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The Review: Testimony by Charles Reznikoff

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Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony may be one of the most influential obscure works of poetry produced in the twentieth century. Its first volume appeared in 1934, and the last appeared posthumously in 1978. The sales of all the volumes summed together cannot have reached one thousand copies. Yet Reznikoff has been the sole subject of two scholarly books and dozens of articles and is routinely cited by documentary and conceptual poets as an important influence. Until I read his work myself, I suspected that many of these people were pretending to have read him: there are many minor classics condemned to an afterlife of respectful, uninformed mentions. Now I think otherwise. In his extremely quiet way, Reznikoff is like the Velvet Underground. It is nearly impossible to read him carefully without finding his influence beginning to appear in one’s own work. I sometimes hear him in my own writing, and I am not even a poet.

After more than eighty years disarticulated, Testimony has finally been issued in a single, complete volume by Black Sparrow Books. Given the extreme rarity of the 1934 volume, which was never reprinted, this is the first occasion most readers have had to take in the entire work. This provides a useful occasion to revisit and reflect upon Reznikoff’s poetry. Because so much of his best-known poetry is drawn from legal material and concerns terrible wrongdoing, people often understand Reznikoff’s great theme to be injustice. I think otherwise—to the extent that his work reflects a principle, that principle is sympathy, and though wrongs cannot be righted, Reznikoff suggests it is relatively easy to do the right thing in the first place. He is a poet of fragile goodness and guarded optimism.

Reznikoff completed his law degree at NYU but never practised. He always believed poetry to be his vocation and pursued it doggedly; he wrote his first publishable poems in his late teens and continued writing until he died in his eighties. The reception of his work was hindered by his modesty and infallibly bad professional instincts. His first decision as a poet illustrates the general pattern. Reznikoff was in his early twenties when he began to submit his work for publication and almost immediately had a group of works accepted by Poetry magazine; one can hardly imagine an easier or more auspicious beginning. But after a slight delay he withdrew the accepted poems and instead printed them privately, guaranteeing their obscurity. His work never sold well, and often lacking an official publisher, he frequently self-published, in many cases setting the type and printing the copies himself. Near the end of his life Black Sparrow took up his work and has been a faithful steward ever since.

Reznikoff began composing Testimony while working for a legal encyclopedia. He read accounts of thousands of court cases in the United States, and some of these cases slowly condensed into poems. Testimony relies upon cases tried between 1885 and 1915 and is thus filled with the violent distempers of an industrial age. Yet the reader would not suspect the source of these stories if Reznikoff had not mentioned it. The poems generally make no reference to judges, juries, or witnesses, and the reader doesn’t learn of verdicts. What the poems do contain are vivid, cinematic accounts of bad things happening, bubbles with awful little worlds inside. The index of first lines, which contains nearly five hundred entries, is a masterful, portentous poem in its own right. The poems are the author’s reconstruction of what happened, which may or may not correspond to what any single witness saw or what the court deemed to be the truth. In style, the pieces in Testimony contain none of the clunky or Latinate language of the courts: they are written in Reznikoff’s austere, accessible style, which he termed a “Doric music.”

In this sense, the poet has done an enormous amount of interpretive labour for the reader. As legal scholar Benjamin Watson has shown, hundreds of pages of trial material might end up as five or six lines of poetry. Yet the poems also present the reader with something very puzzling. Testimony drops few hints about what the author thinks of the story, or what we should think. Reznikoff the author does not editorialize and does not even head his poems with titles that might obliquely suggest a stance. Nor did he leave behind a body of essays or criticism that might tell us more about his motivations. This ambiguity has given rise to two readings: crudely, the critics’ reading and the poets’ reading.

Critics have, to a great extent, sought to understand Reznikoff’s poetry in light of his Jewish identity. There are certainly persuasive reasons to read him in this way: His work often broaches personal and familial experiences of anti-Semitism. He also used the compositional techniques of Testimony to address Judaism and the Jewish experience. He adapted biblical materials to retell the story of David in King David and used transcripts from the Nuremberg trials to compose Holocaust. His wife, Marie Syrkin, was an important American Zionist. Though Judaism is not a subject much addressed in Testimony, the work demands to be situated in some moral context. In his introduction to the new volume, Eliot Weinberger suggests that Reznikoff’s engagement with Jewish history and thought provides that context:Testimony is a modern, secular version of the “the Jewish narrative of suffering without redemption.”

Poets of the newer generation who cite Reznikoff as an influence have read the work somewhat differently. To them, it suggests that legal source material can be used by poets to confront political questions, often in a way that permits the poet to take a strong position. This approach produces a poetry rather different from Reznikoff’s. A recent example is Jena Osman’s Corporate Relations, which uses legal material to take up the issue of corporate personhood. It is an engaging work addressing the aspects of law that are elided in Testimony. The book smells of the courtroom and is full of procedures, rulings, statements, and quotations. This is frequently true of contemporary documentary poetry: by design, the jargon and institutional context of the source material nearly always comes through clearly. Though this interpretation of Reznikoff is freer than a reading rooted in his Judaism, it has valid grounds. Reznikoff was a deeply apolitical man, but he identified himself with a poetic movement, Objectivism, which was avowedly modernist in its aesthetics and leftist in its politics; Louis Zukofsky’s major theoretical statement about Objectivism cited Reznikoff as its exemplary author. Kenneth Burke’s astute introduction to the 1934 volume of Testimony also appreciated the book as a political work: any plainly stated case study presents to the reader all of the psychological and social contradictions of an era, and in Reznikoff’s plainness Burke rightly discerned a skilled artifice.

Both interpretations address themselves to the moral void at the centre of Testimony: it is a monumental work about law that does not contain a shred of justice. But though Reznikoff ’s world wants for justice, it is full of goodness. Reznikoff was a lifelong New Yorker, and his collections of personal poems offer an unusually warm vision of city life. Modernist poetry made a great deal of alienation and rootlessness in urban life. By contrast, Reznikoff takes note of the many modest ways that cities work because of the sympathy and cooperation of strangers. By the Well of Living and Seeing, the collection I consider his best, and one very unlike the volumes of Testimony, is full of small kindnesses. Some poems observe the gracious behaviour of others. Many more revolve around Reznikoff ’s own experience of the city. He was by all accounts an exceptionally gentle man and in his wife’s view generous to a fault. That personal disposition emerges as the unmistakable moral of this collection: the world is better if we are good to one another. Yet, perhaps to avoid criticizing others, Reznikoff plays up his personal weaknesses and effaces his kindness. In one poem he writes a letter for an illiterate man and makes such a careful and gently humorous study of the man that we may easily forget that the poet is spending several minutes helping a complete stranger. In another poem, Reznikoff has wandered far away from his usual city haunts and enters a fruit stand, where he listens to the worries of a greengrocer whose son has been sent off to war. Years later the greengrocer, whose son came home unharmed, recognizes Reznikoff and quietly replaces a rotten apple that had found its way into his bag of fruit.

By the Well of Living and Seeing also anatomizes many small acts of cruelty and derision. Characteristically, these acts arise from an unwillingness to acknowledge the humanity in others. Many of these poems discuss anti-Semitism, but others, including some of the most biting, address race and could easily describe American cities today:

By this time there were two or three other passengers on the platform
and we stood at a distance from the Negro and watched him,
though we pretended not to. He turned to us and said,
“I wonder how it feels to be white.”

Just then the train came in and we went inside
hoping that the Negro with his disturbance
would not enter the brightly lit car.

Reznikoff does not try to exempt himself from the realities of race by setting himself outside the “we” in this poem, though it is quite clear that the sharp refusal of recognition is not one he condones. He expresses his view of the fetters of prejudice most clearly in a little allegory:

At the zoo, the camel and zebra are quarreling:
trying to bite each other
through the bars between them.
Of course, they come from different continents.

Reznikoff’s poetry describes a world where evil, once done, cannot be set right: judgment and redemption, or a moral actor with the right to judge and redeem, are nowhere to be found. But to the extent that it is a world provided with friendliness, it is not a fallen world, just one that has stumbled and retains enough grace to carry life onward.

The hanging is green, too;
embroidered on it, the shield of David
and a single word in Hebrew, “hai,”
meaning “life.”
When we moved, the moving-men dropped the picture
and the glass that protected the print cracked;
the crack ran over the word “hai”
but the cracked glass held in the frame.

Permit me to conclude with a personal note of gratitude for Reznikoff’s friendliness. I first read him in The Poems of Charles Reznikoff: 1918-1975. This delightful volume, which includes all of his work except Testimony and Holocaust, fell out of print right before the reissue of Testimony. I bought the book at my nerdy neighbourhood bookstore, Chicago’s Seminary Co-op. I had seen the woman at the cash register many times before. She had always seemed intelligent but sublimely indifferent to the people standing in front of her, and I never sought to impose my conversation on her—it seemed she had important things in mind. (As I learned later, she was composing poems.) When I put Reznikoff on the counter, her esteem for me rose very quickly. Within a month she had become one of my best friends.

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Ben Merriman’s essays have appeared in the Boston Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Los Angeles Review of Books, n+1, the Threepenny Review, and many other magazines.