To Remain a Witness

I recently read, via a recommendation from the marvelous website The Dish, an essay by Amber Forcey titled “There Are No “Good Old Days.” Forcey laments the very notion that the past is preferable to our current sorry state of affairs in the present. She focuses her argument on the popular television series “Downtown Abbey.” Even when episodes refer to the horrors of the early 20th century, she says,

“the Titanic sinking, a World War, the Spanish flu – seem to serve mostly as fodder for the characters’ personal dramas, not as an honest depiction of the problems of this time. However, a careful reading of any history textbook – or solid work of 20th century British literature – will reveal that this was time and place of great upheaval, one plagued with war, disease, and its own versions of “crimes against humanity,” not to mention the debasing treatment of women and minorities throughout most of the western world. We dream nostalgically about this time as we watch; but, if we are truly aware of the evils and trouble of these decades, given the option, none of us would chose to revert back to such a time.”

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Forcey then does a nice turn by writing about the short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. “The irony of the tale,” Forcey writes, “is that a good man is hard to find, not because of the times, but because there are no good men – then or now – except for One.” Though the murderous Misfit might disagree with that last point, since he faults Jesus for the irrevocable mistake of raising the dead: “He thrown everything off balance.” The only logical alternative to following a religious path, according to the Misfit, is simple, dedicated mayhem: “No pleasure but in meanness.”

The mention of O’Connor’s iconic short story reminded me of another–though much less well-known—classic of American literature written about the same time, the poet Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.

Reznikoff was trained as a lawyer (though he only practiced briefly), and the source of the poems is actual trial testimony (from the years 1885-1915) that he’d discovered while working on court records. Unable to turn away from the stories of suffering he’d encountered, Reznikoff instead turned the essence of those testimonies into poems, short verse narratives that, example by example, increasingly haunt the reader. Testimony is a harrowing book that can’t be put down. Here’s a taste of its mayhem and tragedy and unexpected trouble:

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 child was about eight years old.
For some misconduct or other,
his father stripped him naked, threw him on the floor,
and beat him with a piece of rubber pipe,
crying “Die, God damn you!”
He tried to dash the child against the brick surface of the chimney,
and flung the child again heavily on the floor
and stamped on him.

**

Arnold heard the blowing of the whistle:
the train was coming.
The only light was that of a small lamp
behind the shutters of the station,
and it gave at best
a weak light on the platform.
The night was dark and cloudy.
In trying to pass from the platform to the ground
where passengers boarded the train,
he could not see the steps that led from the platform:
slipped
and fell.

**

One of them saw the smoke rising
when they went for dinner;
the wind had been blowing
strongly from the west
but had increased greatly in force
when they reached the fire.

The fire had crossed the ditch:
there had been a dry spell
and there was no water in the ditch—
or neighborhood.
They had only shovels
to keep the fire from spreading;
and the soil was peat,
covered with moss and grass,
all dry and highly flammable.

**

He was committed to prison in default of bail
and sent down in the van
with two other prisoners,
one drunk and spewing. In the prison,
he received two narrow blankets and a tin dish;
no knife or fork. Slept on the floor.
The room was filthy.
The stool had no cover;
the men made water in it at night,
and it ran over.

**

He entered the store with barley sacks upon his feet
and a barley sack over his head—
holes cut in front through which to look—
and carried a shotgun,
both barrels loaded with birdshot.

But the barley sack upon one of his feet
caught on something at the end of the counter;
the mask became displaced so that he could not see,
and the gun was jerked from his hand.

Even a cursory reading of these spare, intense poems will cure any sentimentalist from nostalgia for an idealized past. Which is perhaps why this masterpiece—a masterpiece of poetry but also of nonfiction, since all these stories are “true,” the words lifted from court documents and arranged into “found” poems—is so little known, because its lessons are so unwanted. But masterpiece it is, and Paul Auster comes close to capturing its essential power:

“To find a comparable approach to the real, one would have to go back to the great prose writers of the turn of the century. As in Chekov or in early Joyce, the desire is 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 becoming a judge.”

Michael Heller chimes in: “It is as much craft as content which produces the effect. The reader is made to feel the flow of event go by, to participate only as a witness. There are no imperial gestures in the language, barely an attempt to explain, let alone interpret.”

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Testimony was originally published as the 500-page Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915–Recitative. It is long out of print, as is the much shorter version, Testimony: The United States 1885-1890–Recitative, published by New Directions, which is the version I am familiar with. This strange amalgam of poetry and nonfiction, historical record and carefully controlled yawp of empathy for forgotten lives deserves a literary resurrection.

Paul Auster and Michael Heller quotes are from On Testimony.

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