Charles Bernstein: Reznikoff’s Voices

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 7:04 AM
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 sense of “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 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.

What’s most radical about Testimony is the kind of reading his method makes possible, because this work (unlike Rukeyser’s) can’t be read in traditional literary or aesthetic ways. At first reading Testimony is numbing, but this experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins. Reznikoff’s refusal to aestheticize or sentimentalize (some would say humanize) the legal cases presented is exemplary of Testimony’s ethical grounding and suggests a connection not only with Zukofsky’s “sincerity and objectification,” but also with the postwar neorealism of filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini. For in Reznikoff’s refusal to aestheticize brutality, he does not turn away from aesthetics but rather shifts the aesthetic frame from the “content” to the reading experience itself. In this sense, Testimony is “readingcentered,” to use a phrase of Jackson Mac Low, another poet whose work is largely based on organizing large bodies of found (or appropriated) language. Both Mac Low and Reznikoff pose a challenge to how we read and where we find meaning, creating conceptual works that make our initial inability to read an aesthetic challenge to read differently, read anew. As Kenneth Goldsmith remarks about conceptual poetry: it requires not a “readership” but a “thinkership.”

The initial unreadability of the vast catalog that is Testimony is what makes it one of the towering works of second-wave modernist American poetry, our great anti-epic. Because if we can’t read Testimony then we can’t read our own history. Or then again, perhaps what we at first find unreadable, numbing, becomes a way to what Stevens called “a new knowledge of reality.”

I rehearse these matters because they echo concerns about the representation of the systematic extermination of the European Jews – graphic, filmic, novelistic, photographic, poetic, documentary, memorial. Representing the historically unrepresentable is both an impossibility and an obligation. Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews is the essential work of scholarship; its accumulation of everyday facts, of the dense network of often small bureaucratic and legal regulations that lead to the larger catastrophe, sets the standard for any work on this topic and provides a key context for Reznikoff’s approach. I want to mention also Raymond Federman’s Take It or Leave It, which shows how digression and the comic can weave its way around an empty center without betraying it. Paul Celan is the poet most closely associated with the project of refusing to represent in order to most fully confront. Many will also think of the exemplary accounts by Primo Levi and Jean Améry.

Holocaust was published in 1975, the same year that Abraham Ravett made the recordings of Reznikoff reading the poem, which was just a month before Reznikoff’s death. Holocaust is largely based on documents from the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials. While its structure is similar to Testimony, it differs in being singular in its places, times, and crimes. Also the nature of the acts depicted necessarily dwarfs the serial record of brutality in Testimony. The events in Testimony took place during the first years of Reznikoff’s life and the decade immediately prior to his birth in 1894. The events of Holocaust occurred in the middle of his life and he is reflecting on them in his final years. It’s notable, as well, that the documentary material for Testimony is from U.S. court records and in English, while Holocaust uses translated material from Europe.

By its nature, if it doesn’t demean nature to use that word here, the material of Holocaust overwhelmed the techniques Reznikoff had developed in his earlier work. A certain level of distance from this material – its “objectification” – is not possible in reading this work, even had the technique been identical. The distinction is at the heart of what makes Holocaust so compelling: it forces a confrontation with the way the “same” conceptual approach works with differently charged material. Testimony developed a form suitable to its content; on the face of it, this would not be possible for Holocaust.

Something happens, however, when we listen to the Ravett audio recordings, that changes everything: Reznikoff’s voice. In Reznikoff’s earlier recordings (available on PennSound), his voice is warm, friendly, compassionate, world-embracing, and empathetic. Not here. Reznikoff does the Holocaust with fiery and defiant voices. While his earlier readings bring out qualities of witness and engagement fully present in the text, Reznikoff’s readings from Holocaust bring in a tone not present in the written poems.

When Charles Reznikoff , at 81, gives voice to “Heil, Hitler!” one hears a kind of glee, something in between Mel Brooks and Charlie Chaplin, a glee that adds, in its performative dimension, an ethical necessity for this work: anger, yes, but, more resounding, contempt. The sound of Reznikoff’s contempt is liberating.

[Written originally for a commemorative CD of a reading by Reznikoff made by Abraham Ravett and available at http://wonka.hampshire.edu/~arPF/cds.html. The PennSound recordings referred to in this essay can be found at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Reznikoff-Holocaust.php.]

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