Wednesday, August 29, 2007

CSI: Paterson

I spent a whole bunch of hours today in the archives! One thing on my long list of items to view was the 1934 Objectivist Press first edition of Charles Reznikoff's Testimony. A weird and wonderful book that I think Adrienne might really like. The copy in Rare Books was uncut, so I had the bizarre and thrilling opportunity to take a bone tool to the pages as I read. At this point my comments will be nowhere near so incisive, but I figured I would copy below various amazing quotations from the introductory essay by Kenneth Burke, "The Matter of the Document." The book begins with a short, comically modest note: "I glanced through several hundred volumes of old cases - not a great many as law reports go - and found almost all that follows. C.R." In the result, there's a whole other angle on Objectivism to be found here: of forensics and the "objectivity" of Law, which seems to me to be perhaps willfully muted in Zukofsky's rather easy assumption of ethical-lyrical care in "Sincerity and Objectification" and his account of "Rezi".

Before those quotes, tho, I want to give the first and last paragraphs of Testimony, to give a sense of what's going on here. The work is divided into three sections, "Southerners and Slaves," "Sailing Ships and Steamers," and "East and West." The first excerpt I give is just the first paragraph of a poem, the second is a complete section of the last poem in the book.

"Dun had been down to a sunken boat, and was coming back in his skiff about dark when he met Broadus and Lucas. He got out of his skiff, and went with them in theirs. He came back at one o'clock and when he got into bed, asked his wife where Elizabeth was. She was in the other bed in the room, but asleep, said Dun's wife, because she had called her and she did not answer. Dun then told his wife that they had shot 'Dutch,' but had not killed him. 'Dutch' was picking up wood when he was shot, and he ran and hallooed to those in the house, and cried out, 'Boys, I am shot!' Broadus, the damned fool, ran and left his hat." (1)

Do you think the first line, which is the first line of the book, recalls the opening of the Cantos? I love the sound patterns in the first line (Dun/down/sunken/coming, and the rep. of K's), but the book doesn't give an indication of what "poetic" work has been done to the extracts, so one cannot know if these are manipulations of Rezi's or felicities of the found prose. The interjection "Broadus, the damned fool" lends a sense of spoken witness and a seeming break from "objectivity" that is nevertheless still contained within the supposedly neutral, balanced gaze of the Law. (Important to point out, though: the book bears no judgments, shows no outcomes other than the often bloody remains of a crime scene - e.g. "The ax broke the teeth and left the lip hanging at one end. Ned then turned the ax in his hands and struck Ely on the back of the head with the eye of the ax and broke his skull." (6))

"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." (71 - "Depression" section 4, last lines of the book)

Imagine this lineated, cut out some of the verbs, and (at a stretch) you have a passable early poem by Oppen, or at least a note you'd find in an early Daybook. The cracked mirror image is an interesting one on which to end, as it suggests to me that Reznikoff is implying that law testimonies literalize and mediate the transition from realist or naturalist narratives to the "cracked mirror" of modernist prose and poetry (I know that's a bit swift, I can expand on that perhaps). This paragraph (stanza? vignette?) also, as in R's project here on the whole, reifies the evidentiary tradition of imagism, as highlighted by Kenner in The Pound Era -- the structural similarity between the "clue" or luminous detail in late Victorian detective fiction, providing a grammar with which to "read" the detritus of urban/late capitalist existence, and the imagist detail (cf. H.D.'s "Traces" in Sea Garden, on which I had meant to write something ages ago).

The cracked glass may also recall, and stand in tension with, Zuk's "Program: 'Objectivists' 1931", in which Zukofsky compares Objectivist poetry to the process of a "lens bringing the rays from an object into focus." The ref. behind both may be old lens-grinder Spinoza, about whom both Rezi and Zuk wrote poems, but if anyone (Evan, you philosophy buff you) can flesh out the bearing of that link, i'd be much obliged.

Here's Reznikoff standing on the bus:

Anyway, Burke it up!:

"As the 'scientific' quality of modern art came more and more into evidence, we began to note a progressive development of fiction towards the 'case history.' It is only recently that we have become aware of a complementary movement, the movement of the 'case history' towards fiction." (xi)

"In the end, any simplification of a human life is a fiction, and any case history is a simplification. And it is sometimes salutary for us to remind ourselves that even the vast 'world-historical' perspectives of a Spengler may be at bottom but the 'documentary substantiation' of an attitude as simple and moody as the lyric. Spengler is perhaps the ultimate instance of this process wherein a feeling or a metaphor is, by dint of industrious evidence, given massive intellectual backing. His 'morphology of history' is a poem, a pedant's dogged version of Shelley's Ozymandias, the Stimmung proper to one sonnet expanded inot a life work, plus a military pessimism that led the author to interpret existence in terms of a struggle (misleadingly called Werden, or Becoming) which necessarily made good times look like a battlefield and peace like decay." (xii)

[Reznikoff's] "profession itself [a lawyer] providing the principle of selectivity, he could leave the matter of 'truth' to the records as available." (xiii)

"'A few years ago,' he has explained, 'I was working for a publisher of law books, reading cases form 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 United States 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.'" (xiii)

"In the large, however, his bare presentation of the records places us before people who appear in the meager simplicity of their complaints. They have grievances, they have brought those grievances before the law, whose abstract, forensic 'justice' will often treat their problems in a manner wholly alien to the subjective quality of their distress. And one is made to feel very sorry for them, a humane response which far too much of our contemporary literature has neglected, with its overemphasis upon dominance, conquest, the attainment or frustration of 'success.' (xiv)

"Whatever individual standpoints they may represent, be they plaintiff or defendant, interested or disinterested witness, slave or slave-owner, brutal sea-captain or recorders of his brutality, these bearers of testimony represent in the large the 'law court point of view.' In this respect Mr. Reznikoff's work embodies in miniature the problem of the 'whole truth' as it arises in a civilization marked by many pronounced differences in occupational pattern." (xv-xvi)