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Andrei Codrescu

Review: The Book of Knowledge, by Chad Faries
Vulgar Marsala Press
ISBN 978-0982007792 

My first experience of Chad Faries’ collection of poems, The Book of Knowledge was the cover—a sort of map to the whimsy, conjectures, and elaborations within. We have a blond haired child in the clothes of a page/minstrel/jester (there are pantaloons) holding what appears to be a paintbrush or a stylus (too small for my middle aged eyes to decide). He is in color and has his back turned to us. What he looks at is a night sky full of chalked lilies, a salamander, a motorcycle, two hands wielding a bow string and violin bow (primitive string instrument, fire maker?), an octagon of a zodiac, an outline of the great lakes, and to the left of the boy, the C cleft (the one violas use). There are also numbers 2, 3, 5 (Fibonacci sequence) as well as other mathematical signs, and we may wonder if this black and white universe is the boy’s created knowledge, and the secret, or metaphorical code for the book. The back cover has blurbs and a rather whimsical description of the author: “… the Owls in the wild oaks outside his house in Thunderbolt, Georgia, know him as an alien and call his name quite often. They coo and woo and, with Chad’s heavy sweet breath, they all shift into song. And so is the life of Dr. Chad Faries, famous American writer.”

So, having seen the front cover, and the back, I am assuming certain things: the book will have something to do with mapping, cartography, magic, whimsy, and a play on the name Faries. It will be about knowledge perhaps, and perhaps that knowledge will be random and surreal. It will ape old illustrated books—the sort of books with illustrations throughout. The author will speak of himself in the third person or make up characters to do so, which hints that it will be imaginative and, hopefully, fey and playful like Herbert’s Mr. Cogito poems, Dobbyn’s heart poems, Paul Zimmer’s work in which Zimmer is the main character. I am annoyed at the small print (it is a little book for little people supposedly) but delighted by the cover.

So, thus far, I am both annoyed and delighted all at once, and I have a sneaking suspicion the poet would not mind that I be both annoyed (or irritated/agitated like a clam) and delighted all at once. I am already shaking the book for its possible contents before I have even entered it. Is it meta-poetry? Is it playful like Trout Fishing in America? No less a luminary than Andre Codrescu has blurbed it, and so I am going to think this book is being claimed for the American surreal, and experimental (or what might be better called speculative). Sure enough, Codrescu is claiming the poet as a wonderful exception to the dregs out there. He blurbs: “In the easy narrative mess that many poets are now making out of the mystery of their lives, Chad Fairies keeps the mystery of his intact…” This is Codrescu’s way of saying Chad is not a confessional poet. I think this blurb widely true, but inexact, as good strategic blurbs often are. I translate the blurb as: “There are those terrible narrative poets out there (like Sharon Olds?) making a mess of the mystery of their lives, and then there is Chad Faries who is not committing the sin of the confessional, the straightforward, that which is bereft of mystification.” Perhaps Codrescu is doing a positive version of Anis Shivani? My heart (if you want to call it that) starts to sink because I am thinking that I am about to get the opposite side of the same MFA driven coin: the non-confessional school of MFA: moderately surreal, life tweaking, cute, playful, troping, mass produced competent surreal poem as opposed to the straightforward, utterly clear and as flat as Sharon Olds’ ass fully confessional poem. Oh no! I think: the stupid wars by which mediocrity wins grants! I’m as sick of Codrescu’s camp as I am of so called normative free verse. I think Codrescu is fighting a war that ended in the 80s. Both sides won and poetry lost. Both schools mass produce university magazines and poets. Fucking spare me. I wish to play Mercutio and shout a plague on both their houses.

So I have seen the front cover, read the blurbs, and now I enter the acknowledgements which contain Codrescu’s famous Exquisite Corpse, and the bastion of all that is not I: Barrow Street. I think: this is going to be another tongue-in-cheek,- eternally pop or lit-referencing- tropey- surreal– dada meets -John Ashbery meets comic shtick, and has a baby called Beavis and Butthead collection of poems by a really intelligent white guy who went to grad school and who is a smart ass. I’m kind of sick of those guys. They get on my nerves.

Where I am not right is where I highly recommend this book: first, it is thick, with verbal impasto (not the usual breezy lines of chit-chat and non-sequitur), with an “I” voice that at times lays it on thick with finger rather than brush paint, and enjoys hearing itself speechifying—sort of a drunken hybrid of Polonius and a character out of Confederacy of Dunces. Slight example of this pontificating shtick (the titles are often long and often mock didactic, and a little like the subtitles in old books which would have: “chapter 7 which treats of Justin’s realization of eternal truth”). This is from, We Must Not Let the Muddle of Words Mislead Us:

Let us move to heat. The simple word is used
For two quite different things though only the very
wisest of those who would study such things have
yet noticed how their word is deceiving
them. Now by coincidence I can speak
of heat slightly metaphorically,
though I didn’t plan to, and would rather

Note how the enjambments aid and abet the breathless rambling preamble of it all. The voice of the poem hems and haws and qualifies, and is breathless. This is one of the pervading styles of the book—a sort of performed “I”, an “I” that would not be out of place in a book by Berryman.

But there is another, lyrical, even beautifully broken voice that reminds me of the Apollinaire of Mirabeau Bridge—a sort of harlequin sadness that encroaches in the midst of all the verbiage, and begins to make The Book of Knowledge far more than verbal trickery. One of my favorites that achieves this effect is the poem Seeing Voice:

I stood on the sky and looked;

A blue toy glider launched, arching
over the peak of a roof. A blond
child with a plastic and rubber band cross-

An omnipotent mother puffing a cigar-
ette, her breath a braid
of smoke…

This is beautiful and magical scene painting, true surrealism—the moment throbbing with its own unconscious, ephemeral life—utterly plausible, not just clever or tricky. It is in this way that Chad Faries keeps the promise mentioned in Codrescu’s blurb: not removing the mystery of life.

As mentioned, the book has many long poems, poems that leave a trail of strangeness on the page. It is full of illustrations like a 19th century text, and has many interesting cartographical and astronomical instruments drawn throughout. If you remove these, do you remove the effect of the poems? Not at all, but it is a book to rummage in, and for all its high concept, to skip around and enjoy as one might enjoy a book of maps—an almanac.
There are narrative poems here, lyrical narratives that have great emotional force. The poem Steve, if it were about suicide (and we will never know) is a better poem about suicide than Nick Flynn’s more famous Bag of Mice. Just the beginning, to get a sense of it:

On top of the roof he cut open the belly
of the sky with a pair of scissors…

Or these lines:

The fire truck in the distance
was a mourning woman who had lost her son.

There are many such moments in the book, and I do not truly know why the high concept of the illustrations and some of the voices are needed, but these moments are enough to make me not care. I enjoyed it almost as much as I did Peter Markus’ Good, Brother. It has moments that are as sweet-without-being-cloying as the playful love poems of Kenneth Patchen, and these moments make The Book of Knowledge a refreshing change both from straight on confessional narrative free verse, and the too easy surrealism and emotional disconnection that now passes for innovative. It is not a book for lazy readers. Its small print means that at 91 pages, it is really more like 130: a small novel. One can see it as a small novel or a very large miscellany. Either way, it is a book of poems worth struggling into. It has the muscular strength of something beyond sound bites and “projects.” I wish it were in hard cover with gold lettering here and there. For some reason I cannot fathom, The Book of Knowledge reminded me at certain points in its thickness and gnarled whimsy of Browning. If Browning is lurking about the book, then it transcends both the schools of confessional narrative and American speculative verse. And that is all to the good. Condrescu commends Faries for “Standing upright by the light of his torch, and for not assuming that he recognizes anything he sees.” I commend him, but not for not assuming he recognizes what he sees. Being puritanical about never-assuming can be a real bore (I love assumptions and find them amusing. I work in academia where all assumptions are qualified into oblivion). Every once in a while Faries sees something and points with his torch, knowing the fire of his words will distort it. And he does not apologize. Good for him. This is a book that manages to do things none of the prevailing books are doing. It is slow going in the beginning, but picks up. It is a book that insists on patience. In this case, patience is rewarded.

Neither a memoir nor a novel, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton UP, 2010) by Andrei Codrescu measures the speed of our psycho-poetic times. It seems we are moving faster and faster knowing less and less where. On the sheen of it, the book runs through the first day of an Intro to Poetry Writing class wherein Codrescu narrates his process of assigning “Ghost-Companion” poets to students according to the first letter of their last names. Underneath the glaze of this conceit, however, the book prods for lessons about the American Academy’s marketing of the imagination through creative writing classes.

I pissed smugly on academia, which is a way of saying that I pissed on myself, which I do, regularly, to extinguish my pretensions. While I was peeing I didn’t think I was immortal, but felt something very much like it. It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything. I could just be a damn professor like all the dinosaurs that spray these stalls, but I can’t. I’d have to give up being a poet, not that anyone knows what the hell that is, but that’s exactly the point. The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject. (98)

Codrescu, with his trademark humor and eye for the ladies, unleashes a number of schemes to shock his poetry students into making it new (here “it” also means their lives and not just their texts). Musing on our mania for the new, Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) A bit later, he expounds explicitly on the role of the poet in society: “The poets’ job was to cast a weary second glance on the world and to look fondly into eternal sentiments with a musical insistence that made them new.” (109) Upon critical reflection on Codrescu’s observations that we are addicts of the new, a question might arise: how can a poet ever be more than a hipster, a fashionista, or a mere bodysurfer of the new? Turning Walter Benjamin on his head, one might ask: what is freedom without fashion?

College students need the kinds of Humanistic insights that Codrescu offers throughout his diaristic recounting of the first session of his last class. For instance, Codrescu brings up linearity, that crutch of old-man positivism:  “I like to start at the beginning, I adore chronology even though I know only too well (and explain to my advanced classes) that chronology is arbitrary and that you can get to or at anything starting at any point, because all things touch on every other thing with at least one point of their thingness. Or maybe all things are round.” (116) I like to think that such an image (of how all things are really connected) lounging in the heads of young people might make it difficult for them to conspire to profit off of their neighbor. Eternal sentiments like the interconnectedness of all things or the sensuality of life or the transitory nature of all things are the functional purview of a Liberal education.

Though the form of Codrescu’s pedagogy seems based on a set of labyrinthine rules and draconian discipline; the content, represented through deft summary and talky quotation, suggests his abiding interest in learning what it means to be a poet from his students. Reflecting on his poetry-life, Codrescu writes:

If anything consoles me now it is that attached to these poets and their publishers and my friends and their work were stories. I had thousands of stories to tell about these people and their products because this was my life, a life spent hanging out, talking, writing poetry, alone or with others, seeing twisted shapes in the night and crisp aphorism at dawn. (103)

The book rambles through delightful scenes of perky soldier-students and feral cats that have laid siege to the LSU campus where Codrescu is teaching his last class before retiring. “Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism.” (108)

Like the Romanian-born literary critic and professor Matei Calinescu, Andrei Codrescu, synthesizes the histories of European Avant-garde and American Modernism with calm lucidity. He chucks around terms like ideology, postmodernism, and kitsch with the cock-soreness of a smithy. Really? Take his word for it. Here Codrescu describes the perennial distrust between generations: “It had always been thus, but it was worse, I think, now, when every proof for one thing or another was intellectually available, but tips and hints on how to really live are rarer than asparagus stalks in Eskimo cuisine.” (57)

So, what is the poetry lesson? The poetry lesson is that poetry is a practice. What kind of practice? Poetry is the kind of practice that afflicts you with the microbe of identity crisis. If you don’t have an identity crisis, you have been rendered spiritually destitute by the readymade suggestions of capital. Seek the guidance of spirits.