Grass Anti-Epic: Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony
‘Grass is the only way out… ’ Henry Miller (Miller and Fraenkel, 105) provides us with the trajectory-map of Reznikoff’s Testimony, and that map is one of serial splinters, grass, growth (‘cubo-seriality’ in Bernstein’s phrase) — Reznikoff’s idea, a poem of 450 segments or stems, systrophy grown against possible unity. The grass is singing, wrote T. S. Eliot (‘What The Thunder Said’), and Testimony’s song is a plaint, a massively plural cry.
‘What is the grass?’ the child asks, and Whitman, aside to the reader, wonders ‘How could I answer the child? I do not know any more than he.’ Whitman doesn’t know because the grass is vast and growing still; delimited, root system, intense and permeable surface of spears. Grass for Whitman is movement-shape, a new conception: Leaves of Grass are the leaves of a book expanding towards the rolling horizon, America’s vanishing-perspective point, out west, the leaves of these United States, ‘The greatest poem’. Whitman has seen in grass an idea, a celebratory, fiercely materialist rhetoric derived from Isaiah 40:6-7:
The voice said Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
For Whitman, the withering is cyclical, and God becomes a democratic love. Reznikoff has Whitman’s sense of expansiveness, there in the long lines, but instead of using the idea of grass, he sounds out the form. He realises that you have to create it. Each testimony is interwoven with all the others and it is apart. The reader is never entirely lost in Testimony but neither can the reader gain any higher view or plan, escape history and view these testimonies as objects; we’re stuck in the middle of the grass, which has not withered so much as darkened into a plangent catalogue of murder, greed and corporate negligence. What this essay tries to find is how this form can reach the last two words of Charles Bernstein’s quiet statement on Testimony (in ‘Reznikoff’s Nearness’, My Way: Speeches and Poems, 233), ‘the acknowledgement of these peripheral stories turns a waste land into holy ground.’
Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative, published in two volumes by Black Sparrow in 1978, is 530 pages of short poem-sections extracted from court-room witness statements. It is thirty years from 450 perspectives, or at 450 different points run into lines. Reznikoff read through hundreds of volumes of law reports from the National Reporters System (a published record of all cases which reach the appellate level, developed by West Publishing in the nineteenth century) to find the material. Then he rearranged it and presented it in a free verse combining long and short lines. The poems are organised by region and by category, imitating West Publishing Company’s digest topics. Reading Testimony requires time to gather thoughts together between sections as nearly every segment involves a violent incident: one cannot skip easily on. These people were real, one thinks, this case is one of the things which happened.
Williams — a Negro — Davis, Sweeney, and Robb
were in a saloon together. Williams was talking to Davis
when Sweeney jerked off Williams’ hat
tearing a piece out of the brim.
Sweeney and Williams were having words about this
when Robb stepped up and found fault with Williams
for wrangling with a white man.
The Negro said nothing to Robb
and was backing away
when Robb stabbed him twice with a dirk.
A witness statement is restricted, in legal template, to things seen and heard. It contains no conclusions and no judgements. Kenneth Burke (in his introduction to Reznikoff’s earlier 1934 prose volume Testimony published by Objectivist Press) sees the problem of mediation here: ‘In this respect Mr. Reznikoff’s work embodies in miniature the problem of the “whole truth” as it arises in civilization marked by many pronounced differences in occupational pattern. There arise the “doctor’s point of view,” the “accountant’s point of view,” the “salesman’s point of view,” the “minister’s point of view”‘. The discursive frames of witness testimony — the frame of jurisprudence, of state apparatus — actively use each stated claim to objectivity as they glance off each other, producing meta-judgements and rulings. Reznikoff’s project might seem to be a version of this process, a culmination point of the process beyond the system, in poetry, searching or divining out a truth from 450 statements, a truth about the United States, a poetics similar to the Enlightenment idea of a philosopher who acts as a lawyer, defending this, making the case for that. It is Reznikoff’s task to resist this critique, to actively form a shape that will resist such a reading.
The segments are not of a single form. Some present us with two witness statements, such as in the case of the rape or not of a young woman, where the statements contradict each other entirely. Others consist of reported speech from the courtroom:
“Joe Chinaman, do you know what God is?”
“I don’t know what it is.”
“Do you know anything about the obligations of an oath
under the Christian religion?”
“I don’t know what it is.”
“Will you tell right
if you talk to the jury now?”
“Yes, I talk some.”
Some of the segments present testimony followed by a judge’s statement. The original variety of the case-books is preserved and this, as with the imitation of the reporter system categories, points up the material as material, so we never forget the discursive field, are never co-opted into or encouraged towards any fictive objects of knowledge.
Derrida writes (‘Demeure: Fiction and Testimony’, Derrida and Blanchot, 43) that testimony relates the shareable and unshareable secret, the ‘secret of what happened to me, to me, to me alone, the absolute secret of what I was in a position to live, see, hear, touch, sense and feel’. The presentation of these secrets is a choking, a compromise and a release. It’s a release of forces because, in giving witness, the past is borne.
The day had been dark and rainy,
and she and Fuller were sitting by the fire
late in the evening
in an old house on the mountain
about fifty yards from the road.
They had a bottle of whiskey between them
and had been drinking,
and Fuller was singing, “The Drunkard’s Doom.”
The song-title is an ominous irony, when this is one of the rare segments with no violent happening in it. Why did Reznikoff call this ‘recitative’? It is a spoken poetry of long and short lines which catch at hesitations and rhythms in speech, but ‘recitative’ also suggests a sung form. Calling three separate books By The Waters of Manhattan (a selected poems, an anthology and a novel), this is a poet aware of the great laments, and by making it Manhattan and not Babylon, it becomes a cry of diaspora. A few of the segments are arranged as songs, here from a section ‘Boys and Girls’:
as midsummer flower,”
nine years old,
was on her way along an alley
to pick up cobs and coal
alongside the track of the railroad.
One end of the sack
was wound around her arm
and she swung it to and fro.
The possibility, familiar from a litany of other railroad accidents in Testimony, is that a train comes by, the sack is caught by it, and the girl is dragged under, but Reznikoff has concentrated on the song, shadowed as it is. Each of the segments in Testimony is a plaint, a “recitative”, at times simply a flat, agonised cry. Deleuze and Guattari write (A Thousand Plateaus, 343):
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: It jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of falling apart at any moment.
Song distances because it sounds out a territory. The territorializing function of song pushes out space between voices, between people, ‘The United States’, space assembled and sounded in the sideways-stems of the four-hundred and fifty cries, the rhetorical en-facing of a landscape. Reznikoff sounds out the plural, the style of grass.
Each new testimony finds a still centre, is another stem which changes the positions of and the relations between all the previous ones, creates new cascades. Testimony is not a sequence of cases but the building up of a rhythm. Bernstein (210) describes one dimension of this rhythm with the idea of inter-cuts, ‘In Reznikoff’s cubo-seriality, it’s a matter of the cut: as in the cut of a dress or of a fabric. Also a double cutting: the shapeliness of the lines as units inside each poem (the cut of each poem, Reznikoff as miniaturist); and the rhythm between the poems (the intercutting).’ The ‘(1885-1915)’ of the title is another of the dimensions of this rhythm, a historicized rhythm (which is not to be reduced to metres or cadences but instead expands in distances, can fluctuate from multiple to single, perpetually varying) always active, its matter of expression in Testimony a great human pain, plurivocally expressed: ‘To express is not to depend upon; there is an autonomy of expression.’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 350). It is a rhythm of witness, of rhythmic cells, a music that molecularizes duration so that refrains can become ‘proteins’, in Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase, enabling interaction between parts.
Simply, scrupulously, Reznikoff tangles us in a mass of stems in which the reader is lost, bodied out into a rhythm which is a passage forwards, the coming community that Derrida’s ‘secrets’ keep possible in the attempt of articulation. Where Whitman states the idea of a mass and addresses the future, ‘I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence’ (‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’), Reznikoff is creating the form, the bodying-forth. Whitman’s long lines become actual spoken lines in Testimony, still recitative, still pushing out sideways from the page, but made multiple. Testimony is a release of forces — of the testimony of lives — where the distances between the mass of witnesses has already created disjunction.
The bleating of calves
kept overnight at a slaughterhouse
to be slaughtered in the morning.
The cry, writes Deleuze (Francis Bacon, 41), is brought into relation with force, becoming a sacred duty, a bearing witness to a burden — This is too much for me, I will break if I don’t cry out. ‘For Reznikoff, finding as founding means finding as foundering (to fall to the ground, to come to grief)’ writes Bernstein (214). The cry is a true sign of life. In this style, Testimony finds the sacred.
Bernstein, Charles, My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Deleuze, Gilles, Francis Bacon: logique de la sensation. Paris: Éditions de la différence, 1981
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, trans. Brian Massumi, A Thousand Plateaus. London: Athlone, 1988
Derrida, Jacques, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg, ‘Demeure. Fiction and Testimony’, in Blanchot and Derrida, The Instant of My Death and Demeure: Fiction and Testimony. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Eliot, T. S., Collected Poems 1909-1962. London: Faber and Faber, 1974
Miller, Henry and Michael Fraenkel, Hamlet. New York, Carrefour, 1939.
Reznikoff, Charles, Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative, (2 vols). Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press
Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass. New York, 1855.
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