The Decisive Moment
By Paul Auster
blank Charles Reznikoff is a poet of the eye. To cross the threshold of his work is to penetrate the prehistory of matter, to find oneself exposed to a world in which language has not yet been invented. Seeing, in his poetry, always comes before speech. Each poetic utterance is an emancipation of the eye, a transcription of the visible into the brute, the unciphered code of being. The act of writing, therefore, is not so much an ordering of the real as a discovery of it. It is a process by which one places oneself between things and the names of things, a way of standing watch in this interval of silence and allowing things to be seen as if for the first time and henceforth to be given their names. The poet, who is the first man to be born, is also the last. He is Adam, but he is also the end of all generations: the mute heir of the builders of Babel. For it is he who must learn to speak from his eyes and cure himself of seeing with his mouth.
blank The poem, then, not as a telling, but as a taking hold. The world can never be assumed to exist. It comes into being only in the act of moving towards it. Esse est percipii: no American poet has ever adhered so faithfully to the Berkeleyan formula as Reznikoff. It is more than just the guiding principle of his work it is embedded into the work, and it contains all the force of a moral dogma. To read Reznikoff is to understand that nothing can be taken for granted: we do not find ourselves in the midst of an already established world, we do not, as if by preordained birthright, automatically take possession of our surroundings. Each moment, each thing, must be earned, wrested away from the confusion of inert matter by a steadiness of gaze, a purity of perception so intense that the effort, in itself, takes on the value of a religious act. The slate has been wiped clean. It is up to the poet to write his own book.
blank Tiny poems, many of them barely a sentence long, make up the core of Reznikoff's work. Although his total output includes fiction, biography, drama, long narrative poems, historical meditations, and book-length documentary poems, these short lyrics are the Ur-texts of Reznikoff's imagination: everything else follows from them. Notable for their precision and simplicity, they also run counter to normal assumptions about what a poem should aspire to be. Consider these examples:
The stiff lines of the twigs
blurred by buds.
blank Moonlit Night
The trees' shadows lie in black pools in the lawns.
In a cloud bones of steel.
blank The point is that there is no point. At least not in any traditional sense. These poems are not trying to drum home universal truths, to impress the reader with the sill of their making, or to invoke the ambiguities of human experience. Their aim, quite simply, is to clarify. Of seeing and of speaking. And yet, the unsettling modestly of these poems should not blind us to the boldness of their ambition. For even in these tiniest of poems, the gist of Reznikoff's poetics is there. It is as much an ethics of the poetic moment as it is a theory of writing, and its message never varies in any of Reznikoff's work: the poem is always more than just a construction of words. Art, then, for the sake of something which means that art is almost an incidental by-product of the effort to make it. The poem, in all instances, must be an effort to perceive, must be a moving outward. It is less a mode of expressing the world than it is a way of being in the world. Merleau-Ponty's account of contemplation in The Phenomenology of Perception is a nearly exact description of the process that takes place in a Reznikoff poem:
. . . when I contemplate an object with the sole intention of watching it exist and unfold its riches before my eyes, then it ceases to be an allusion to a general type, and I become aware that each perception, and not merely that of sights which I am discovering for the first time, re-enacts on its own account the birth of intelligence and has some element of creative genius about it: in order that I may recognize the tree as a tree, it is necessary that, beneath this familiar meaning, the momentary arrangement of the visible scene should begin all over again, as on the very first day of the vegetable kingdom, to outline the individual idea of this tree.
blank Imagism, yes. But only as a source, not as a method. There is no desire on Reznikoff's part to use the image as a medium for transcendence, to make it quiver ineffably in some ethereal realm of the spirit. The progress from symbolism to imagism to objectivism is more a series of short circuits than a direct lineage. What Reznikoff learned from the Imagists was the value the force of the image in itself, unadorned by the claims of the ego. The poem, in Reznikoff's hands, is an act of image-ing, rather than of imagining. Its impulse is away from metaphor and into the tangible, a desire to take hold of what is rather than what is merely possible. A poem fit to the measure of the perceived world, neither larger than this world nor smaller than it. 'I see something,' Reznikoff stated in a 1968 interview with L. S. Dembo, 'and I put it down as I see it. In the treatment of it, I abstain from comment. Now, if I've done something that moves me if I've portrayed the object well somebody else will come along and say, "What the devil is this?" And maybe they're both right.'
blank If the poet's primary obligation is to see, there is a similar though less obvious injunction upon the poet the duty of not being seen. The Reznikoff equation, which weds seeing to invisibility, cannot be made except by renunciation. In order to see, the poet must make himself invisible. He must disappear, efface himself in anonymity.
I like the sound of the street
but I, apart and alone,
beside an open window
and behind a closed door
* blank * blank *
I am alone
and glad to be alone;
I do not like people who walk about
so late; who walk slowly after midnight
through the leaves fallen on the sidewalks.
I do not like
my own face
in the little mirrors of the slot-machines
before the closed stores.
blank It seems no accident that most Reznikoff poems are rooted in the city. For only in the modern city can the one who sees remain unseen, take his stand in space and yet remain transparent. Even as he becomes a part of the landscape he has entered, he continues to be an outsider. Therefore: Objectivist. That is to say to create a world around oneself by seeing as a stranger would. What counts is the thing itself, and the thing that is seen can come to life only when the one who sees is disappeared. There can never be any movement toward possession. Seeing is the effort to create presence: to possess a thing would be to make it vanish.
blank And yet, it is as if each act of seeing were an attempt to establish a link between the one who sees and the thing that is seen. As if the eye were the means by which the stranger could find his place in the world he has been exiled to. For the building of a world is above all the building and recognition of relations. To discover a thing and isolate it in its singularity is only a beginning, a first step. The world is not merely an accumulation, it is a process and each time the eye enters this world, it partakes in the life of all the disparate things that pas before it. While objectivity is the premise, subjectivity is the tacit organizer. As soon as there is more than one thing, there is memory, and because of memory, there is language: what is born in the eye, and nevertheless beyond it. In which, and out of which, the poem.
blank In his 1968 interview with Dembo, Reznikoff went on to say: 'The world is very large, I think, and I certainly can't testify to the whole of it. I can only testify to my own feelings; I can only say what I saw and heard, and I try to say it as well as I can. And if your conclusion is that what I saw and heard makes you feel the way I did, then the poem is successful.'
blank New York was Reznikoff's home. It was a city he knew as intimately as a woodcutter knows his forest, and in his prime he would walk between ten and twenty miles a day, from Brooklyn to Riverdale and back. Few poets have ever had such a deep feeling for city life, and in dozens of brief poems Reznikoff captures the strange and transitory beauties of the urban landscape.
This smoky winter morning
do not despise the green jewel among the twigs
because it is a traffic light.
*blank *blank *
Feast, you who cross the bridge
this cold twilight
on these honeycombs of light, the buildings of Manhattan.
*blank *blank *
Rails in the subway,
what did you know of happiness
when you were ore in the earth;
now the electric lights shine upon you.
blank But Reznikoff's attention is focused on more than just the objects to be found in the city. He is equally interested in the people who fill the streets of New York, and no encounter, however brief, is too slight to escape his notice, too banal to become a source of epiphany. These two examples, from among many possibilities:
I was walking along Forty-Second Street as night was
On the other side of the street was Bryant Park.
Walking behind me were two men
and I could hear some of their conversation:
'What you must do,' one of them was saying to his
'is to decide on what you want to do
and then stick to it. Stick to it!
And you are sure to succeed finally.'
I turned to look at the speaker giving such good advice
and was not surprised to see that he was old,
But his companion
to whom the advice was given so earnestly,
was just as old;
and just then the great clock on top of a building across
blank the park
began to shine.
*blank *blank *
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.
blank The feeling that emerges from these glimpses of city life is roughly equivalent to what one feels when looking at a photograph. Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment' is perhaps the crucial idea to remember in this context. The important thing is readiness: you cannot walk out into the street with the expectation of writing a poem of taking a picture, and yet you must be prepared to do so whenever the opportunity presents itself. Because the 'work' can came into being only when it has been given to you by the world, you must be constantly looking at the world, constantly doing the work that will lead to a poem even if no poem comes of it. Reznikoff walks through the city not, as most poets do, with 'his head in the clouds,' but with his eyes open, his mind open, his energies concentrated on entering the life around him. Entering it precisely because he is apart from it. And therefore this paradox, lodged in the heart of the poem: to posit the reality of this world, and then to cross into it, even as you find yourself barred at all its gates. The poet as solitary wanderer, as man in the crowd, as faceless scribe. Poetry as an art of loneliness.
blank It is more than just loneliness, however. It is exile, and a way of coming to terms with exile that somehow, for better or worse, manages to leave the condition of exile intact. Reznikoff was not only an outsider by temperament, nurturing those aspects of himself that would tend to maintain his sense of isolation, he was also born into a state of otherness, and as a Jew, as the son of immigrant Jews in America, whatever idea of community he had was always ethnic rather than national (his dream as a poet was to go across the country on foot, stopping at synagogues along the way to give reading of his work in exchange for food and lodging). If his poems about the city his American poems, so to speak, dwell on the surfaces of things, on the skin of everyday life, it is his poems about Jewish identity that he allows himself a certain measure of lyrical freedom, allows himself to become a singer of songs.
Let other people come as streams
that overflow a valley
and leave dead bodies, uprooted trees and fields of sand:
we Jews are as the dew,
on every blade of grass,
trodden under foot today
and here tomorrow morning.
blank And yet, in spite of this deep solidarity with the Jewish past, Reznikoff never deludes himself into thinking that he can overcome the essential solitude of his condition simply by affirming his Jewishness. For not only has be been exiled, he has been exiled twice as a Jew, and from Judaism as well.
How difficult for me is Hebrew:
even the Hebrew for mother, for bread, for sun
is foreign. How far I have been exiled, Zion.
*blank *blank *
The Hebrew of your poets, Zion,
is like oil upon a burn,
cool as oil;
the smell in the street at night
of the hedge in flower.
I have married and married the speech of strangers;
none are like you, Shulamite.
blank It is a precarious position, to say the least. Neither fully assimilated nor fully unassimilated, Reznikoff occupies the unstable middle ground between two worlds and is never able to claim either one as his own. Nevertheless, and no doubt precisely because of this ambiguity, it is an extremely fertile ground leading some to consider him primarily as a Jewish poet (whatever the term might mean) and others to look on him as a quintessentially American poet (whatever that term might mean). And yet it is safe to say, I think, that in the end bother statements are true or else that either one is true, which probably amounts to the same thing. Reznikoff's poems are what Reznikoff is: the poems of an American Jew, or, if you will, or a hyphenated American, a Jewish-American, with the two terms standing not so much on equal footing as combining to form a third and wholly different term: the condition of being in two places at the same time, or, quite simply, the condition of being nowhere.
blank We have only to go on the evidence. In the two volumes of Complete Poems (1918-1975), recently published by Black Sparrow Press, there are a surprising number of poems on Jewish themes. Poems not only about Jewish immigrant life in New York, but also long narratives on various episodes from ancient and modern Jewish history. A list of some of these titles will give a fair idea of some of Reznikoff's concerns: 'King David,' 'Jeremiah in the Stocks: An Arrangement of the Prophecies,' 'The Synagogue Defeated: Anno 1096,' 'Palestine under the Romans,' 'The Fifth Book of the Maccabees,' "Jews in Babylonia.' In all, these poems cover more than a hundred pages of the approximately 350 pages in the two volumes or nearly a third of his total output. Given the nature of the poems he is best known for the spare city lyrics, transcriptions of immediate sensual datait is strange that he should have devoted so much of his writing life to works whose inspiration comes from books. Reznikoff, the lease pretentious of all poets, never shows any inclination towards the scholarly acrobatics of some of his contemporaries Pound, for example, or Olson and yet, curiously, much of his writing is a direct response to, almost a translation of, his reading. By a further twist, these poems that treat of apparently remote subjects are among his most personal works.
blank To be schematic for a moment, a simplified explanation would be as follows: America is Reznikoff's present, Judaism is his past. The act of immersing himself in Jewish history is finally no different from him than the act of stepping out into the streets of New York. In both cases, it is an attempt to come to terms with what he is. The past, however, cannot be directly perceived: it can only be experienced through books. When Reznikoff writes about King David, therefore Moses, or any other Biblical figure, he is in effect writing about himself. Even in his most light-hearted moments, this preoccupation with his ancestors is always with him.
blank God and Messenger
The pavement barren
as the mountain
on which God spoke to Moses
suddenly in the street
shining against my legs
the bumper of a motor car.
The point is that Reznikoff the Jew and Reznikoff the American cannot be separated from one another. Each aspect of his work must be read in relation to the oeuvre as a whole, for in the end each point of view inhabits all the others.
The tree in the twilit street
the pods hang from its bare symmetrical branches
but if, like God, a century were to us
the twinkling of an eye,
we should see the frenzy of growth.
blank Which is to say: the eye is not adequate. Not even the seen can be truly seen. The human perspective, which continually thrusts us into a place where 'only the narrow present is alive,' is an exile from eternity, an exclusion from the fullness of human possibility. That Reznikoff, who insists so strenuously ion all his work on this human perspective, should at the same time be aware of its limits, gives his work a reflexive quality, an element of self-doubt that permeates even the most straightforward lyric. For all his apparent simplicity, Reznikoff is by no means a primative. A reductionist, perhaps, but a highly sophisticated one who, as an adroit craftsman, always manages to make us forget that each poem is the product (as he put it in one work) of 'hunger, silence, and sweat.'
blank There is, however, a bridge between time and eternity in Reznikoff's work, a link between God and man, in the precise place where man is forced to abstain most vigorously from the demands of the self: in the idea of the Law. The Law in the Jewish sense of the word and, by extension, in the English sense. Testimony is a work in which reading has become the equivalent of seeing: 'Note: All that follows is based on the law reports of the several states.' What Reznikoff has observed, has brought to life, is the word, the language of men. So that the act of witness has become synonymous with the act of creation and the shouldering of its burden. 'Now suppose in a court of law,' Reznikoff told Dembo in their interview, 'you are testifying in a negligence case. You cannot get up on the stand and say, "The man was negligent." That's a conclusion of fact. What you be compelled to say is how the man acted. Did he stop before he crossed the street? Did he look? The judges of whether he is negligent or not are the jury in that case and the judges of what you say as a poet are the readers. That is, there is an analogy between testimony in the courts and the testimony of a poet.'
blank Trained as a lawyer (though he never practiced) and for many years a researcher for a legal encyclopedia, Reznikoff used the workings of the law not only as a description of the poetic process, but also, more basically, as an aesthetic ideal. In his long autobiographical poem, Early History of a Writer, he explains how the study of law helped to discipline him as a poet:
I saw that I could use the expensive machinery
that had cost me four years of hard work at law
and which I had thought useless for my writing:
prying sentences open to look at the exact meaning;
weighing words to choose only those that had
blank meat for my purpose
and throwing the rest away as empty shells.
I, too, could scrutinize every word and phrase
as if in a document or the opinion of a judge
and listen, as well, for tones and overtones,
leaving only the pithy, the necessary, the clear and plain.
blank Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative is perhaps Reznikoff's most important achievement as a poet. A quietly astonishing work, so deceptive in its making that it would be easy to misread it is a document rather than as a piece of art, it is at once a kaleidoscope vision of American life and the ultimate test of Reznikoff's poetic principles. Composed of small, self-contained fragments, each the distillation of an actual court case, the overall effect is nevertheless extremely coherent. Reznikoff has no lessons to teach, no axe to grind, no ideology to defend: he merely wants to present the facts. For example:
At the time of their marriage
Andrew was worth about fifty thousand dollars;
Polly had nothing. 'He was gone up to the mine,
and I wish to God he would fall down
and break his neck.
I just hate him.
I just shiver when he touches me.'
'Andy, I am going to write a letter that may seem
you know that I do not love you
as I should
and I know that I never can.
Don't you think it best
to give me a divorce?
If you do,
I will not have to sell the house in Denver
that you gave me,
and I will give back the ranch in Delta.
After we are divorced,
if you care for me and I care for you,
we will marry again. Polly.'
*blank *blank *
Jessie was eleven years old, though some said fourteen,
and had the care of a child
just beginning to walk
pulled off the child's diaper
and sat the child in some hot ashes
where she had been cooking ash cakes;
the child screamed
and she smacked it on the jaw.
blank It would be difficult for a poet to make himself more invisible than Reznikoff does in this book. To find a comparable approach to the real, one would have to go back to the great prose writers at the turn of the century. As in Chekov or in early Joyce, the desire to allow events to speak for themselves, to choose the exact detail that will say everything and thereby allow as much as possible to remain unsaid. This kind of restraint paradoxically requires an openness of spirit that is available to very few: an ability to accept the given, to remain a witness of human behavior and not succumb to the temptation of being a judge.
blank The success of Testimony becomes all the more striking when placed beside Holocaust, a far less satisfying work that is based on the same techniques. Using as his sources the U.S. Government publication, Trials of the Criminals before the Nuremberg Tribunal, and the records of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Reznikoff attempts to deal with Germany's annihilation of the Jews in the same dispassionate, documentary style with which he had explored the human dramas buried in American court records. The problem, I think, is one of magnitude. Reznikoff is a mater of the everyday; he understands the seriousness of small events and has an uncanny sympathy with the lives of ordinary people. In a work such as Testimony he is able to present us with the facts in a way that simultaneously makes us understand them: the two gestures are inseparable. In the case of Holocaust, however, we all know the facts in advance. The holocaust, which is precisely the unknowable, the unthinkable, requires a treatment beyond the facts in order for us to be able to understand it assuming that such a thing is even possible. Similar in approach to a 1960's play by Peter Weiss, The Investigation, Reznikoff's poem rigorously refuses to pass judgment on any of the atrocities it describes. But this is nevertheless a false objectivity, for the poem is not saying to the reader, 'decide for yourself,' it is saying that the decision has already been made and that the only way we can deal with these things is to remove them from their inherently emotional setting. The problem is that we cannot remove them. This setting is a necessary starting point.
blank Holocaust is instructive, however, in that it shows us the limits of Reznikoff's work. I do not mean shortcomings but limits, those things that set off and describe a space, that create a world. Reznikoff is essentially a poet of naming. One does not have the sense of a poetry immersed in language but rather of something that takes place before language and comes to fruition at the precise moment language has been discovered and it yields a style that is pristine, fastidious, almost stiff in its effort to say exactly what it means to say. If any one word can be used to describe Reznikoff's work, it would be humility towards language and also towards himself.
I am afraid
because of the foolishness
I have spoken.
I must diet
blank It could have been an easy life for Reznikoff. Throughout the many years he devoted to writing poetry (his first poems were published in 1918, when he was twenty-four, and he went on publishing until his death in early 1976), he suffered from a neglect so total it was almost scandalous. Forced to bring out most of his books in private editions (many of them printed by himself), he also had to fight the constant pressures of making a living.
After I had worked all day at what I earn my living
I was tired. Now my own work has lost another day,
I thought, but began Slowly,
and slowly my strength came back to me.
Surely, the tide comes in twice a day.
blank It was not until he was in his late sixties that Reznikoff began to receive some measure of recognition. New Directions published a book of his selected poems, By The Waters of Manhattan, which was followed a few years later by the first volume of Testimony. But in spite of the success of these two books and a growing audience for his work New Directions saw fit to drop Reznikoff from its list of authors. More years passed. Then, in 1974, Black Sparrow Press brought out By the Well of Living & Seeing: New and Selected Poems 1918-1973. More importantly, it committed itself to the long overdue project of putting all of Reznikoff's work back into print. Under the intelligent and sensitive editing of Seamus Cooney, the sequence so far includes the two volumes of Collected Poems, Holocaust, The Manner Music (a posthumous novel), the first two volumes of Testimony, and will go on to include more volumes of Testimony and a book of Collected Plays.
blank If Reznikoff lived his life in obscurity, there was never the slightest trace of resentment in his work. He was too proud for that, too busy with the work itself to be overly concerned with its fate in the world. Even if people are slow to listen to someone who speaks quietly, he knew that eventually he would be heard.
Not because of victories
but for the common sunshine,
the largeness of the spring.
Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.
* * * * *
This essay was made available to the EPC with the generous permission of Paul Auster. "The Decisive Moment" appears in The Art of Hunger and Other Essays published in 1982 by Menard Press of London.
Return to the Charles Reznikoff Homepage at the EPC