Book note: Poet Andrei Codrescu goes klezmer


Jealous Witness, the new collection of poems by Andrei Codrescu (This Was Today)—published by Minneapolis’s Coffee House Press—is, no pun intended, one for the books. You get a volume of spirited, brilliantly written verse and, nestled between the last page and back cover, a splendid CD of the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars playing original music with lyrics by Codrescu. Talk about a twofer: each is worth, as it were, the price of admission.

Codrescu writes from a humanist’s heart with a raucous and seasoned, beautifully piercing vengeance. To reflect on the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Big Easy’s still straggling recuperation, sample “let’s watch my house float (or, lawyers have p.t.s.d. sex)” (which also shows up on the CD). Such sentiments as, “I met a lawyer in the street/ usually it’s hey hey I gotta go/ or you owe me that dinner you know/ but now it’s hey can you drive me/ to lakeview to see my house rot/ sure why not/ let’s drive to lakeview/ to see where your house used to float/ and then to the ninth to see everybody’s houses rot/ and then let’s have some drinks on the levee.” And “the coffee house philosophers”: “we are the hard-working middle class/ we’re mortgaged up to our ass/ we’ve paid your taxes fought for better schools/ spoke loud so that they’d pave our streets/ we staffed your downtown buildings/ filled your restaurants and made your nightlife/ new orleans new orleans our vanished city.”

Jealous Witness, a book of poetry by Andrei Codrescu. Published by Coffee House Press (2008). $19.95.

Can there be any doubt about the power of this fella’s poetry? For those who need credentials, Andrei Codrescu’s track record is intact and then some. We’re talking being featured on ABC News’ Nightline, winning a Peabody Award for Road Scholar—a documentary about the United States, based on his book of the same title—Alien Candor: Selected Poems, 1970-1997; six essay collections—including A Craving for Swan, Raised by Puppets Only to Be Killed by Research, and The Disappearance of the Outside—along with four novels including The Blood Messiah, Casanova in Bohemia, and Wakefield (about an inspirational speaker who makes a deal with the devil at the end of the 20th Century—hardly a stretch, is it?).

The CD will send you. Between Codrescu’s wry wit nailing scalawag politicians to the proverbial barn door and the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars’s renowned, maverick stylings with guest near-lunatic vocalists like Harry Shearer (The Simpsons, Spinal Tap) and the exquisitely offbeat John Boutte, you’re by turn fascinated by the language, amazed by the music, and in absolute hysterics at how resolutely Andrei Codrescu—the erudite, articulate Andrei Codrescu—to quote the old quip, tells it “like it tee-eye iz.”

Granted, it’s not be the most intellectually astute analysis to say so, but: baby, Jealous Witness, in plain English, is outta sight. It comes out in September, so order now and be the first one on your block to snatch up a copy of this sublimely irreverent foray into fine literature.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.