Testimony, a multi-volume, 500+ page collection composed over many years and most recently published in the 1970s by Black Sparrow, is one of the least frequently read American epic poems (John G. Neihardt's A Cycle of the West is probably less well-known, and perhaps Diane DiPrima's Loba & Edward Sander's America: A History in Verse, which is very much a direct descendent of Testimony). It is currently out of print; used copies will cost you about $40 on Amazon; few public libraries carry it. Testimony recounts—the objectivist term would perhaps be 'remeasures'—court room testimony apparently taken about twenty years before Reznikoff's recomposition began. The events occur when the poet is in the first years of his life and therefore not a direct witness of any of them. It is a poetry of witness which begins with the premise that the event is always already mediated—in this case by operatives of the law.
The testimony occurs in verse passages of unequal length—the shorter ones being around twelve lines, the longer ones several pages and numerous stanzas—which are carefully grouped. The first taxonomic label is geographical region—legal cases that occurred within “the north,” “the south,” “the west.” Within these designations the poems are grouped by such genres as “Domestic Scenes,” “Boys & Girls,” “Machine Age,” “Property,” “Stage Coaches,” “Town & Country,” etc. As one can see, it is a very unusual “etc” that follows such a list—what might come next in such a sequence? There is no apparent rhyme or reason to the sequencing, which sometimes suggest the titles of newspaper columns or the scene titles in silent films. Under each title we find several numbered passages of poetic testimony. The relation between these passages and the title is always evident—testimony grouped under “Boys & Girls” relates to the death and disfigurement of children, that under “Machine Age” relates to deaths to occur as a result of working with telegraph lines, street lamps, and trains—the latest inventions heralding the era of industrialized capital. There are also passages which are not grouped under any title. Whether these groupings were present in the source testimony or were invented by the author is not clear from the poem; the overall effect suggests that they were most likely developed by the author in relation to the source texts.
Which is to say that the overall artistic effect of Testimony is an encounter with simulacra. Like the dream text from which Freud deduced the dream thoughts, the poems in Testimony refer to some other scene. More specifically, at least two other scenes—that in which the words of the witness are recorded, and more distantly that in which the events being witnessed originally occurred. As in Freud's dream analysis, the contours of the event are both self determining and determined after the fact of their happening. In each case, the testimony traces the unfolding of a sequence of events which provoked the law to act in such a way that, at some later date, testimony was taken. In some poems, that part of the event which brings it into being—which leads to the eventual production of testimony and hence of the event itself—appears to be obvious, at least from a legal standpoint:
On a Sunday in May
a party of young men were bathing
in the river
when a stranger passed
and was invited to join them.
He went into the water
but soon came out angry
because someone threw water on him,
got his knife
and stabbed one of the party.
The young man stabbed
died in a few minutes.
The poem continues, recounting how the stranger is captured, a mob forms, and a “A cousin of the dead man— / but not one of the bathing party” shoots the stranger dead. But within the unfolding of the event it appears that blame in the case, as related by this witness, initially rests with the angry stranger, who murders a member of the bathing party, apparently in response to a splash. The event extends beyond this kernel in both directions—backward in time to set the scene, and forward until the second death 'cancels out' the first.
Most, but importantly not all, of the poems in Testimony point us to the real kernel that engages the law, thus bringing about the original source of testimony which eventually finds its way into the poem, and through the poem into our present-day imagination. The actual activity of court stenographers, judges, police officers and all other persons called into action as a result of this event become the living medium by which the poem projects its texts back onto the world. Here, then, is objectivity as a sophisticated mode of poetic activity—the poem is a transcription of a transcription, both of which relate to each other by endeavoring to preserve a fidelity to the rational truth of the situation they describe. Writing about Reznikoff in the 1931 issue of Poetry, Zukofsky describes this quality of the writing (writing as process, as techne) as “sincerity”:
In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness. Parallels sought for in the other arts call up the perfect line of occasional drawing, the clear beginnings of sculpture not proceeded with.
Sincerity is the work of the sensory unconscious—it is the immediate apprehension of the event which results from a sensual grasp of the particulars which operates at the level of gesture, tone, impulse & other immediate, dynamic modes of cognizance which register as affect. It occurs when the first lines put to paper render the perceived figure or event more precisely—not despite but because of their particular distortions--than subsequent revisions will be able to do. To write with sincerity in this way is to perform an act of attention which attempts to get across some of the proprioceptive intelligence that contributed to the event in its unfolding. Not merely “ornament” is eschewed, but the act of interpretation itself—a two-fold textual veracity to the event is the intended accomplishment of these lines.
The accomplishment falls short of its ideal, remaining in the zone from which it seeks to emerge—the zone of the gesture. The kernel is by the process of sincere writing rendered illegible, a void. It cannot sustain the pressure of the narrative which emerges from it. Why should a splash lead to murder? What was really going on? The profound ambivalence contained within the originating act is foregrounded in the very first of the book:
Jim went to his houseWhat did Jim do and why? At first it appears that we know exactly what it was that he did—but why would someone try to pull the head of their mule? And upon further reflection, what exactly did happen to the jack? The scene of its execution, if that is what it was, is omitted. The court does not have all the facts; we have the corpse and a witness that indicates Jim was behaving oddly at the scene of the crime—but no motive, & no description of the real kernel—the death of the jack which brings about the action of the law.
and got a pair of plow lines
and then into the stable
and put one on the jack
and led the jack out
and tied him to the fence;
and put the noose in the other line around the head of the jack
and began to pull.
The jack began to make a right smart noise.
Its dead body was found next morning,
fifteen or twenty feet from the stable door;
the neck, just back of the head,
It is precisely THIS indeterminacy which is preserved by the act of sincerity. An indeterminacy of the event—an indeterminacy that belongs to the object, rather than to the subject. For in this case (as in all cases, presumably, for so says the law), the idea subject is the subject of transcription. The poet, like the stenographer—like the therapist—is a recording device; an impartial witness. It is not the subject who judges, but the one who suspends judgment for the duration of its act of telling so that a verdict may be rendered only after all is said and done. All is done because all has been said of what has been done.
But just as the event is never fully realizable, so, too, the attempted negation of the subject is never fully achieved. Reznikoff calls explicit attention to this aspect of sincerity—the excess of the subject which prevents the language from serving as pure conduit—in the second poem of the book, which begins:
On a Sunday—a bleak drizzling day--The passage continues to describe the fate of this ill passenger, who eventually leaves the car and falls across the tracks—presumably it is the driver's neglect, which results in Connonlly being left “about two or three feet from the tracks,” so that when he shifts “his legs were across a rail of the tracks” and in the court's intervention—mostly likely in response to a lawsuit being filed. But in regard to the poetic practice of sincerity, it is not the story that matters so much as a certain excess of language. In our conversation about this poem, we began by noting that it is one of the very few poems in the collection which refers to one of the persons represented by first and last names. Why both names, when more simple denominations, such as “Jim” or “a stranger” will suffice? The answer can easily be discovered by attending to the other speech acts which exceed their transcriptive duties— “perfectly sober” and a similar phrase which is particularly noticeable for being one of the few in quotation marks: ' “the slightest impropriety of behavior.”' The use of quotation within transcription indicates an additional register of sincerity—the quotation marks tells us that it is not simply the meaning of the words, but their phrasing that matters. Efforts to preserve the immediate phrasing—the original act as an object—exceed the normal procedure of transcription. The quotation marks are a gesture that returns us to this realm of experience. Taken together, these points of excess cohere as symptoms of an unspoken “truth” of the event—Connolly's Irishness. That which the act of objective sincerity represses returns through these particulars.
Patrick Connolly, perfectly sober,
entered a streetcar.
After riding a while
without “the slightest impropriety of behavior,”
he was suddenly stricken
and began vomiting.
The car had many passengers:
some left the car on account of this;
others called out
that he should leave.
When asked if he was drunk,
he shook his head
“I'll get out myself,”
in raising himself to do so,
fell flat on the floor
and lay helpless.
Like the lacuna of the event, this excess of significance is isolated and exposed by the process of sincerity. A secondary level of mediation emerges—the scaffolding of symptoms which tell us what the text purports to ignore—but attention to this mode of mediation does not necessarily or simply lead us away from the event. On the contrary, the scene unfolds in accordance with the excessive knowledge—the social atmospherics—of racial identification. Why else is the ill man not given proper assistance, but is told, and eventually escorted, from the car? Why else does the transcription which Reznikoff partially or wholly transcribes insist upon his actual, as opposed to apparent, sobriety? The unspoken excess of racial anxiety is present already in the proceedings—it is in fact the kernel of the story itself, for to be sick while riding a streetcar is not itself a crime. Connolly is not the perpetrator of that activity—or lack of the same—which moves the law to action: he is the victim of neglect. In this way, the poem reveals the dialectic of absent-presence and present-absences which organize both the object and the subject of the poem's activity.
Events which occur in the world, one member observed, unfold according to the rules of a genre that they fulfill. The retrospective nature of this fulfillment in no way prevents it from saturating the event in the very moment of its unfolding. A passage in one of several sections entitled “Boys and Girls” helps us to glimpse the generic fulfillment which blossoms within the event's unfolding:
A boy of thirteen was employed in a coal mine as “door boy”;There are two mechanics of this scene—one material, the other imaginary—which operate in tandem to bring about a conclusion that is uncannily preordained. Within the material labyrinth of the mine, physical laws are channeled along tracks—once the eighth car hits the others, their passage upon the tracks is determined by the force of the collision and the direction of the rails. Within the social labyrinth, the boy's anxiety appears to be similarly channeled. He overcompensates for neglecting his station by seeking to respond heroically to the results of an accident which is not his fault but for which he will be blamed. The accident occurs as a direct result of a failure at the “spragger's” station—yet because the boy is not his door, he acts as one at fault. His action fulfills a destiny that is evident in the very first lines of the passage. In this way, Reznikoff reveals the total and unremitting mediation of material existence by the forces of the imagination.
he was stationed inside the mine,
between the main track along the entrance
and its wall,
in a space only a few feet wide.
The door, hung upon hinges,
was made of thick, heavy timber;
to open it,
the boy had to cross the track,
take hold of a handle on the door and return to his place,
holding the handle.
From the chambers of the mine that opened upon the entrance
the loaded cars were drawn by mules to the main track;
as each car was brought out and the mules unhitched,
the car was turned over to a “spragger”
to put a block of wood in front of the wheels,
for the main track was down a long grade.
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
That morning there were brought from the chambers
seven cars loaded with coal,
put upon the main track and left standing.
The boy was absent from his station
but seen near the mouth of one of the chambers.
As the eighth car was brought out
and put upon the track,
the mule driver called to him:
“Get back to your door!”
And the boy started to do so at a run.
The eighth car moved down upon the stationary cars in front of it
with such force
as to set them in motion,
and the whole train was suddenly sent down the grade.
The boy had had time to return to his post
before the train started; he heard the approaching train
and fearing a collision between train and door--
with himself to blame—tried to open it.
The train broke through the door,
and the boy's mangled body was found under of the cars
when the train stopped.
A short passage from a section entitled “Social Life” focuses our attention on the retrospective fulfillment of life by the imagination:
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 passage ends abruptly, never telling us exactly what occurred to motivate the transcription. Reznikoff's poetic transcription of the original, in its fragmentation, has completed its observation with the bitter joke that these drunkards themselves know how the evening will end—the poem we are reading breaks off at the moment that the world's lyric does its work for it. Reality's mediation of itself is the ultimate truth of the poetics of sincerity as Reznikoff practiced them. This is a lesson he learns from William Carlos Williams, and is in many ways the fundamental realization upon which a poetics of the OUTSIDEREAL establishes itself.