Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reznikoff's voices

The opening of an essay by Charles Bernstein:

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“Reznikoff’s Voices” by Charles Bernstein

Holocaust, Charles Reznikoff’s last book, is, like his great work of the 1930s, Testimony, haunted by the voices of the dispossessed. In Testimony, Reznikoff worked with legal records of violent crimes from 1885-1915 to create tautly etched accounts of the turbulent underbelly of these United States. The two long volumes of Testimony are difficult reading, though a different senseof “difficulty” than that of other modernist poetry by first-wave modernists such as Eliot, Pound, Stein, or Stevens. There is no difficulty interpreting the content of these poems; in a sense they start with the heresy of paraphrase, for each poem paraphrases the longer account of a crime that Reznikoff appropriates, edited but verbatim, from the legal documents. The book, composed entirely from archival material, averts an overarching story line or poetical reflections. In contrast, Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary poem “Book of the Dead” (1938) uses passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and a multi-voice format that shifts from quoted letters from a variety of sources and journalistic accounts, to weave together a far more theatrical and narrativizing work than Testimony.

Testimony is presented in a monolithic, if not to say monotonous, form, which offers no respite from directly confronting an unfolding, accumulating series of horrific events. Reznikoff’s methodological refusal to mitigate means that the work speaks not for itself as as itself. Perhaps the most important precedent for Testimony is Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: Reznikoff’s work is the antipode: in place of Whitman’s bursts of celebration, Reznikoff’s Testimony is a prolonged elegy; an unflinching acknowledgement of unredeemable and inexcusable loss. [more]