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On Testimony--An Essay by Michael Davidson

Note: This is excerpted from a longer essay on Reznikoff.


The title of my chapter is taken from Muriel Rukeyser's "Poem out of Childhood" (1935), which describes the shift among writers of her generation from "Sappho" to "Sacco," from the expatriate salon culture of the 1920s to 1930s activism inaugurated by the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. The distance covered is also from an austere lyricism, for whom Sappho was the model, to forms of documentary history and photojournalism that blur generic terms. The result is a series of hybrid works that begin to appear in the late 1920s, continue well into the postwar era, but have as their enabling moment the social crisis brought about by the 1929 crash, These works would include John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men, Margaret Bourke White and Erskine Caldwell's You Have Seen Their Faces, Hart Crane's The Bridge, Ezra Pound's Adams and Dynastic Cantos, William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Marianne Moore's pastiche poems, Charles Reznikoffs Testimony, Langston Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred, and Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead." Such works complicate our sense of high modernist formalism by relying on genres of folklore, documentary, oral history, reportage, legal testimony, and advertising. The use of such materials does more than provide texture to historical themes; it participates directly in the writing of history by exposing the institutional venues through which history is written.

Of course nothing could be more modernist than the introduction of nonliterary materials into the literary, but what distinguishes these works from Dadaist or Surrealist collage is their documentary character, their reliance on a public record and the institutions that support and uphold that record. Applied to our concerns with national narrative, we could say that quoting from documents in poetry redirects modernism's emphasis on the materiality of aesthetic language to the materiality of social speech. This tendency to foreground the materiality of the document also differentiates these works from more recognizable narrative poems of the same period--the work of Frost, Sandberg, Rexroth, Auden, or Jeffers--in which storytelling reaffirms the authority of a reflective consciousness at odds with modern materialism. Pound's cantos of the 1930s are driven by an increasing--sometimes obsessive--concern for the possibilities of a fascist aporia, yet his personal voice is replaced by the published histories of early federalist America and dynastic Chinese history, as if to solicit validating testimony for the present from other times, other places. From the opposite political perspective, Charles Reznikoffs Testimony, by its use of court cases, instantiates his critique of industrial America by focusing on the system of jurisprudence that mediates relations between individuals under the law. Stress in both cases is on the discursive properties of the official record in narrating social ideals.

That this record is intimately tied to the construction of national identity can be gleaned from Reznikoffs comments on the 1934 edition of Testimony:

A few years ago . . . I was working for a publisher of law books, reading cases from every state and every year (since this country became a nation). Once in a while I could see in the facts of a case details of the time and place, and it seemed to me that out of such material the century and a half during which the U.S. has been a nation could be written up, not from the standpoint of an individual, as in diaries, nor merely from the angle of the unusual, as in newspapers, but from every standpoint--as many standpoints as were provided by the witnesses themselves.

Reznikoff rejects the idea of a unified national story based on consensus, whether through personal impressions (diary) or exceptionalist history (newspaper). Rather, he writes through the voices of multiple witnesses as they appear in legal testimony. But he does more than this; he recognizes that witness itself is bounded within a material form (a court transcript in a case report) and an ideological state apparatus (a legal system that interprets the meaning of such witness). Thus, the use of legal language retains a degree of objectivity while calling attention to the ideological field such objectivity serves.

Reznikoff's writing of American history began in the early 1930s, when, as we have seen with Oppen and Zukofsky, the spacious vistas of capitalist largesse were being severely challenged. Writers on the left such as Reznikoff and Rukeyser were part of a new documentary culture that, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, was trying to "brush history against the grain" by reading American history not as a narrative of Adamic discovery and perfectability but as a material record of diverse constituencies. They Must All Be Represented is both the title of a documentary project and an imperative felt by writers of the time to write history from "as many standpoints as were provided by the witnesses themselves."

[. . . .]

The disparity between private witness and historical trauma marks testimony as a Janus-faced phenomenon pointing both at the integrity of the speaker and at the discursive frame within which he or she speaks. Something of this dual character of witness can be found in Charles Reznikoffs Testimony. Compared to Rukeyser's use of the Egyptian Book of the Dead to mythologize the Gauley Bridge disaster, Reznikoff 's austere use of legal briefs makes this a very different kind of text. Kenneth Burke, in his introduction to the 1934 edition of the work, observes that such spareness offers a salutary alternative to the world-historical syntheses of someone such as Spengler. "[Reznikoff's] bare presentation of the records places us before people who appear in the meager simplicity of their complaints" (Reznikoff, Testimony [1934] xiv). At the same time, the standpoint from which these complaints are made is that of the law court, in which the objectivity of documentary evidence is mediated by the institution of jurisprudence:

In this respect Mr. Reznikoffs 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". . . . Much of Mr. Reznikoff's "testimony" is clearly local to his profession; but the vein of sympathy that underlies his work is not similarly local.

Burke's canny recognition of the duplicit character of legal testimony--its claims to objective truth while reflecting occupational and class positions--speaks not only to Testimony but to Objectivist poetics in general. Reznikoffs oft-quoted remark about the Objectivist poet being one "who is restricted to the testimony of a witness in a court of law" has permitted many of his readers to assume a correspondence between poet and witness, thus effacing the poet's active role in selecting materials and interpreting relations between one subject and another. The example of Testimony suggests, on the contrary, that the poet serves not as witness but as editor--a witness of witnesses--whose arrangement of legal documents supplies a social narrative for acts of private observation. Testimony provides an extreme example of negative capability Reznikoff stated as much in his interview with L. S. Dembo: "Something happens and it expresses something that you feel, not necessarily because of those facts, but because of entirely different facts that give you the same kind of feeling." The localized suffering of laborers in factories, of blacks in Jim Crow America, or of children in abusive families may not be experienced by the general populace, but testimony to these conditions in court cases produces a kind of collective witness that transcends local conditions. To this extent, Reznikoff's objectification does not escape empathy but rather provides a series of surfaces upon which identification can be built.

By basing his poem on summaries of court cases, Reznikoff stresses the legal structure of history, the reported character of events as framed by the law court. The cases upon which Testimony is based were found by the poet in volumes of the federal and state reporter system, developed by West Publishing Company in the nineteenth century to provide a record of all published decisions of cases that reach the appellate level. As a writer for the legal encyclopedia Corpus Juris, Reznikoff would have used these summaries on a daily basis, and in his papers can be found photocopies of pages from individual volumes from which he derived sections of the poem. The volumes of West's national reporter system are divided into seven districts--Pacific, North Western, South Western, North Eastern, Atlantic, South Eastern, and Southern--and are supplemented by individual reporters for fourteen states. This regional division provided Reznikoff with his somewhat abbreviated division of the poem into four cardinal compass points and allowed him, as we will see, to link various cases by region. The poem is further subdivided by categories ("children," "the machine age," "negroes") relating to the type of injury or individuals involved. According to an unpublished "Prolegomena" found among his papers, Reznikoff utilized the reporter system to organize not only the geographical location of cases but the number of lines devoted to each jurisdiction. He even estimated the amount of time it would take to read all 150 volumes (including the federal reporter series) and how many lines should be derived from each volume. Thus, not only does the poem draw its language from court cases, its formal structure is determined by the arrangement of cases as they appear in a library of books .

The continuity linking the several editions of Testimony is the act of translation, whether from witness to judge, from court transcript to case report in the reporter volumes, from first-person testimony to third-person narration, from prose to verse.

[. . . .]


The short vignette that concludes Testimony (1934) could serve as an emblem for the entire book:

As the case was turned over upon the wharf, a rattling was heard inside. The looking-glass was broken. The pieces were wedge-shaped; the cracks radiated from a center, as if the glass had been struck by a pointed instrument.

The looking glass, instrument for bringing the distant close, is broken; attention is drawn to the glass of which it is made, the design of cracks radiating from a center, the "pointed instrument" necessary to break it. Although the looking glass could serve as a metaphor for Reznikoff's interest in precision and focus, in this context it is a commodity, found in a packing case on a wharf, damaged in some kind of shipping or storage accident. As such, it is linked to the stories of trade and shipping that make up the second half of the volume. The lack of any reference to context--who caused the accident, the intended use for the glass--removes the instrument from its instrumental purpose, defamiliarizes the commodity from its purveyors and purchasers. Since this prose fragment is contained in a larger section called "Depression," the radiating fissures of shattered glass extend into the economic hard times of the 1930s.

As this example indicates, little of the actual trial summary mains from the original entry in the state or federal reporter. Legal language--its Latinate syntax and diction--is diminished, reference to judicial precedence is stripped away, and at no point is the verdict mentioned. The only evidence that we are reading a transcript is the occasional highlighting of certain words:

Jim walked behind him stepping in his prints until they came to the piney" woods.

They went to the "steeragedeck" late Saturday afternoon, and screwed the nut back again. after three hours.

These brief references to the court transcript permit the collision of two narratives--one provided by the original witnesses and one rearticulated by Reznikoff. Quotation marks are the material residue of an oral record whose idiosyncratic diction and phraseology announce the presence of a historical witness. In his Contact version of the work, Reznikoff thanks the "reporters and judges not only for the facts but for phrases and sentences," and on a legal-sized page found among his papers Reznikoff created a catalog of interesting language from his reading in the reporter system, some of which made its way into the text:

"I have your age in my pocket" (said while placing hand in pocket in which was revolver)

"he made a clip at me" (with a club)

(of an old man) active and "smart on his feet"

Reznikoff's listing of interesting linguistic flora and fauna extends to the choice of case itself. Often he gives us little information about the particular crime but focuses on a discrete moment within it. Industrial accidents, like the one mentioned earlier, are metonymically represented by reference to the tools and machines that create hazards for the worker:

His work was to carry rolls of wet cloth from a machine called an "extractor" to a hoist outside the building. On one side of the passageway to the rolls of wet cloth were the "extractor" and the shaft propelling it and on the other a fan and the shaft and the shaft upon which it turned. The fan was used for drying wool and turned about seven hundred times a minute--so fast that it looked like an object at rest. The "extractor" was not so swift as the fan, but ran with much more noise, so that one would be likely to keep farther away from it. The passageway was about four and a half feet wide. As he walked along, his hand-barrow under his right arm on the side next to the "extractor," and in his left hand a handful of ropes, used in binding the rolls of cloth together for hoisting, a rope caught and wound around the shaft of the fan.

The worker here is anonymous, dwarfed by machines whose ominous propensities are embodied in the clinical description of the narrow passageway in which he must walk. The reiteration of the ominous word "extractor" in quotation marks is like the machine itself, noisier and more threatening than the fan that turns so fast "it [looks] like an object at rest." But this silence proves deadly, as we learn in the last sentence. Reznikoff’s reticence in describing the actual injury dramatizes the silent threat posed by a machine whose danger is hidden in its efficiency. He is less interested in the worker's particular claim than in the conditions within which he works, his relationship to machines that "extract" life on several levels. The clinical spareness of Reznikoff’s language replicates the functionalist mentality by which men become subjects of their machines. This is not the Victorian Henry Adams reflecting on the modern dynamo's theological primacy but a modernist embodying the dynamo's secular threat.

If the legal system provides a larger narrative for these small stories of human suffering, an even larger frame is provided by the Depression itself. In these 1930s versions of Testimony, the cases from which Reznikoff draws are from the antebellum period. References to slavery, paddlewheel steamers, sailing ships, and early technology provide a historical reference to the emergence of the United States as a republic following the revolutionary period. Although later versions of Testimony deal with industrial expansion during the Gilded Age, these cases from pre-Civil War America suggest that the metaphor of master and slave, as used by Hegel and later by Marx, finds its focus in slaveowning America. Reznikoff did not circulate in the Communist and fellow-traveling orbit of Muriel Rukeyser, but his ability to read modern forms of reification against their historical sources linked him as much to work being published in The New Masses as it did to that in Contact and Broom.

Reznikoff's treatment of "Southerners and Slaves," as he titles his first section, is a bottom-up view of plantation culture. Poor whites and slaves both participate in seemingly unmotivated acts of violence; bodies are whipped, violated, and penetrated without provocation; slave women are forced into concubinage while their children are sold to the highest bidder; bodies are the sites of injustices that eliminate all human traces:

The body was in a clump of post-oak bushes, ten or twelve feet from the road, the left foot over the right one. It was on its back. From the eyes down all the face was gone, the face bones were gone, and the brains had been eaten out of the skull by the hogs. The hogs were eating the body when it was found.

Kenneth Burke complains about the "gruesome aspect" of such passages, but he fails to read individual vignettes in relation to each other as they build their own internal narratives. The passage above, for example, is preceded by the story of "Jim" and "Ranty," who mercilessly kill a local storeowner for some whisky. When Jim is arrested and put in jail, he dreams

that his two hands were tied together, and were on fire; there was a book hung before them--it had a leather cover just like the one they swore him on at the trial--the book caught fire and all the leaves were burning.

The "burning book" in Jim's dream refers both to biblical and legal forms of justice--the refining fire of God's vengeance against sinners and the purifying fire of blind justice. In the pages of both books, Jim is found guilty. The anonymous, half-eaten body found near the road must be contrasted to the religious and legal definitions of humanity as they come together in Jim's dream. By juxtaposing these two stories, Reznikoff seems to be showing victim and murderer in their primal moments of flesh and spirit--the body turned back into earth and the body dreaming of its transcendence.

The two vignettes that follow the description of the faceless body help place the violence done to it by contrasting two kinds of narrative. The first tells of a plantation owner, Kelly, whose material success is based on slaves and oxen but whose imaginative life is improved by reading histories of the kings of England, "big men [who] ruled over the people." The second story is a letter from a young girl to her uncle describing her emergence into ladyhood: "How my heart grows sick at the idea of leaving school in five months. Can it be possible that I am no longer to be a wild prattling school-girl." As a sign of her new maturity she renounces novel reading:

So great an influence have these fictitious tales on my mind, that I cannot be as a rational being under their influence. Such contempt have I for novel-readers, I intend reading all the histories that I can obtain and all valuable works of the distinguished authors.

Both plantation owner and girl achieve a level of "rationality" by reading histories. Kelley reads stories of "big men" who dominate others, thus reinforcing his right to own slaves. In the second case, the impressionable white girl measures her newfound maturity by her dismissal of novelistic fantasy. But the framing cases involving slavery provide a counterdiscourse to this rationalist scenario, suggesting that contemporary history is no less fantastic than that in novels--and a good deal closer to home.

The young woman's emergence into ladyhood contrasts with the next sequence of vignettes, which describe the lives of female slaves. Ever vulnerable to rape and beatings, unprotected against the sale of their children to other families, these women present lives antithetical to the spirited ingenue. The story of "Sophia" tells of a slave who has been a faithful servant to her mistress but who becomes intractable once her son is given away to the mistress's daughter in order "to pick up chips and be company for me" (i5). Without her child, Sophia ceases to be obedient and is subsequently sold to a series of neighbors. She continually runs away to be with her children but is found, beaten, and resold. After she has run away once more, her new owner catches her and punishes her:

He had her stripped and staked down on the ground: her feet and hands spread and tied to the stakes, her face downward. Mr. Spencer was calm and took his time; he whipped her from time to time with a plaited buckskin lash about fifteen inches long. He drew some blood, but not a great deal, and then he took salt and a cob and salted her back with it.

Reznikoff's prose reinforces the inhuman treatment of Sophia by its detailed reference to Spencer's method of torture--the length of his lash ("about fifteen inches long"), the fact that he whipped her "from time to time," his exculpatory remark that he "drew some blood, but not a great deal"--all of which paves the way for the final salting of her wounds. The anonymous body eaten by animals with which I began this discussion of slavery now returns within a system of discipline and punishment that equally dehumanizes the body and exposes its internal organs. Regarded as a linked sequence, Reznikoff’s section on slavery exposes the close relationship between reading and the racialized and sexualized body that is often its subtext.

The second section of the book is titled "Sailing Ships and Steamers," a subject that may seem removed from that of plantation society but that manifests many of the same hierarchies and brutal conditions: cabin boys and deckhands are routinely beaten for disobeying orders; harsh weather combined with extended periods at sea exacerbate bad treatment; passengers and crew are neglected or cheated; captains are often called "Masters"; and workers on the lower decks often resemble slaves. Reznikoff’s linkage of these two spheres emphasizes the fact that antebellum American society was based on twin forces of mercantilism and slavery, both intertwined in their common origins in oceanic passage. The Atlantic slave ships and the steamers that probed the new continent's inland waterways constituted a "middle passage" of entrepreneurial growth, the ill effects of which were being profoundly felt during the period that Reznikoff was writing.

Although Reznikoff provides examples of mistreatment at the hands of higher officers, the most troubling passages in this second section deal with neglect. In a section entitled "Hands," Reznikoff draws on the case of a crewman named Cresswell, whose legs are broken when he falls from a topsail during a storm. His bones are set--badly, as it turns out--by the "master" and the first mate. He is then placed in his hammock to wait until the boat docks: "This was on the 30th of March. The ship did not come to Boston until the 10th of June. All this while Cresswell lay in his hammock, helpless, swinging in the unceasing motion of the ship, and for a time in great pain." When the ship finally arrives in port, the crew disperses, and the master leaves the ship for the weekend. When he returns on Monday, Cresswell is finally taken to the hospital, where his legs are treated. Reznikoff’s understated conclusion stresses the tension between Cresswell's physical pain and the neglect with which he has been treated: "His left leg was found to be somewhat twisted, but the right was much worse--the foot was turned out at right angles from the way it should have been." The "way it should have been" describes both the shape of bones but also the proper course of care to which Cresswell was entitled. The phrase also alludes to itself as testimony whose understated quality defines the gap between incident and remedy.

The inhumanity chronicled in these sections--whippings, torture, and neglect--is ameliorated somewhat in the last section, entitled "Rivers and Seas, Harbors and Ports." Here Reznikoff puts aside his legal briefs for a Whitmanian catalog of ships and their names, cargoes, and ports. While this strategy may seem to restore the romance of sea-going erased by the preceding chronicle of human cruelty, it also serves to emphasize on another level the ideology of romance that keeps such inhumanity in place. The heroic and mythical names of ships--Harvest Queen, Seaflower, Sparkle, Sea Nymph, Silver Spray, Comet, Fair American, Golden Age, Jewess, Laurel, Mist, Fawn, Serpent, Jerusalem--contrast with the inhuman conditions on board. The same can be said for Reznikoff’s catalog of captains' names--Captain Proud, Captain Percival, Captain Ivory, James Fortune--which ring with suggestions of national promise and manifest destiny.

From the names of boats and captains, Reznikoff moves on to the various cargoes of the ships--"cases, trunks, bales, casks, kegs, and bundles"--of everything from tea and coffee to lambskins, indigo, and lead from ports with names such as Rattlesnake Shoal, Pelican Shoals, Flapjack Reef. And concluding the section is a long, lyrical chronicle detailing the varieties of sailing conditions:

The sound calm and the night starlight; the vessel anchoring in the bay about nightfall, the snow turning into rain, the wind, about midnight, coming out of the northwest and blowing heavily on shore, the weather growing cold; the ship moored in the channel, the moon shining through a slight haze, on the easterly side a high bluff jutting into the sea, to the west a low sand-spit, in front of the sand-spit the shore line of the bluff curving into a bight; bays, inlets, rivers, harbors and ports.

Kenneth Burke feels that in this section Reznikoff gives himself over to "embellishment of the 'poetic sort,"' but I see this as offering a series of vantages from which the more documentary testimony can be reassessed. The grim record of mercantile history that precedes this section offers no insight into the narratives that produce violence and legitimate the master/slave system. This passage provides that history with a national narrative made out of ships and captains with heroic names and romantic places in which adventure and magic occur. Taken on its own, this passage defines the moonlit magic that Hawthorne felt was necessary for the romance, the mystic twilight of Whitman's "Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking." But in contrast to the rest of the book the passage details the ill-fated, even tragic mood that dominates the American narrative. It is no surprise that the first boat named in the catalog is "The sloop Hamlet, heavily laden with stone."

From Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word. Copyright 1997 by the Regents of the University of California. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

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