POSTFACE TO A BOOK OF WITNESS
A Book of Witness was my passage from one century – one millennium – to another. The first fifty poems were written in 1999, the second fifty in the two years that followed. When I came into the street that first day in the year 2000, it was one of those bright California mornings, & I was struck, very forcefully, by the curious name of the year & by a feeling that I was entering another world. While I didn’t put much stock in that kind of era-shifting, my mind that morning still held an image from something I had seen on television the night before – a series of movie clips showing earlier twentieth-century views of what the coming century would be like. Millennium was a word I had been mulling over in that closing decade, most notably in the assemblage Poems for the Millennium that Pierre Joris & I put together & published in the later 1990s. The word itself, we knew, was slippery – associated as it was with a sense of apocalypse & destruction that often belied our rosier interpretations.
Witness was another word we held in common. In its twentieth-century usage it had a meaning – pathetic but real – that spoke to the horrors, great & small, that marked that time & that persist today. I had come to think of poetry, not always but at its most revealing, as an act of witnessing, even of prophecy – by the poet directly or with the poet as a conduit for others. I had also been struck by how crucial to all of that the voice was; I mean the voice in the grammatical sense, the "first person" centered in the pronoun "I." I was aware, even so, of how that first person voice had either been debased or more frequently despised by many poets – often (where despised) by poets close to me. The intention, understandably enough, was to free the poem from its lyric shackles – "the lyrical interference of the individual as ego," as Olson called it.
The loss of such expression, however, would be immense, & its elimination futile. For there are a number of ways in which that voice – first person – has been one of our great resources in poetry, something that turns up everywhere in our deepest past & present. I mean here a first person that isn’t restricted to the usual "confessional" attitude but is the instrument – in language – for all acts of witnessing, the key with which we open up to voices other than our own. I am thinking here of someone like the Mazatec shamness María Sabina (& her echo in the work of our own Anne Waldman), who throws up a barrage of "I" assertions, when it’s really the voices of the gods, the "saint children" of her pantheon, whom she feels speaking through her.
There is in all of this a question of inventing & reinventing identity, of experimenting with the ways in which we can speak or write as "I." In the course of putting that identity into question, I have brought in statements now & again by other poets – very lightly sometimes but as a further way of playing down the merely ego side of "I." And I let the voices that I draw in shift & move around. I want to do that, to keep it in suspense. "I am I because my little dog knows me," Gertrude Stein wrote in a poem she called "Identity." I have written a hundred of these poems now – a century of poems – & I hope that they’re both of this time & still connected to the oldest ways in which the poem makes itself.
* To be published in Jerome Rothenberg, A Book of Witness, New Directions 2003. Some excerpts appear here as The Case for Memory.