Thinking outside the flood

The poet as witness to disaster

In 1966, poet, novelist, essayist and National Public Radio commentator Andrei Codrescu escaped Romania's communist regime. He became a U.S. citizen in 1981. In his poetry, those experiences are still heavy and palpable — a portable exile that he carries with him.

His latest collection, Jealous Witness, is mostly about his adopted home of more than 20 years, New Orleans, and the hurricanes that killed it. After all this time, he still writes as an outside observer, albeit one who makes himself at home wherever he goes. This perspective gives his work a far-sighted, beautifully alienated quality. In a recent interview with New Orleans' Times-Picayune, he said it took him a long time to write about the 2005 Katrina disaster. He doesn't like to write about catastrophe, personal or collective. But here it is, his report of the life and death of the "city that refuses to conform to anything that is known about it."

The opening poem, "Before the Storm: Geographers in New Orleans," turns into a maze of four short essays. The text shifts from stanzas to blocks of prose about the modernist poet Charles Olson, the 19th century German author and aristocrat Baron von Reizenstein, and literary ideas that Codrescu ties nicely to the city and its demise. Codrescu adopts different voices, transmitting other people's experiences like a radio. The rest of the time he's a first-person narrator who sees the world in terms of his own displacement. In "Before the Storm," he writes:

but I was principally motivated by the desire to escape

the tight borders of my walled-in childhood in a wall-in country

in a walled-in continent and a walled-in prison planet

The first several sections of the book present a carnival of casualties — the Latin carne vale meaning goodbye to death, as Codrescu points out. New Orleans is an aquarium of drowned things. Hope, identity and the concept of home float belly-up on its surface. The imagery is consistently and appropriately bleak: a disappearing middle class, mold, rotting food, abandoned pets and a looted Wal-Mart.

In "Tale of Two Cities," Codrescu points to John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces, set in New Orleans in the 1960s. The novel, published in 1980, 11 years after Toole's suicide, paints one of the most compelling and realistic portraits of the city in modern fiction.

this is a tale of two cities

that didn't even speak each others' name

before the deluge

one was empty big and pretty

the other poor proud loud and artsy

when the waters joined them

and made new orleans in baton rouge

Jealous Witness goes beyond regional disaster poems. It's rich with literary and cultural references with a whole section called "Some Poets" laid down to illuminate the work and influence of, among others, Anne Waldman, Kenneth Koch, Paul Valéry, the Romanian poet, novelist and essayist Mircea Cartarescu, Raymond Queneau, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley. For Creeley, Codrescu wrote "In Memory of the 20th Century":

full of idealized landscapes

they've cried enough in their saucy graves

they are back on a tidal wave of yearning

ready to sell the little kitschy things they made while dead

they are themselves tourists ...

Codrescu's eyewitness account of destruction and resurrection took a while to put together. But it was worth the wait. He began writing the poems in it for a musical collaboration with the New Orleans Klezmer AllStars, a zany ensemble whose full-length CD is included with Jealous Witness.

The AllStars use poems from the book as lyrics mixed up with their eclectic, whimsical sounds. Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind fame, bluesman Coco Rocicheaux, singer John Boutte and Ivan Neville are guest performers on the CD. On a few tracks, Codrescu reads against a wave of funky traditional Jewish folk music. Of course, he sounds right at home.

Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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