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A Brutal American Epic

crop cotton mills.jpg
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Olympian Cotton Mills, Columbia, South Carolina, 1905

This summer I read Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative for the first time. I know of nothing like it in literature. Based on thousands of pages of court records spanning three decades around the turn of the twentieth century, Testimony is a compilation of case summaries, a sequence of self-contained pieces. These “recitatives,” as he called them, vary in length between five and over two hundred lines, and are divided into sections according to geographical region and subject matter (Social Life, Domestic Scenes, Machine Age, Negroes, Children, Railroads, Chinese, Thefts and Thieves, etc.). They tell the stories of some five hundred court cases from all over this country and deal with a broad segment of the American population, urban and rural.

A prolific though little-known American poet, Reznikoff (1894-1976) was trained as a lawyer and knew how to inspect documents. He began working on Testimony in the 1930s, while working as a writer for a legal encyclopedia, and picked up the project twenty years later, but didn’t live to see the poem published in its entirety. He pares the transcripts down to the important twists and turns of the case, keeps the dispassionate, depersonalized, and uncluttered language of the law, but breaks up the original prose into lines of free verse to locate the rhythms of natural speech here and there and to draw emphasis on some detail:

The child, about six, thin and feeble
and sick of a disorder of its bowels,
was whipped by its father
for befouling its bed:
twenty or more “licks” with a switch
as thick as its father’s finger,
and large “whelks” left on its body.
And then, on a cold and rainy December day,
sent to its grandfather’s
in another county—
where it died in a few days.

He makes no comment, passes no judgment, and wants the facts to stand alone. And yet, despite the starkness and skimpiness of these narratives drawn from legal records, the underlying horror of the events on which they were based and the tragedies they caused comes through.

Reznikoff learned the value of concision from Pound’s and William Carlos Williams’s Imagism.
Out of thousands of volumes of court cases and hundreds of pages of transcripts in some trial, he took only this to make a poem out of it:

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.

Reznikoff’s poetry is written in plain language the kind that “cats and dogs can read,” as Marianne Moore put it, a language freed of the sentiments and poetic verbiage that poetry inherited from the Romantics. “I put it down as I see it,” he told an interviewer. The eye has knowledge the mind cannot share. “A poem in his hands,” Paul Auster said, “is an act of image-ing, rather than of imagining.” When Reznikoff was young he walked twenty miles per day. Older, he forced himself to keep a pace of less than two miles per hour so he could see everything he wanted to see. He brings to mind that other solitary wanderer and image-hunter of New York City, Joseph Cornell. Reznikoff wrote thousands of poems, but his best ones, everyone agrees, tend to be short and rely on an image or two to captivate the reader’s imagination and suggest some broader meaning. Here are two short ones and one longer one
from his early years:

The tramp with torn shoes
and clothing dirty and wrinkled—
dirty hands and face—
takes a comb out of his pocket
and carefully combs his hair.

Rainy Season
It has been raining for three days.
the faces of the giants
on the bill-boards
still smile,
but the gilt has been washed from the sky:
we see the iron world.

Millinery District
The clouds, piled in rows like merchandise,
become dark; lights are lit in the lofts;
the milliners, tacking bright flowers on straw shapes,
say, glancing out of the windows,
It is going to snow;
and soon they hear the snow scratching the panes. By night
it is high on the sills.
The snow fills up the footprints
in the streets, the ruts of wagons and of motor trucks.
Except for the whir of the car
brushing the tracks clear of snow,
the streets are hushed.
At closing time, the girls breathe deeply
the clean air of the streets
sweet after the smell of merchandise.

As for Testimony, if you’ve heard of found poetry, that brainchild of the Dadaists, then you are familiar with a claim that any mundane bit of writing (from a circus poster to bathroom graffiti) can, once taken out of its context and with little or no tinkering, become a poem, then, surely, what we have here is the first found epic poem. It certainly reads like one, with its huge cast of evildoers and victims, vast setting, and profusion of breathtaking stories. Murder, treachery, injustice, greed, foolishness, jealousy, rape, anger, revenge, marital squabbles, cruelty to children and animals, bad luck, and many other miseries human beings bring upon themselves and on their fellow men are all here to behold. Injustice and violence, so we discover, were as endemic then as they are today. Since this is America, there are a lot of immigrants, crooked cops, and guns, and, of course, racism.

The conductor asked her where she was going.
“Knoxville City.”
He said: “You ought to have changed at Knoxville Junction.”
“Why didn’t you tell me when we were there?”
He told her to get off
but she wanted to stay on until the next station.

The train was stopped
and the conductor asked her if she was getting off.
He said if she didn’t
he would kick her off
and that he was tired of “damn niggers.”
He threw her bundle on the ground,
and put her baby beside it.
She followed and the train left her standing there.

There are occasional acts of kindness, but the overall picture of the United States is grim. Reznikoff was born and grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the 1880s to escape the pogroms in Russia, and knew the old melting pot often boiled over with hatred. In his “Early History of a Writer” (1969) he remembers walking with his grandfather through a public park on the East Side when two hooligans (“two strapping Germans—or were they Russians?”) decide to have some fun with the sickly looking undersized Jew “with a short grayish brown beard/ruffled by the cold wind.” Despite his grandfather’s attempts to avoid the confrontation, these fellows will not let him pass but playfully knock him down (showing off, they are “larking with a girl”); they send him “rolling on the pavement until the iron railing along the path stopped him.” His grandson helps him to his feet.

What is missing from Testimony is the customary idealistic hero, the one last encountered in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass who doesn’t avert his eyes from suffering and sordidness, but who nevertheless is full of hope for a better future. Testimony is a corrective, an anti-epic. Reznikoff shares with Whitman a sympathy for the underdog, a desire to convey just how hard the lives of many Americans are. The crimes and vices of other countries are surely as bad, but is the violence among their citizenry as prevalent and as lethal, their brutality and sadism so commonplace, their acts of injustice as frequent as ours? It should not be surprising that Testimony is rarely assigned at our colleges and universities these days; it causes too much discomfort to those who prefer to know nothing about what goes on in the world. This may be precisely what Reznikoff intended with a book like this. Let whoever reads it be upset.


A complete edition of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony has just been published Black Sparrow Books.