The Languages of Charles Reznikoff

Ian Davidson

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This paper examines the representation of American everyday life and the language of the legal system in the work of Charles Reznikoff. It draws comparisons between Reznikoff's accounts of the lives of immigrants to America in his work, and Jacques Derrida's experience of colonial relationships as described in his book Monolingualism of the Other or The Prosthesis of Origin. Charles Reznikoff was the son of Russian Jews who moved to America to escape the pogroms of the late nineteenth century. His parents spoke Yiddish and Russian, his grandparents spoke Hebrew, and Reznikoff's first language was English. This familial linguistic complexity was further added to by his associations with experimental modernist poetry and poetics through the “Objectivists,” an environment that provided him with the poetic forms in which to explore relationships between language, experience and its representation. I cite two other linguistic contexts: that of the law, acquired through his legal training, and that of commerce and sales, acquired through working as a hat salesman for his parents' business. Reznikoff therefore had no naturalized relationship between language and either family or national identity, or between language and place. I use Derrida's notion of “a first language that is not my own” to explore the implications for Reznikoff's poetry, and particularly the relationship between the specific accounts of experience in Testimony and the more general notions of nation and justice. While I conclude that a concern of the poems is always language, and what language means in different contexts, the poems also seek to connect with the material consequences of injustice for the fleshly bodies of the victims.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)355-369
JournalJournal of American Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2011

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