterthought: “Oh, yes, and our mailman on Lowell Street was definitely Chinese.” Here is the poem in its entirety:
sometimes when they shut off the faucets
i think of the Chinese mailmen
how they must feel holding
birds full of letters.
i would like to walk with them
into the small
circumcisions at the top of houses
through which hands protrude waiting
because this is a country of telegrams
we emerge from holding shocked doorknobs
between our knees
The final section, “some poets.” comprises various poems dedicated to specific poets including Philip Lamantia, Pat Nolan, Sam Abrams and Robert Creeley. Of particular interest is the long poem, who’s afraid of anne waldman?” which documents Codrescu’s time in New York where he became a part of the literary scene on the Lower East Side meeting such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Lewis Warsh and Ted Berrigan. The subject of the poem is Anne Waldman herself; writer, performer, collaborator and cultural / political activist, who served as the Director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s and engaged with the poets and artists who came to be known as the Second Generation of the New York School.
A CD accompanies this collection whose content relates to the first section of the book. It is always debatable as to whether poems on the printed page work equally as well when performed as song but this CD effectively adds another dimension. It is both atmospheric and varied in its musical conception. A number of instrumental pieces act as buffers between each of the songs. Fridges to Heaven is given an especially eerie rendition against a background hum that sounds a little like electricity which is an irony in itself since the Hurricane has effectively cut off the power supply. Coffee House Philosophers makes use of an all-male choir and the track headed Cleaning Ladies is given a performance which verges on the operatic. The New Orleans Klezmer All Stars are to be congratulated on these sensitive interpretations of Codrescu’s work.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).