Though he might best be known primarily for the style of his poetry, which embodies the concept of Objectivism, Charles Reznikoff's two-volume masterpiece Testimony is a tour-de-force of assembled social documentary, a vast tapestry detailing, in clear, precise and usually prosaic narratives the forgotten history of this country. The litanies in the collection, drawn from court testimony but shorn of the judgments, document, in relentless fashion, the horrors of our shared American reality in a way that few novels, books of poetry, films, or TV shows do. It is in a way like "The Wire" but extended over the entire country, and with only an associative, not plotted, throughline. Here's a poem from Volume 1: the united states (1885-1915) Recitative (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), and specifically from the section Testimony: The United States (1885-1890): The West. I thought of it in relation to yet another report about a Black man being shot by police, even though the race of the victim remains unspoken; it is, in effect, a commentary on the widespread violence that has marked this country from its settlement and founding, a violence, often based on power struggles, economic, political and social domination, and control of resources and thus ultimately of everything that depends upon them, including life itself, that we sometimes want to confine to the margins of memory and history, but that has always been with us, a part of who we are as a society.
Town and Country
The body had been buried face downwards.
Only the skeleton was left,
and it separated in handling
when dug up.
The coat was yellow ducking,
lined with a light-colored blanket;
overalls of yellow ducking, too,
and a patch on the knee:
a belt on the skeleton,
a knife in the pocket,
and a bullet hole
in the back of the skull.
Copyright © Estate of Charles Reznikoff, Black Sparrow Press, 1978. All rights reserved.