Elohai Neshama
The Jewish Texans

Poetry of exile: Andrei Codrescu

I went tonight to hear Andrei Codrescu speak as part of the Voices from the Edge lecture series in Lenox, Mass., about half an hour from where I live. The postcard I received in the mail promoting the event said:

Humor, it is said in mystical Hebrew texts, is the highest form of spiritual communication. American poet and journalist Andrei Codrescu is employing this higher principle to write some of the most wry, penetrating, and creative cultural critiques of our time. His NPR commentaries, his poetry, and his novels are all elegant reflections of a soul in search of broader horizons, and with liberating delight he transgresses the borders and boundaries of language, culture, and religion. In this Voices presentation, Codrescu will speak about his recent travels to Jerusalem, Transylvania, and the American South, where he went to "see to the disposition of [his] poetry in translation and also to take the temperature of current feelings and yearnings for the divine."

God, poetry, and humor; the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Southern United States. Could this talk possibly have been geared more towards my intersection of interests? I had to be there.

The talk was at Foxhollow, which turns out to be a retreat center where the teachings of Andrew Cohen are promulgated. As I walked from my car to the lecture hall, I was entertained by the little arrow-shaped signs pointing to the various labeled houses, which have names like "Clarity" and "Emptiness." (At the reception afterwards I chatted with a woman who said, "Oh, yes, I live in Emptiness," and I thought, that's fascinating in so many different ways...)

Andrei seems like a really lovely guy, very personable and fun to listen to. What a surprise, to hear such a familiar voice coming out of an actual person! I've been a fan of his radio essays for a long while, but had no idea what he looked like; at first I had to fight the temptation to close my eyes so I could experience him as a disembodied voice, the way I'm used to doing.

His presentation was primarily a poetry reading, featuring selections from his collection it was today (coffee house press, 2003), though he strung together his poems with anecdotes, digressions, and trenchant observations about writing, exile, and the human condition.

"I like to think of the writer as a sort of self-cleaning insect,"  he said at one point, "born again every minute when I sit down to clean things again." Later, he said, "All poems are about poetry in some way." And, still later, "To write, you have to be somewhat serious even when you are funny. Pay attention to the real as far as possible. Reality pisses me off; that's why I'm a poet."

He riffed for a while on the subject of Jerusalem. "You have to walk everywhere," he said, "on these hard, hard stones. And everything's all crowded together in there. Makes me angry with God, this provincial God who wouldn't move out, who left His heirs to fight over the same piece of real estate. So I was wandering around mumbling things at Jehovah, which is what everybody does in Jerusalem. You see people talking to themselves, you know they're not using their cellphones..."

From there he segued into a poem called "poem in jerusalem on my 48th birthday" (I'll leave to the reader the exercise of imagining the circumstances in which that one was written), in which the image that made me giggle was, "to Jews/ the most fascinating thing in the world is Jews."

Geography, sense of place, and roots (or lack thereof) were among his themes. One of my favorite poems he read was called "a geography of poets." The lines I liked best: "only new yorkers write/ as if they are from new york/ and mostly, they are not"  and "this is america/ you get hurt where you were born/ you make poetry out of it/ as far from home as you can get" and "the only geography of poets/ is greyhound[.]"

Andrei also talked about being granted the Star of Romania in exile. Apparently one of the perks that comes with it is that he can be buried in a state cemetary there -- though he'd have to become a Romanian citizen again to do it, which doesn't interest him. (Though the prospect of trying to be buried there, and failing for want of papers, seemed to amuse him a lot.) He cited lines from a great Romanian poet (whose name, sadly, I did not catch): "Our job when faced with a mystery is not to explain it, but to increase its mysteriousness." He says he lives these lines every time he returns to Romania; he finds that he understands it less and less as time goes by.

The prose poem "as tears go by" completely blew me away, and I recommend buying his book just for that one. (If you can't wait, you can find it here if you scroll down most of the way.)

After he closed his reading, he spent a while taking questions from the audience. One woman asked him what he thought about the "death of the book," the notion that no one reads anymore. "We are constantly surrounded and penetrated by text. People read more, quantitatively; now we can read the crawler at the bottom of CNN, even.... Often in the mass of text, there is poetry, even if it's accidental. You have to listen for it...Author your own listening by paying attention."

Someone else asked him about enlightenment and when it's coming. His answer got a good laugh from the crowd: "I believe in being a little sick. People who are a little sick are more careful, more attentive. Healthy people freak me out...My job is to make people a little sick. The last art movement I really enjoyed was punk, I liked that last romantic revolt."

I asked whether there might be something about exile which is fundamental to the human condition, not just geographical exile but also spiritual. He nodded, and went on to say a fair bit about that:

"The oldest tale tells us we were thrown out of Paradise and put into exile....Our history begins with that story of exile. Mirrored in various ways by the human condition, literally and symbolically."

"Some professions, like that of writer, require a kind of alienation and distance, an exile from oneself to be able to observe things. When I came to America in the 60s, people made a credo out of alienation! A world in exile. I'm not sure what qualifies; clearly there are so many kinds. Political exile is very real; metaphysical exile is a different thing. And then there are immigrants, not exiles in the proper sense of the term; they didn't have to leave Paradise, their countries, their home. They wanted to find another one..."

"But the literature of the 20th century was written in large part by exiles... It's become an indispensible condition to writers. My desperate last attempt to hang on to exile was to keep smoking until two years ago! To provoke people to throw you out, so you can feel at home. That's one of the paradoxes of exile. I really did think when I left Romania that I was going no particular place, but into a country of exiles. Most great Romanian writers...lived in this 'country of exile,' an idea-state, with no physical location. The world's only anarchist state, inhabited only by geniuses thrown out of their country!"

Then someone asked what he thinks about the Messiah. "If I had a gun, I would shoot him," he said, which made me instantly think of the proverb if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. "I think we need to be saved from ideas like the Messiah. The idea of a Messianic savior, we should be saved from. There have been too many. I think everybody should be able to save themselves."

After the reading, there was a reception in the manor house, where I nibbled on apple slices and chatted for a while with the woman who handles the website for Foxhollow. I asked how they balance residence with retreat, and mentioned that my retreat center, Elat Chayyim, recently added an intentional community component to their retreat system. We nattered a bit about that, and then she asked if I knew of Mordechai Gafni. I've never met him, but I know his name. Turns out he came to Foxhollow earlier this year; apparently he and Andrew had a great dialogue about Judaism, enlightenment, consciousness, and universality, among other things. Video and audio recordings of their dialogue (which I'm looking forward to downloading) are available here.

I'm glad I went. Good poems; good stories; and a neat chance to encounter a literary luminary in person. The talk wasn't as explicitly religion-focused as the description had led me to expect, but I enjoyed it anyway...and besides, it could be argued that any evening which focuses on words, narrative, ironic humor, the continuum of hope and despair, and the tensions between home and exile is pretty Jewish, even if the subject of Judaism is never explicitly raised.

[The photo I linked, at the top of this post, came from here.]

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