There’s been a small flurry of renewed interest in Charles Reznikoff in the last few years, leading to new evaluations of his two great epics of assemblage, Testimony and Holocaust. The Poems and Poetics blog has posted an essay by Charles Bernstein on the these works, which, ostensibly about the sound of Reznikoff’s voice reading this work, is really an argument about ways of reading. Because Reznikoff did not poeticize the material at hand (transcripts from US courts and documents from the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, respectively), Bernstein argues that the documents challenge the way we read and identify with poetry:

in Reznikoff’s refusal to aestheticize brutality, he does not turn away from aesthetics but rather shifts the aesthetic frame from the “content” to the reading experience itself. In this sense, Testimony is “readingcentered,” to use a phrase of Jackson Mac Low, another poet whose work is largely based on organizing large bodies of found (or appropriated) language. Both Mac Low and Reznikoff pose a challenge to how we read and where we find meaning, creating conceptual works that make our initial inability to read an aesthetic challenge to read differently, read anew.

But there is a crucial difference between the two projects, which seem, on the surface, to be of a piece. Bernstein locates difference in the sound of the author’s voice. When reading Testimony, Reznikoff’s voice is “compassionate,” but when reading Holocaust, his voice is “defiant:”

When Charles Reznikoff, at 81, gives voice to “Heil, Hitler!” one hears a kind of glee, something in between Mel Brooks and Charlie Chaplin, a glee that adds, in its performative dimension, an ethical necessity for this work: anger, yes, but, more resounding, contempt. The sound of Reznikoff’s contempt is liberating.

Much remains to be said and thought here. Why is the sound of his contempt liberating? What does it liberate us from? Is righteous or stunned anger alone an ethical necessity for an artwork that faces up to an historical trauma? Bernstein’s essay opens onto provocative questions, but leaves them, for the moment, untheorized and unanswered.

Originally Published: February 1st, 2011