“There’s Just a Meanness in This World”

by Mark Chmiel

On Charles Reznikoff, Testimony, v.2 The United States (1885-1915):  Recitative

I can’t say I was tremendously impressed with this “broken-up prose” (wife Marie Syrkin’s label). Maybe it’s the dating—it’s way back in US history, and it’s hard to relate my experience in many respects. (Maybe in 70 years, someone reading Weinberger’s What I Heard about Iraq will feel similarly.) I wasn’t impressed, either, with the style: OK, this is classic Rez, but it really is plain, and not too mesmerizing. Plus, with a whole volume, you pretty much know after thirty pages, someone is going to be shot or stabbed, raped or beaten, taken advantage of or lost a finger in a factory or is run over on the railroad track (I wonder if Ralph Nader read this in his formative years). No surprise, really—just wait for the worst to materialize.

There’s no Alyosha in this book, no Sonia.

Testimony  is pretty relentless. There’s no relief, few glimpses of human solidarity, and an excess of the dark side of the American town: greed, throat slitting, abortion, lynching, viciousness, skull cracking, jealousy, stupidity, torture American-style (see pages 168-169), callousness, infidelity, selfishness unbridled; the Wild West, the racist South, the bleak North…

I realize that I’ve recently been influenced by Reznikoff, though, and hoped that this book could give me ideas, provocation, and inspiration for a third book. It was meager, unlike my fertile rereading a year ago of Galeano’s The Book of Embraces. Potentially usable material follows, his mixed up with my scant marginalia:

Social Life
Domestic scenes
Children
Property
A Letter
Labor Troubles
Mexicans
Abu Ahmed’s removing the bomb
Domestic difficulties
Machine age
Whites and blacks
Theft and thieves
Episode in the life of a laundress
Life in a Refugee Camp
Jews and Arabs
Persons and places

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