Andrei Codrescu

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Marcel Cornis-Pop (review date Spring 1987)

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SOURCE: "Escape into New Languages: The Avant-Gardist Ideals and Constraints of Andrei Codrescu's Poetry," in Sagetrieb, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 21-39.

[In the following review, Cornis-Pop discusses the experimental, proto-surrealistic style of Codrescu's poetry.]

     Having avantbiographed the world      To make another come right out of it      I have certain scribbler's rights      On the next one—endlessly impregnate      The self about to be designed.      I praise the lava holes      whence issued my first passport.                      (Comrade Past & Mister Present 34)


Andrei Codrescu, "the Involuntary Genius of American surrealism," defies easy description. In his case the very label of "surrealism" seems partly inappropriate and confining. As his newest book, The Disappearance of the Outside makes clear. Codrescu has little patience for the watered down, domestic variant of surrealism "adrift/today/in the Mall"; and even less for the international "poetic sludge used by translators and mandarin poets to sculpt the sad shape of the present." His real interest goes with the proto-surrealistic spirit that, before the days of universal collage and "ecriture automatique," imbued everything (including its own procedures) in the acids of deconstructive wit.

Critics, especially upon the publication of Selected Poems 1970–1980, regarded Codrescu's avant-gardist beginnings with a certain melancholic relief: "… It is interesting to see that, yes, Codrescu did have a poetic youth and a risky, experimental style which fits his times. What is more interesting is how he developed certain aspects over the years." There is, undoubtedly, significant poetic development from License to Carry a Gun (1970) to Comrade Past & Mister Present (1986): but not necessarily away from experimentation towards some "consolidation of gains" and closure. Codrescu's aggressive, "schizoactivist" style has grown subtler, its ideological and poetic intents more articulate (consider the "The Juniata Diary"). Codrescu's recent poems still make a somewhat discordant and eccentric figure in contemporary poetry. At a time when American poetry seems content to follow a cautious notion of "risk" (as poetry editor for the Paris Review. Michael Benedikt welcomed "poems that are coherently risky, that take risks that succeed"), Codrescu has consistently walked a jagged edge of risk, pushing the imaginary borderline between poetic freedoms and constraints further out. A most difficult task, to be sure, given the increasing pressures that work on poetry at present: "… In 1967, I was experimenting with all sorts of looseness, riffing, rhythm. (I had a different accent everyday). Then I tightened up a bit for my masters, the publishers. First, Paul Carroll raised my capitals & raped my text with punctuation. Then Mike Braziller with his insistence on the elegiac. Then my surrealist fans with their insistence on recognition (i.e. orthodoxy). All of these insistences, even when strenuously or successfully resisted, left some of their fingerprints, if not the shape of their pressure, on my work. Of course, one evolves that way too, nobody's a frozen CB" (Comrade Past & Mister Present 92).

Codrescu's biography as a poetic "mutant" is in many ways representative: the story of a Central European expatriate in pursuit of his mythic America, that slowly receding boundary of the imaginative outside . "He arrived in New York (Stephens recounts) not knowing a word of English, and once told me how the taxi driver who drove him from the airport into Manhattan charged him $17 for the trip, leaving him $3, a bundle of Romanian poems, and a good knowledge of Italian his first time in the Village." His next trip was to Ginsberg's apartment in the Lower East Side, to join the great American scene of experiment...

(This entire section contains 6165 words.)

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about which he had read in books; but to his amazement, he found that scene on the wane. In only a few more years poetry entered the "Age of Confusion" at the hands of a "generation of neo-academics who turned out a quasi-surrealistic product culled from the numerous bad translations that mushroomed under the urinary inflationism of Robert Bly." Codrescu still spent a euphoric intermezzo in the wide-open culture of the San Francisco Area before his dream of a free and borderless Idea-State subsided: "Suddenly, all around me, the people fell silent. They put their shoes back on. The chill of mortality was in the air…."

Codrescu also brought with him the secret aspirations and nostalgias of another interrupted avant-garde, the Romanian: "I had natural Surrealistic sympathies and was determined not to let the Balkans down: after all we had originated Dada and gave voice to the absurd. Proto-Surrealisms of various kinds floated about us since the Symbolists. I was temperamentally and genetically suited for New York in the 1960s." The Romanian avant-garde fits better than any other modernistic trend the description of Avantgardismus Interruptus. Emerging on the European scene at a time when Western culture allowed itself to be off-centered and deconstructed with greater ease, the first wave of Romanian avant-gardists (Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Iancu, Victor Brauner) contributed their share to the modernist revolution. But this phase ended soon with the transplantation of Tzara, Brauner and Fondane mainly to France; also with the symbolic suicide of Urmuz (in 1923). After 1924, with the absent Urmuz acting as a genuine "semaphore" for literary experimentation, a new wave of Romanian avant-gardists tried to pick up the scattered pieces and participate in a reconstruction of modern art in a post-Dada age. Finally, soon after the war, a third generation of Romanian avant-gardists made one last attempt at revitalizing the experimental scene. In their "Message Addressed to the International Surrealistic Movement" (1945), Gherasim Luca and Trost called for a new "revolution of the spirit" to replace the mere "verbal revolution" of their predecessors. A sense of urgency and bleak foreboding filled their message: only a year later, under the pressures of Stalinization, the Romanian historical avant-garde was forcefully dismantled. It barely had time to relocate some of its representatives (Eugen Ionesco, E. M. Cioran, Gherasim Luca, Isidore Isou, Paul Paun) in the center of the European (post)modernism.

Under "normal" circumstances the avant-garde periodically exhausts itself, or is detoured and absorbed by mainstream culture. If we add to this the fact that the avant-garde's capacity for "cyclic" recovery has been seriously impaired in the last twenty to thirty years, we have an explanation of—in Lyotard's words—the current "period of/artistic/slackening…. From every direction we are being urged to put an end to experimentation, in the arts and elsewhere." Where the "power assumes the name of a party, realism and its neoclassical complement triumph over the experimental avant-garde by slandering and banning it"; where "power is that of capital," "postmodern" eclecticism (a kind of "degree zero of contemporary general culture …") is substituted for the old avant-gardist radicalism.

But the case of the Romanian avant-garde can be called anything but "normal." To this day, the "historical" avant-garde has not been fully assimilated and canonized by Romanian critics. Its violent interruption in the fifties, before it could run a complete course, predictably enhanced its appeal in contemporary literature. Several generations of postwar Romanian writers have used the half-mythical pursuits of the earlier avant-gardists as "a necessary filter" in their own literary exploration. It is not, therefore, surprising to find Codrescu's American poetry connected to this fourth (utopian) cycle of the Romanian avant-garde. The title of his first book (reminiscent of Geo Dumitrescu's 1945 License to Fire Rifles), confessed to a symbolic continuity of intentions: after Tzara and Fondane, Ionesco and Gherasim Luca, here was another expatriate member of an "insomniac generation" (the first born in postwar Romania) trying to carry on that experimental legacy and stir the dormant waters of international postmodernism.

If genealogically Codrescu belongs to Romanian (European) avant-gardism, in language, thematics and overall preoccupations he is indisputably an American poet. As a perceptive reviewer wrote, "Codrescu's influences range from European poets (Tzara, Ponge, Eminescu, Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Villon, Cavafy) to American poets (Ashbery, Berrigan, Creeley, Spicer, etc.). His poetry has an international base, but the uniqueness of his voice is in his uses of the American idiom…. "Codrescu's main effort has been to relocate American surrealism at the intersection of two experimental traditions (European protosurrealism, and the Williams-New York School line of poetry); he has significantly expanded and enriched that intertextual space in American poetry which makes such a poetic dialogue possible.


As an aspiring Romanian poet in the sixties. Codrescu's secret dreams (shared with other members of his generation) were those of Poetic Subversion and Exile. These two ideas loomed large as myths: "In school we had whispered the names of our great exiles. They had replaced the smaller national heroes. The names of Tristan Tzara, Eugen Ionesco, Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran—sent shivers up our spines. For me, the meaning of their exile overshadowed by far the meaning of their creations…. Exile was the unifying idea and, in my mind, it assumed the proportions of a place." But what he was to find soon after his expatriation is that Exile is not a "vast/outer/territory" with "distinct boundaries," but a shifty, elusive country of the mind.

His predecessor in the mythical limbo "between statelessness and naturalization," Mircea Eliade, defined the exilic province as a decentered, dynamic world with the nostalgia of a center. But he also endowed it with a redeeming feature: "Wherever one is, there is a center of the world. As long as you are in that center, you are at home, you are truly in the real self and at the center of the cosmos. Exile helps you to understand that the world is never foreign to you once you have a central stance in it." What Eliade does not make clear enough is how one accedes to that central stance. Exilic experience endows one with an "extra cognizant," "extra territorial" perspective, but also leaves him in an unsettled tension. By definition the exile is a homo duplex, inhabiting one place and remembering or projecting another. Through the exilic "jump" (ex-salire), the artist comes to know otherness and strangeness, but his arduous task remains that of transforming a figure of rupture into one of connection. According to Eliade he can do this through myth and a unifying language: "In exile the road home lies through language, through dreams…."

But what language? An Ur-language of universally applicable symbols? The mother-tongue in which "one still dreams"? Or the adoptive idiom? These are questions that subtend much of Codrescu's poetry. Language-intercrossing and poetic myth are his keys to the "outland" of imagination. But they also serve to fill the void of his real exilic limbo. Unlike the orthodox avant-gardists, Codrescu has never tried to develop a language beyond languages, a kind of poetic esperanto like Khlebnikov's Zaoum idiom, Marinetti's "degree 4," Virgil Teodorescu's "leopard" language, or Isidor Isou's "lettrisme." Codrescu has sought home in a real poetic language, though one uncertainly balanced between native and foreign, rational and irrational, learned and unlearned. Ronald Sukenick has praised Codrescu's language achievement in the following terms: The History of the Growth of Heaven is another leap from the sinking ship of Newspeak into the life boat of the living word. What's interesting about this book is that it reads as if Codrescu is really beginning to write in a new language as though someone in the middle of a conversation started speaking in multi-colored bubbles instead of words." There remains, however, a tension between the new and old languages, or between the "diurnal" and "nocturnal" aspects of the poet's idiom: "The acquired language is permanently under the watch of my native tongue, like a prisoner in a cage. Lately, this new language has planned an escape to which I fully subscribe. It plans to get away in the middle of the night with most of my mind and never return. This piece of writing in the acquired language is part of the plan: while the native tongue is (right now!) beginning to translate it…." ("Bi-Lingual").

Codrescu's literature explores other language tensions as well. One is the incongruity between an imaginative poetic idiom and the debased "T.V. vernacular" of present-day culture (a theme provocatively addressed in his N. P. R. commentaries—recently collected in A Craving for Swan). Another is the tension inherent in all languages between signifiers and signifieds, those "breches" and "decalages du sens" that interested also the early surrealists. Without overstating the poet's capacity to bridge all these gaps, Codrescu still imagines (pace Derrida) a way back to the redeeming roots of language. Consider this splendid passage from his recent "Dear Masoch" (Comrade Past & Mister Present 7):

     … No chilly languages, no translations      from chilly texts. No translators catching colds      from opening windows between languages, no      crossroads,      only real stammerings, true hollows where the tongues      stand in their cases heavy with the awkward honey      of the first spoken, the as-yet-unsaid….

The most perplexing gap, however, remains that between language and self, mask and identity, voice and silence. In Craving for Swan (39), Codrescu ironizes the exorcism of silence that goes on in this country: people drowning their anxieties in the drone of TVs or the noise of their own "voices that have taken on the eeriness of speaking machines." Yet he is equally suspicious of the postmodern celebration of silence, absence and self-cancellation. Today.

     in psychoanalysis and other therapies, people pay for what      they are missing, but not in order to recover it, only to be      confirmed in their lack, to be reassured of the normality of      absence, of the utter popularity of the abyss, the sanctioned      nothingness, the triviality of death….      Well, I prefer the mask to the well-thought      nothingness … (Comrade Past & Mister Present 52)

The multiplication of masks and assumed identities becomes Codrescu's way of coping with Silence and Exile. He combats the perceptual poverty of contemporary culture with his own (surrealistic) version of imitatio dei: "unleash fantasy machine, populate being with images, populate earth with schizobeings" (Comrade Past & Mister Present 76). His strategy resembles in certain ways Nabokov's: "Whereas so many other language exiles clung desperately to the artifice of their native tongue or fell silent, Nabokov moved into successive languages like a traveling potentate. Banished from Fialta, he has built for himself a house of words. To be specific: the multi-lingual, cross linguistic situation is both the matter and the form of Nabokov's work." Codrescu's poetry seeks a similar cross-linguistic, cross-cultural space, a kind of Derridian in-between; its intercrossing of voices and languages has both aesthetic and ideological implications. As one speaker in Comrade Past & Mister Present (49) announces, his great discovery after thirty is plurality:

             … In other      words, all other words, not just the tolerance      of difference, but the joyful welcoming of differences      into one's heart spread out like the pages      of a newspaper….


The "pursuit of a/plural/dialectic" is central to most of Codrescu's poems (also to his essays, despite their personal, strongly opinionated nature). Codrescu "has more respect for the voices inside him (as his many assumed characters attest) than any other poet I can think of…."

Most of his collections published so far are organized in thematic cycles, each experimenting with a voice, an identity, a state of mind. Codrescu is, in the space of a single book (his first), a jailed Puerto Rican poet, "scout into a political future of prison reality, a sacrificial lamb"; an ex-Beatnik ex-Vietnam mystic writing about America from Istanbul; or his wife Alice Henderson Codrescu and the archetypal "woman in man." Or he can become, with equal ease, a monk in his barren cell, an opium eater, Masoch, Tristan Tzara, a political refugee, etc. Through these invented personas, Codrescu maps a wide range of experiences and cultural milieus (especially of the sixties and seventies), redefining recent history in dialogical terms as a confrontation between Eastern and Western models. Like much exilic literature that begins with an imaginative "leap" in space, with a "what if," his poetry has a projective, hypothetical dimension: it probes the very domain of the possible through these added identities. In many of his poems, the dramatic persona functions as an imaginative "grid," providing Codrescu with a consistent view from "inside the cheese holes" of reality, with a paradoxical self-definition:

     "tout ce qui existe est situe" said max jacob and one      day my situation was such that only a detached, religious      and ecstatic perspective could bring home all that i was.      since i was nothing in particular at the time i became a      monk because it seemed to me that monks had no ego, only      visions and a sense of humor. i am still a monk to the      extent that this is true. my professional services when      i am in robes consist of techniques for sabotaging      history with the aid of god, so to speak. (The History of the Growth of Heaven)

In other poems the technique of the persona is used ironically, with the speaker behind the mask trying to adjust himself to his new role or exit it when it becomes too constricting. The quixotic attempts made by the jailed Puerto Rican in License to Carry a Gun to escape prison parallel Codrescu's own efforts to disencumber himself from his poetic mask:

     rain cuts an exit in the wall      for him who is of rain a square hole      westward, through which the men of rain will fly.      they prayed to water for a long time,      they sold what they could.      .....      rain cuts an exit        wet like cunt      in lonely nights from very left      (Selected Poems 7)

Codrescu's more recent poems make this effort very problematic. The poetic persona gets entangled in an insidious network of roles, in a web of language; the "man of face" (Codrescu's self-definition) is caught in his own game with face realities and masks.


As Codrescu explains in "De Rerum Natura" (Selected Poems 71): "With each poem goes a little myth…. These myths appear at the end of the magazine under the heading ABOUT CONTRIBUTORS or above my poems in italics. Very soon there are as many myths as there are poems and ultimately this is good because each poem does, this way, bring another poet into the world. With this secret method of defying birth controls I populate the world with poets."

There has always been an almost imperceptible borderline between fiction and reality, myth and its parody in Codrescu's poetry. The compilers of "Books in Print," taking Codrescu's authorial set-up ad literam, listed his name not as author, but as editor of License to Carry a Gun. One of the many personal myths that Codrescu's life and poetry illustrate is that of "clandestinity": the young man who stole across the Romanian-Hungarian border in the spare-tire compartment of a car, seemed predestined for a career as an avant-gardist poet. It might be argued that not all young Romanians who sneak across the borders stowed away in ingenious caches (car trunks, empty bass viol cases, refrigerator trucks) have in effect become experimental poets. But in Codrescu's case, there is a deep metaphoric continuity between his life and poetry. With poetry itself reduced nowadays to quasi-"clandestinity," what we need most is a versatile originator, "a rogue and a magician, a hustler and a monk; in short, a protean creator continually creating himself." Codrescu seems in many ways ideally qualified for that role. In Morton Marcus' words, "Andrei is the first truly existential personality … in literature," an incarnation of Camus' absurd man "who dreams himself into an unending series of identities in order to live as fully and meaningfully as he can in a meaningless universe and who thereby continually attempts to humanize an unhuman world."

Codrescu's use of masks and personas seems akin to the surrealistic principle of metamorphosis and game with "one in the other." But Codrescu ascribes to this kind of metamorphosis a more complex function: at once disruptive, "unlacing" the rigid structure of language and reality; and constructive, filling the fissures created in the conventional order of things with a paradoxical, multidimensional life (see Comrade Past & Mister Present 52). Where Breton would have looked further for a "fil conducteur" to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent "champ magnetique," Codrescu is content to keep his poetic field in a state of active, provisional equilibrium. His "sermonettes for all the interlocking/tremors in the land" cannot promise more than an illusion of presence, a mental bridge:

      My next book will have a poem for each       Saint dropped by the Church,       33 poems in all …       I will put a little cross by each poem       meaning 'here lies,'       a very deceptive move since no one       will lie in there,       no one, not even the Monk       who will be out thinking of girls       what are poems? (Selected Poems 23)

In Comrade Past & Mister Present this interplay of fiction and reality, textuality and life becomes the predominant theme. Codrescu stages ample dialogues in which real and fictitious literary figures mingle. In "The Fourth of July," for example, he debates the question of poetry with a Romanian exile in Germany and an American poet with a degree in versification. This piece ends significantly with a confusion of roles and styles, and a surrealistic-grotesque vision in which the poet's head and the breast "of reality" seek reciprocal adjustment:

     … But then a miracle happened.      The head began to shrink. No, the other breast began to grow.      No, the head began to shrink. No. And so on. I could care less. (16)

This is, I trust, Codrescu's version of the permanent (poetic) revolution. We sit back and wait amusedly to see which of his two spheres will explode first.


Semantic explosion, verbal fissures, existential division are characteristic motifs in "postsurrealistic" European poetry. Codrescu accompanies the deconstructive poetics of his French colleagues (Ponge, Deguy, Garelli) with an explosive, aggressive attitude, more akin to the early dadaists. Julio, the jailed Puerto Rican poet, is visited by an updated version of Don Quixote, expert in existential guerrilla tactics:

     they will forever refuse you the license to carry a gun but i am a gun …      .....      the license to carry a gun is a license to be.      patricius, brutus, don quixote come naked      to my mind vs. target! ("the license to carry a gun," Selected Poems 6)

Passages like this abound in Codrescu's early poems, contaminating even his erotics: the poet's heart is "a bomb with a fine trigger," his mind is restructured to look like a gun, his "woman shoots / him with her fresh body / of winter." Even "the Virgin holds a gun / not the baby" in a "Flemishstyle, late 17th century" icon. Codrescu's bellicose vocabulary and unexpected associations (or rather, dissociations) of images have made some of his critics uneasy, taking their attention away from other aspects of his poetry. For Abbott "there was too much shotgun and not enough target" in Codrescu's early poems. Other reviewers seem to better understand the essentially antithetic (oxymoronic) nature of Codrescu's poetry, "yoking together" the mundane with the imaginative, the concrete with the abstract, the profane with the elevated. Morton Marcus, for example, believes he can hear echoes from the surrealistic proverbs of Eluard in the terse, aphoristic contradictions of Codrescu's poetry.

But Codrescu's verbal and metaphoric audacity has a deeper purpose than that of "startl / ing / the reader into thought or out of it." In his more recent poetry he clearly moves beyond surrealistic contradiction, exchanging a type of "oneirocritique" (Apollinaire) for a broader cultural critique. In a poetic culture like the American, emphasizing the iconic, imagistic aspect of language, Codrescu's "eccentric image vocabulary" is bound to become noticeable. By smuggling "exotic," European layers of vocabulary into his American poetry, he disrupts the continuity of both imagistic traditions. As his most recent essay on The Disappearance of the Outside proves, Codrescu is engaged in a Baudrillardian critique of today's inflationary image culture. In his effort to subvert the "T.V. newspeak" or the self-reproductive iconography of pop culture, he often invokes the example of other champions against visual simulacra: Breton, Dali, Ted Berrigan, or the Romanian fairy tale.

There is, behind the superficial clash of images, a genuine dialectic of conflict, a confrontational philosophy. In a poem from the Peter Boone section of License to Carry a Gun, the persona rejoices at the universality of conflict:

     what happened to me,      it isn't only this war in Vietnam.      it's the war of my blood,      the small wars in immaculate labs,      the war of children in the flesh of assaba,      the wars in cosmos over the heads of philosophers.      (Selected Poems 10)

Codrescu himself echoes this notion of conflict in In America's Shoes (80) when he announces: "What America needs right now is a good war … I mean a poetic war." His half-serious proclamation recalls the traditional battlecry of avant-gardists against philistine culture; or the similar injunctions of the recent theorists of the post-avant-garde: "Let us wage a war on totality: let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name." Given Codrescu's Romanian background, it is not surprising to find him engaged in a battle against totalistic forms of thought. As he reflects in The Disappearance of the Outside (166): "all people under the gun invent ways of escaping history through language," through a recasting of poetic tropes and existential concepts.

The prime conflict in Codrescu's poetry is that between a free-wheeling, wide-ranging imagination and the superficia of everyday reality. Abbott recognizes in Codrescu's poetry "a sense of deep, unfolding thought, but crosscut with a precise sense of falsity, a relentless mind that will not allow a pose to pass unexamined." The two faculties, that I would call analytical and deconstructive, collaborate to make his poems true "voyages of discovery (unlike most poems by Eshleman and Bly, the two who claim to do this, but who never surprised me with anything but the breadth of their pre-tested thought)." At times, when the analytical (reflexive) faculty proves stronger, Codrescu's poetry moves toward existential and metaphysical self-definition. At other times, when the playful, deconstructive type of thought prevails, his poetry becomes a comedy of contradictions, or a "schizoactivist" definition of our postmodern condition:

    Poetry-on-condoms parachuted on cities,…     increase in man-machine, woman-machine relations,     food & air agents causing     sterility, the inability to love—all these added to     psychocryogenies are propelling 85 percent of my generation to     IBM (Imminent Mental Breakdown). IBM = Imminence of     Bored Matter. Flight of Styrofoam cups around a     malfunctioning humming Xerox. Nostalgia. Nostalgia & the     Machine.     (Comrade Past & Mister Present 72)

On the whole, Codrescu's poetry communicates an almost Blakean sense of the insurmountable obstacles a poetic mind encounters in today's world:

    The many windows framed in yellow light     are pulled together making     mind structures, more mind chains     around the masses falling through the season.     ("Drowning Another Peasant Inquisition," Selected Poems 116)


Contradiction and antithesis move also the syntactic level of Codrescu's poetry. His texts have given at times the impression of disconnectedness, especially to critics more accustomed to follow a poem with a tight, argumentative structure. "In the early poems," Abbott complains, "the image/thoughts tended to peter out in 'of-of' phrases and not fold into each other…." It might be argued that in many of Codrescu's poems this syntactic discontinuity and jagged phrasing has an aesthetic function. Codrescu's unexpected syntactic and ideatic shifts in the middle of a line have dadaist and surrealist antecedents. Within the Romanian tradition of the avant-garde, one could mention not only Urmuz' or Tzara's early use of noncontiguity and semantic "suspense," but also the more subtle "grammar of poetry" theorized in the twenties by Ilarie Voronca (Codrescu also has a collection of poems entitled Grammar and Money, 1973). For Voronca, "The poem is not only made of words, but also of blanks, of gaps over which the step hangs suspended, slips and follows the infinite embrace." As this passage and others suggest, Voronca advocated not only a radically new syntax, but also a new poetic epistemology. Likewise in Codrescu, the syntactic discontinuity is related to his philosophy of (anti-) interpretation. As he confesses in one of his later metapoetic pieces ("Against Meaning," Selected Poems 126):

    Everything I do is against meaning.     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 especially     when I have to confirm     the obvious which always     sits on a little table and draws a lot     of attention to itself.     So much so that no one sees the chairs     and the girl sitting on one of them.     With the obvious one is always at the movies     The other obvious which the loud obvious conceals     is not obvious enough to merit a     surrender of the will.     But through a little hole in the boring report     God watches us faking it.

Codrescu's polemics with the category of the immediately obvious (an aesthetic category created by our postmodern age), is accompanied by a subtle textual and syntactic movement that disrupts the "given" and opens unexpected windows in it for the not-so-obvious or supra-sensible. Two very different concepts of "grammar" clash here: one is the "official grammar" ironized in "Cohere Britannia" (Comrade Past & Mister Present 29):

     coherence in its own bag is being home      coherence in a double bag at the supermarket is being in prison      you boys better cohere here by the window      a coherent view of the yard leads to a better and more coherent      vision of things to come in a fine coherent world cells cohere      coheres ceolli mundum      lemme give you the coherent version of our position several      years ago me and a country i've never been in meshed whereby      I cohered into a society of former strangers and was reduced      to coherence not to speak tears having to constantly enforce my      and their coherency with cliches I got so much shit together to      uncohere my anus to reflect the universe was one all this time

Against this iron-clad coherence, Codrescu mobilizes a personal "grammar" of discontinuity, contradiction and identity shift:

     I was dead and I wanted peace      then I was peaceful and not quite dead yet      then I was in my clothes      and I took them off and then      there was too much light      and night fell      then I wanted to talk to somebody      and I spoke ecstatically      and I was answered on time in every language      in a beautiful way      but I felt unloved and everyone      Came to love me      (The History of the Growth of Heaven 7)


Codrescu's technique of "deep-frying/the/visual material," adding, subtracting, overlapping the details until an entirely new "reality" emerges, has baffled those critics more accustomed to find "something objective, and plenty to see" in a poem. In place of the mundane shorthand that often passes for poetry today, Codrescu promises something short of an epiphany:

     With the collapse of the vocal cords and through      the graces of laryngitis, a new perception of reality      knocked me off my divan and twisting my arms,      delivered me dripping at the gates of heaven.      ("Ode to Laryngitis," Selected Poems 118)

The trivial or innocuous everyday is thus transformed into "an occult new beauty" through a technique that reaches perfection in For the Love of a Cat (Four Zoas Press, 1978). But even earlier, in The History of the Growth of Heaven (1973), Codrescu created similar epiphanic moments in which the ice-box of domestic reality lit up with an eerie, transcendental light:

     Dear God, Cauliflower & Broccoli are so Beautiful Together!      And the frozen ducks in the cracked cellophane pushing      a slice of pizza into the side of a clam can!      And the cheese singing!      Oh I believe that all of us      are ready! ("Us," Selected Poems 49)

From this point of view, Codrescu (who does not hesitate to quote Blaga with his theory of poetic "mystery": "Our job is not to uncover it, but to increase its mysteriousness") seems closer to the expressionist poetry of Lucian Blaga or to the Beats whose "sandwiches of reality" still allowed a peep "at the back of the real," than to the present-day textualists who celebrate universal opaqueness and lack of transcendence:

     Truly, there is no perfect opaqueness in nature.      Someone is looking through me at you just as through you      someone is staring at me.      Ah, to be a beautiful narcissist wrapped      like Christmas paper around      a gentle voyeur!      This is what I want. Seigneur!      And then to glide out of focus ("Ode to Curiosity," Selected Poems 115)

But Codrescu is not a naive utopianist, to be sure. His tentative forays into an outside or beyond are often suspended halfway, blocked by the carapace of immediate realities:

     late night, san francisco      so few things to write about      when there is a sky full of the electric lights           of san francisco      stilling the lights in your head from the left      and the sea some two feet away filling the other ear      with the sounds of all things you ever wanted to say      ...      there is nothing here now.      the whining after the unplugging of the world.      (The History of the Growth of Heaven 71)

He knows that the category of the outside (understood, in almost romantic terms, as the domain of the spontaneous, imaginative, organic) is gradually vanishing. "Great areas of language are being colonized today by technocrats, propagandists, double-speak politicians. When the words reemerge from such use, they have been devastated, vampirized and drugged" (In America's Shoes 186). Under these circumstances, imagination itself can no longer afford to remain idealistic; it must become anti-utopian, anti-imagistic, ironic. Many of Codrescu's "revelations" are tentative, spoken through a problematic persona, like the monk fallen from grace in History of the Growth of Heaven. More often than not humor and a kind of "transcendental irony" fill his poems "like creme/de menthe" ("Irony as Nursery," Selected Poems 134): Codrescu seems to half-heartedly imply the existence of a higher pattern (a deeper scenario) behind things. But his "religion" works both ways, transfiguring the mundane everyday, and debunking the sacred beyond. It is not always clear whether what we read is an epiphany or a parody of a desecrated myth. Consider this passage on today's commerce with symbols:

     did you ever have a grey knot topped symbolically with lightning      bolts and mounted in the middle of yourself like a pagoda? of course      not, but I have. I have the only one in the world or rather I had      because i've traded it for a scarf, this scarf is from god. you can see      smears of cheese on it … yes, god's feet are made of cheese.      whenever he walks he leaves smears, that's how he walked upon the      waters…. the water went into the holes in the cheese and the whole      thing swole up … like floaters … rubber balloons … well, anyway,      that's how I got the scarf, but I will trade it to you for a paddle board. do      you need a paddle board? no, but I know someone who does … he'll      trade his gum wrappers for the paddle board. do you need gum      wrappers? no, I will give the gum wrappers to a tall man … he knows      me … /etc./      ("Port of Call," Selected Poems 76)

A similar "swapping," reshuffling of planes takes place in Codrescu's poetry to the bewilderment of the reader who finds a piece of heaven in the refrigerator, a "barren cell" in the monastery, and snatches of divinity "breezing through the assholes of angels." Still, Codrescu's antithetical irony never ends with a wholesale cancellation of meaning, in a total blank. There is, as Marcus observes, "violence, anger, sex/in this poetry/,but no death. Codrescu's whole poetic seems built as a construct to transport seeds. He is concerned in his poems with living…." This statement needs qualification. If it is true that a volume like Necrocorrida (1980) directly exorcises the death impulse in Codrescu's imaginative biography, survival through writing is never unproblematic. Consider this splendid ironic elegy on life, death and books:

     books      death covers me with fine dust.      I love used fat books, they are      like used fat bodies coming out of sleep      covered with fingerprints and shiny      snail trails.      I wish to read the way I love:      jumping from mirror to mirror like a drop of oil      farther and farther from my death.      but god gives us fat books and fat bodies      to use for different reasons      and less a metaphor I cannot say      what is that haunts me      (Selected Poems 40)

This poem outlines an entire poetic ontology, in nuce: moving between promise and incertitude, fragility of life and weight of textuality, it encircles reality with a metaphor. In itself that metaphor may not be much; then, again, it might turn out to be the very image Codrescu has been looking for, the "great healing metaphor"

     … invented by my first exiled self in Nueva York      in the great year 1966 when the whole world was a disease      only the brilliant metaphor of my young body could heal      as it hurtled through Nirvana Village and Central Park open      like a gold sieve to the wonder of possibility!      (Comrade Past & Mister Present 88)


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Andrei Codrescu 1946–

(Has also written under pseudonyms Betty Laredo, Tristan Tzara, and Urmuz) American poet, short story writer, memoirist, essayist, journalist, novelist, and travel writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Codrescu's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Vol. 46.

Romanian-born poet Andrei Codrescu is celebrated for his spare, proto-surrealistic verse, his keen observation of contemporary culture, his affection for his adopted homeland, and his mastery of American idiom. Although best-known as guest commentator for the program "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio, he has published more than 20 volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, and autobiographical works. His themes deal largely with life in communist Romania and his experiences as an expatriate living in Rome, Paris, and the United States. His writing ranges from introspective verse on urban themes as in The History of the Growth of Heaven (1971) to a collection of short stories. Monsieur Teste in America (1987), in which English becomes a "toy box" of colloquialisms, to his Gothic thriller, The Blood Countess (1995), based on the life of a Dracula-like figure from history. Although Codrescu's poetry has been influenced by Romanian avantgardists such as poet and essayist Tristan Tzara (whose name Codrescu has used as a pseudonym) and dramatist Eugene Ionesco, it has also been compared to the works of American poets Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. His prose fiction has been compared to the works of Zoe Oldenbourg, Anne Rice, and Franz Kafka.

Biographical Information

Born in Romania shortly before the communists came to power, Andrei Ivanovitch Goldmutter, (he changed his name to Codrescu while attending university) spent his first four years living amiably in his grandmother's castle in the hills of Transylvania. A precocious child, he was unpopular with other children. At age 16, he began to write poetry and became involved with his country's literary intelligentsia. Unfortunately, his poems, critical of the communist Ceausescu regime, caused his expulsion from the University of Bucharest. After receiving his master's degree from the University of Rome, he and his mother emigrated to the United States in 1966. He arrived in New York with no knowledge of English, but learned to speak the language on the street from hippies, poets, rock music, and other sources. He moved to Detroit, joined John Sinclair's Artist Workshop, and eventually went to California. With the publication of his first collection of poetry, License to Carry a Gun (1970), he was hailed as a promising young talent. This success was followed by his second collection of poetry, The History of the Growth of Heaven, and two autobiographical volumes of prose, The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius (1975) and In America's Shoes (1983). In 1982, he founded a new journal, the Exquisite Corpse, a monthly magazine of "books and ideas" which combines opinion, satire, and commentary on current events. A year later, he began broadcasting weekly commentary on the American scene and world events for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered". A Craving for Swan (1986), a collection of two years of his broadcast essays, resulted. In the same year, he also published Comrade Past & Mister Present, a blend of prose, poetry, and journal entries, considered one of his finest works. In 1990, he was invited to drive cross-country and record his experiences. A compilation of these adventures, Road Scholar, came out in 1993 as both book and film. Codrescu is a professor at Louisiana State University and lives with his wife Alice and two children.

Major Works

Codrescu's first published volume, License to Carry a Gun, won him the Big Table award and established him as a promising young poet. In it are three personae who represent the confrontational philosophy of his early poetry: a jailed Puerto Rican poet, an ex-beatnik turned "mystical Fascist" in Vietnam, and a woman who wants to "touch something sensational / like the mind of a shark." His second collection of poetry, The History of the Growth of Heaven, is a mix of surrealism and introspection about contemporary events and personal experience. Most significant is the re-creation of his childhood in Sibiu, Romania, and Ceausescu's feared Securitate, which was housed there. Two autobiographical volumes of prose followed, The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius and In America's Shoes (1983). The Life and Times deals with his longing for self-expression in his homeland behind the Iron Curtain and the culture shock he suffered when he arrived in the United States. Shoes, written in a warm, humorous tone, details his emergence into the American way of life. His Selected Poems, 1970–1980, was also published in 1983. In 1982, Codrescu became editor of a new journal, the Exquisite Corpse, a monthly magazine which combines opinion, satire, and polemics on contemporary culture. A year later, he began broadcasting weekly commentary on the American scene and world events for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." This resulted in the publication A Craving for Swan a collection of 150 of his broadcast essays. In the same year he published Comrade Past & Mister Present, which includes several long poems as well as prose and journal entries. The volume, considered one of his finest works, is a collection of memoirs and opinion on moral, sexual, and political issues. In 1987 he published two books, a collection of essays entitled The Disappearance of the Outside, and a collection of short stories entitled Monsieur Teste in America, a tour de force on the American vernacular. His The Hole in the Flag (1991) documents with awe and revulsion the Romanian revolt of 1989. Lighter themes are encompassed in Road Scholar (1993), a compilation of Codrescu's adventures while driving cross-country in a 1968 Cadillac. The book was also made into a film. The Blood Countess is Codrescu's first novel. The book is a Gothic thriller based on Codrescu's real-life Hungarian ancestor, Elizabeth Bathory, who is depicted as a sadistic, Dracula-like tyrant of the 16th century.

Critical Reception

Although Codrescu's earliest poems caused his expulsion from the University of Bucharest, critical reception in the West has been generally favorable. From the publication of his first collection of poetry, License to Carry a Gun, for which he received the Big Table award, reviewers have considered him a rising talent. His self-denigrating sense of humor, his keen insight on contemporary culture, and his mastery of American idiom in his essays and memoirs such as A Craving for Swan and The Hole in the Flag have also won him accolades. Reviewing A Craving for Swan, Charles Bishop calls Codrescu a "witty and insightful commentator whose unique background, gift for language, and radical common sense make this a recommended book." Alex Kozinski says in the New York Times Book Review that The Hole in the Flag is "a work of great complexity and subtlety … a gripping political detective story." While Codrescu's first novel The Blood Countess has received mixed reviews, Kirkus Reviews calls it an "expertly crafted first novel … that merits comparison with the fiction of Zoe Oldenbourg and Marguerite Yourcenar."

John Krich (review date 10 January 1988)

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SOURCE: "Premises as Pretense," in The New York Times Book Review, January 10, 1988, p. 17.

[In the following review, Krich gives mixed reviews of Monsieur Teste in America and Other Instances of Realism. He lauds Codrescu's mastery of American idiom, but faults his overuse of simile.]

"America can be taken for granted," counsels Andrei Codrescu near the outset of his latest prose flight. "The obvious is very serious about itself here." The point can hardly be argued in a country where morning papers carry headlines like "Study Reveals Unreality May Be Good for You." It is with healthy doses of such medicine that the Romanian-born poet seeks to treat his adopted homeland. If these stories are termed "instances of realism" that's only because this eternal emigre views American reality as the outdated passport each new arrival carries in his vest pocket. As in his weekly musings for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Mr. Codrescu succeeds in carving out his place as an American voice by failing to heed his own advice. In his work, not a single advertising jingle is taken for granted, the obvious is subverted through carefully aimed barrages of obscurity and no punditry is ever handled more seriously than a trip to the 7-Eleven.

Still, this volume will baffle a listening audience who have come to expect a cross between Andy Rooney and Andre Gide. Out of artistic integrity or self-indulgence, Mr. Codrescu chooses here to abandon mass taste, along with linear thought and most literary conventions. "He was irony, she was subjective mysticism" is about as much character development as we get. While Monsieur Teste in America offers copious servings of poetic observation, it skimps on the everyday detail that makes Mr. Codrescu's radio musings so affecting.

The title novella in this collection of short fiction offers an intriguing premise. On his 29th birthday, Mr. Codrescu summons Monsieur Teste, the Paul Valery creation who represents his intellectual conscience, to help him make sense—or better yet, nonsense—of American symbology. But premises are mere pretense, as is writing about how all writing is pretense, and Mr. Codrescu's dialogue soon makes the two alter egos sound like dueling Zen roshis: "'The point is that you can't trust the world with your understanding of it.' 'But how then … can you entrust the world to your understanding?'" The story meanders off into the birth of a hermaphroditic love-child named Maximum, a discourse on "crypto-morons" and the cataloguing of American schools of poetry in the form of a luncheon menu. ("Aktup, Metabolism, the Bowel Movement and Syllogism. All have me as one of the founders.") It comes as no shock when the piece concludes about Mr. Codrescu's European shadow, "I had learned nothing from him and he who knew everything had taught nothing."

In "Samba de los Agentes," the ramblings and cadence of a Colombian immigrant named Jose sound suspiciously Slavic. Everyone in Mr. Codrescu's universe, including this ex-cop protagonist, is a poet and knows it. And all gain acceptance in America by sending some packaged piece of their souls to market. "I have an agent, therefore I am," seems to be one of many subtexts in this odd regurgitation of the crime story genre. The six shorter pieces in the collection are scattershot affairs united solely through the use of female narrators who are hip, sassy and, once again, familiarly literary in their obsessions. The only voice individuated from the author's is faint indeed, emanating from the disembodied spirit of a spacey grad student channeled through a Brooklynese medium named Madame Rosa.

Like Nabokov's, Mr. Codrescu's greatest strength lies in his outsider's appreciation for the succulence of American idioms. Where language is reinvented daily on billboards, it offers liberation from the chains of connotation. "Contagious words imbued with mass-market meanings like a sponge full of ink crowded my mind to dictate their grammar to me!" the narrator confesses. "The words of America's language brought me an incalculable dowry."

Unlike that strain of American writing that seeks authenticity through spareness, Mr. Codrescu proves he's comfortable with the American idiom by taking colloquialisms out for every possible spin. For him, English is not a tool chest but a toy box—and there is playing in every page here. By now, Mr. Codrescu has become a master at mixing ontological speculation with such random bits of Americana as "flying K-Mart lawn chairs." But the author remains too enamored of purple prose for purpleness's sake. "My dreams are dotted with the dance of psychopatia sexualis in the graveyard of the planet," is one of many sentences that read like bad sendups of beatnik prosody. And Mr. Codrescu would do well to sign up for the 12-step recovery program at Simile Addicts Anonymous. A sampling: New York is said to lie "under the general strike like an actress under a Foreign Legionnaire"; "Vague regrets coursed through him like phosphorus through protozoa"; "'I'm stuffed up with thoughts like a swan with pomegranates'"; "Truth sits in an autobiography like a bird dog in an underground hospital."

At this rate, America will need Andrei Codrescu the way a cement mixer needs a parakeet. Monsieur Teste in America opens with the author's admission that he's "bored in heaven"—and what follows is both a celebration and a frantic evasion of that delicious fate that unites the assimilated and the lunatic. Perhaps Mr. Codrescu can't admit aloud that there's as little to becoming an American as he feared—or that, for all his wealth of associations, America may yet prove too small a subject.

Principal Works

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License to Carry a Gun (poetry) 1970The History of the Growth of Heaven (poetry) 1971The Life and Times of an Involuntary Genius (memoirs) 1975In America's Shoes (memoirs) 1983Selected Poems, 1970–1980 (poetry) 1983A Craving for Swan (essays) 1986Comrade Past & Mister Present (poetry and prose) 1986The Disappearance of the Outside (essays) 1987Monsieur Teste in America (short stories) 1987American Poetry since 1970: Up Late (editor) (poetry) 1988The Hole in the Flag (memoirs) 1991Road Scholar (travel essays) 1993The Blood Countess (novel) 1995The Muse is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans (essays) 1995Alien Candor: Selected Poems 1970–1995 (poetry) 1996The Dog with the Chip in His Neck (essays) 1996Blood Countess (novel) 1998Hail Babylon!: In Search of the American City at the End of the Millennium (essays) 1998A Bar in Brooklyn: Novellas and Stories 1970–1978 (short stories) 1999Ay Cuba!: A Socio-Erotic Journey (travel essays) 1999Messiah (novel) 1999

Stuart Klawans (review date 28 May 1988)

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SOURCE: "Embarrassed Palefaces," in The Nation, Vol. 246, No. 21, May 28, 1988, pp. 756-60, 62.

[In the following review, Klawans criticizes the works featured in American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late for their unworldliness and absence of emotion, although he notes their wit and clever observation.]

Randall Jarrell once remarked that the poet in our time is like a maker of stone hand axes. That was forty years ago. From the vantage point of the 1980s, most poets would agree that Jarrell didn't know how good he had it. Contemporary poetry, according to the conventional wisdom, is that which goes unread. It is, however, argued over, and with a vehemence that sometimes seems livelier than the poems themselves. Consider this sampler of recent invective.

Mary Kinzie: "Ashbery is the passive bard of a period in which the insipid has turned into the heavily toxic."

Louis Simpson: "Most American poets lack a theme…. After a while they are reduced to making casual remarks about matters of no importance."

Robert Dana: "'Tired' is the word for most contemporary poetry. 'Competence' ad nauseam. Minor brilliances…. [Much] of our present poetry seems the product of a single, generalized voice and mind. Poet copying poet."

And here, in a now-legendary example, Diane Wakoski attacks John Hollander for his apostasy against free verse. Through his sin. Hollander became a figure like Milton's Satan, "full of spite from lack of recognition and thinly disguised anger, one who was frustrated and petty from that frustration."

One begins to envision poetry, like the contested estate in Bleak House, as having long since disappeared, while the arguments over it continue to rage. Thus, it is with a sense of relief that I recommend Andrei Codrescu's plump new anthology, American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late. Here are real, live poets, 104 of them.

And here, too, is an argument. Introducing his book, Codrescu gets into the spirit not by praising the poets but by attacking David Perkins, the Harvard professor who recently brought out A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Perkins, says Codrescu, is one of those professor-poets guilty of maintaining "the proposition that poetry, like all things, has been getting worse since the days of the gods, in this case Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot but mostly Eliot."

Against this version of American poetry—whether it really is Perkins's version remains to be seen—Codrescu puts forth an anthology of outsiders. It is a forthrightly exclusive selection, which does not try to summarize all the poetries of the past two decades but rather takes a stand for some of them. Thus, there are no rhyme-and-meter mongers here. Although the so-called New Formalists have been at the center of recent debates, you would not know from Codrescu that they even exist. Nor does Codrescu include the Creative Writing poets—the ones with the carefully controlled voices, reciting carefully graded lists of images that drop away to a carefully pained aperçu. Neo-Surrealists are included, but not the ones who practice an artful, Ashbery-style verse. Codrescu's Surrealists are closer to the original models, who disdained art itself. "The majority" of the poets, Codrescu writes, "are anti-literary, as avantgardists have always been. This is, however, an avantgarde without a single program, in a country where the term 'avantgarde' never even took root, having been supplanted by the more academic and ambiguous 'modernism.'"

In other words, these are the poets who say no—no to professionalism, no to inclusion in a canon, no to quibbles about form, no to literature itself. If they feel allegiance to any tradition, it seems to be one not of writing but of generalized opposition: "New American Poetry, since Whitman, has been at odds with official culture over the facts of America," Codrescu writes; and that's as much of an appeal as he gives to any figure earlier than Frank O'Hara. These up-late poets do not intend to have their measurements taken and compared with those of other known specimens, because they suspect they're being fitted not for their laureates' robes but for a casket. Whatever their various purposes, they do not write to be judged by David Perkins. I suspect they shouldn't be subjected even to the indignity of this review.

Nevertheless: Having noted the principal negative virtues of these poets, let me mention the positive as well. The first is rapidity. You don't have to wait for anything to happen in these poems. Sometimes it's the writer's feelings that come at you in a rush, as in Maureen Owen's "African Sunday":

     Fuck I want to be bound by       devotion!     Tortured      by passion!        just like the ad says                   for d h Lawrence's      Sons and Lovers        in today's        Sunday Times        instead I'm      here with you …

Sometimes the rushing you hear is language itself blowing by. Here is the start of "Redo" by Lyn Hejinian:

     Agreement swerves      a sonnet to the consonants.      Sparrows. As a wind      blows over the twigs of a rough nest      entered by a bird that impales      a vowel on its beak …

One way or the other, these poets seem determined to step on the gas and go.

Despite this insistence on contemporaneity, this passion for writing in the moment, a few of the up-late poets retain their sense of history, literary or otherwise. Ed Sanders is represented here with his long and lovely "Yiddish Speaking Socialists of The Lower East Side":

      Oh they failed       but I can hear their ghosts       walk down the cobbles       outside the St. Mark's church

Sam Abrams contributes "The World Is With Me Just Enough," a tribute to being tickled by a 7-year-old, which contains his declaration, "i'd rather be a pagan/tickled in a creed outworn."

Another virtue appears: lightness of tone. The poets here who prefer personal statement avoid the deep, hollow tones of sincerity; the collagists, the Surrealists, and the more impersonal writers manage to avoid the drone, the boom, the bardic wheeze. Even the explicitly political poems—Michael Brownstein's "Declaration of Independence," Bernadette Mayer's "The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty," Codrescu's own "A Petite Histoire of Red Fascism"—tend toward the quick, the satirical, even the burlesque.

On first glance, then, the Codrescu-Perkins split is the latest skirmish in that old war of redskins against palefaces. Given that it is now fifty years since Philip Rahv identified the combatants, back when Jarrell was a mere youth, one might mutter, "plus ça change" and go home. If you do intend to leave now, I hope you will do so with a copy of Up Late under your arm. But if you suspect, as I do, that something else is going on, turn with me now to A History of Modern Poetry.

Granted, this book comes with the full backing of Harvard University, which in this case means it costs $25 in hardcover and has a typo on every page. Perkins, for what it's worth, goes by the title of John P. Marquand Professor of English and American Literature. If you don't hold that against him, you will quickly discover that he's far from the single-minded bore Codrescu portrays. In fact, he is generous, sympathetic, sensitive, inquisitive and has a goodly streak of common sense.

These are the virtues one hopes for in a literary historian; and that may be one reason Codrescu treats Perkins so harshly. Literary history itself has become something of a lost art in recent years. People who have studied literature—and I would bet that includes every one of the uplate poets—used to be drilled in the explication of texts. That went on from the 1950s through the early 1970s; since then, literary theory has taken over. (All right, this is a caricature and doesn't even mention feminist and Third World criticism—but as a picture of official literary studies, it's close enough.) Thus, for two or three generations, students have been told only in passing that literature might be an object for history. Witness Terry Eagleton's little book on literary theory, which has become a one-volume Cliff's Notes for the deep-thinking set. The names Auerbach and Curtius appear only once in it, and then as symbols of a quaint, half-forgotten past.

Perkins, evidently, has not forgotten. He approaches his subject with an initial impartiality, knowing that his own judgments cannot alter the facts: These were the poets who wrote during these years. Though Codrescu would have you believe that Perkins's interests are narrow, his focus in fact is as wide as he can make it, and his first effort is always to understand. Here is Perkins quite far afield from T.S. Eliot, explaining the open form of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan:

At least in theory, writing a poem was for these poets not different from any spontaneous act of living. Like most modern artists, moreover, they were impressed by the formal differences between life and the traditional work of art. The work was organized for an aesthetic purpose, selective in its use of experience, delimited and meaningful. Life, on the other hand, is unselective, for it presents anything and everything. It flows on and on, and nothing within it is isolated, nothing exists as a completed entity.

In this sense, Perkins writes, open form was not an aesthetic strategy but rather "a matter of faith." This is as clear and meaningful an explanation as I've found. It is so good, in fact, that it elucidates much of the poetry in Up Late.

One can find passage after passage like this in Perkins. On the poets of the counterculture: "When a poet's transvaluations dramatically challenged the accepted norms of society, and his way of life proved his sincerity by what it sacrificed, immense moral power accrued. Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder sometimes write very well, but their great influence has derived from the image we have of their lives in conjunction with their poems." And here is Perkins explaining how Pound and Williams became the great influences on American poetry after World War II: "Pound and Williams were of the high Modernist generation. They carried the prestige of the 1920s and could hand it on, as the ancient fathers of Israel passed the tribal blessing to their sons. They were in the United States. You could visit them. They were interested in your work. You could write them, enclosing poems, and Williams, at least, sent enthusiastic replies."

Clearly, Perkins has a talent for getting under the skins of different styles and into the heads of people who lived in the recent past. It is also clear that his history is not a traditionalist's polemic. His discussion, through the 1960s, is wide-ranging. Only when he gets to the 1970s does he narrow the field; and then he does so to give in-depth analyses of two poets, John Ashbery and James Merrill, who have firmly established their reputations.

This is where Codrescu begins to quarrel with him in earnest. One can say in Perkins's defense that it may be too soon for a historian to deal with poets of the 1970s and 1980s. One might add that Perkins praises Ashbery and Merrill highly, but not past reason. But this, I suspect, is just what bothers Codrescu. It is Perkins's moderation, his broad sympathies, that set off the argument against him. Why?

The answer may be that Perkins is capable of absorbing even the up-late poets into the body of literature. His fault lies not in having ignored them now but in showing a willingness to understand, sort and label them twenty years from now. This is precisely what these poets fear. The real question, then, is why they should be afraid—why bother to write poetry if you don't want to be part of literature? Till now, I've taken the up-late poets at face value, as hot-heads in full revolt. Now it's time to question them more closely.

"The making of community against anti-social technology is the chief object of the poetry gathered here," Codrescu writes. But what sort of community is being made? Think for a moment of the places where people come together. They form communities where they work; but there is not a single poem in Up Late about labor. Nobody sells insurance; nobody doctors in New Jersey. Bernadette Mayer writes about not living on a farm, and that's it for the world of work. People also get together through sports. Sometimes, in fact, I think sports is the only unifying element in American society. There is only one poem that involves sports (a very good one, by Elinor Nauen). People get together through voluntary associations: They attend church, form political groups, play in garage bands. But they don't do any of those things in Up Late. Then there is the street where one lives, the neighborhood, the town. Nobody writes about those places, either, although Jim Gustafson has poems on the idea of San Francisco and Detroit. Ethnic groups are communities, but the poets in Up Late who bother to think about that form of society are, not surprisingly, Lorenzo Thomas, Alberto Rios and Victor Hernandez Cruz. Finally, there is the most obvious form of community, the family. In 568 pages of text, I found only three poems that had anything to do with families.

To complete my survey, I then checked how many of the poets in Up Late write about being poets. The answer is roughly a third.

It becomes obvious, then, that Codrescu is talking about making a community of poets. That, I believe, is the guilty secret of Up Late. In the old battle, the writers of sensibility and tradition were the palefaces; the writers of raw experience were the redskins. But here the rebellious, risk-taking poets are forming, of all things, a republic of letters. In 1988! No wonder they become uneasy when David Perkins walks into the room—they've already done half his work for him. These are not redskins—they are embarrassed palefaces.

I have characterized the poetry here as rapid and light in tone, even when its subjects might invite a weightier treatment. Those are indeed virtues, in the better poems. In the worse, one begins to get a sense of skimming along. It is then that one feels how little the poetry is engaged with the world at large, and how much it cares about the world of poetry. Here, for example, is a poem by Bill Berkson, "Star Motel," in its entirety:

     Inside I could hear      a party of people      the aimless cars      and in the middle distance      inexorable murmurs      of the ice machines.

Well, it's a poem. It's not bad. But think of it this way: If you were to come on with this intensity on a date, you would be home, alone, by about 10:30.

People who are interested in literary history may discern the genealogy of poems such as this, with their pretense of worldliness masking a priestly disengagement. They are the offspring of Frank O'Hara, in particular the poems he referred to as "I do this I do that." Now, I do not mean to disparage O'Hara, an admirable poet, but merely to point out a fact of literary inheritance: It is often the weakest part of a writer's work that becomes the most influential. That's because the weakest part is the most easily imitated; and in O'Hara's "I do this I do that" poems one may find the beginnings of the living-in-the-moment in much of Up Late, and of its accompanying fault—an absence of deep emotion.

Of all his "I do this I do that" poems, probably none pulls off the trick so well as "The Day Lady Died." The bulk of it runs on from mundane detail to detail:

      and for Mike I just stroll into the        PARK LANE       Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of        Strega and       then I go back where I came from to        6th Avenue       and the tobacconist in the        Ziegfeld Theatre and       casually ask for a carton of        Gauloises …

And so forth. The poem departs from thisness-and-thatness only in its last lines, when O'Hara, having picked up a copy of the New York Post, sees that Billie Holiday has died. Then, all at once, he feels himself back at the Five Spot,

      while she whispered a song along        the keyboard       to Mal Waldron and everyone and I        stopped breathing

So the accumulation of ordinary detail gives way at last to the memory of a moment of transcendence, a sudden loss of breath. The poem works. But for all O'Hara's unpretentious, plain speech, I feel there's something dishonest going on here. The moment of transcendence wasn't his creation; it was the work of Billie Holiday. O'Hara points to her and says, "See, she was great," and then takes credit for her art.

Why shouldn't poets give their readers what Billie Holiday gave her audience every night? They used to. Indeed, even today, there are poets who can deliver something very like her electric charge. As evidence, here in its entirety is an early poem by Rita Dove (who is not included in Up Late). It is called "Nigger Song: An Odyssey," and it doesn't just point to Billie Holiday, it embodies her.

     We six pile in, the engine      churning ink:      We ride into the night.      Past factories, past graveyards      And the broken eyes of windows,        we ride      Into the gray-green nigger night.      We sweep past excavation sites;        the pits      Of gravel gleam like mounds of ice.      Weeds clutch at the wheels;      We laugh and swerve away, veering      Into the black entrails of the earth,      The green smoke sizzling        on our tongues.      In the nigger night, thick        with the smell of cabbages,      Nothing can catch us.      Laughter spills like gin from glasses,      And "yeah" we whisper, "yeah"      We croon, "yeah."

You remember this, don't you? It's poetry, the real stuff. Some of the poets in Up Late remember it, too. A lot of them don't. Instead of poetry, they provide good company, wit, clever observation, the occasional puzzle to solve. That's a lot, certainly enough to make the book worth your while. But the best thing I can say about Up Late is also the worst: It's the fastest read of any poetry anthology I've seen.

I expect that someday, David Perkins will indeed write a history that includes many of the poets in Up Late. He will bring out all their best qualities and probably deal more gently than I have with their shortcomings. He also will thank Andrei Codrescu, as he should, for assembling them and for having the courage and intelligence to be their advocate. By that point, of course, Codrescu and his fellow poets will have flown off into some new and still-unnameable realm, from which they will view Perkins's efforts with derision. And that, too, is as it should be. I only hope that by then, this useless railing against literature will have ceased. There is nothing cowardly about wanting to write literature—Rita Dove and thousands of others have proved that. Problems arise only when people are too sure of what they mean by literature. In that sense, as an anthologist of the contemporary, Codrescu is every bit as timid as he accuses Perkins of being. Where are the song lyrics? Where is August Darnell of Kid Creole and the Coconuts—a true Surrealist if ever there was one—or that plain-spoken populist Springsteen or all those adversarial rappers? Where is American folk poetry, such as "Here I sit, all brokenhearted"? And has no one noticed that David Mamet, single-handedly, has brought back verse drama? Contemporary poetry, in some of its guises, is indeed marginal to American life; but in other guises, it has come very close to the heart. Up Late and A History of Modern Poetry might both have benefited from including the truly popular forms of poetry. With their somewhat incompatible virtues, though, they deal very well with what they attempt to cover. My advice is to read them both, then set out into the wider world, with Providence, Rita Dove and Kid Creole as your guides.

Albert Mobilio (review date 9 August 1988)

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SOURCE: "Pick a Peck of Poets," in Village Voice, Vol. XXXIII, No. 32, August 9, 1988, pp. 49, 53.

[In the following review, Mobilio faults American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late primarily for packing too many poets into too few pages, resulting in a poor presentation of the poets' individual voices.]

These are strange days for American verse. The community of poets has never been bigger or more professionally published, yet poetry has never been more neglected by serious readers. Consider the sheer volume of verse seeing print each year. There are tens of thousands of published poets in the U.S., and they vie for space in hundreds of university- and state-funded journals. A few dozen small presses kick in with shelves of chapbooks, collecteds, and selecteds. If even poets can't keep track of all this, no wonder lay readers can hardly get their bearings.

But who really reads? A guess might include newly minted MFAs checking out the competition, poetry editors, poetry program directors, perhaps poets—in short, the middle management and workers in the cottage industry poetry has become. If you visit the Gotham Book Mart—the mecca for poetry magazines (few other book stores will carry them)—you'll find thousands of issues stacked in ragged rows in the back, lushly produced or xeroxed, old and unread. On occasion a poet disturbs the crowded shelves, not to buy, but to crib submission addresses. Marxists would call this a crisis of overproduction.

Out of the multitude, there are perhaps a thousand professional poets—published books, government grants, tenure, a modest reputation. And that intimate bunch is splintered into a Beirut of factions and counterfactions. If an audience is to be drawn from outside the initiates, somehow this welter of voices must be made to cohere, or at least seem to do so. The best means to this end has traditionally been the anthology. Verse has always reached its largest audience in collections that end up in public libraries and, most important, school curricula. No other genre is served so well in anthology. From the increasingly isolated precinct of contemporary poetry, the anthology ventures out, a missionary among the masses.

The impact can be considerable. Donald Allen's New American Poetry (1960) became a fixture on classroom booklists and introduced a generation reared on Frost and Eliot to an alternative tradition in the making. The effects still resonate. In providing the first widespread exposure to Beat, Black Mountain, and New York School verse, New American Poetry sired the next new wave of poets and critics as it redrew the boundaries of the American tradition. No volume by an individual poet, Ginsberg's Howl included, matched the depth and range of its influence. Allen's selections—Olson, Creeley, Duncan, O'Hara—infiltrated the canon in the Trojan horse of a compact, smartly built anthology.

In the polemical introduction to Up Late, Andrei Codrescu wastes no time proclaiming its descent from New American Poetry. The first sentence pays homage to "one of the most influential books in the history of American poetry." Codrescu, however, views the affinity in terms of a shared oppositional stance toward what he calls the "poet-professor." The derision distorts Allen's pronouncement that his collection coalesced around "a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse." Allen wrote this fully aware that many of his poets held academic jobs; in fact, Olson had been president of Black Mountain College. While Allen objected to the aesthetic implications of poetry written for or within the academy, Codrescu's pique finds its source in the sociological aspects of the poet-professor's life. Poets have undergone "mandarinization" at the hands of the colleges that co-opt them with jobs. Their radicalism has been muted by the National Endowment for the Arts—"Avowedly apolitical, the NEA is anything but." Codrescu keeps one eye on the Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets—his chief competitor in laying claim to the under-40 generation. He parodies Morrow's characterization of its own typical poet: "married, has two children, has received a National Endowment for the Arts or a Guggenheim grant, and teaches in a college where he edits a small magazine." In rejecting the mandarins, Codrescu challenges not a kind of poetry, but a kind of poet.

Reflecting no identifiable poetics, cultural movement, or desire to include once-excluded voices, Codrescu's selections appear to be chiefly determined by biography, a grab-bag assortment of folks connected to alternative or avant poetries over the past 20 years. At nearly 600 pages, featuring over 100 poets, Up Late qualifies as an official tome. The bulking up most likely responds to Morrow's 784 mainstream pages. If so, Codrescu has massed a Persian army to dismantle a straw man, his "poet-professor." Morrow's editorial guideline was both arbitrary and meaningless—poets under 40. Why not poets under 46, or poets beneath contempt? By virtue of his grounding in a strong, authentic, alternative tradition, Codrescu didn't need the horde. The legacy of O'Hara, Duncan, and Zukofsky is sufficient. Nonetheless, even this assembled multitude will elicit complaints—oversight, cliquishness, and axe-grinding—from the ranks of the uncollected; that's a given. What distinguishes Up Late is that many of those ingathered have good reason to gripe.

The anthology does provide an earnestly comprehensive vita for the alternative poetry scene since 1970. Every tribe and its mutations are charted. Codrescu gleefully runs down the list:—"second and third generation New York School Poets … California Zen Surrealists, performance and 'new wave' poets, erotic lyricists and 'language' poets, in short, all that is new now." The cadence of a sales pitch is appropriate. So numerous a cast gives the reader the sense of a crowded K-Mart where you must do your shopping quickly or risk being overrun; 100-plus means a slim, hurried sample and then on to the next. No anthology can present a poet's collected works, but it should offer a sample that is both representative and engaging. When the most generous spread, 13 pages, hardly hints at Ted Berrigan's energy and scope, how can lesser-known but intriguing poets like Marjorie Welish or Robert Grenier make substantive impressions in five pages? Even Berrigan's allotment of 11 poems (some merely a few lines long) hardly does justice to his central role in whatever poetics Up Late may be trying to document—a fair number of the chosen are friends and students of Berrigan's, their work clearly, sometimes excessively, influenced by his flair for converting the everyday into the epic.

The cramping together of much-published careers—Ron Padgett in five pages, Anselm Hollo in nine. John Godfrey in just two—doesn't allow individual voices to register. What you get is a snippet of Padgett's playfulness ("I have always laughed / when someone spoke of a young writer / 'finding' his voice.' I took it / literally: had he lost his voice?") or Hollo's blunt lyric ("I bring you / this head, / full of breath- / takingly beautiful / images of yourself / & put it in / your lap"). A polyphonic blur starts humming in the head about midway.

The traffic jam is especially unaccommodating to poetic styles closely identified with St. Marks and the New York School (a sizable chunk of the book). Maureen Owen, Michael Brownstein, Bernadette Mayer, Jim Brodey, and Alice Notley work in a tradition and method pioneered by Frank O'Hara and Paul Blackburn in the early '60s. They approach their own personalities as objets trouvés and conduct a self-reflexive investigation in a tone of calculated, often beguiling offhandedness. A certain brinksmanship is a prerequisite, imparting, for example, an emotional charge to the repeated "I" in the closing lines of Alice Notley's "In Ancient December"

     Can you worship loss? I can't       remember it. I forgot to      sing it off from happening I had to       arrange the flowers,      thousands everywhere, & thinly & it       being purple I forgot      to see it ten thousand times …

Deceptively cool and discursive, the surface invites and then betrays a rapid reading. The second take reveals a vivid tableau evoked in stuttered sadness. The repetition of the first-person pronoun—an often imitated New York School trademark—affirms the privacy of poetic grammar and gesture while undermining that closure through overuse. It is poetry of tension played against grace, poetry of personality rather than ideation, and it is served best in extended selections—you must get to know the poet. Up Late, however, provides too little breathing room and the result is a collision of half-realized sensibilities.

The only significant poetry movement to take shape since 1970—language poetry—is well represented by Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, and others. Drawing on ideas that informed the writing of Stein, Zukofsky, and the French Surrealists, language poets insist we look hard at what poems are actually made from—not images, plot, voice, or character, but language itself. Their texts are designed to be nonreferential, to display their own vocabulary and mechanics rather than wintry days, lawn chairs, and the smell of steak in passageways. A fragment from Michael Palmer's "Baudelaire Series" gives some notion of the aesthetic's debt to both Stein and the French:

      She says, You are the negative—       Behind you an horizon in red       and the horizon a question       a mark in final red       your eyes are sealed against       She says, You do not know when       She says, You are counter       You are degrees only       and now in summer a mouthful of blood       and sutured nylon thread

Juxtapositions of language poets' disengaged, sometimes austere meditations with poems relying on persons and emotional appeal produce some instructive flashes. Following Anne Waldman's casual chant, Leslie Scalapino's textbook rhythms feel less like a means to a clarified end than a parody of the rationality that explanatory prose must manipulate. Codrescu wisely chose not to schematize authors by categories, allowing whatever laughs or lessons there are to emerge unexpectedly.

The surrealist bent in his own poetry explains Codrescu's fondness for new surrealists like John Yau, Jack Skelley, Elaine Equi, and Harrison Fisher. Turning a French predilection for distance and dislocation on classic American tropes, they thread familiar material through deranged synapses. Jack Skelley's mock lover's ode "To Marie Osmond" is lacquered in media buzz ("your crystal-perfect face / on the cover of the Enquirer") and refried Western myth ("movie star men stand upright among beasts, / holding tokens of serpents, sunglasses, electric guitars"). John Yau's methodical dream measured prose poem, "The Kiss," offers a mirror-warped detective tale that might have been dictated from the car radio in Cocteau's Orpheus. Laced throughout the anthology is a good start on an anthology tracing the Surrealist influence on American verse.

Complaints about overabundance aside, poets warranting inclusion—Gustaf Sobin, Nathaniel Mackey, August Kleinzahler, Hugh Seidman, Charles Simic, and Charles Wright—come to mind. Unfortunately, Simic and Wright cut figures perilously close to the poet-professor's profile. Still, a good number of Codrescu's selections are inarguably apt. He mixes established names—Ed Sanders, Tom Clark, Eileen Myles, Lewis Warsh—with younger, less familiar poets: Amy Gerstler, Chuck Wachtel, Jeff Wright. There are also several lost gems from the early '70s, like Brownstein's prose poem "Floating."

The frequent glimmerings, however, cannot redeem the dross. By jam-packing this anthology, Codrescu not only dilutes its impact as an aesthetic summary of the second wave in alternative poetry, but renders it nearly useless as an educational text. Part of New American Poetry's appeal in this setting was its concision—a mere 45 poets. Exclusion and hierarchy lie at the heart of the anthologist's task. Ideally, it's not an opportunity to make new friends or reward old ones.

Poetry anthologies roll off the press shrink-wrapped in controversy and disappointment. Failure is presupposed, the format's obbligato, largely because no one knows precisely what would constitute success. Like physicists pursuing the unified field theory, poets long for an ultimate synthesis, an anthology so complete, so definitive that it stands above any faction or carper's reproach. Short of that, we settle; this collection is a good band on a distant station that just doesn't come in clear. Perhaps in retrospect, Up Late will represent these decades in verse well enough—there was too much poetry given too little time.

Alex Kozinski (review date 30 June 1991)

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SOURCE: "Romania's Big Bamboozle," in The New York Times Book Review, June 30, 1991.

[In the following review, Kozinski commends Codrescu's The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution for its accurate description of Romania and its people during the 1989 revolt.]

Like the panorama of life in post-revolutionary Romania, which the poet and essayist Andrei Codrescu describes with both awe and revulsion, The Hole in the Flag is a work of great complexity and subtlety. For everyone who watched as the Romanian revolution unfolded, Mr. Codrescu provides a gripping political detective story.

Mr. Codrescu, a regular commentator for National Public Radio who had been fiercely critical of the Ceausescu regime, arrived in Bucharest with a radio crew in the days of the December 1989 revolt. On one level, his book is a travelogue. In crisp, often humorous detail, he describes his experiences and reactions on returning to a land he had left as a teen-ager.

We learn a great deal about the harsh conditions in Romania that induced Mr. Codrescu and his mother to leave their homeland, and about the subtle and not-so-subtle changes brought about by 25 years of Ceausescu rule and a few days of revolution. These observations provide the background against which the other, more unsettling, themes of the book are woven. Foremost among these is the dark and still-unsolved mystery of what exactly did happen during those eight fateful days when Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled and a new Government took control.

Like most everyone else, Mr. Codrescu starts out convinced that the Romanian revolution was the result of a spontaneous popular uprising by an oppressed people against a tyrannical, narcissistic dictator. Early chapters describe the images of the revolution as portrayed in the media: a peaceful protest in Timisoara; machine guns firing into a crowd of unarmed civilians; the flight, capture and execution of the Ceausescus; a protracted battle between the Army and the shadowy forces of the Securitate; the deaths of tens of thousands and destruction reminiscent of World War II; the defeat of battalions of fanatical Ceausescu loyalists; and the final victory of the people under the benign leadership of a spontaneously created caretaker Government. A euphoric and ingenuous Mr. Codrescu—like much of the rest of the world—accepted this melodrama as the revealed truth.

Having skillfully carried us with him, he starts planting seeds of doubt by pointing out inconsistencies and improbabilities in the official account of the revolution. He winds up dissecting it event by event, image by image, assumption by assumption. The glorious, pure, idealistic vision of the Romanian revolution gives way to an ugly and misshapen thing, the product of a grotesque masterpiece of deception, "a process of mass hypnosis."

Everyone, of course, recognizes tyranny in a monster like Ceausescu. But Mr. Codrescu explores the ways in which government can accomplish its tyrannical ends by misdirection, without need of force. He argues that the revolutionary Government bamboozled the Romanian people through its control over the country's only television station. By manipulating televised images, Mr. Codrescu believes, members of the new Government managed to etch themselves into the minds of the Romanian people so deeply that no other party stood a chance of dislodging them. Much of the evidence the author marshals to support his thesis consists of deduction and speculation; it will be up to the reader to decide which vision of the Romanian revolution to believe.

What seems unassailable, however, is Mr. Codrescu's touching, painstakingly accurate description of Romania and its people, the good and the bad, the pristine and the hideous. Romania is one of the most beautiful places on earth. With a loving eye, Mr. Codrescu fills his book with the rich texture of Romanian culture, from the noble, turn-of-the-century buildings of Bucharest to the peasant shrines of his Transylvanian birthplace. He contrasts these with the unsightly rows of boxcar apartments built by Ceausescu and the ghastly pollution generated by mindless industrialization.

The Romanian people, too, present a series of disquieting contrasts. They are portrayed as generous, friendly, cosmopolitan and politically savvy, and as mean-spirited, grim, ethnocentric and politically naive. Drawing from the country's violent and often tragic history, Mr. Codrescu explains how the contradictory images are both accurate. Indeed, one cannot understand Romanian society, or grasp the magnitude of the problems it faces on its way to a Western-style democracy, without understanding paradoxes such as these in a country that has guarded the gateway to Europe for two millennia.

The most significant lesson of the Romanian experience may be that he who controls the media controls the course of events. This underscores the conviction that the ultimate guarantee of our own freedom lies not in our system of checks and balances, nor in our constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, nor in many of the other protections afforded by the Constitution—important though they all be—but in the First Amendment, which puts private individuals, not the Government, firmly in control of our political and social discourse. It is a lesson well worth keeping in mind.

Alfred Stepan (review date 9 October 1992)

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SOURCE: "In a Sultanistic State," in the Times Literary Supplement, No. 4671, October 9, 1992, p. 26.

[In the following review, Stepan states that the chief merit of Codrescu's The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile's Story of Return and Revolution is its documentation of how myths are replaced by counter-myths.]

What do the current presidential and parliamentary elections in Romania tell us about the nature of its "transition" from communism, or, indeed, about the "revolution" of 1989?

To get a feeling of the elation, fear, confusion, uncertainty and disillusionment that surrounded the fall of Ceausescu in the winter of 1989, one couldn't do better than read the account by the poet Andrei Codrescu of his return to Romania at the time, after a twenty-five year exile in the United States. One of his best chapters, entitled "Seize the Means of Projection", describes the young activists, peasants and former officials in front of the television cameras, urgently presenting their views of what was happening to an electrified country and to the world. Securitate terrorists were still believed to be a counter-revolutionary threat. Rumours of deliberately poisoned water supplies, of 10,000, 60,000, even 100,000 dead, filled the news channels and the streets. Codrescu even then had his doubts about the sincerity of many of the new converts to revolution from the old regime, but he, like everyone else, was swept up in the events.

Six months later, on a return visit, Codrescu's euphoria turned to despair. The old communists, now the neo-communists organized in a National Salvation Front, had "captured the revolution"—the government itself, led by Iliescu and his former communist allies, but also the words and the meanings of the revolution. President Iliescu had called out vigilante miners to smash the students (who represented to Codrescu the most authentic part of the revolution in Bucharest). Codrescu was distressed to find that many of his friends hailed Iliescu for thanking the miners publicly for their patriotic and disciplined rampage. Then, too, the body count at Timisoara had apparently been inflated by digging up bodies from nearby paupers' graves. Codrescu was thoroughly disillusioned and disorientated. It seemed to him the whole revolution had been a fake, a film scripted by the Romanian communists, with a "beautifully orchestrated piece of Kremlin music conducted by Maestro Gorbachev".

Codrescu's difficulty in knowing what happened is ours too. We do know that the number of people killed in the collapse of Ceausescu's regime was probably closer to 2,000 than 60,000. We also know that Codrescu is probably right in thinking there was an element of a staged counter-revolution, even to the extent of simulated gunfire, and that disinformation played an important role in the events. To this day, rumours are encountered more in Bucharest than in any other Eastern European capital. On recent trips, I find myself using "archaeological" sources for information on the recent past. If, during the uprising, Iliescu's supporters in the Central Committee Building in Bucharest's main square were under siege by Securitate loyalists, why are the surrounding buildings destroyed, and the Central Committee Building virtually unscarred by bullets?

The Rise and Fall of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu by Mark Almond and Romania in Turmoil by Martyn Rady lack the immediacy of Codrescu's account, but their broader historical scope provides better balance. Almond's biography is the best we now have. It is particularly astute about the physical (and ideological) architecture of the final years of Ceausescu's regime, such as the schematization plan to eliminate rural-urban distinctions by the forced relocation of peasants into multi-storey buildings, and the razing of many of Bucharest's historic churches in the Old Town, to make way for the approaches to the most brutal building project in Eastern Europe, the House of the Republic. Finally, Almond deals well with the international dimensions of Ceausescu's fall, especially the impact of the collapse of hardline communists in other parts of Eastern Europe in making Ceausescu seem more isolated and vulnerable. Rady has three chapters on the pre-Ceausescu period, followed by five on post-Ceausescu developments, and for most readers his book is perhaps the single most useful introduction available to present-day Romania.

Codrescu's idea of a "scripted" revolution, implying a sinister plot written in advance, whose enactment allowed its authors to "capture" the revolution, is still probably the most widely accepted framework for analysing the events in the country. But of all the transitions from communism that occurred in Eastern Europe, Romania's is the one where we are least able to know "what really happened"; and of all the narratives, that of a scripted revolution allows for the fewest ambiguities and contradictions. The value of The Hole in the Flag, then, lies not in its account of connected events as they occurred, but as a document of how myths are replaced by counter-myths. For Romania, more than for any other transition in Eastern Europe, any primarily narrative approach is inherently unsatisfying; what we need, rather, are studies of the dynamics of myth-creation and the functions of disinformation—a deconstruction of revolution itself. The best effort along these lines is the piece by Katherine Verdery and Gail Kligman, in Eastern Europe in Revolution, edited by Ivo Banac. They too, have sifted through the supposed facts and evidence, they know all the literature, but their concern is with the very terms by which the events in Romania were experienced, described and understood: "the miners", "the demonstrators", "the front", "the revolution", "neo-communism". This makes for a lot of quotation marks, but is illuminating.

Another way to approach the Romanian transition is to think more deeply about the nature of the Ceausescu regime and to place Romanian politics in comparative perspective. Of the Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe, Romania had the weakest organized opposition and the bloodiest transition. It is the only one where nothing remotely close to a round table took place and the only one where high Communist Party officials from the previous regime currently run the country. Civil society is so weak that many members of the two most innovative centre-left organizations, the Civic Alliance and the Group for Social Dialogue, want the monarchy back, in order, they say, to give civil society a chance to develop. Middle Eastern associations of the term are unfortunate, because regimes as geographically diverse as Kim II Sung's in North Korea, Bokassa's in the Central African Empire, and Somoza's in Nicaragua all approximate Weber's sultanistic ideal type. Understanding the combination of sultanistic and totalitarian tendencies in Ceausescu's Romania clarifies much that is distinctive in Romania's past, present and foreseeable future. It was precisely the sultanistic quality of Ceausescu's regime that enabled Iliescu to present Ceausescu as the embodiment of the system, and to imply that he, Iliescu, had changed the political and economic system completely by "decapitating the hydra-headed monster". In no other Warsaw-pact country would this rhetorical trick have had such weight.

Where do we stand now in our understanding of presentday Romania? To answer this question we have to go beyond the conceptual framework provided by the "script", "revolution", the "captured revolution" or "neo-communism". To speak of scripted uprisings in Timisoara and Bucharest is to underestimate the critical importance of the "movements of rage" (to use Ken Jowitt's memorable phrase) in undermining Ceausescu's coercive power. "Revolution" over-estimates the degree to which these movements of rage represented organized opposition groups with their own leaders and programmes. "Captured revolution" misses the extemporaneous opportunism and weaknesses of Iliescu. "Neo-communism" overstates the principled cohesion of the government that followed Ceausescu's downfall, and in particular does not take into account the profound divisions within the National Salvation Front that emerged in 1991. In fact, in the last twelve months the anti-Iliescu wing of the NSF, faced with a crisis of governance in September 1991, formed a coalition government that included some of the traditional liberals, supported Prime Minister Stolojan's courtship of the IMF and, in late March 1992, won control of the party label.

But as the current elections show, sultanistic rule has still left behind a flattened political and social landscape. Civil society remains incipient, the rule of law fragile, political coalitions turbulent, most political tendencies compromised. In this context, the Romanian opposition was not able to mount a Chilean-style, principled and united democratic campaign, led by a prominent political figure, and carry its message into every corner of the country. The weakness of the opposition, as much as the strength of Iliescu, explains why Iliescu will no doubt win the presidential run-off on October 11. But since no clear pro-Iliescu or anti-Iliescu group of parties has emerged with a majority in parliament, the outcome could well be a series of unstable coalitions, whose explanation will take us even further beyond the framework of "captured revolution" or "neo-communism", but not, unfortunately, beyond the framework of sultanistic legacies.

Francis X. Clines (review date 9 May 1993)

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SOURCE: "They See America Rolling," in The New York Times Book Review, May 9, 1993, pp. 1, 22.

[In the following review, Clines praises Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century as full of "wit, discovery, and self-deprecation."]

In their separate careerings in time among American epiphanies, Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac went beyond self-concoction to achieve an originality that made it all look easy: hit the road, get to the core, bang us in the heart with words that access the routine beauty and pain of daily life. Their work remains so readable and so indelibly American that it's no wonder that fresh attempts at wandering the nation and mapping its presumptive soul go forward with the inevitability of book advances.

Lately, a formula seems to be overtaking much of the wandering. It often features a narrator using the internal combustion engine as Muse, with highway subbing for plot line, and dialogue bites from grizzled, terse denizens as American chorus. The exercise seems preoccupied with climacteric more than climax. For it often involves a restless, mid-something male deciding he must go off alone in America driving his favorite stripped-down or optioned-up vehicle—generically, a 19-ought-something four-cylinder Testosterone will do, with a pint of Anomic stashed in the glove compartment—and searching for at least that minimum of surprise and originality to fulfill a book contract, with maybe a fender-dent of transcendence thrown into the bargain.

The genre is no replacement for the lost American novel, at least not yet. But a reader does begin itching for a clearer line between uncanny reportage and not-so-creative fiction, considering how some of the latest examples pack in long coils of conversation in folksy contracted dialects that would seem too complex to be totally retrieved from the memory of a truly guileless wanderer. Contrarily, some of the better writing includes perfectly realized fragments of lives so burnished and broken that Flannery O'Connor's peacocks might be set to preening with envy.

Then again, there is Andrel Codrescu, a naturalized American and the most American writer of all in the current offerings of motorized searchers. Mr. Codrescu, a poet who is best known as an essayist on National Public Radio, takes this drive-time script and turns it inside out into a fine trick bag of wit, discovery and self-deprecation in a book badly titled Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century.

From the outset, he is smart enough to anticipate the main pothole in driving a 1968 red Cadillac and retracing his own racy immigrant roots (he was born in Romania and came to the United States in the 1960's) through the locales of Hippiedom "I expected to find nothing in those places," he concedes, "partly because there would be little time to discover anything genuine, and partly because I never found anything of interest deliberately; the best discoveries of my life have been by accident." Fortunately, he changed his mind upon being advanced "a ridiculously small amount of money that was, however, more than my poetry had earned me in a lifetime of practicing its dangerous pinturns."

Mr. Codrescu takes off with a television documentary crew and a photographer, David Graham, who complements the author well in glimpsing the random nonsense and unreliable reality of things in general. It is a measure of Mr. Codrescu's talent that such an orchestrated mission manages to produce an unpretentious, wry journey in the art of essay writing, from light to sparsely serious. Once at the wheel of America's "banal instrument of carnage," the writer buys fuzzy dice and a drink holder and begins driving from his New Orleans home to the Lower East Side digs of Allen Ginsberg. There they lightly agree to plot for the reburial of the poet Ted Berrigan's remains in the St. Mark's Church grave of Peter Stuyvesant, documented in passing from Mr. Codrescu's interesting store of American antihistory as a founding anti-Semite.

Thus does he putter in a kind of countertravelogue about the land, all the way to San Francisco, via the "Kingdom of It," Las Vegas, with rarely a dull page in this simple book. It is mainly about the fun of writing and reading and meandering, rather than self-conscious synthesizing. Better for the reader to have Mr. Codrescu philosophically accepting a fax about the next city's lodgings from a cemetery attendant in Camden, N.J., who intrudes as the writer tries to have a special thought at the grave of Whitman, "sexually manifold and optimistic, the spokesman of liberty in all its guises."

Non sequitur, no harm. We're soon visiting the Burned-Over Patch region of surviving zealotries in a narrow swath of rural western New York. First, the Hutterians, the Christian communist and pacifist refugees who fled Hitler to live in Amish like aloofness in a Bruderhof, or "place of brotherhood." Then the descendants of the Oneida Perfectionists, who lived in a community conceived in free love, where the poet pines for the lost spirit of "continual flirtation as in a medieval court of love." Mr. Codrescu is the sort of writer who feels obliged to satirize and interplay with reality and not just catalogue impressions. He can redeem flagging curiosity in a single sentence, as when, returning to Detroit haunts he loved as a student, he finds he must wax more Mad Maxish than Whitmanesque; "I see that when a city becomes extinct, its last inhabitants go crazy."

Mr. Codrescu is a reminder that locomotion is not the heart of the matter; a decent imagination is. Opinionated travelogue inventories of Americana won't do. Nor will serial compilations of unforgettable characters suffice, as Pete Davies proves in "Storm Country: A Journey Through the Heart of America." Mr. Davies, a British novelist, is tireless as a lepidopterist in netting what feels like each and every flitting Midwesterner he spies in his travels (13 states, 1981 Ford pickup) in the heartland "with its savage weather and its sentimental music." He packs his pages with characters, and the friends and relatives of these characters, each of them with a story to tell and each story pretty much told in his book to the point of Chaucerian overdrive. "It's the nearest thing I know to going to the moon—and I love it!" he exults as he wheels about, trying to document the withering of "the whole mythic notion of what America is" and capturing individual lives "fresh out of a country song." It is the latter quality that intoxicates the book all too well. He concludes his 7,449 miles by comparing America to "that girl you had that thing with when you were 20," an experience "bigger than good or bad, bolder than right or wrong." Well, I guess….

Karen Stabiner (review date 9 May 1993)

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SOURCE: Review of Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 9, 1993, p. 6.

[In the following review, Stabiner favorably reviews Codrescu's Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century.]

National Public Radio commentator and poet Codrescu came to the United States from Romania when he was 19, in 1966, believing, among other things, that dogs in America carry pretzels on their tails (that, from his grandmother). He was quickly disabused of most of his preconceived ideas, but was not fully Americanized until 1990, when television producer Roger Weisberg asked him the question that would change his life: Would you like to drive? More to the point, would Codrescu like to learn and then drive across the country, recording his observations on film and, as it turns out, in print. The author was quite comfortable in his role as eternal passenger, but the proposal was irresistible. He enrolled at the Safe Driving School in New Orleans, bought himself a 1968 Cadillac and set off on his adventure. Codrescu is the print equivalent of character actors who like to chew up the scenery just a bit, to get themselves noticed, but he has found some tasty morsels: everything from fellow poets to his gun instructor in Las Vegas.

Ileana Alexandra Orlich (review date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: "Song of My Emerging Self: The Poetry of Andrei Codrescu," in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 33-40.

[In the following review, Orlich describes Codrescu's Comrade Past & Mister Present, the story of his self-integration into his adopted culture, as intensely personal and powerful.]

For almost thirty years, since 1966, Andrei Codrescu has lived in the United States, absorbed a new culture, published more than twenty books, taught American university students, and broadcast weekly essays on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" on the American scene or world events from a peculiar perspective and in accented English. Now that knowledge of what has been happening in Eastern Europe is suddenly available, we might attend more carefully to the words of one who returned from those depths and is in a position to tell how the accumulation of the thousand miniature pictures of the two worlds can impress the memory and shape of the poetic self.

Codrescu's poetic universe is a compound of the Romanian experience since World War II, of the cold war climate as felt in an East European country, of his own status within a distinguishable minority, and of his own unique psychological development within this context and the new world experience that followed it. His childhood spent in Romania, in the Transylvanian town of Sibiu, is epitomized in a poem like "history" in The History of the Growth of Heaven, which typically blends contemporary events and personal experience:

     in 1946 there was my mother inside who      i was still hiding.      in 1953 i was small enough to curl behind a tire      while the man with the knife passed.      in 1953 also i felt comfortable under the table      while everyone cried because Stalin was dead.      in 1965 i hid inside my head      and the colors were formidable      and just now at the end of 1971      i could have hidden inside a comfy hollow in the phone      but i couldn't find the entrance. (54)

Citizens of Sibiu, however, in one of those unforeseen historical ironies, had nowhere to hide because the town housed a concentration of the greatly feared Securitate, which, in the last throes of recent upheaval, turned its devastating artillery on the town's people.

But the compound of his Romanian past and American present is best illustrated in the volume Comrade Past and Mister Present published in 1986. It chronicles Codrescu's development through the forty years of the poet's life, divided equally between Romania and the United States, often focusing on the poet's emerging self, which becomes both the subject and the implement of artistic expression:

History: in 1967, I was experimenting with all sorts of looseness, riffing rhythm. (I had a different accent every day.) Then I tightened up for my masters, the publishers. First Paul Carroll raised my capitals and raped my text with punctuation. Then Mike Braziller with his insistence on the elegiac. Then my surrealist fans with their insistence on recognition (i.e. orthodoxy). All of these insistences, even when strenuously or successfully resisted, left some of their fingerprints, if not the shape of their pressure, on my work. Of course, one evolves that way too, nobody's a frozen CB. (Comrade 92)

This juif érrant who left postwar Eastern Europe in 1966 feels that "being an outsider is not a misfortune, it is a blessing and, what's more, a script for freedom. It's not the suffering that's good for you, but the thinking. Thinking is impossible inside, where everything serious has already been thought for you by others" (Comrade 86). He aims at integration and self-acknowledgment in an adopted culture:

     I think, I made myself a peculiar niche in American lit.      Perlmutter used to be my name, fallen angel my vocation.      Permutit, pearl mother, wanderer, pearl nipple, Jew tit.      Roving tit, migrant mother, vagabond breast, nipple bum.      (Comrade 96)

As a former "Romanian who translated himself into an American" (Raised by Puppets), the poet strides through the streets of New York on a Monday morning when "parts of the Sunday newspaper still covered the city" and invokes his consciousness through his senses: "The smell of pastry and coffee was being attacked by ginger / & Mongolian pepper / from inside red restaurants" (Comrade 9). While eating pirogis in a Ukrainian restaurant he learns of John Lennon's death and reminisces in Proustian fashion:

       I remembered that it was here      in the Kiev       ten years ago        that I'd heard of Bobby Kennedy's death      which at the time struck me like the free winds of doom       with apocalyptic illuminations        of anarchist Jew          I owe to myself. (Comrade 21)

The personal sublimation of history and his role as dissenting outsider entitle him to constant renewal of self, for poetic identity is always Other:

       Having avantbiographed the world        To make another come right out of it        I have certain scribbler's rights        On the next one—endlessly impregnate        The self about to be designed. (Comrade 34)

To understand the present and one's self is to live in history, and Codrescu feels free to reminisce. The memories are often presented in compact organic capsules that explode into surrealistic prisms:

     a city that isn't sexy is like ropes lying there        in the old Black Sea port      after all the longshoremen died of clap      & the dusty statue of Ovid applauds all by itself.      some Roman joke floating in from the Turkish coast.      (Comrade 39)

By summoning his personal and private past the poet defines and explores an emerging sense of self, separated from the rest by the uniqueness of the remembrance. Passionate, involving relationships between Codrescu as a viewer and the natural scene, often filled with sexual innuendos, serve as further attempts to reveal the poetic self:

     I did enjoy the pale winter sun.      I made the most of the spring breeze that lifted minis.      I let my tongue wag into the summer heat and collected      a whole urn full of lovely sweat      In the fall I fell with the leaves and felt désuet.      (Comrade 50)

Codrescu learns from his readings of I migliori fabbri, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Lorca, Nerval and from the paintings of Goya and Dali. From "brother" Blaga, a twentieth-century Romanian poet whose work Codrescu has recently translated into English, he understands that attachment to the immediate senses is only the first step before the mystery begins to burn "giving off only enough light for the enormous job of making oneself." The job, however, becomes complete only when the poet is able to "stumble … out of the box of self," past the self-created monads ("the perfectly selfish little globes of soap") brought about by egocentric preoccupations ("I have thought, along with babies, bishops, Copernicus, and Sartre, / that one's job in letters and in life / was to express a self attached to a head / which can then be detached, cut off, tu sais") into "Point Plurality … a landmark that's been here all along, on which / Mr. Jefferson grounded us" (Comrade 49). Redefined to conform with contemporary norms, Codrescu's Point Plurality is

              not just the tolerance      of difference, but the joyful welcoming of differences      into one's heart spread out like the pages      of a newspaper. (Comrade 49)

From the standpoint of a fervent advocate for pluralism—"the great discovery of my thirties is plurality" (Comrade 48)—Codrescu is fascinated by the manifold, individually distinguishable leaves of grass of America rather than the indistinguishable proletarian masses, often hungry, often cold, he once knew in Communist Romania. He unhesitantly introduces himself as "the sole mumbling interpreter of / an older art lost to the anxiety of the milieu, / a man from history in a position to know and to tell" (Comrade 42). What he tells, with the full awareness that "the infinite and the political do not exclude each other" (Comrade 52), is a conscious utterance directed to the twentieth-century readers of two worlds—the East and the West—which swarms to the poet's mind, inundates his senses without hierarchy of admission and disregards geographical separation for, in Codrescu's poems, the East and the West intermingle and are absorbed as one entity.

From his personal past, this cultural émigré recalls "a country without directories." Communism, or "Red Fascism," has annihilated the individual who is now turned into a "Nobody and Not Self," also known as "inert proletarian matter," whose sole claim to fame lies in the production en masse of brass Bolshevik statues. The ruling classes employ themselves "to know the statues" (i.e. study Marxist-Leninist dialectic) and impart such knowledge into the "inert masses" (i.e. the proletariat). An articulate prophet, Codrescu watches the masses gathered on February 11, 1984 in Red Square to look at the corpse of "Andropov of Russia," but also

              to tug at their zippers,      to tug at the big zipper of history unzipping      the Nylon Curtain and the Leather Wall. Sheer nylon stockings      atop a leather jacket. (Comrade 59)

In the same journal entry, and clearly benefiting from the favoring circumstances of his new status as a citizen of a democratic and open society, the poet's voice speaks with further, almost uncanny foresight:

              Ah.      the prophetic powers once so miraculous seem only tawdry now      when the only things to prophesy are miserable things, in and of themselves a great bitter value.      Only a fool would now be proud of being a seer.      (Comrade 59)

As the former Eastern European identity of a "comrade past" is left behind, Codrescu redefines himself as a "mister present," a man of the West. The experience is regenerative even if the West sometimes seems to cooperate with forces that promote alienation (the IBM machines, for instance, Imminence of Bored Matter, threaten their users with "imminent mental breakdown" and place them under a "heat of persecution"—a condition which succinctly but accurately defines the collective status of Americans mastered by technology). The modern American, Codrescu feels, suffers from a lack of imagination, is a prisoner behind "a Berlin Wall of television, fridges, and stereos / blaring out tears, pent-up signs, wordless senti-mentality" (Comrade 43). Cracks in this wall portend economic dysfunction. Falling demand must be restored by a doctrine of required excess and trashy material over-sufficiency. Remnants of the Eastern wall find buyers in the West, while remnants of the Western wall clog available landfills.

Like Pound's age demanding "chiefly a mould in plaster," the America Codrescu sees is a place where "the new things are mostly like the new writers, things molded to conform" (Comrade 109). And the rules for conformity are dictated by an assortment of systems, philosophical, cultural and political, brought about by "art museums, literature of mobile homes, trailer parks, squatter burbs, suburbs" (97) meant to annihilate the self.

The evils of the two worlds, ascetic communism and a capitalism of conspicuous consumption, fold the poet in, suffocate him, while "sprouting all round him." Presiding over this latter-day Waste Land is "the cardboard body of a huge Stalin growing out of all proportion" (Comrade 43), pointing to its one-dimensional character, suggesting its heroes, "hate-filled stars," and touching off the flying "doves with bullets in their heads." Reminiscent of the personae in The Waste Land, a few characters populate the desolate landscape. Notable among them is Masoch, a Molloch of the '70s, "doodling with contracts" (Comrade 1), which are dehumanizing closed systems, and reminding us that everything in our world is spelled out in material form and available for a price. (Codrescu's criticism of Masoch and his world of "standard contracts" repeats what Pound said as early as 1913 in Patria Mia when he accused Americans of being obsessed by money and material acquisitions.) There is also a deaf woman, a Madame Sosostris of the 70's whose clairvoyance is rather cryptically revealed in her sign language cards. To complete this gallery, a former Bulgarian ambassador, who was a Communist member of the police before his defection, acts as a maitre d' and cook and is, secretly, a poet engaged in a fruitless "pursuit of the dialectic" (Comrade 42).

Questions about what the poet is doing in this hellish environment provide Codrescu with an identity. Subscribing to the idea that a genuine poet should stimulate the quality of life, Codrescu becomes blatantly outspoken. Echoing the Emersonian call in "The Poet" to which Whitman so avidly responded, he lashes out against his contemporaries who seem timid talents rather than "children of music" or "liberating gods": "The New American writer is a timid soul, a solicitous academic or a terrified lackey" (Comrade 109). It is as if the poet's emerging self has come full-circle to accept its challenge of putting "a whole new set of fantasies in the myth basket of the race" and identify itself with its ambassadorial role. The nightmarish modern world "with monstrous fleur-du-mal painted with human blood and brains on the ceiling of cheap hotels" (Comrade 3) becomes suddenly escapable as the poet is trumpeting his message:

              The job always, the only job      is to be an ontological reminder, a real pain in the      ass, reminding every one why we took up the pen      in the first place, to scratch ourselves on the wall      or under the aching arm, to kick open the lid, to set      the water free, the hair loose, the spirit flowing.      Make you hear again that metarooster crowing!      (Comrade 52-53)

Codrescu presents the anatomy of hell and chaos only because these speak of the necessity for a change and of the need for the poet's "ability to make all hear again." This ability is Codrescu's "figure in the carpet": it reveals that "the content that fills the flowing shapes / of my heart's pure yearning is communal like the city" (Comrade 52). His is a distinctly East European voice that nevertheless contains a fleeting vision of Whitman's vistas, the passion of Pound railing about the crassness of his contemporary culture, and a less patrician echo of Eliot's condemnation of the moral violence and exhaustion of modern man. It is also the voice of a forward thrusting individual, of a poet who—for all uncompromising criticism—is a "caresser" of American life which he celebrates and sings:

     O great healing metaphor invented by my first exiled self in Nueva York      in the great year 1966 when the whole world was a disease      only the brilliant metaphor of my young body could heal      as it hurtled through Nirvana Village and Central Park open      like a gold sieve to the wonder of possibility!      (Comrade 88)

With a keen sense of humor, Codrescu speaks of an America miraculously located "at the psychointersections of cities" where

     At the U. of the Future, Professor Mayakovski      is discussing with Professor O'Hara      the pleasure of belonging somewhere. (Comrade 59)

This poet's "Love Song" is sincere and does reverberate amid the bounty of the West:

              So using the conveyance      of the "I" to get us through the streets I came      to the exact meeting place of a thousand "I"s      clamoring for attention with an uninterrupted      belief in culture and the Pie. (Comrade 50)

In the process, the poet also defines and explores his emerging self:

I rolled through my new country healing first my ills with poetry, then others', until at least a shaman, I stood looking at the two oceans simultaneously and knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I invented it all, just as I made myself. (Comrade 89)

Through all the intervening layers of Comrade Past and Mister Present the poet's self leaves husks of past identity as he encounters the multiform experiences of life. In a process of social and psychological ecdysis, he is propelled by his uninhibited imagination, his personal experiences, and his vivid recollections. Basic to his progress is the testimony of his own senses, without which he could not transform such intensely personal material into a powerful and nearly universal message. In a way that he could not have foreseen, Codrescu has anticipated the struggle of his native country to emerge from its nearentombment, has warned his American contemporaries of the dangers inherent in the obsession with the mechanical and the material while exalting the Nirvanic quality of America, and has worked inward to his consciousness through his senses and his insights and outward to his American audience to create his new poetic self, conscious that "each time, every night, all experience must be renewed" (Comrade 51).

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 April 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Blood Countess, in Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1995, pp. 487-88.

[The following review commends Codrescu's historical novel The Blood Countess, comparing it to the works of Anne Rice, Zoe Oldenbourg, and Marguerite Yourcenar.]

An expertly crafted first novel uncovers the roots of contemporary Eastern European carnage in the lurid story of a notorious 16th-century murderess.

Romanian-born poet, essayist, and NPR commentator Codrescu (Road Scholar, 1993, etc.) abandoned plans for a factual book about Elizabeth Bathory, his real-life ancestor, a beautiful Hungarian countess convicted and imprisoned for torturing and murdering more than 600 young girls—and has instead produced a compulsively readable fiction in which the story of Elizabeth's life and crimes is juxtaposed with a parallel narrative describing the agonies of conscience suffered by her 20th-century descendant: an Americanized journalist whose reluctant return to his homeland exposes him to Elizabeth's aura and influence—with catastrophic results. Drake Bathory-Kereshtur, testifying before a judge from whom he begs punishment, recounts his enlistment by a patriotic group bent on restoring Hungary's aristocracy and monarchy to their former grandeur, and repeats the tormenting question ("In what way were the people of Elizabeth Bathory's time like us?") raised by this paralyzing plunge into his, and his country's, past. Its counterpart story traces the welter of violent influences that shape the young countess's steely character and documents her phlegmatic savagery with a perversely amusing articulation of droll understatement and feverish Grand Guignol excess. Though Anne Rice might indeed be warned to look to her laurels, this exciting book offers rather more than a racy few hours' reading pleasure. Codrescu has expertly blended convincing period detail and colorfully grotesque folk materials with a riveting characterization of a woman who was doubtless never understood even by those who loved and feared her most. Furthermore, he persuasively links such familiar horrors as "ethnic cleansing" with his modern protagonist's vision of "Older things that now stirred from their slumber, blind creatures that lived in the deep mud of ancestral memory, things with horns and tails."

A wonderful historical novel that merits comparison with the fiction of Zoe Oldenbourg and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Nina Auerbach (review date 30 July 1995)

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SOURCE: "Haunted in Hungary," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. CXLIV, July 30, 1995, p. 9.

[In the following review, Auerbach faults Codrescu for his depiction of Elizabeth Bathory and other female characters as either virgins or vamps in The Blood Countess.]

In his buoyant 1993 film, Road Scholar, the Romanian expatriate Andrei Codrescu emulated the American odysseys of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac. Stopping along the way west to scrutinize quaint national divinities, from hamburgers to crystals, Mr Codrescu, grinning in his red Cadillac, fulfilled his immigrant's pledge "We were done with the Old World, liberty was ours."

In his new novel, The Blood Countess, a Hungarian emigrant goes back to his bloody Old World, with no red Cadillac in which to escape crazy faiths. Drake Bathory-Kereshtur, a journalist in America, returns to an "anxious and unsettled" Budapest swarming with skinhead fascism, anti-Semitism and medieval magic from the fairy tales—or horror stories—that Communist indoctrination had suppressed. He sees that "the lightly settled soil of democracy and atheism was rapidly turning over, releasing dormant agents."

Awakening after a burial that seems long only to mortals, these ancient agents of savagery overwhelm modernity and its representative, the bemused Drake. The most tenacious monster is a woman: the 16th century Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Drake's ancestor and the personification of his national past, who is said to have preserved her youth by bathing in virgins' blood, Elizabeth erupts into the present when a monarchist coterie declares Drake King of Hungary.

At the climax of the novel, Drake travels with these motley believers to ancient Bathory castles. In this nightmare journey, characters and country revert to their haunted past. Elizabeth returns as various strange apparitions, instigating a murder, which Drake accuses himself of before a high-minded American judge.

This parable of atavism and possession is chilling, but unfortunately, it is not the only story; interwoven with Drake's journey is a historical novel about Countess Bathory herself. Though she does not bathe in maidens' blood, she showers in it with the help of an ingenious cage. Menstruating, marrying, studying herself in mirrors, biting little pieces out of her maids, experimenting with baroque sexual refreshments, Elizabeth Bathory supposedly embodies the demonic past.

Alas, she is too silly for that. On her wedding night she arouses herself with dreams of spurtings and spoutings and whippings fit to prmt only on the walls of a boys' locker room. As an incarnation of history, Elizabeth is closer to pornographic Victorian biters like Swinburne's pagan goddesses than she is to the cold hate at the heart of Mr. Codrescu's historical horror. Her supposed perversions distract from and diminish the authentic abominations of our own chilling times.

The Blood Countess is an ornate novel, thick with dense symbolism and decorative violence. It reveals a more ambitiously literary Andrei Codrescu than the popular commentator on National Public Radio, who is a wry and realistic political observer flaunting his dissociation from all countries, relishing quirks and denouncing all specimens of stupidity and tyranny. As a novelist, Mr. Codrescu borrows Kafka's enigmatic dream mode. He no longer aims to observe nations, but to create fantastic national allegories. His novel is so drenched in elaborate (if studiously metaphorical) sadism, in obscure fairy idles and legends, that I longed for his incisive radio voice to tell me what was going on.

The problem in this novel, as in its version of history, is women. They are virgins or vamps, victims or furies, who mess up an effective thriller. In the course of The Blood Countess the spirit of Elizabeth possesses all the modern characters, including a glamorous female professor who studies the Bathory archives, beats her adoring students and finally turns into a ridiculously overdrawn emanation of the Countess. Elizabeth also inhabits a comatose woman, allegorically named Eva, who prowls ominously around Hungary at the end, getting younger and younger. The arousal of women, this ending suggests, is the death of civilization.

I don't believe that, and I don't think Mr. Codrescu does either. The Blood Countess gets lost in lurid symbolism and bizarre sexual embellishments. Its operatic women become scapegoats for all social viciousness, but in the best parts of the book hatred is a pervasive, even casual motivation to everyone. I wish Mr. Codrescu had written a sparer, tighter novel about his bedeviled King of Hungary without trying to resurrect Elizabeth. As a specter, she is wonderful; as a character, she is ludicrous. Mr. Codrescu writes splendidly about women as remote agents of fear, but when he tries to depict them, campy posturing undermines political dread.

Bettina Drew (review date 6 August 1995)

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SOURCE: "Mistress of Terror and Torture," in the Washington Post Book Review, Vol. XXV, No. 32, August 6, 1995, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following review, Drew lauds Codrescu's The Blood Countess for making comprehensible to the West the hatred and violence of modern Eastern Europe by exposing its bloody past.]

What makes Andrei Codrescu's voice on National Public Radio so distinctive is the way it mixes American vernacular with a Transylvanian accent so rich it conjures up sophisticated counts about to do evil in gloomy hilltop castles. Happily, his new novel skillfully exploits this cultural bilingualism. In it, Codrescu weaves the story of an infamous 16th-century Hungarian countess who murdered, and bathed in the blood of, some 650 young girls with the trials of her modern-day American-immigrant descendant, who has recently returned to post-Communist Hungary. Based on extensive research in old Hungarian archives and on Codrescu's keen impressions of contemporary Eastern Europe, the novel links feudal Europe's mania for torture with the hatred, chaos and savage butchery that has followed the collapse of communism in the region.

Countess Elizabeth Bathory (1560–1613) was born into a world of torture racks and disemboweling pokers, a world where miscreants were hung from hooks or had their breasts cut off, where the services of German torture-machine maker Philip Imser were heavily in demand. "Her corner of Europe was soaked in the blood of countless commoners who had not done the bidding of their nobles," Codrescu writes. "Death was the common punishment for almost any infraction, even petty theft. Peasant rebellions were suppressed so severely that they passed into folktales because straightforward accounts were too gruesome to tell."

Though beautiful, educated and exceedingly wealthy, the countess had plenty of early experience with horror. As a young girl she witnessed the rape and hanging of her two sisters in a peasant uprising, then saw their captured murderer placed upon a hot iron throne and melted to death. Ignored by her mother, abandoned by a husband who submerged his life in the daily barbarism of far-off wars against the Turks, the intelligent and curious Elizabeth took comfort in the nobility's life-and-death power over the peasant and became addicted to violence. At first her craving for the pain of others was linked to sexual pleasure, but in the end blood was all. She especially enjoyed a cylindrical cage with sharp iron spikes inside, which, when suspended from the ceiling, rotated and contracted, driving the stakes into the flesh of the victim within. Finally, as the numbers of young women disappearing from the villages kept mounting, Elizabeth's infamous reputation forced her supporters to imprison her.

Her descendant Count Bathory-Kereshtur provides a welcome counterpoint to this bloody tale. A divorced New Yorker sent to cover Budapest by his newspaper, Kereshtur, shocked by the city's skinheads and political instability, is sought out by monarchist elements eager to have him resume his noble role. At a hilarious cocktail party of long-irrelevant Hungarian noblemen, genealogical calculations, performed by sticking hors d'oeuvre toothpick flags of Hungary into an improvised chart, reveal that he is the next in line for the throne.

The absurdity of the situation is in no way lost on the count. "The whole solemn business of staring at a bunch of dirty toothpicks with grains of rice and meat juice sticking to them in order to ascertain my rights to the kingdom was more than I could bear," he avers before going home to drink himself to sleep with a bottle of Jack Daniels. His more pressing problems involve guilt over a sexual aggression he feels was probably rape, his infatuation with the twenty-something daughter of his former lover Eva, and the way all the people he meets keep turning into modern-day counterparts of Elizabeth Bathory's twisted inner circle.

If this plot sounds a bit farfetched, it is, but somehow it doesn't seem to matter all that much. In this blend of historical fiction, confessional and fairy tale, Codrescu has done more than tap into a Western fascination, whipped up by Hollywood Draculas and vampires, with the bloody past excesses of Central Europe. He has written a vivid narrative of the 16th century that even accuses Martin Luther of sexism and invites Kepler to the castle for dinner; he has made the history of Hungary and its shifting contemporary situation entertaining and compelling. In digging down to the "older things now stirred from their slumber, blind creatures that lived in the deep mud of ancestral memory, things with horns and tails," Codrescu has found a forceful way of making the mayhem and hatred now reigning in so much of Eastern Europe more historically and emotionally comprehensible to American readers.

Robert L. McLaughlin (review date September 1995)

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SOURCE: "Blood & Guts in Budapest," in American Book Review, Vol. 17, September, 1995, pp. 16, 23.

[In the following review, McLaughlin commends The Blood Countess for its historical foundation and commentary on current world events, but pans it for its repetition of themes, poor narrative technique, and sloppy treatment of details.]

Not far into The Blood Countess, Andrei Codrescu's new novel, it occurred to me that this book wants to be The Name of the Rose. Prominent intellectual combines history and mystery, past and present, to popularize complex ideas in the form of a can't-put-it-down page-turner. Indeed, there is much about the ideas in The Blood Countess that is compelling and its narrative is intriguing, but in the end the novel is not as successful intellectually or narratively as one would wish it to be.

The novel, in alternating chapters, tells stories of late-sixteenth-century and contemporary Hungary. The former is the story of Elizabeth Bathory, an actual historic figure, whose reputation as a near monster who bathed in the blood of virgins has survived to the present day. According to the novel, this reputation is both exaggerated (as one character says, "One may drink blood, in the belief that it's an elixir, or suck it, in an excess of passion, but bathe in it? The sticky mess. The quick coagulation.") and an understatement.

Elizabeth is an extraordinary child born into a violent world. Still a baby, she exhibits the abilities to remember and repeat everything she hears and even to mimic the speakers' voices, thus unnerving her maids but attracting her wet nurse, Darvulia, a practicing witch who sees much potential in Elizabeth for subverting the man-made world. Her earliest shaping experience is a peasant revolt at her family's Ecsed Castle, during which she sees her two sisters raped and murdered and after which she sees the rebels forced to eat the roasted flesh of their leader before they are killed. The novel then follows Elizabeth closely from the ages of nine to fifteen as she observes and then participates in a world of contradictions. She is educated by a Catholic monk and Lutheran pastors. She attends the coronation of her cousin, prince of Transylvania, and visits a Pest slum. She is married to Franz Nadazdy but lives alone as he fights perpetual wars. From the world around her, she comes to four conclusions: that because of her position, people will do pretty much anything she wants; that abstractions are worthless and that to understand something, one must observe it; that the human soul is visible only when pain brings it to the surface; and that time, subtly but constantly attacking her body, is her enemy.

These conclusions result in Elizabeth's creating a dark underside to the palace life her position forces her to lead. While during the day she functions as administrator for her and her husband's estates, diplomat with Hungary's conflicted royal families, and pupil to her religious instructors, at night, in her private quarters, she rages at, tortures, and frequently kills the endless supply of peasant maidens Darvulia recruits to her service. Convinced that the maidens' blood restores the youth of her skin, she installs a cage over her bath, in which young girls are pierced to death while their blood showers on the Countess.

Elizabeth finally goes too far. On the last day of the sixteenth century, resigned to her lost youth, she orders all the mirrors in her house broken and thrown out, stands a young church singer in their debris, and has water poured over her, freezing her into a statue representing the effect of time on beauty. The public, religious, and royal outcries are so great that Elizabeth's cousin, the palatine Thurzo, dispenser of justice, is forced to take action. He confines Elizabeth to one of her castles, holds hearings in which the witnesses tell of Elizabeth's deeds and are subsequently put to death, and, while never officially charging Elizabeth with any crime, has her walled into her suite of rooms, leaving only an opening to pass in food.

The contemporary story takes the form of a confession to murder by Elizabeth Bathory's direct descendent, Drake Bathory-Kereshtur. Standing in a New York City courtroom, Drake narrates to the judge (surely the most indulgent judge in history; she makes Lance Ito seem like Roy Bean) stories of his childhood in Soviet bloc Hungary, his emigration to the United States after the failed 1956 revolution, and his return to post-Warsaw Pact Hungary. Sent by the newspaper he works for to report on the capitalist transformation of his homeland, Drake is soon manipulated by forces only some of which he comes to understand. Klaus Megyery, a childhood friend and former secret policeman, summons him, a member of a royal family, to become a representative of a new monarchist party in the politically volatile country. At a gathering of royal descendants, it is decided that Drake has the best claim to be the new king of Hungary. Drake is suspicious that the party is supported mainly by skinhead storm troopers and eventually learns that the party is actually the brainstorm of Klaus's former employers as a means of establishing a fascist government.

Nevertheless, Drake becomes fascinated by the thought of himself as royalty and by the connection between himself and the historically remote yet strangely present Elizabeth Bathory. He develops a companionship with a former lover's daughter, Teresa, who is a historian specializing in the Early Modern period. Through her, he meets Lilly Hangress, biographer of Elizabeth Bathory. Ditching Klaus and his skinheads, Drake and Teresa rent a car and search for his family's estates. But this escape becomes another trap as they are mysteriously guided from estate to estate, to a meeting with a 400-year-old alchemist seeking the secret of perpetual youth, and eventually to a snowbound evening in Elizabeth's chambers in Lockenhaus Castle, where Drake helplessly enacts a ritual sacrifice that apparently returns Elizabeth Bathory to the world just in time for the millennium.

These parallel plots support several interesting and pessimistic theses about the development and state of Western society generally and Eastern European society in particular. Both Elizabeth's and Drake's Hungarys are emerging from long periods of totalitarian culture, the totalized systems of social, political, and intellectual life of, first, Roman Catholicism and, later, Soviet communism. These monolithic systems, by tolerating no heresy, were able to establish virtually unquestioned order and stability for a period of time. But when these periods end, the societies are thrown into chaos. Various monolithic systems war to establish totalizing control; the Roman Catholic Church vs. the Lutheran Church; Christian Europe vs. the Islamic Turks; religious faith vs. science; Western capitalism vs. socialism; fascism vs. democracy. Each of these systems will go to any lengths, including horrific episodes of violence, in order to suppress instability, lack of order, and any relativity that might challenge its exclusive claim to absolute truth.

What Elizabeth learns from the conflicts of her society and what she comes to represent to Drake's society is violence as raison d'ẽtre. That is, for Elizabeth, violence becomes an outward thrust into a chaotic reality, an attempt to objectify and stabilize that reality so that the individual can define herself in relation to it. This novel's unhappy conclusion seems to be that in Elizabeth's world and in ours violence is the necessary response to an otherwise indeterminate reality. Even the systems we might look toward to subvert the evolution of violence in the service of control are implicated in that same evolution. When they get the opportunity (a revolt, a plague, or the breakup of parliament), the exploited lower classes—the peasants and the skinheads—are capable of the same defining violence as the upper classes. And Darvulia and her witches (now they would be ecofeminists), though dedicated to promoting women's arts and powers and to subverting male systems, are active participants in Elizabeth's violence against other women. Elizabeth's return to the world and Drake's seduction into murder seem to offer little hope for release from a pattern of violence against people, animals, and the world. All that has changed from Elizabeth's time to ours is the technology of killing.

What's unsatisfying about all this is the novel's presentation of its ideas. The novel is thematically episodic. That is, an idea is introduced, then set aside as other ideas are introduced. Eventually, we'll come back to the first idea again, but then it's a restatement, not a development of the idea. One gets little sense of the novel's themes modifying or growing as the plots go on and as the ideas come in contact with each other. As an intellectual juggler, the novel can't keep all its balls in the air at the same time.

There are similar problems with the novel's narrative technique. The subject matter ends up not being as absorbing as it ought to be, primarily because of its presentation. The setup of plot points is clunky and, eventually, predictable. At one point we are told that one of Elizabeth's Lutheran tutors has a pet monkey. Many pages later, the monkey is reintroduced, and we are told, "Pastor Ponikenuz felt for his monkey the absolute maximum of affection he allowed himself toward any living creature." The reader reacts, "Oh yeah, he did have a monkey," and, simultaneously, "Whoa! Something's going to happen to that monkey." Indeed, on the next page Elizabeth's pet jaguar (don't ask) bites off its head. And so it goes. Does a young alchemist prepare a beaker of acid? Whoops! There it goes into somebody's face! A novice maid scratches Elizabeth in her bath? Where's that cage? While we are given many incidents, neither Elizabeth's nor Drake's worlds ever become completely present to us.

Connected to this, the novel seems to have a lot of trouble with dialogue. Much of Elizabeth's story is told in indirect discourse, even when it seems that direct discourse would be more appropriate and effective. Drake's first-person narration works the same way. As a result, at any given point, what happened, what was said, and what the characters thought are presented as three different items; they are rarely integrated in a way that connects the reader emotionally to the moment.

There is also some annoying sloppiness in the novel's treatment of details. Fires blaze, then blow out, then blaze again in a matter of paragraphs. Elizabeth is walled into her rooms in 1611 and dies, we are told, five years later—in 1613.

The result of all this is that we never share the other characters' fascination with Elizabeth. We are emotionally distanced from her and increasingly unaffected by her punching and scratching and murdering. I suspect that we are supposed to be simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by Elizabeth, as Drake is, but the novel doesn't pull it off. In fact, Drake, due, no doubt, to his first-person narration, becomes much more real for us and interesting to us than Elizabeth.

The Blood Countess, then, has much to recommend it as a late-summer beach book: its historical foundation is interesting; the incidents of its parallel plots keep one turning the pages; it has much to say about our world. But I can't help wishing that it were better than it is, that its narratives were better accomplished and that its ideas dived deeper.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 June 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of The Dog with the Chip in His Neck: Essays from NPR and Elsewhere, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 64, June 1, 1996, pp. 797-98.

[The following review identifies Codrescu's best essays in this collection as those which deal with the most personal subjects.]

Prolific belletrist, novelist, and NPR commentator Codrescu offers his trademark benign-oddball perspective on a broad array of cultural topics in another scattershot collection.

Codrescu grew up in Communist Romania and came to America in 1966, and most of the essays here are either explicitly or implicitly about the experience of exile, whether linguistic, political, or geographical. The subject of computers and the Internet prompts several Luddite outbursts about the failure of communication; the titular pet's surgically implanted ID tag inspires a brief technophobic fantasy poised between humor and genuine uneasiness. Codrescu cocks an eye at young lesbians in San Francisco, a Japanese game show, Brancusi's life and sculpture, airline travel, and the faithful in Jerusalem. But he's at his best when his subjects are most personal. He anchors a diffuse piece about the complications and rewards of communicating across language barriers with a single perfect anecdote about arriving in Detroit without speaking any English and being befriended in a ghetto coffee shop. A pilgrimage to Mexico with his Castaneda-obsessed 14-year-old son sparks a splendid piece that poetically conflates his son's adolescent volatility and Mexico's tempestuous history. And his takes on life in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism are acid reminders that the adoption of "freedom" and "democracy" has by no means solved most problems there. But when Codrescu riffs on abstractions, he tends to strain his whimsy to the point of opacity. From a piece on walls as metaphors: "The only creature worthy of respect is the wallflower. A creature is a wall. Respect is space. Therefore, worth is the space one accords a wall." Whatever.

Newcomers to Codrescu may be put off by some of his slapdash indulgences here, but his many fans will welcome the opportunity to roam around again in his quirky mind.