May 2015

J P Poole


Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative by Charles Reznikoff

Poets are always finding ways to write poetry on the job. While Hart Crane worked at a New York advertising firm, he wrote lines of poetry on scraps of ad paper. When William Carlos Williams wasn't delivering babies or making routine house calls, he was jotting down poems on prescription pads. It's unlikely that the procedural-driven Wallace Stevens ever abused the time clock, but once he stepped foot in his study after work, his mind threw off the shackles of insurance law and his imagination cut loose. Yet, regardless of whether a poet sees their occupation as burden or an honest way to make a living, their work on the page may be subtly or overtly shaped by what they do between the hours of 9:00 and 5:00. No other poet, however, has so drastically transformed what was otherwise a tedious assignment at an entry-level job into a work of art than Charles Reznikoff.

Hired to read through hundreds of dusty volumes of court cases published in the Federal Reporter, Reznikoff became so enamored with the testimonies of early Americans that he was fired for taking too long to write up the abstracts that he was being paid to write. And so he wrote something else, Testimony, a small book based on trial transcripts, written in prose paragraph form and first published in 1934 (available in this edition for the first time in eighty years), then he set to work on Testimony: the United States, 1885-1890: Recitative, followed by Testimony: the United States, 1891-1915: Recitative. Reznikoff would spend over three decades expanding and revising a work that has no category. With the Southern Gothic feel of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the historical insights of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and the structural ambition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Testimony is a declaration of truth, as told by the men, women, and children who survived to tell it.

The level of scholarship Reznikoff had to work up to complete Testimony was hard won. As a young man, he floundered, looking for a career path that would appease his parents and give him the freedom to write. In 1910, at just sixteen years old, he attended the Missouri School of Journalism, but found that he was more interested in literary craft than chasing sensational stories. After a year, he dropped out. Barely eighteen, he applied to NYU School of Law in 1912, comforted by the fact that Goethe had been a lawyer (albeit for just a few months), assuming that after he passed the bar he would rent a desk in a law office, complete his pile of meddlesome tasks for the day, and then set to work on his real occupation. But law school wasn't as effortless as he supposed, and he would have jumped ship yet again had his parents not begged him to stay the course. He practiced law briefly, but soon became absorbed in self-publishing books of poetry and verse plays on a printing press that he'd set up in his parents' basement. When the Depression hit, the honeymoon of writing what he wanted to write when he wanted to write it ended abruptly. He went to work for the Brooklyn-based American Law Book Company in 1930, where he found in the pages of the Federal Reporter a treasure trove of archival material dating back to 1789 that would describe the underbelly of early American life in a way that history books never had.

By the time Reznikoff got the job combing court documents, he was already a published poet, mixing with Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen under the umbrella of the Objectivists, a small group of poets that called for a clear treatment of the object observed, without flourish, ornamentation, or sentiment -- and held that the depiction of everyday life should take precedence over the pentameter line. Very much influenced by Imagism, Reznikoff gave great weight to Ezra Pound's rule "to use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation."

In order to rearrange the cases into poems -- vignettes of sorts -- Reznikoff's skill level had to extend beyond the scope of a poet's. In essence, he became an amalgam of curator, historian, translator of legal jargon, and editor. To relegate Testimony to the category of "found poetry" is to miss entirely the magnitude of Reznikoff's vision. He wanted these cases to survive and be read by others, and knew that without structure, without a proper container, the work amounted to little more than a chaotic mess of leaflets in a box. His ability to endure rigorous study as a law student probably served him greatly as he confronted the challenges of taking on such a massive project.

He began by searching for cases involving "injury (death, assault, theft) due to primitive violence," cases that would illuminate the shift in American culture from an agricultural to industrial age. Then he carefully pruned the testimonies down to only what was essential for the narrative, switched first person to third, changed name and locations, or omitted them altogether. He added small details where he felt they were needed, broke sentences down into lines, and crafted scenes into stanzas. The poems were then fitted into sections by three geographical areas -- "The North," "The South," and "The West," --  then by subject -- "Railroads," "Property," "Machine Age," and sometimes by racial categories -- "Chinese," "Negros," "Mexicans," "Indians," and "Whites and Blacks" -- creating an overall map of the American experience. Under each curt heading a scene emerges -- one clipped out of history and retold with a chilling remove. The chiseled lines merged with the often gruesome content result in a frighteningly vivid read.

A poem under a section heading titled "Domestic Scenes" reads:

It was nearly daylight when she gave birth to the child,
lying on the quilt
he had doubled up for her.
He put the child on his left arm
and took it out of the room,
and she could hear the splashing of water.
When he came back
she asked him where the child was.
He replied: "Out there -- in the water."

He punched up the fire
and returned with an armload of wood
and the child,
and put the dead child into the fire.
She said: "O John, don't!"
He did not reply
but turned to her and smiled.

I will admit that I closed the book after reading this poem; it arrived on page 14 of 592, and I knew that if all of Reznikoff's poems were as heartbreaking as this one then I was in for a long read.

In this poem, like his others, the verbs do all the work, hinging from line to line until they abut one final act -- in this case, a smile. The language is simple, stripped down to the facts, yet I can see these faceless people so clearly that it's as though I'm peering into their lives like an omniscient god watching a stage below.

In another poem under the same heading, the reader's position is that of a helpless bystander:

The child was about eight years old.
For some misconduct or other,
his father stripped him naked, threw him on the floor,
and beat him with a piece of rubber pipe,
crying, "Die, God damn you!"
He tried to dash the child against the brick surface of the chimney,
and flung the child again heavily on the floor
and stamped on him.

The statement "some misconduct or other" clues us into the understanding that the boy's action was minor, trivial even. The verbs are crippling: "stripped," "threw," "beat," "dash," "flung," "stamp," so relentless that by the time I finished reading I realized that I was holding my breath. Blind rage reduces the boy to a ragdoll, a sack of flour, an insect. The inclusion of the quote becomes a sick sort of command/plea that the father calls out, his act no longer a punishment, but the intention to murder his own son. The ending, the image of a boot coming down, is abrupt and merciless. A palpable evil has prevailed in just eight lines.

Critics had a lot to say about Reznikoff's work. William Dickey accused the book of "a very simplistic kind of moral perspective." And in a September 1934 issue of Poetry, T.C. Wilson found Reznikoff's poetry to be "essentially insignificant." Hayden Carruth, who raved about Reznikoff's book By the Waters of Manhattan, stating "I cannot exaggerate the degree of my enthusiasm for this book," swung wildly in his opinions when he reviewed Testimony: the United States, 1885-1890: Recitative a few years later. Carruth wrote, "I don't see the point in it," stating that the "material -- all ugly, brutal, and one of relentless, absorbing, cold, bitter contempt: contempt for the society in question." Furthermore, he claimed "this is not poetry at all, but prose printed in irregular lines." This last statement in particular must have stung. Poets are taught that the primary feature that distinguishes poetry from prose is the line break. In that realm though, Reznikoff certainly knew what he was doing.

Here is a more lighthearted poem also under the heading "Domestic Scenes":

When they told her husband
that she had lovers
all he said was:
one of them
might have a cigar
and set the barn on fire.

Each line expands upon the preceding with a sharpness that turns the stanza as a whole into a comic revelation. The break at "all he said was: / one of them" acts as a pivot that forces the reader to slow down in order to fully absorb the weight of the husband's words, "one" being so heavily stressed that it doubles as a caesura.

In the end, though, a poem is more than the sum of its line breaks -- human nature is both what captivates us about these poems and also what leaves us feeling stunned. According to poet Janet Sutherland, what critics really took issue with in Testimony was "its seeming bias towards all that is most sordid and terrible in American life." People are shot, flayed, burned, lynched, stabbed, drowned. Factory machines with names such as "the mangler" tear off limbs, crush, melt and/or sever them. Locomotives smash into horse-drawn buggies. Women are poisoned, beaten, and raped. In once case, a man is shot in the heart from calling another man a "son of a bitch." In another, a child is left tied in a sack as punishment and suffocates to death. As tragedy piles upon tragedy, as senseless violence prevails -- the notion of the great American spirit of striving for something better suddenly appears smeared with blood -- America the beautiful becomes America the brute.

In many ways, Reznikoff's work on Testimony was preparation for his second major poem Holocaust (1975) which, in a similar fashion, was culled from the Nuremberg Trials and the Eichmann Trial. Both works, according to Reznikoff biographer Milton Hindus, have "no parallel in American writing." Exposed to anti-Semitism as a child growing up in New York, Reznikoff was sensitive to human suffering. He wrote about the "tireless anger" of the children who belittled him and threw stones and garbage at him on his way home from school or when he attempted to read a book on his apartment stoop on a warm summer's day. Time after time, he was stupefied by how pure hatred did not respond to reasoning or to any appeal at all. When he stumbled upon the court cases he saw that very same thread of hatred, dating back to the 1840s when Jews first started immigrating to the United States. As he continued to revise and expand Testimony over the years he was struck by how history repeated itself. According to Aldon Lynn Nielsen, "Reznikoff wrote more about the early African American experience than any other white poet during the modernist period."

Here is a sample of a case he found from the late 1800s:

Several white men went at night to the Negro's house,
shot into it,
and set fire to his cotton on the gallery;
his wife and children ran under the bed
and, as the firing from the guns and pistols went on
and the cotton blazed up,
ran through a side door into the woods.
The negro himself, badly wounded, fled to the house of a neighbor --
a white man --
and got inside.
He was followed,
and one of those who ran after him
put a shotgun against the white man's door
and shot a hole through it.
Justice, however, was not to be thwarted
for five of the men who did this to the Negro
were tried:
for "unlawfully and maliciously
injuring and disfiguring" --
the white man's property.

A poem such as this one refuses to be forgotten. There is the crime itself, and the crime of the verdict.

In an interview Reznikoff states:

The speakers whose words I use are all giving testimony about what they actually lived through. The testimony is that of a witness in court -- not a statement of what he felt, but of what he saw or heard. What I wanted to do was to create by selection, arrangement, and the rhythm of the words used as a mood or feeling. I could have picked any period because the same thing is happening today that was happening in 1885.

He was referring to the 1960s, when the country was continuing to experience shock waves of racial injustice; and if he were still alive, he could be referring to today.

A great poem has a way of becoming visible in the world surrounding the reader -- it provokes that rare and eerie sensation of reading a poem, looking up and seeing its contents somehow mirrored in the landscape or cityscape, as if in orbit, already present, and suddenly read into being.

I found myself reading Testimony over the course of weeks, not days, because its effect on me was profound, almost debilitating. The book pried open something in my brain. Every newspaper headline I read seemed to tie in somehow with the poems that I was reading. A picture I'd seen in the New York Times of potential Republican presidential nominee, Governor Scott Walker, happily accepting a hat from a gun rights group seemed to convey that many Americans are just as gun-happy as they were in the 1800s. The fact that the unemployment rate for black Americans stands at a staggering eleven percent is proof that racial injustice still looms large.

Testimony filtered into my daily life. I remember waiting for the bus one morning. It was cold, and I was watching a homeless veteran hold up a sign as cars rounded the corner onto a street clogged like an artery. People lurched forward in traffic, resting their elbows on their car doors, fingers pressed onto their temples, inching forward, pounding their steering wheels. This is our Wild West now, I thought, people riding side by side, resisting the urge to shoot each other, or, as the growing cases of road rage can attest to, not.

I noticed a young man sitting next to me on the bench staring at the cover of my book, an arresting image of a female figure, with both hands clutching her head as she's running from another shadow in the background chasing her. If she survives whatever madness she endured, she will have a story to tell.

Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative by Charles Reznikoff
Black Sparrow Books
ISBN: 978-1567925319
608 pages