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'Art by Subtraction'

January 3, 2008 By:
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Charles Reznikoff's poetry has a mystery about it unlike anyone else's. He was, determinedly, a Modernist, but if you were to compare him to T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound -- two of the undisputed Modernist masters, at least of the American canon -- his language and imagery would seem simple, uncluttered, clear-cut, not in the least obfuscatory. He is not obscure or difficult in the way so many writers from the early part of the 20th century strove to be; that was just one of the ways in which they rebelled against the strictures of the Victorian world, both in a literary and societal sense.

But Reznikoff's diamond-hard lyrics, for all their concrete detail, are far from transparent; one thing they do not do is give up their meanings willingly. When you read them, you understand all of the elements, see clearly what is being spoken of -- it is the world and the things within it -- but often what we are to make of them, aside from some generalized feelings the poems leave us with, is just beyond our grasp.

This does not mean, though, that the work has no point, that it is meaningless, in the manner that the Absurdists and Dadaists sometimes purposefully sought. Meaning can come to a reader through methods other than analysis and intellectualization. Sound itself -- the pattern on the page, the ringing in the air -- can make even more sense, especially when it's melded with the kind of detailed imagery that fills Reznikoff's verse.

There is another element in the poems that make them like no other. Reznikoff attempted to write works of varying lengths, and he may, actually, be at his best in his brief, almost haiku-like lyrics. But even when he created a large piece that utilized long lines, much in the Whitmanesque mode, there was a compression in the phrasing that can often bring you up short.

And, in terms of tone, he seems dispassionate, with all traces of emotion having been drained from even the most emotional of subjects. Everything resides purely in the words, and if we are to understand this writer, we have to turn back to them -- and to them alone.

Mystery and Meaning
Nowhere is the matter of mystery and meaning clearer in Reznikoff's oeuvre than in Holocaust, a book-length poem composed of numerous parts. It was first published in 1975 and has been reissued in paperback by its original publisher, Black Sparrow Books, which is now an imprint of the always enterprising David R. Godine Publishers. It now joins The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975, also issued in paperback by Black Sparrow, which is the most complete picture available of the writer's massive output and considerable accomplishment.

Holocaust is like nothing else Reznikoff created. He published more than 20 volumes of poetry and verse drama, in addition to nine works of prose of various sorts (novels, biographies, history) and three volumes of translation. And he accomplished all of this in nearly complete anonymity as an artist, unread except by fellow poets, and generally unappreciated in his lifetime by the critics. (In actuality, he was trained as a lawyer and worked at various jobs, both legal and literary, during his lifetime in order to stay afloat monetarily, and thus free himself to continue his "real" labor.)

But Holocaust's unusual nature is a product of its subject matter as well as its method. In just under 100 pages, Reznikoff attempted to encapsulate the entire experience of the Jews in Europe as they strove to comprehend and cope with the Nazi terror -- and, eventually, with various forms of mechanized death. As the writer notes in a brief statement that prefaces the work, he based these poems on a U.S. government publication, Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, as well as on the records of the Eichmann trial, which was held in Jerusalem.

The titles affixed to the poem's 12 sections give one a sense of what the artist was after: Deportation, Invasion, Research, Ghettos, Massacres, Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks, Work Camps, Children, Entertainment, Mass Graves, Marches and Escapes. Reznikoff sought not merely to depict a portion of this massive cataclysm but rather to encompass it all, using the factual material he then had at his disposal.

As British poet Janet Sutherland points out in an afterword to the work, the language used is a particularly skillful blend of documentation and art. "Reznikoff edits his source material so skillfully," she writes, "that the reader of Holocaust never is aware that the words on the page are drawn from courtroom transcripts. The names of the war criminals are withheld, their sentences are not given, their lawyers and judges are silent. The names of the survivors -- that is, the witnesses for the prosecution -- are also withheld. What matters to Reznikoff is not who does the telling, but the telling itself: the personal testimony, the concrete details of what happened."

To illustrate her point, Sutherland quotes from one portion of the poem, the section called "Ghettos," and then pairs it with the source material it was "drawn from."

One of the S.S. men caught a woman
with a baby in her arms.
She began asking for mercy: if she were
shot
the baby should live.
She was near a fence between the ghetto
and where Poles lived
and behind the fence were Poles ready to
catch the baby
and she was about to hand it over when
caught.
The S.S. man took the baby from her arms
and shot her twice,
and then held the baby in his hands.
The mother, bleeding but still alive, crawled up to his feet.
The S.S. man laughed
and tore the baby apart as one would tear
a rag.
Just then a stray dog passed
and the S.S. man stooped to pat it
and took a lump of sugar out of his pocket
and gave it to the dog.

Here is how the source material reads:

Q: Do you remember another scene with Kidash [a former S.S. man] with a woman and an infant of about one-and-a-half years?

A: The place we were hiding in bordered with the Aryan part and there was a fence there. This Kidash caught a woman with a baby in her arms of about 18 months. She held the baby in her arms and began asking for mercy, that she be shot first and leave the baby alive. From behind the fence there were Poles who raised their hands, ready to catch the baby. She was about to hand the baby over to the Poles. He took the baby from her arms and shot her twice, and then took the baby into his hands and tore him as one would tear a rag.

Witness Buzhminski: The baby wept and cried. The mother crawled bleeding up to her baby and thus together they died. He laughed and saw that a stray dog was crossing the street. He took the dog, started to pat it, took a lump of sugar out of his pocket and gave it to him, and then took the dog with him.

The italicized words were those that Reznikoff directly used, but any examination of the finished text will probably just reinforce the mystery of creation, how one can take life and transform it.

Sutherland then quoted from a book-length essay about Reznikoff's work written by Milton Hindus, a Brandeis professor and the poet's relentless champion. As Hindus saw it, Reznikoff's control of his sources, especially when it comes to Holocaust, was threefold -- a mastery of selection, style and understatement.

Writes Sutherland, quoting Hindus: "His art is a kind of 'art by subtraction,' in which 'a maximum of simplification may unexpectedly result in a maximum of suggestiveness.' "

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