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Object lessons

February 12, 2006|Dana Goodyear | Dana Goodyear is an editor at the New Yorker. She is the author of the book of poems "Honey and Junk."

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The Poems of Charles Reznikoff

1918-1975

Edited by Seamus Cooney

Black Sparrow Press: 448 pp. $45, $21.95 paper

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The Sights Along the Harbor

New and Collected Poems

Harvey Shapiro

Wesleyan University Press: 266 pp., $29.95

CHARLES REZNIKOFF (1894-1976) was a brother in the order of early-to-midcentury poets who called themselves Objectivists. Reznikoff -- along with George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams -- believed that the unadorned thing should stand for itself. He aimed for clarity and concision in his poems, and he mostly achieved it.

Born to a Russian family in Brooklyn, Reznikoff practiced a poetics he described as "chiefly Jewish, American, urban." The vast majority of his work was written within the bounds of New York's five boroughs. He moved from the city only twice, once to spend a year studying journalism at the University of Missouri and the second time for a brief stint in Hollywood in the late 1930s, when his friend and poetic sounding-board Albert Lewin, a Paramount producer who had once been Irving Thalberg's assistant, invited him out to read scripts for $75 a week.

Reznikoff stayed in Los Angeles for two years, living in cheap apartments and hotels and sometimes crashing with Lewin in Santa Monica. The experience led to some trenchant social observations. He dismissed studio culture thus: ".... Why do you go to such trouble / to teach me that you are great? / I never doubted it until now." But he was out of his element and worried about the narcotic effect of the sun-bleached landscape.

In fact, the abundant natural world flooded his California poems and weakened their firm pilings. ("Palms in the streets of a town. / Purple and white flowers on the desert. / White sand in smooth waves. / A gravel plain like rippling water.") In "Autobiography: Hollywood," which, like the previous extract, was privately published in a 1941 collection called "Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down," he wrote of oblivion in the golden West:

You sun yourself.

Very well.

You begin to look at trees and flowers

like a connoisseur of painting. Very well.

I have read of travellers

who fell asleep

to die,

but that was in the winter and in snow;

is it possible

this can happen

in a land of sunshine --

among flowers?

For Reznikoff, nature was something to be caught in glimpses and beauty a quality patiently conjured or willed into being. His natural world was an eternally strange New York, where a traffic light becomes a "green jewel shining among the twigs" and horses "seem fabulous," the cousins of centaurs and unicorns.

His best poems were short -- students in the petals-on-a-wet-black-bough school of economy -- and many of them were untitled. A sense of modesty and humor pervades the work: "I knocked. A strange voice answered. / So they, too, have moved away"; "I find myself talking aloud / as I walk; / that is bad"; "Coming up the subway stairs, I thought the moon / only another street-light -- / a little crooked." A one-line poem, "Evening," describes "The trees in the windless field like a herd asleep." This is the pastoral reduced to its essentials, but, in the whispery proximity of "herd" and "asleep," the poet makes a sly gift of that bucolic staple -- sheep.

Objectivism was the Imagism of the previous generation reconsidered, and Reznikoff cited the Imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) as a forebear. You can see her influence in his neat, sharp still-lifes. "Rooted among roofs, their smoke among the clouds, / factory chimneys -- our cedars of Lebanon" (a poem entire) is very H.D., and the effect is lovely.

Unfortunately, H.D.'s compression had as its companion an impulse toward windy explorations of history -- her preoccupation was ancient Greece -- and Reznikoff shares this tendency. Lengthy, digressive verses about Jewish history and theology encumber his collected poems, originally published by Black Sparrow Press in two volumes in the late 1970s and republished here, with sensitive textual support by his longtime editor, Seamus Cooney. Poems such as "Israel," "King David" and "The Fifth Book of the Maccabees" come off as dutiful and discursive; they're heavy with dialogue, full of unmediated ideas. They also feel like a penance, and this is understandable: During World War II, Reznikoff was safe in the United States while his fellow Jews were being murdered in Europe.

Still, Cooney has prefaced the volume with a memorial poem by Oppen that declares Reznikoff to be a poet "who wrote / in the great world / small ... " This may be a tactful attempt to steer readers toward the little poems that demonstrate the poet's most attractive qualities. Reznikoff's poetic manifesto, after all, stated, "I wanted to be brief and emphatic."

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