Budila Express—A Hypothesis

Ruxandra Cesereanu on Alexandru Mușina

I have read the poem "Budila Express" many times, always with the feeling and the lucid intellectual realization that it is a generational poem, a collective rather than an individual ars poetica. It is, truly, the epitomizing poem of 'Generation 80' and of Romanian poetry thirty-five years ago. There are quite a few poets of that generation whom I enjoy reading (poets who have indeed left a mark on our literature) but Alexandru Mușina was not actually among the ones I started with; his turn came a bit later, and only after I had read my Mircea Cărtărescu, Ion Mureșan, Traian T. Coșovei, Magda Petreu, Magda Cârneci (or Ghica, by her original pen name), Liviu Ioan Stoiciu, Aurel Pantea, and so forth. I only got to Alexandru Mușina and Mariana Marin a decade or so later, for no specific reason other than that it took their books a bit longer to reach me. But here I've got a confession to make: It is not the irony and parody in Mușina's poetry that really appealed to me in the first place, but its sober-toned sequences and its ample, ritualistic developments. It is true that this poet's gravity has always been closely shadowed by irony or self-irony, but the latter still only comes in acceptable portions, distilled, typically, through profundity. An out-and-out ironic and parodic Mușina would hardly have left a deep imprint on me; the sober one, though, with his subdued irony, has made quite an unexpected impact.

First of all, I simply enjoyed "Budila Express" as a poem in itself—as a stand-alone poem equipped with everything needed for qualifying as an initially personal and then also collective ars poetica, as well as a subversive manifesto that flew under the communist radar. Yet no less important was obviously the way in which it managed to epitomize the style of "Generation 80" while at the same time streamlining the influence that American poetry has often had on the latter. But then something else happened: I read and slowly absorbed Allen Ginsberg's celebrated poem "Howl," and all of a sudden (yet still in a totally accountable way) these two generational poems—"Howl" and "Budila Express"—became part of one and the same family of powerful poems capable of synthesizing their world and their time. Besides, both poems involved a theoretical stance regarding poetry and the new life of certain kinds of protesters and nonconformists that strove for a different kind of art, with different devices, in a different style, and of a different pithiness.

Allen Ginsberg's poem is, of course, recognized as visionary and purposefully prophetic writing; it was conceived as a symphonic hallucination, yet at the same time, it is a song of praise for the Beat generation. I want to shortly revisit and summarize it here before moving on. "Howl" unfurls in a consistently psychedelic way as Ginsberg's tenet shapes the Beats as enlightened rebels willing to change the world from the roots through their deranged anti-establishment vision; yet the rebels' aim is attaining an ekstasis (a Beat Nirvana) that also triggers Ginsberg's own effort to recapitulate an eccentric yet visionary humanity. The ostensible anti-canon in the poem is thus meant to become a new canon (for the establishment of the Beat generation) while the poem's quest is devised as a journey of initiation (with America being recharted, by means of faux-Dionysian ekstasis, onto a new geography of knowledge); a journey which makes palpable a sort of knowledge in motion, also articulated by Jack Kerouac in his novel On the Road. The new visionaries of the Beat generation were self-proclaimed angels of the Apocalypse fighting Moloch (official institutional culture and its dogma). On various occasions, Ginsberg declared that his poem was also meant as a history of the Beat generation, and quite a number of critics borrowed and developed that idea, pointing to the hybrid structure of the work as both protest and psalm, with a style and architecture bearing witness to influences from Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud, Pound, and others.

A term-for-term comparison between "Howl" and "Budila Express" would be rather inexpedient and in any case not the aim of this contribution, written out of friendship and admiration for Alexandru Mușina. And in fact, a stricto sensu parallel between Mușina's and Ginsberg's poems would simply be inadequate. There are still a few issues pertaining to certain generational landmarks and to the demonstrative, manifesto-like features that cause "Budila Express" to be intimately related to "Howl." Mușina's poem was conceived and written from its outset as a laudatio and underground pro domo for 'Generation 80' (and its really influential poets, most of them Bucharest-based, but some also living in other cities). Although the psychedelic—in its now-classic sense—is not there in Mușina's piece, the poem does occasionally allude to a trance-like or altered state of conscience (even if only reached by means of merciless rationality), an unconventional form of knowledge incompatible with the dogmas (whether related to the poetry sanctioned by the communist powers that be or the political—inquisitorial and dictatorial—regime itself). The Moloch that Mușina subtly protests against is none other than the communist regime itself in all its miserable reality. There is no explicit advocacy for ekstasis in "Budila Express," but it does show a clear preference for anything that might distort communist reality, that dismisses the dogmatic (in all its senses—political, social, religious, literary, human), and that encourages the kind of non-conformity that takes an explicit anti-establishment stance in its exultation and detachment. That is why the humanity on which this poet insists belongs either to those willingly regimented into the social and political system (and therefore blamed for that) or to the people who defy the latter (if not with radical gestures then with other—artistic or social—kinds of rebellion). Just like "Howl," "Budila Express," too, showcases the anti-canon's ambitions to become the new canon (which has meanwhile come to happen indeed, just on its own). The journey, then, is another ingredient (be it a merely metaphoric or symbolic one) in Mușina's poem prompting an initiation (even if it lacks the Dionysian flavors of "Howl") by dint of an ironic conscience that, to a certain extent, parodies the reality in the observer/experiencer's crosshairs. The exponents of 'Generation 80' in "Budila Express" are also a peculiar kind of apocalyptic angels even if they are no visionaries, but outsiders, pariahs of their own making, rebels representing an alternative and even opposition to the official discourse of the day. They have been made skeptical and cynical by the authoritarian, censorial system in which they have to live and to which they've had to adapt.

The Metastatic Tapestry

I remember attending Alexandru Mușina's reading at the poetry marathon hosted by the late poet Alexandru Bodiu in Sibiu, in 2007. Mușina had chosen to read some new poems, but his younger friends (and former disciples) insisted he do "Budila Express" once again and managed to convince him. It was the apex of the whole marathon (involving round eighty poets), featuring a slightly shy and nervous Mușina (since he was testing himself by reading this poem again after so many years), who spoke in an even voice, displaying neither emphasis nor pride. It was the best performance in the whole marathon and, as far as I could tell, a genuine personal triumph for Mușina, for the poetry of 'Generation 80' as well as for Romanian poetry in general.

"Budila Express" opens in a disheartened and disheartening mood; it gravitates around loss, oblivion, and mortification—"A swift,/ aseptic, elegant abortion"—while life still goes on, in spite of all entrapments. Against the backdrop of such desolation, the guardian (and also apocalyptic) angel amplifies and consecrates the spectral noise of a reality split into two different chapters: on the one hand the exceptions of what is still normal in life (celebrations, dancing, love), and on the other, the landmarks of layered and irreversibly embedded wretchedness (alcohol, urine, disease, bureaucracy, mendacity). Although the New Jerusalem is no more than an ad on a billboard and therefore part of the age's advertising machine, paradise is not completely absent, but just confined to a strictly spiritual dimension: "Either we get across the Garden's rotten wall and pick/ The golden globes we tame the future with, or we undo/ The air's buttons and angrily possess/ Illusion's warm body."

The bookish references in "Budila Express" (names of authors, books, quotes, or libraries) are not meant to add a layer of erudition to the poem; rather, they add color to its journey and its ontic-cognitive adventure. The first, manifesto-like section of the poem evokes the ways in which one can define poetry in the context of the century's sickly end, this dismal age. Poetry is "that cranky/ And shameful teenage need," then it's the "Fat farmers' market mama who/ Got our hearts for a quarter and strung them on a thread;" and, in a third definition, it is a "boring word/ Let out of dictionaries/ Out of conformity and inertial vocation." Still, in spite of this concise history of poetry from the angle of literary theory (as teenage inspiration, as manipulation or barren didacticism, or as dogmatic discourse), the journey in "Budila Express" and its visual (both sentimental and rationalized) account become themselves poetry in the process, and thus esthetically valid and validated.

The section of greatest impact in the poem is, in my opinion, the one shrewdly titled "Défoulement." It unfolds, almost in a trance, as a recapitulation of the deceased twentieth century's eighties, through a sequence of socially relevant vignettes linked to each other like the beads on a rosary, creating a tapestry and song (a liturgical lullaby of sorts, if I may go for a hybrid metaphor) for a whole generation. The incantatory drive of this section is overt and prevailing: every nook and cranny of Romania's end-of-the-century reality is thoroughly examined with the kind of instruments that make the "local" (despicable and ludicrous as it may be) stand in for the whole world. Part four is worth quoting in full, but since it is quite lengthy I would prefer not to truncate it by picking just a few lines that cannot capture the whole phreatic network underlying Mușina's poem. The entranced voice in "Défoulement" does not speak as an "I" but as a "we;" on behalf of a (self-)established generation trespassing the law, as well as on behalf of those who, in spite of the abusive restrictions enforced by the regime, live life to the fullest, and who experience a certain kind of ekstasis.

The penultimate section of "Budila Express" (titled "Filter") lampoons and attacks official reality's "metastasis." An ironic and inventive literary heir to Tudor Arghezi (our archetypal inflammatory lampoonist), Alexandru Mușina employs a grotesque imagination to develop a remarkable panorama of vanities while also proving to be a prolific language innovator endowed with a sharp plasticity and an overflowing, vituperating passion. Just like Arghezi, Mușina scathes modern imbecility and the great circus of contemporary life. If a historian of mentalities placed this poem under her sociological magnifying glass, she would certainly come across a profusion of typologies (e.g. the bureaucratic) from Ceaușescu's Romania, which would very well qualify "Budila Express" also as a political (anticommunist) poem. Here is the poet's rendition of the herd-like, lobotomized, amoral humanity that one could have easily spotted here and there a couple of decades ago:

That's when stormed in, burst out, blew up
the smart slackers, the scato-inquirers, the card-punchers and the beforerunners
the brown-noses and the overdoses the rubber women and those unerasable
the full swap swingers the stakhanovists alchemists and vers-libristes
the mouth workers and the crack openers the slick suits and the hard hats
                                           the secretaries and the cleaning fairies the rectitude and the erectile nude
the matrons and the tart patrons the white whale and the pages
the hairdressers and the couch-arresters the I-deal-in-doozies and the vibro-masseuses
the comforters and the lump breakers the lingual dick-
handlers and the public servants the tax payers
and the funding players the lady bugs and the holy thugs
the activists and the passivists the switches and the bitches
the fatherland's mothers and the beer-bellied fathers the manual
readers and the muzzle makers the cheerleaders
and the shabby waiters the castrated knights and the neophytes those dressed to a tee
and those in neo-bankruptcy the lead soldiers and the carbide police
with the memory of childhood preserved in liquid helium.

[Translation by MARGENTO]

These are the hominids (the sociopaths) who stand opposed to those violators of the law—the outsiders, that is, the rebels of the eighties. Bureaucracy rears its head everywhere, with the persistence of a skipping record, operated by the automatic command of the most frequently used verb under Ceaușescu's communism: MUST. In order to escape this inquisitorial society's imperatives, the outsider takes refuge (by hiding behind the mask of the will to grow old faster) in a tacky billboard depicting the very journey named "Budila Express": a postmodern (and hence ironic) replica of Rimbaud's Illuminations or, perhaps, of "Voyage to Cythera" by modern poetry's founding father, Baudelaire. But above all, it is a response to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."

translated from the Romanian by MARGENTO