Listen Up: Jerome Rothenberg's A Book of Witness
A Book of Witness.|
New Directions, 1999.
118 pages, $15.95 (paperback).
Early reviewers of this book of 100 poems took their cue from the author's own "Postface." So they cited the way Rothenberg resuscitated the "I" from the layers of confession, concern, and autobiography (Robert Kelly) under which the late twentieth century was smothering it, and restored it to its age-old role as the vehicle of universal truth.
There is more than a little echo of Whitman, though without Whitman's vast range or music. Numbered like many poems in Leaves of Grass, those in A Book of Witness express Rothenberg's effort to find himself in all things and reach the prophet's paradoxical position as "one of you, yet distinct from you." In poem #79, "I fend off what was done before," Rothenberg writes, "I sleep / in thrall recalling times / I clamored for / atonement. I fend off / what was done before / & find it boring." His confrontational stance is clear. The lyrical impulse is touched and then dismissed.
Rothenberg spends a good deal of time and energy disavowing, even discrediting, the old God of our fathers. Poem #4, "I have paid the price and lost," begins boldly: "God of the universe / manqué, / you issue from my mouth. / I watch you dying." The title of the book's last poem, #100, "I am that I am," deliberately understates God's enigmatic response to Moses in Exodus. In this way Rothenberg asserts that his name, like God's, is a self-referential mystery.
In his epigraph he quotes Maria Sabina: "Language belongs to the saint children. / They speak and I have power to translate." So it is no surprise when he states, "Voices are dumb until / I speak for them," and "This morning / all the voices in my dream / spoke with one voice" (#51, "I come into the new world"). This prophet comes not to dump failure and doom on us, but to celebrate us. He is no disembodied voice out of a burning bush or an imponderable God-man come among us, but as thin, tottery, and familiar as the pronoun he uses probably 500 times in the 100 poems, "I."