Peter Quartermain

Michael Heller: On "Mantis"

We know that Zukofsky was deeply influenced by Marx at the time of writing "Mantis." His relationship to Marx's thought, however, was marked by a dialectical dilemma of the very sort that Marx himself invokes in his famous aphorism concerning the philosopher whose job is no longer to describe the world but to change it. The dilemma, as it arises in Zukofsky, concerns, of course, the question of the poet's role as either reflector of the world or as instrument of change. Written during a period when most Marxist-oriented poets were following the mandate of a "socialist realist" poetry for the masses, "Mantis," far from being a piece of propaganda or a purely Marxist "proof," is an example of Zukofsky's poetics at work--especially as given in statements like "An Objective." That is, the poem itself appears to be governed by a poetics of open and unfinished composition, one that cannot be tamed to a philosophical conception. Such a poetics is clearly enjoined in Zukofsky's epigraph from the Latin to "Mantis, An Interpretation," that "names are sequent to the things named," and in Zukofsky's use, almost as a litany of Dante's and Cavalcanti's sense of poetry, of "la battalgia degli diversi pensieri," "the battle of diverse thoughts," "thought's torsion."

Like Crane's The Bridge, Zukofsky's poem, too, is a drama of the struggle of myth over and against the word. The utopocalyptic "moment" of the poem, the pressures brought to bear on poetic composition, here concerns not only the political status of the poem or poet, but the nature of words in relation to art and reality, especially as a totalized worldview, one form of which is Marxism's attempts to subordinate all human activity to its categories and analyses.

In a sense, Zukofsky's poem reminds us of the antagonism between high modernist art and the impulse to provide meaningful social commentary. "The growing oppression of the poor," Zukofsky writes in the "Interpretation," "is the situation most pertinent to us." If this is so, then, for poets of the thirties, as I have described above, the condition of this oppression is bound up, not only in external political relations about which one could propagandize via one's poetry, but in the very nature of poetic activity. The poem tries, on one level, to resolve these tensions. It is part formal plaint for the poor, as in the sestina's last lines, unmistakably hortatory, which read: "Fly Mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves / The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone / And build the new world in your eyes. Save it!" At the same time, much of its modernist tendencies and idiosyncracies, its obeisance to "making it new," are contained in the "Interpretation," the "open-form explanation" that partly explicates the sestina while reminding us that "our world will not stand it, / the implications of a too-regular form."

Now you will recall that Zukofsky elsewhere has stated that the poem has a function--is a "job," as he puts it. In this case, the job of the poem is not only a call to alleviate the condition of the poor, but, as I believe the "Interpretation" makes clear, to resist the strictures which a purely sociopolitical view would impose on the poem. To do this, Zukofsky must honor and be faithful to the starting point of the incident that, in effect, generated the poem, the gratuitous occasion of the mantis in the subway, an occasion that sets into motion ("movement") a series of thoughts and associations creating an order of relations faithful to the initial experience and contrary to the expected usages of the incident as symbolical ("no human being wishes to become / An insect for the sake of a symbol") of the poor's oppression or of the demonization of capital. In other words, the poem’s turn is to be toward "an incident, compelling any writing" rather than the typical politicized use of language as propaganda or "message." By staying with "thought's torsions" wherever they will lead, Zukofsky places his trust, not in political rhetoric, but in something having "enough worth if the emotions can equate it," in this case, from "Provencal myth" to "airships" or comments by the "British Admiralty." "Mantis," in effect, offers its own felt series of interrelationships, a counter-continuity, one not made up of Marxist analyses but of intuitive connections established by having been faithful, as Zukofsky insists, to the "original shock still persisting." This is not so much a new making as a constant desiring, beyond a political schema, to be in touch with a social world. "So that," Zukofsky writes


    the invoked collective

Does not subdue the senses' awareness,

The longing for touch to an idea, or

To a use function of the material:

The original emotion remaining,

    like the collective,

Unprompted, real, as propaganda.


In effect, Zukofsky is trying here to find a way of refusing the hard conceptualizations of ideology and theory, so that he may return the act of poem-making to something that is simultaneously open-ended and analytical--not so much to deny his own Marxist insights as to prevent any "philosophy" from having a hegemonic hold over existence. Because the world in its entirety is beyond a single conception, so the poem must find its own unified form. The complexity of that form demands that the poem strive, as Zukofsky says in the brilliant final strophe of "Mantis" to hold "the simultaneous, / the diaphanous, historical / in one head."

Stephen Fredman: On "(In Alsace) from "Route""

Taking into account Oppen’s experience of World War II and his connection to Heidegger, a strong case can be made for thinking of him as an existentialist rather than as an Objectivist--or else we must open our definition of Objectivism to include much more than the pallid epithet "second-generation imagism.") One index of the difference it makes when we think of Oppen this way concerns his commitment to "the real" or "the actual." Is it enough to assume that these terms return to the imagist hygiene prescribing the accurate visual representation of things or that they draw upon the impressionist equation of visual data with emotional states? During an interview with the Oppens in which Kevin Power engages them in a discussion of Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger (Power 196-97), he asks George to "talk about 'actualness' and how that enters the poem." George replies, "Well there's that prose section of Pierre Adam in 'Route' when he tells me about his experience. I was conscious, when I wrote that, that any of the Existentialists could have written it. I wrote it, nevertheless, because it was actually what he said to me. Existential in the sense that you do what you do and that is the answer... Simply that you are yourself" (197). The story Oppen alludes to was told to him in Alsace, where he was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Many Alsatian men, upon learning they had been drafted into the German army, dug themselves holes in the ground, in which they hid for as long as two or three years. When the Germans learned that men were in hiding, they made reprisals, killing family members and sending wives to the army brothels in Germany. Pierre fed and assisted the men in the holes. "Men would come to Pierre and they would say: I am thinking of making a hole. Pierre would say: yes. They would say then: but if I do they will kill my parents; or: they will take my wife and my children. Then Pierre would say, he told me: if you dig a hole, I will help you" (Oppen, Collected Poems 187-88).

For Oppen, this kind of terrifying existential choice defines the realm of "the actual" Such was the actuality French resistance fighters like Sartre and Camus faced, and it remained the (often unstated) background for their existential philosophies. In his essay "The Resistance," Charles Olson provides something like a gloss on Pierre Adam's story, asserting that the horrors of World War II have rendered the body as the only meaningful instrument of resistance: "When man is reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings and shoes for sale, he has, to begin again, one answer. . . . It is his body that is his answer" (Human Universe 47). By bodily acts of resistance, such as those practiced by the Alsatians against the Nazis, Olson claims that human beings can learn to think concretely through the body rather than through the dangerous abstractions such as nation, race, and class. In "Causal Mythology" Olson avers, "I don't believe in cultures myself. I think that's a lot of hung up stuff like organized anything. I believe there is simply ourselves, and where we are has a particularity which we'd better use because that's about all we've got. . . . Put an end to nation, put an end to culture, put an end to divisions of all sorts" (Muthologos 94). This notion that large abstractions are dangerous and that what we think and do must be grounded instead in who we actually are jibes perfectly with Oppen's statement that his recounting of Pierre Adam's story was "Existential in the sense that you do what you do and that is the answer.... Simply that you are yourself."

Norman Finkelstein: On "Holocaust"

That Reznikoff's world is one of endless wreckage becomes all too clear in his long poems, Testimony and Holocaust. In both, "wreckage upon wreckage" are hurled at our feet. The poems, particularly Holocaust, could be regarded as the endpoint of Objectivism's testimonial strain, as the subjectivity and presence of the poet virtually disappears, replaced by the dispassionate court records from which the texts are drawn. Like the angel of history, we can only stare, aghast at the sight of human violence and depravity as we are blown into an ever-worsening future. Yet this is not to say, as does Robert Alter, that "this is an extended exercise in masochism conducted under the cover of an act of testimony."According to Alter, "History, it would seem, had become a hypnotic vision of unrestrained murderous impulse for the poet: the ultimate breakdown of his whole problematic relation to the past is starkly evident in the flattened landscapes of disaster that take the place of round imagined worlds in these two long poems of his old age." Granted, Reznikoff's relation to the past is problematic, but Holocaust does not constitute a "breakdown." It is, I believe, a confrontation with history set at the limit of Reznikoff's art:

The bodies were thrown out quickly

for other transports were coming:

bodies blue, wet with sweat and urine, legs covered with excrement,

and everywhere the bodies of babies and children.

Two dozen workers were busy

opening the mouths of the dead with iron hooks

and with chisels taking out teeth with golden caps;

and elsewhere other workers were tearing open the dead

and looking for money or jewels that might have been swallowed.

And all the bodies were then thrown into the large pits dug near the gas chambers

to be covered with sand. (Holocaust 46)

Holocaust offers so radical a challenge to the conventional category of poetry (or, perhaps, of the aesthetic) that in reading it we must put aside most of our assumptions about literary texts and historical representation. Drawn entirely from records of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, Reznikoff’s poem demands a sort of religious silence from its readers, in much the same way that witnessing the event of the Shoah itself demands silence of those in the presence of such testimony. As George Steiner says in "Postscript" (1967), his essay on witnessing and representing the Holocaust, "The best now, after so much has been set forth, is, perhaps, to be silent; not to add the trivia of literary, sociological debate, to the unspeakable." By contrast, Steiner is critical of the dramatized, but still largely accurate, account of events in the French study Treblinka:

But because that evidence is mastered by the literary talent of the writer, because a narrative persona full of distinct rage and stylistic force interposes between the insane fact and the profoundly exciting economy, hence order, of the book, a certain unreality obtrudes. Where it is represented with such skill, intricate modulations affect the hideous truth. It becomes more graphic, more terribly defined, but also has more acceptable, conventional lodging in the imagination. We believe; yet do not believe intolerably, for we draw breath at the recognition of a literary device, of a stylistic stroke not finally dissimilar from what we have met in a novel. The aesthetic makes endurable.

In composing Holocaust, Reznikoff seems to intuit that "The aesthetic makes endurable," and yet given his understanding of the testimonial role of poetry, he is still obliged to produce a text in which what Steiner would call "a narrative persona"--that is, the voice of the poetic subject--faintly lingers. The order of the sections of Holocaust moves in a loosely chronological fashion, from "Deportation" and "Invasion," through "Massacres," "Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks," and "Children" to the last sections, "Marches" and "Escapes." The poem ends with an account of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the escape of six thousand Danish Jews to Sweden with the help of their gentile fellow citizens. In other words, Reznikoff proceeds from the beginning of this saison d'enfer, to its darkest moments, to the new beginning of a period of struggle, hope, and recovery. Furthermore, a horrible irony can sometimes be heard just below the surface of the narration, as in this last stanza from the section called "Entertainment":

On Sundays there was no work and Jews would be placed in a row:

each had a bottle on his head

and the S. S. men amused themselves by shooting at the bottles.

If a bottle was hit,

the man lived;

but if the bottle landed below,

well, the man had it.

The ironic resignation of that "well" in the final line can only belong to a narrative voice that cannot lose itself entirely in the univers concentrationnaire.

Reading Holocaust throws us back on the rest of Reznikoff’s poetry with a renewed sense of his cultural predicament. As we have seen, identifying with Jewish history means suffering the loss of Jewish tradition. Compelled to bear the historical burden of Jewish identity without the inner strength provided by the continuity of Jewish faith, secular Jews like Reznikoff experience the intertwined processes of secularization and assimilation as a full-blown crisis of transmission.

Charles Bernstein: On "Holocaust"

Dear Jean-Paul Auxeméry,

[. . .]

I won't ever forget the first night, and first morning, of this year's Jewish New Year, where we celebrated the work of Reznikoff in a former Christian abbey at Royaumont, near Paris. I won’t forget that our Reznikoff panel ended with your overwhelming reading of Holocaust--your French translation of a work barely known in its native land. My own intervention had focused not only on Reznikoff's Testimony, as you note, but also more particularly on his Complete Poems. What I remember thinking was that Holocaust had never sounded so necessary, so appropriate (in your sense that Reznikoff always found the most "apropos" words). Yes, I have had my difficulties with Holocaust--the most unrelentingly painful to read of Reznikoff’s work, about the most unmitigated horror of our common, "modern" history. I think I must have said this work was about a problem specifically European; I could not have meant that it was "solely" European, however, since the destruction of the European Jews is of the most urgent relevance to all Americans, to all Jews, indeed to all humans. I think I must have suggested that Holocaust is necessarily Reznikoff's most problematic work at a technical--in the sense of aesthetic or formal--level, in the sense that no American work of poetry had found a form to adequately acknowledge that which is beyond adequate acknowledgment; so that Holocaust stands apart and beyond the achievement of Reznikoff’s Poems and Testimony.

I say specifically European for a very practical, literal reason that you, with your remarkable involvement with Olson, would certainly appreciate the implications of Reznikoff's work, apart from Holocaust and his biblical poems and talmudic "collages," has been a profound investigation of "American" materials: it is work immersed in the local and particular details of this place that he found himself in, first generation in his family, and also of a language, English, that was an intrinsic part of that emplacement. One of my favorite Reznikoff remarks is one he made to Marie Syrkin, his wife, in explaining why he would not go to Palestine with her in 1933; he told her that "he had not yet explored Central Park to the full." Indeed Reznikoff never left North America or English (an "American" English of course) in real life or in his poems, with the primary exception of Holocaust, which not only involved a European site or place (lieu) but also for the first time working with documentary materials not originally in English. For me, what was so striking about your reading of Holocaust in French was that one could imagine those incidents happening near the place, even Royaumont; we were close by the scene.

Reznikoff’s Complete Poems and Testimony explore the tragedy and violence that is the grounding of this Republic, call it United States. It is not a story that Americans are familiar with or, even now, ready to acknowledge. Each poem of Reznikoff's, always placed in series, shocks by its recognition of something otherwise unstated or unsaid: say, unacknowledged or repressed or denied or suppressed. Testimony, while a litany of sorrows, finds new avenues to locate the transgression of dominance against the human spirit.

By contrast, the violence, the repulsiveness, of the incidents in Holocaust are always and already known, hence preclude the insinuating subtlety of Testimony. And, for Americans, always and already projected outward to the German, to the Nazi, to a European story. If it does not hit home, it is because the story of World War II has been the greatest source for American self-congratulation: we defeated the Nazi monsters. NOT: the Nazi monsters in us, which go on, largely on the loose. This is like saying, North America has not had a twentieth-century war on its soil. Reznikoff shows otherwise. The Complete Poems and Testimony testify to a system of domination and disregard that has won; Holocaust to a system of explicit violence that, at least on the face, lost.

Peter Quartermain: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Patriarchal Poetry at best.

Best and Most.

Long and Short.

Left and Right.

There and More.

Near and Far.

Gone and Come.

Light and Fair.

Here and There.

This and Now.

Felt and How

Next and Near.

In and On.

New and Try

In and This.

Which and Felt.

Come and Leave.

By and Well.


Patriarchal Poetry indeed.

Opaque indeed, and covertly if not blatantly inviting the reader to skip, since the eye running down a list tends to hurry along, inattentive, expecting more of the same, expecting tedium. The strategy here is to play transformations against the convention of the list, that is, against the reader's expectation of uniformity. For this list is a curious series of pairs, each member of which matches its partner differently. Best and most might but need not be contrasting terms - the decision is qualitative; long and short (like left and right? hardly!) are quantitative contrasts. It is difficult to see what the relationship is between there and more (though there's a more-or-less vague gesture toward rhyme). Position contrasted with quantity? But near and far are familiar, and perhaps afford us a relief that is reinforced by the equally familiar (but a reversal of the cliché) gone and come: Of course, the fact that we associate gone with farness and come with nearness means there's another reversal going on here, too. Most of these pairs are irreversible binomial idioms; Stein shows that reversing them does not indeed produce nonsense but, by breaking the conventional (patriarchal?) semantic construct, produces meaning. The next pair, light and fair, is conventionally of synonyms, but by now the reader no doubt suspects the conventional meaning, and, as Ulla E. Dydo remarks of Stein's language as a whole, "the bonds that tie words to things are loosened and names split off from objects." This notion has been strongly reinforced by the time we reach Felt and How, a line that radically departs from the conventions this list seems to have established: It pairs a participle (or is it a noun?) with an adverb (invoking the colloquialism "and how!" in the process?) in one of two unpunctuated lines in the list. Dropping the punctuation draws our attention to the aptness of the run-on pair How Next, and the writing begins to comment on its own procedures. So as we proceed through this list we turn more and more to the linguistic and not the referential relationships between the words in the list, only to be brought up short, perhaps, by the sequence of the last three lines I quote. For here Returned (playing puns, perhaps, on Leave and By/e) marks a return to the first line I quoted (Patriarchal Poetry at best), and leads to the utterly ambiguous Patriarchal Poetry indeed. Is this ironic or not? How can we possibly tell? To reflect that the uppercase version of "Patriarchal Poetry" is only one of several in this text and might refer to the poem's title simply complicates the matter. What we have is a list that establishes its own rules only to change them as it goes along; it also exhibits, however, the sort of movement I already commented upon in the sentence about "A lake" and in "Book." The list doubles back on itself, pointing perhaps to a generic patriarchal poetry "out there" in the (physical/social) world as well as to the poem of which these words are the title, as well as to the words themselves - which, by this stage of the poem repeated a very great number of times (I have not counted them), have begun to lose whatever precise lexical meaning they might have had.

To the extent that it is an attack on the authoritarian power of conventional, Anglocentric, and male literary values Patriarchal Poetry is a referential work. "Patriarchal poetry," says Stein,

makes it incumbent to know on what day races will take place and where otherwise there would be much inconvenience everywhere.     Patriarchal poetry erases what is eventually their purpose and their inclination and their reception and their without their being beset. Patriarchal poetry an entity.

"Patriarchal poetry," Stein says, "makes a land a lamb"; is "obtained with seize"; "Patriarchal Poetry connected with mean" - which in context means meanness as well as meaning; "Patriarchal Poetry deny why" - because "Patriarchal Poetry is the same." In this forty-page work containing a wonderful parodic eighteen-line verse entitled "Sonnet"; containing innumerable lists of phrases marching down the page; containing permutations and repetitions; containing seemingly endless sequences of non-sequiturs; the phrase "Patriarchal Poetry" comes to act as a kind of stabilising rhythmic force, a steady beat of recurrence, in a linguistic context notable for its multiplicity and unpredictability of meaning and suggestiveness. The repeated phrase "Patriarchal Poetry" virtually loses all meaning and comes to serve as a functional cypher: The whole poem is a form of deconstruction, then, in which the discourse demolishes the term - and the authority and stability of the cypher - embedded within it and shaping it, acting out as it does nonpatriarchal modes of writing. Here is a short passage:

Patriarchal Poetry to be filled to be filled to be filled to be filled to method method who hears method method who hears who hears who hears method method method who hears who hears who hears and method and method and method and who hears and who who hears and method method is delightful and who and who who hears method is method is method is delightful is who hears is delightful who hears method is who hears method is method is method is delightful is delightful who hears who hears of of delightful who hears of method of delightful who of whom of whom of of who hears of method method is delightful.

This sentence is remarkable, among other things, for its method: a series of phrases repeated in threes, a series of grammatical patterns repeated in threes and fours, a variation from the pattern "who hears" to the pattern "who hears of," so that the preposition "of" comes to dominate a pattern earlier dominated by the pronoun "who," while at the same time the initial preponderance of the verb "hears" gives way to the conspicuous verb "is," and then reasserts itself. A cumulative pattern, gradually enlarging its field as the vocabulary expands.

What I find most interesting in this passage, however, is the syntax: The word "who" appears twenty times (and "whom" twice) in this sentence of 114 words. Do any of them introduce a relative clause (or are they interrogatives)? In order to make sense the mind seeks to subordinate elements, as in the sequence "and who who hears and method method is delightful and who and who who hears method is method is method is delightful," but the subordination won't hold, not simply because that "who" is anaphoric (like the "it" in the opening of "Book"), but because, waiting as we are,(or would be in more conventional writing) for a verb signalling the main clause, faced with phrase after phrase and clause after clause, whose boundaries are so indistinct that we cannot easily or clearly differentiate one from its neighbour (like the identity of the speakers in Lifting Belly), we simply cannot assign priority - save in the most tentative way - to any given sequence of words: Are we to read "whom of of who," for example, the way we might read "among / of green" in William Carlos Williams's poem "The Locust Tree in Flower"? The syntactic data in the sentence are held in the mind virtually in an equivalence of value, since each moment of syntactic lucidity is immediately displaced by a subsequent word (often but by no means always a repetition). In such intense localisation of meaning we find ourselves rescanning the words to discern alternatives to the syntactic pattern we hit upon, and we are left sorting through a variety of reading strategies: Are these words in apposition, or are they subordinate to one another? What part of speech is this? And we find ourselves holding more than one reading in mind at once. The net result is that the hierarchies are ironed out, and we read the language paratactically, nonpatriarchally.