POSTFACE TO A BOOK OF WITNESS
A Book of Witness was my passage from one century one millennium to another. The first fifty poems were written in 1999, the second fifty in the two years that followed. When I came into the street that first day in the year 2000, it was one of those bright California mornings, & I was struck, very forcefully, by the curious name of the year & by a feeling that I was entering another world. While I didn’t put much stock in that kind of era-shifting, my mind that morning still held an image from something I had seen on television the night before a series of movie clips showing earlier twentieth-century views of what the coming century would be like. Millennium was a word I had been mulling over in that closing decade, most notably in the assemblage Poems for the Millennium that Pierre Joris & I put together & published in the later 1990s. The word itself, we knew, was slippery associated as it was with a sense of apocalypse & destruction that often belied our rosier interpretations.
Witness was another word we held in common. In its twentieth-century usage it had a meaning pathetic but real that spoke to the horrors, great & small, that marked that time & that persist today. I had come to think of poetry, not always but at its most revealing, as an act of witnessing, even of prophecy by the poet directly or with the poet as a conduit for others. I had also been struck by how crucial to all of that the voice was; I mean the voice in the grammatical sense, the "first person" centered in the pronoun "I." I was aware, even so, of how that first person voice had either been debased or more frequently despised by many poets often (where despised) by poets close to me. The intention, understandably enough, was to free the poem from its lyric shackles "the lyrical interference of the individual as ego," as Olson called it.
The loss of such expression, however, would be immense, & its elimination futile. For there are a number of ways in which that voice first person has been one of our great resources in poetry, something that turns up everywhere in our deepest past & present. I mean here a first person that isn’t restricted to the usual "confessional" attitude but is the instrument in language for all acts of witnessing, the key with which we open up to voices other than our own. I am thinking here of someone like the Mazatec shamness Marνa Sabina (& her echo in the work of our own Anne Waldman), who throws up a barrage of "I" assertions, when it’s really the voices of the gods, the "saint children" of her pantheon, whom she feels speaking through her.
There is in all of this a question of inventing & reinventing identity, of experimenting with the ways in which we can speak or write as "I." In the course of putting that identity into question, I have brought in statements now & again by other poets very lightly sometimes but as a further way of playing down the merely ego side of "I." And I let the voices that I draw in shift & move around. I want to do that, to keep it in suspense. "I am I because my little dog knows me," Gertrude Stein wrote in a poem she called "Identity." I have written a hundred of these poems now a century of poems & I hope that they’re both of this time & still connected to the oldest ways in which the poem makes itself.
* To be published in Jerome Rothenberg, A Book of Witness, New Directions 2003. Some excerpts appear here as The Case for Memory.