Matter of Fact: On Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony
Watch the ho-hum testimonial confessions of Dennis Rader, the B(ind)T(orture)K(ill) Killer. Note the placid, innocuous demeanor he maintains while recounting the facts of his grisly murders — “projects,” he calls them, as if he were building a birdhouse.
Or, as one Youtube commenter notes:
Offscreen, the judge asks Rader about the sequence of events. (Example: “All right. So you masturbated [on/near the corpse]. Then what did you do?”) Rader responds each time with an equally straightforward delineation of the events leading up to and including the ten murders he committed over 17 years. The dispassion with which Rader relates the details of his ten murders lends the whole proceeding a chilling dullness.
Well, when I started strangling, either the garrote broke or he broke his bonds, and he jumped up real quick like. I pulled my gun and quickly shot him. It hit him in the head. He fell over. I could see the blood. And as far as I was concerned, he – you know, I thought he was down and was out. And then went and started to strangle Kath – or Kathryn. And we started fighting, ‘cause the bonds weren’t very good, and so back and forth we fought.
A grammarian might say that much of the syntax of Rader’s testimony is defined by its use of parataxis, the placement of independent clauses back-to-back without indicating the relationship between them, accomplished usually through the omission of subordinating conjunctions like before, while, less, until. Above, this is exemplified by, “It him in the head. He fell over. I could see the blood.”
[It’s not altogether unlike the intensely paratactic prose of Cormac McCarthy: “In the morning they went on. Desolate country. A boarhide nailed to a barndoor. Ratty. Wisp of a tail.” (The Road)]
Whenever Rader veers into hypotactic syntax (in which many subordinating conjunctions are used in order to clarify the relationships between clauses), his statements seem stilted and artificial, words perhaps prepared by his attorney. Rather, it’s only when the statements are soberly, pragmatically, paratactically conveyed that Rader seems particularly sincere in the truth-telling of his frigid depravity.
Such cold hard facts, the raw data of an event, can really only ever be conveyed through parataxis, unprepared and unmediated by logic and thought. Without syntactic subordination consciously guiding one to a particular conclusion, parataxis allows readers to consume facts wholly, forcing them to construct their own meaning and order of the data presented.
Perhaps no twentieth century writer has been more devoted to such a presentation of raw data than Charles Reznikoff, commonly labeled a lesser-known poet of the loosely knit Objectivist school, of which George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky were the principal leaders. Says the Poetry Foundation: “The Objectivists [. . .] focused on everyday life and language, treating the poem as an object itself and emphasizing sincerity and the poet’s clear vision of the world.”
But of the handful of midcentury poets labeled Objectivists, the moniker fits Reznikoff the least well. Reznikoff’s work deemphasizes sincerity, and acute subjectivity — not objectivity — defines much of his work, devoted always to the proliferation of diverse voices, often seemingly at the cost of the poet’s own. At the same time, however, Reznikoff’s many voices are usually constrained by systems of bureaucracy which seek only to comprehend the most pared down facts of an event and to obviate all human emotion. In this way, then, the voices of his subjects are neutralized, scrubbing all feeling from their lived experience.
Reznikoff’s aesthetic is made all the more jarring by his usual choice in subject matter: savage, violent crime.
As a licensed though largely non-practicing attorney and a lifelong student and admirer of legal texts, Reznikoff pored over thousands of reports from as many criminal cases, all involving violent crime (usually homicide), to compose what eventually became Testimony, a long poem, or, as I increasingly prefer to call it, book-length essay — clearly defined as such if we use Brian Lennon’s definition of the essay as “beneficently amateurish, a thinking in process, speculative [. . .]; its other [being] professional, controlled, conclusive."
Comprised entirely of minimally edited but otherwise verbatim court records and testimonies, the 500+ page book recounts the facts that led to hundreds of violent crimes that occured in America between 1885 and 1915. As such, Testimony eschews almost all metaphor and figurative language in favor of acutely pared down but ever constrained realism.
Although Reznikoff organizes the crimes neatly by region (North, South, West) and subject matter (Social Life, Domestic Scenes, Boys and Girls, etc.), his ordering provides no apparent narrative arc; which is to say that shuffling between and within sections would provide an experience nearly identical to that of a properly ordered cover-to-cover reading.
For this reason and others, Testimony was widely panned by literary critics in the 1930s and 40s, when Reznikoff first began self-publishing segments of the text. Calling particular attention to the seemingly needless line breaks and haphazard organization, most critics deemed the book artless. Today, however, many critics are reevaluating Reznikoff’s oeuvre, paying particular attention to Testimony, even calling it his career-defining work.
As some contemporary critics have noted, Testimony is a demanding and complex text in that it is paratactic on both the micro and macro levels. At the sentence level, the nearly complete lack of subordination renders the syntax of the testimonies not unlike that of Rader’s above.
From one of Testimony’s many “Domestic Scenes”:
It was nearly daylight when she gave birth to the child,
lying on a 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 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.
While the oddly prosaic syntax alone complicates the poem, the additional lack of organization between and within sections and chapters on the macro level similarly forces readers to make their own meaning of the disparate yet (literally) adjacent pieces of text. This paratactic adjacency, which Charles Bernstein calls Reznikoff’s “poetics of nearness,” results in each individual section — each sickening depiction of beating children to death, and sawing off limbs, — appearing to happen while each of the other horrors in the book is simultaneously occurring.
Thus, for Reznikoff’s many speakers, time is lost to violence. The sequence of events is rendered meaningless. As Bernstein says, “Reznikoff’s network of stoppages is anti-epic. It enacts an economy of . . . loss rather than accumulation.” Indeed, through this economy of loss, the most successfully grim depictions of senseless violence are paratactic by nature: raw and unmediated, so stripped of emotion that one is left with no sense of order.
Kevin Mosby is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona.