American Book Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring 2022
by Allan Graubard
Valery Oisteanu—poet, performer, artist and art critic— has led quite a life. Born in Russia in 1943, he finds himself as a young boy with his family in Bucharest, Romania, where he grows up. In 1963, inspired by surrealism and its forerunner, Dada, the 20 year old makes the sensibility his own in a country that types both movements as scandalous excrescences of bourgeois culture. Then In 1967, educated now as an organic chemical engineer, Oisteanu gains a national following with a buoyant weekly radio show that he MCs: “Everything for Everybody.” Ill content with Communist Party dictates on culture, the show features a potpourri of jazz, rock, theater, and discussion about the underground cultural scene. Around that time, Oisteanu also meets Gellu Naum, founder of the Romanian surrealist group, and the two form a lasting friendship. Add in convulsive poetry, sexual liberation, political contestation and a cutting sense of humor—as much as was possible in public in Romania—and the Oisteanu we know today comes into focus. He soon finds it impossible to live in a dictatorship and makes his escape. For a time he resides in Israel, where he meets Ruth, his wife to be, then travels through Europe and lands in New York in 1972, where he has lived ever since.
A hotbed of the avant-garde—with poetry, art, music, theater, film and dance swirling the mix—Oisteanu embraces the moment. He settles in the East Village, a dangerous area then, and goes to it, collaborating with the likes of Ray Johnson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and somewhat later Ira Cohen, among many others.
Now, at the age of 78, Oisteanu’s newest book, In the Blink Of A Third Eye, has lost none of that charge. Invigorating his initial sources with poems, collages, and prose poems, the older poet now deepens each with the full arc of his history focused on the phenomena and people he responds to. If a subtle sense of loss and lament pervades, the joy and humor he infects his writing and art with is counterpoint. If the anguish of dealing with collective crises seems unending, and it can when viewed over decades, as Oisteanu does, the irony and beauty he spices things up with balances the scales. And for this reader, at least, that is a prize value, and which, I hope, other readers will appreciate.
Set in six sections, the 62 poems, 7 prose poems and 18 collages open up a reading route with different stops set along the way. Their place names are: “Beat Travel Blues,” “Ghost Purgatory,” “Underground of Distorted Memories,” “Jazzoetry Labyrinth,” “New Poems: Pandemic Variations,” and “Prose Poems.” I don’t know about you, but if I were traveling through a country with road signs like these, I’d stop at each one and head on in. I’d also take to heart the request that Oisteanu makes in his opening statement to try reading the poems aloud, “all by yourself, and don’t be afraid to laugh at the confused pronouns and absurdist humor. The blind swimmer,” he continues, “will guide you through this tormented trip full of waterfalls of metaphors that splash sideways and climb upwards” (pg. 7).
Opposite the statement is a visual key; an erotically-charged collage with one foot in the present, one foot in the past: a close up of a woman’s face in half-profile, her luscious lips flanked on the right by a curious asynchronous dancing couple, a coarsely cut third eye on a Buddha statue’s brow upper left, another eye peeping out from a prominent egg, a metal toy robot of sorts with prominent breasts below and just opposite a white spectral face with two yellow daffodils as neck decorations. Below right is a triangle of striped wrapping paper with the edges pulled back as if the entire collage were beneath it. To top it all off is this curious phrase in big grey letters: “The Dead Can Grow.” Of course the dead do grow, as much in us who remember them as, for a time, in the earth they lie.
But before the dead, for Oisteanu, is travel, which he and Ruth do persistently, and which the first section portrays, from Morocco and Japan, to Italy, Greece, his native Romania, and more.
A sympathetic recorder of transitory encounters infused by their multiple characteristics, Oisteanu’s brush with Moroccan women is emblematic. Their “invisible phantomatic burkas with eyes/Eyebrows like a bird’s dark wings” (pg. 14) does not mask what his “Mysteriously elusive women of Morocco” do, working as waitresses in cafes, retail traders of “artisanal ethnic” products, their “grinding Argan nuts into oil,” “washing scarves” in a nearby river or simply cooking. Their sometime despair, the result of arranged marriages for young women with elder men, or their historical place, more broadly, as “lightning rods of the 2011 Arab revolution” (pg. 14) does not escape Oisteanu either.
In the following poem, “Children of Kasbah,” Oisteanu portrays an oppressive sense
of struggle against poverty as their daily fare. As he puts it: “Victims of neglect
create their own demons” (pg. 15). The final three lines of them poem capture Oisteanu observing the kids poignantly, as much aware of his more privileged view
as the tough realities they face: “They touch me without touch/Beneath of absence and presence/I hear the human cry among the shuffling feet” (pg. 15). And it is this kind of attentiveness to the daily grind, mixed with poetic referents, that Oisteanu will use to advantage. From the customary lyric, “O traveler, the full moon blossoms upon you” (pg. 17), there is, in another poem written in a Ryokan in Takayama, Japan, this image, startling for its resonant end beat, Haiku-like precision: “Insomnia: a decomposed leaf on the ground” (pg. 24). As for humor, and Oisteanu’s use of it, I refer the reader to several minor comedic masterworks: “Who Stole My Shoes” and “15 Days in Post-Human.”
“Ghost Purgatory,” the second section of the book, includes incisive memorials to poets, writers, and artists that Oisteanu knew and collaborated with or didn’t know except by their works, which inspired him: Nanos Valaoritis, the acclaimed Greek surrealist poet: “Nanos departure was a plane crash on a sunset/An Olympian going for a dive off a volcano” (pg. 35); Steve Dalachinsky, a much missed poet and friend who died suddenly in 2019: “Steve has gone like a soluble fish in the ocean/Melting in a swirl of colors” (pg. 36); Steve Canon, an axial presence in the East Village literary scene; the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the only poet I know with an asteroid named after him: “Some say his poetry was like borscht/But I say his poetry was like a giant kite/Flying on the wings of a cold breeze” (pg. 38); the Nobel prize recipient Elie Wiesel who endured the Holocaust, this “place where insanity halted time” (pg. 21), and made us never forget; Dina Von Zweck, writer and artist; Andy Warhol, whom we all recognize; and “Andre Breton in Babylon,” an alliterative title that echoes through the poem blithefully: “Dada surrealism marathon/Sade, Freud, Jung all with a hard-on” (pg. 44).
The final sections contain poems I will return to, as much for their charm they exert and the anxiety they englobe as for the colors they bring to common experience. There is “This Poem Went Through Me,” an intensely personal account of writing while sitting in Washington Square Park, and the obvious contradictions at hand: “The loneliness of a poet writing in a crowded park /Writing a poem escaping from his soul” (pg. 50). There is also ”Becoming Invisible,” a stand out evocation of a world in which Oisteanu fades away and wonders why and how. It opens with this recognition, as sudden as it is casual; take your pick: “Today I did not see myself in the mirror” then leaves us these epiphanies: “A shadow abandons me, dashing into traffic”; “My clothes fall from my shapeless body”; “In the café no one sees me at all”; and ends with a comedic yet disturbing couplet, Oisteanu as a “Distant silhouette of suggestibility/Barely alive yet already unreachable” (pg. 51). In “Narcoleptic Blues For Ruth,” Oisteanu sings of more pleasant sites: “A landscape of curving legs and buttocks/Green plants undulating like female snakes” (pg. 70). Another poem tackles the solitude enforced on us by the pandemic with a heady curative. Why not an “International Day of Tickling” to wash away our masks and social distancing. I’m ready for it. Aren’t you?
The book’s concluding section, a series of prose poems, spins the reader into a different realm, which I, for one, sympathize with. Here invention assumes either a major or minor chord with wholly invented, sui generis texts and other texts whose façade of reasoned prose, in several akin to the learned travelogue, accentuates the poetic qualities of the subject.
Oisteanu’s visual universe is a composite of detourned images drawn from an eclectic array of popular magazines, guide books, photographs, rubber stamps, and similar sources: the ground on which he builds his collages with a playful, erotic, jazz-inspired Punk hand. Across these shores, freshly discerned and ready for action, another host of players lead the way. Here, not to forget his progenitors, Ernst’s “Loplop” bird cavorts with iconic Japanese peasant figures, Geisha women, Kabuki warriors, Tahitian beauties, classic Pop comic book references, an ancient floating Greek Medusa head, and a wild compass on the verge of losing direction. It doesn’t matter that the planet’s magnetic field still calls the shots. This is an elsewhere to inhabit at your convenience. Just know that Third Eyes rise at night to mesmerize and motivate; a repeating syncopation to the vertically set rhythms throughout the collages, bottom to top or top to bottom. Did I mention Oisteanu’s naïve drawings, which he sets in several collages? They are there, too.
In the Blink Of A Third Eye is a touchstone for this time. The title, though, while singular, one blink, is also a call. Blink rapidly while walking, gazing this way and that, and the phenomenal world turns cinematic; a palimpsest for each of us to wonder with and ponder over. Just as Oisteanu does in this book.
Allan Graubard is a poet, writer, playwright, literary critic and publisher. His most recent books include Language of Birds (Anon Editions, NY, 2020), Western Terrace (Exstasis Editions, Victoria, BC, 2019), and Into the Mylar Chamber: Ira Cohen (Fulgur, UK, 2019). His reviews can be found in Los Angeles Review of Books, Leonardo, Hyperion, Pacific Rim Review of Books, and similar publications.