Charles Bernstein reads and discusses Charles Reznikoff's "II. from Amelia"
Amelia was just fourteen and out of the orphan asylum; at her first job— in the bindery, and yes sir, yes ma’am, oh, so anxious to please. She stood at the table, her blonde hair hanging about her shoulders, “knocking up” for Mary and Sadie, the stitchers (“knocking up” is counting books and stacking them in piles to be taken away). There were twenty wire-stitching machines on the floor, worked by a shaft that ran under the table; as each stitcher put her work through the machine, she threw it on the table. The books were piling up fast and some slid to the floor (the forelady had said, Keep the work off the floor!); and Amelia stooped to pick up the books— three or four had fallen under the table between the boards nailed against the legs. She felt her hair caught gently; put her hand up and felt the shaft going round and round and her hair caught on it, wound and winding around it, until the scalp was jerked from her head, and the blood was coming down all over her face and waist.
“Amelia” from The Poems of Charles Reznikoff, 1918–1975, edited by Seamus Cooney
Reprinted by permission of Black Sparrow Books, an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.
Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Charles Reznikoff
Charles Reznikoff was born in New York City in 1894. He lived there all of his life and died in 1976. He’s often associated with the American Objectivist poets, including his friend from New York, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker.
One of Reznikoff’s great works is called Testimony, one of the great epic poems of the 1930s. It’s taken entirely from legal documents of the last part of the 19th century. He takes these legal documents and he turns them into short events and stories that put us in direct touch with the violence that is perhaps the essential fabric that holds Americans together. His attention to the disregarded and the overlooked, the dispossessed, those unprotected by labor laws, those subjected to capricious violence by authorities, by people in their community.
This particular poem looks at a common factory, a scene with workers in a sweatshop, probably unprotected by labor laws. He took the legal story of Amelia, which no doubt went on for pages and pages and pages, and he eliminated anything that was not necessary to experience the event. One of the main stylistic and formal concerns of Reznikoff was to do away with symbolism, literary ornamentation, literary diction. He follows in this, Williams Carlos Williams. In some ways the poems seem almost anti-poetic, until you see how they transform the relation of you when you’re reading or hearing the poem to what it is that is being enacted. There’s a kind of next-ness or closeness as you hear Amelia’s story, in which you feel adjacent to the poem, next to the poem, so that when her hair gets caught into the machine, it almost feels as if your own body is being jerked and pulled through that sudden violence.
Reznikoff would say that he wanted poems that had the same constraint that a witness in court had: that you would tell what happened but you wouldn’t comment or editorialize on it. So one of the most striking things about all the poems in Testimony as well as this poem, “Amelia,” is that he doesn’t have a moral lesson, its not didactic. He doesn’t tell you what to think, he doesn’t condemn or praise, but rather lets you experience the stark, harsh fact of this event.
The theme for these set of poems is labor and industry and labor and industry has always been a struggle in the United States. Reznikoff documents that struggle—not by giving policy advice, not by propagandizing, but by articulating the human circumstances of everyday people living through the forging of this great country. When you read Reznikoff’s work, you never forget the price that was paid and who paid that price.
He charts a kind of poetry that’s quite different than the mainstream poetry—both on the left, with its moralizing, and traditional literary poetry, with its greater concern for images, ornamentation, traditional form. It’s also starkly different than contemporary post-war poetry that places its emphasis on personal storytelling, on lyric expression of the individual poet’s feeling, because this work of Reznikoff (as so many of his works) is entirely taken from found and received sources. But Reznikoff believed that by searching our history, looking at the documents of American history—especially the documents of violence against the people with the least power—that we would found ourselves and in this founding, we will find who we are as a people.
On Election Day
I hear democracy weep, on election day. The streets are filled with brokered promise, on election day. The miscreant’s vote the same as saint’s, on election day. The dead unleash their fury, on election day. My brother crushed in sorrow, on election day. The sister does her washing, on election day. Slowly, I approach the voices dark, on election day. The men prepare for dying, on election day. The morning hush defends its brood, on election day. So still, so kindly faltering, on election day. On election day, the cats take tea with the marmoset. On election day, the mother refuses her milk. On election day, the frogs croak so fiercely you would think that Mars had fallen into Earth. On election day, the iron man meets her frozen gasp. The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on election day. Your eyes slide, on election day. Still the mourners mourn, the weepers wept, the children sleep alone in bed, on election day. No doubt a comet came to see me, fiery and irreconciled, torrid, strummed, on election day. On election day, the trespass of the fatuous alarm and ignominious aspiration fells the golden leap to girdled crest. The tyrant becomes prince, on election day. Neither friend nor foe, fear nor fate, on election day. The liar lies with the lamb, on election day. The last shall be the first and first sent to the back of the line, on election day. The beggar made a king, on election day. “Let him who is without my poems be assassinated!” on election day. Let he who has not sinned, let him sin, on election day. The ghosts wear suits, on election day. On election day, sulfur smells like beer. On election day, the minister quakes in fear. On election day, the Pole and the Jew dance the foxtrot. On election day, the shoe does not fit the foot, the bullet misfires in its pistol, the hungry waiter reels before steadying himself on facts. The grid does not gird the fiddler, on election day. Galoshes and tears, on election day. The sperm cannot find the egg, on election day. The drum beat becomes bird song, on election day. I feel like a nightmare is ending but can’t wake up, on election day.
Charles Bernstein (1950- ) was born in New York City and educated at Harvard University. He is the author of over 20 books of poetry, three books of essays, and numerous anthologies, translations, and collaborations. In the 1970s, Bernstein co-founded the groundbreaking journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E; he was also the co-founder of the Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY-Buffalo. His honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo credit: University of Pennsylvania.
Charles Reznikoff (1894–1976) was born to Russian parents in Brooklyn and educated at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and New York University Law School. A principle poet among the Objectivists, he is the author of seven poetry collections and several prose works and plays. Photo credit: University of Arizona, Papers of Charles Reznikoff.