on Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative by Charles Reznikoff

Some forty years after Charles Reznikoff first banded together with the New York poets Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen beneath the rubric of Objectivism, he was asked what that term meant to him. His response, for the reference work Contemporary Poets, tells us a great deal about the poetic intentions of that small, stylistically disparate group of young modernists; so, too, does it sketch the formal boundaries and plain-spoken intensity of Reznikoff’s astonishing magnum opus, Testimony, recently made available by Black Sparrow Press for the first time since 1978:

“Objectivist”; images clear but the meaning not stated but suggested by the objective details and the music of the verse; words pithy and plain; without the artifice of regular meters; themes, chiefly Jewish, American, urban.”

The description, like the man, is cloaked in a quiet humility. Reznikoff graduated from New York University’s law school in 1916, at the age of 22, though he never practiced; instead, he was something of a professional journeyman, supporting himself as salesman, writer for the legal encyclopedia Corpus Juris, editor for The Jewish Frontier, and author of a history of Charleston, South Carolina, Jews. If his work was read and reviewed by the journals of the day, he remained obscure—a critical and commercial flop—until the early 1970s when Black Sparrow Press brought all of his major works back into print. He died in 1974, his legacy a strange and largely unstudied body of work whose stark panorama of America is only now, with this recent reissue of Testimony, being recognized by critics and lay readers alike as a sui generis masterpiece of modernist letters.

Reznikoff’s time at Corpus Juris proved most crucial to the creation of Testimony. While ostensibly summarizing untold troves of old court records and testimonial documents, Reznikoff was in reality gathering source material for an American panoramic: tales of domestic abuse, divorce, child beatings, horrific industrial accidents, murders, robberies, and every variety of cheat, fix, and swindle. He first turned his findings into a prose work (also called Testimony) in 1934, before beginning Testimony: The United States, 1885–1915: Recitative sometime in the 1950s, the masterpiece he would spend the remaining decades of his life expanding and revising. Its unique structure deserves a more thorough investigation than I can provide, but worth noting is Reznikoff’s use of chronology (1885–1890, 1891–1900, 1901–1910, 1911–1915), geography (North, South, West), and category (“Domestic Scenes,” “Children,” “Railroads,” “Negroes,” etc.) to provide a thematic unity and consistency of vision, a narrative repetition that serves to amplify his work’s considerable emotional power.

That repetition is part and parcel of Testimony’s aesthetic, which I find to be rhythmic, unfamiliar, beautiful, spare, haunting, and at times almost unbearable. The vision of America that emerges from this six-hundred-page tome is one of darkness and wanton cruelty in a wasted paradise, a ragged and petty place at the liminal edge of our national memory. But the book is also somehow improbably soulful, locating a form of grace in the recognition and naming of a shared suffering. The poems, manifested as unfolding scenes, are told without judgment. When they are taken individually, the poems reveal Reznikoff’s voice as chillingly unfeeling; only through extended sessions of reading do the complex moral forces behind the work become apparent. Although the poems are often stripped-down and austere, Reznikoff proves himself a master of the subtle detail, with individual words creating an almost painterly depiction of degradation, pain, and neglect:

It was nearly daylight when she gave birth to the child,
lying on the quilt
he had doubled up for her.
He put the child on his left arm
and took it out of the room,
and she could hear the splashing of water.
When he came back
she asked him where the child was.
He replied: “Out there—in the water.”
He punched up the fire
and returned with an armload of wood
and the child,
and put the dead child into the fire.
She said: “O John, don’t!”
He did not reply
but turned to her and smiled.

The stoked fire, the armload of wood, the glare of the smile: these details are wielded with Chekhovian force. We are there in the room with the couple and the dead child, aghast, transfixed. That presence is something that remains long after the poem ends. When we read this often-grim work, we leave something of ourselves behind within it.

Testimony’s domestic scenes are perhaps its best-known (and most quoted), but the “Machine Age” poems warrant greater attention for their frank appraisal of the emergent industrialization of American labor. Before robotics and complex assembly lines, to say nothing of sanitary work environments and basic workers’ rights, industrial work was an appallingly dangerous proposition. With grace and no little sympathy, Reznikoff situates the crushed, maimed, and broken bodies of these early industrial workers within a quietly revelatory art. These poems constitute an act of social conscience and remembrance, as well as an exasperated report on the human toll of history’s ostensible progress:

Betty was about eleven. She had no regular work at the mill
but did one thing and then another
and sometimes would take shirts to a table
attached to a mangle.
That morning the machine had not been started
and when she had placed the shirts on the table
she rested her fingers on the rollers;
and another little girl who also worked in the mill
started the machine:
it caught Betty’s arm and crushed it. 

Part of Reznikoff’s success with these machine poems is his ability to transform the everydayness of work into something horrific and disfiguring, a coiled threat. (While reading them I found myself thinking constantly of Kafka at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Bureau and his photographic catalogue of the most common injuries of Prague’s industrial workforce.) Reznikoff builds toward an overriding eulogy, a commemoration of the dreadful risk and awful physicality of this mostly forgotten form of labor.

Also deserving of greater appreciation is Reznikoff’s sensitive and sympathetic treatment of race. Literary critic Aldon Lynn Nielsen has said that Testimony’s “Negroes” sections “constitute the most substantial consideration given to black life by a white poet during the modernist period” because “they let that life speak for itself.” This is not mere lip service. Indeed, Reznikoff feels more fresh and relevant than ever, given the deplorable racial climate in the year of this book’s rerelease. For a man writing over half a century ago, this sustained engagement with America’s lasting moral failure seems an act of great courage—and the key, I think, is alluded to by Nielsen: Reznikoff never co-opts the voice or the experience of African Americans. Instead, he provides a poetic platform from which their struggle and their suffering may eloquently hold forth:

The Negro was dead
when the doctors examined him.
They found upon his belly
he died, the doctors said, of peritonitis.

The jailer testified that the Negro had been brought to the jail
charged with burglary;
but no warrant for his arrest was produced
and the jailer did not know—or tell—
who brought him.
The Negro said that a crowd of men 
had taken him from a store to the woods
and whipped him
with “a buggy trace.”

He was not treated by a doctor, the jailer, or anybody:
just put into the jail and left there to die.
The doctor who saw him first—on a Monday—
did nothing for him
and said that he would not die of his beating;
but he did die of it on Wednesday.

With Testimony, Reznikoff produced a profoundly visual work. One is reminded of the bleak and richly affective photographs of Lewis Hine, capturing the early twentieth century in black-and-white shots of sleeping newsies, injured milliners, soot-faced miners. Here is a work of grit and grime, something that gets under our nails and into our clothes. But Reznikoff, with consummate skill and remarkable confidence, transforms this human wretchedness into something elegiac—an awareness, perhaps even a prayer. Testimony’s epigraph, from Ephesians, rings out over the text with a kind of golden, lasting hope: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and railing be put away from you, with all malice.” A seeming document of suffering turns out also to be a document of grace, of recognition. Charles Reznikoff’s remarkable gesture—nothing less than a life’s work—bestows dignity on the lost, the forgotten, the broken, and the wasted via the eloquence of attention. In his hands, the American moral wasteland is transformed into something worthy, something consecrated.


Jaffrey, NH: Black Sparrow Books, 2015. 592 pp. $24.95.


Dustin Illingworth is a critic and fiction writer based in Southern California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Publishers Weekly, Literary Hub, and various other publications. He is the managing editor of the Scofield, and a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine.