T.C. MARSHALL Reviews
Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, edited by Jerome Rothenberg with Heriberto Yépez
(Boston: Black Widow Press, 2013)
“A Big Jerome Rothenberg Book”
For those of us who have followed Jerome Rothenberg’s work for four or five decades, this volume is a wonderful compendium of highlights of that experience; however, that celebration must be accompanied by the question of how well this big book works for the uninitiated. Can you “get it” with just Eye of Witness? The answer is complex and delightful for me because approaching it leads to re-reading these works and commentaries afresh, and they are refreshing in today’s contexts. One big reminder that Eye of Witness offers us is that there are poets like Rothenberg who can build and use a variety of poetic resources, experimental and fun as well as dead serious and elegiac, to reach into language and shape something of value. Another is that poets from around the world can feed each other in such efforts. The poems and poetics statements in this reader all help present those linked reminders.
To have all the contexts of their years of composition, one would have to have been following Rothenberg all along or into doing some serious research and learning. However, the next best thing is here, a fairly comprehensive “Introduction,” thanks to Heriberto Yépez. It frames and underlines the concerns at hand gives us an inside look that can help the old reader as well as the new one with both the context of Rothenberg’s own focused efforts and with contextualization in the larger terms of world poetries. For us here in the USA, Jerome Rothenberg has been a great force in widening horizons and skipping over old borders. Yépez does a fine concise job of showing how and why this work is “Pan-American” (16) and worldly in ways that other major contemporaries of Rothenberg’s failed to be. That context is worth more attention in some ways but is politely handled here (v. Yépez’ The Empire of Neo-Memory for more provocative assertions). This intro slides into a focus on Rothenberg’s own poetics as seen by Yépez, which is helpful to the reading of the works, but it misses a couple of key moments in the context of American poetry. One of these is the possibly ironic fact that the Language poets (seen here as opposite to JR’s more metaphysical approach) got a big push for their start from publication in Alcheringa under Rothenberg’s editorship. Yépez’ version of a post-(& anti-)Language poetics gets in the way here a little bit. The description of Rothenberg’s poetic career as “braid-like” and the explanation of the fuller meanings of “technicians of the sacred” (18) are, however, brilliant and very useful.
The intro follows the periods of Rothenberg’s works and interests, but the anthology is organized slightly differently. It is only loosely chronological. The decision to go this way, presumably collaborative between editor Yépez and Rothenberg himself, lets the book look like some of Rothenberg’s other big books. Eye of Witness is organized around what we might call concerns or approaches in the work that Rothenberg has done over the decades: poetics, otherings, ethnopoetics, “the world turned upside down,” Extensions, witness, “a cruel nirvana,” omnipoetics, divigations, and auto-variations are the terms used. You can see a progression in those terms if you wish to: there’s a moving forward in poetics concerns and a turning inside out and upside down of both the personal and heavens and hells in the poetry.
Hells have been a concern in Rothenberg’s work all along, from “The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi” in 1962 to some of the “Further Sightings” in 1971 and on to 2004’s “AutoVariations” on the Jigoku Zoshi poems. In these works and in between them, a poetry and poetics of hells as image networks scrambling desires and offenses is built both with reference to classical concepts and to history. There are tortures the ages have imaged:
Like Hell’s beauty
--that you never reach.
How can any of you know
what it feels like
to count coins in Hell
There are also tortures we have brought into reality:
First he saw graves and after that saw ashes strewn around & molten metal.
Pity the teeth robbed of gold
The bones when their skin falls away
Pity man’s cry when the sun is born in his cities
& thunder breaks down his door
Because of this mix and focus in the poems, the choice of Goya for the cover is perfect. Asmodea is a painting composed of historical reference and metaphysical framing. Its other title is “vision fantástica,” though Goya painted it on a wall in his home without ever giving it a title. It puts together a realistic image of war’s carnage and a visionary overview that does not exclude terror as a central emotion.
There are simply beautiful poems in Rothenberg’s oeuvre, but his most forceful work is that which brings the person (writer or reader, or writer as reader of experience) face to face with a spiritual realm of both glory and terror. He explains the numerological, almost accidental, conflation of the Hebrew words for god and terror in a talk on “The Poetics of the Sacred” (166). That 1990 talk echoes back and forth over the years of Rothenberg’s poetic and poetics efforts. He has worked it both from the Romantic side tracked by Yépez in his intro (17) and a more abstracted side mentioned in Rothenberg’s own “Commentary for Concealments & Caprichos” (488-489). Yépez introduction moves us wisely toward seeing “witness” as the central act of these works. The “Postface” to A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris (2002) is included in Eye of Witness, where it is called a “postscript” and placed at the conclusion of a late section called “Poetics & Polemics 2: Eye of Witness.” This is where the anthology really finds its focus. That postface/postscript serves as capstone to the section that puts witness forward as a concern and a method of approach both through first-person writing and writing that avoids the first-person and neatly incorporates quotation of others’ voices. This piece also serves as a kind of preface introducing the following section called “A Cruel Nirvana” in which seven of the one hundred poems from the 2002 book appear alongside poems of the “14 Stations” at the death camps and Goya poems and others like “The Mystery of Evil” that face into what a person can make of the evils of this world from different angles, some personal and some formally distanced.
This section of the book presents several elegies along with some poems of the beauties of existence, but even in them elegy is the key tone. We hear the losses and distances natural to our existence in time and inevitably part of the telling labors of language without melancholy here. This kind of elegiac tone is at the heart of all Rothenberg’s achievements. The Greek word is related to the sense of something like lament that pervades the wisdom of age and the wisdom of the ages. Somehow Rothenberg has always had that. It has always been in his eyes and in his poems, and in the deep laugh he offers whenever he can. He writes about a “reconfigured” Romanticism (517-524 in Eye) that is capable of denying the denials too often involved in an art that reaches toward sublimity. The ache of loss and failure, the lamentable necessity of lament, is never forgotten in these works but also never the point at which they stop. Every tool of the poet seems to find a use in Rothenberg’s works; he refuses to deny the usefulness of any or to rise above the pain of looking the world straight in the eye. This is a poetry uncommon in our day of diffident cynicisms.
In Rothenberg’s account in that “Commentary” mentioned above (488-489), both Coleridge’s imagination and its contrasting fancy are joined back together and conflated with both the depths of duende and the flights of Goya’s “caprichos” that are much more than caprices. The result is a poetics and a poetry that allows itself to flex across the tensions of the lyric I and rise on into the spaces that such an I conceals. This is all achieved without grandiosity in a quiet voice as natural as you’d use in telling your partner a dream. One poem that Rothenberg himself offers as an example of this effort is “Concealed Assassins”:
Those who are masters
but signal with a secret
nod or wink,
brought into the mix.
a dream of executions,
rises between our teeth. (C. Baudelaire)
The ones who loved us
die not one by one
but now en masse,
the presence of the dead
in every corner.
The wretch who testifies
may also sing,
capturing the ebb & flow
of tides, the pressure
where it strokes the body.
Once to stand there,
to sense the joy
only the wise
Someone will lift
from our eyes
& we will witness
This poem is given in the section called “Omnipoetics” pre-viewed in the “Pre-Face” to Eye of Witness where Rothenberg sums up his efforts as being workings toward “a poetics rooted in its place but capable of crossing borders and languages to become a virtual omnipoetics” where in its latter stages he “explores a multivocal poetry of witness—the ubiquity of an I-as-speaking-subject that we all share—personal and transpersonal at once” (26). One great component of Rothenberg’s work in this area has long been his anthologies, from the ethnopoetics work of Technicians of the Sacred and Alcheringa magazine over to Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant-Garde Poetry 1914-1945 and A Big Jewish Book (a.k.a. Exiled in the Word) on into the imposing compendia of Poems for the Millenium. Yépez and Rothenberg have arranged this reader to have a form like those big books. They have also arranged it to give tastes of many many things along the arc and spread of Rothenberg’s work, and subtly too to include listings of the many books it may lead you out into. Eye of Witness does stand on its own, it does show you plenty, and it should make you want more. Start here, or use this book in courses to get others started if you already have a handle on this great career. Jerome Rothenberg’s poetry and poetics is here for all to benefit from or for anyone to argue with if that’s their nature. I myself think there’s no arguing with Poland 1931, the first work of his that I was exposed to as an undergrad at UCSD, as a fine and fun and fierce piece of lit. Go take a look-see. The selections from it in this reader are followed by pointed excerpts “From a Letter to Gary Pacernik” on memory and jewishness/yiddishkeit (242-244). These include a humorous anecdote where Rothenberg tells of talking in German and English with Paul Celan in Paris and how they struggled to converse, “lost /,” as he writes, “between two languages,” and only at the end thinking to try Yiddish as a common tongue.
T. C. Marshall lives near Fall Creek in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains where he used to walk regularly with Norman O. Brown; Tom claims to be able still to hear the wise old codger singing Morenita Mía on the trail and asking sharp questions about the biome. Some of Tom’s own creative works in progress can be seen at postlanguage.blogspot.com, on YouTube, & at maizepoem.blogspot.com. His next performance to be YouTubed will come in the Spring and be called something like “Face their Violence or Face the Music.”