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.


Title Charles Bernstein: On "Holocaust" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Peter Quartermain, Rachel Blau DuPlessis Criticism Target Charles Reznikoff
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics
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