A BOOK OF WITNESS: Spells & Gris-Gris

Jerome Rothenberg, Author . New Directions $15.95 (128p) ISBN 978-0-8112-1537-4

The 16th collection of poems from the noted poet, translator and anthologist (Poems for the Millennium) uses the turn of the millennium as a pivot point for a sequence of 100 dreamlike lyrics exploring the functionality of the pronoun "I." Splicing in snippets of poems from an international cast of poets (Neruda, Takahashi, Notley, Schwitters), Rothenberg's short-lined variations on the theme of witness were written between 1999 and 2001,with the stated aim of treating the first-person pronoun as an instrument for acts of witnessing: "I came alive/ when things went/ crazy./ I pulled the plug on/ the reports of/ sturm & drang/ When someone/ signaled I/ left open/ what I/ could not close." The unnamed I of these poems, largely operating in the present tense, is infused with a historical consciousness mostly free of personal references: "I lived apart/ from what was/ forming./ I bartered/ photos of/ the dead./ Soon everything/ caved in & I/ emptied my throat/ till I/ felt cleaner." Acutely aware that poetic identity is subject to reinvention on a line-by-line basis, Rothenberg channels other voices and explores metaphysical themes rather than reflect on a personal past. The result is a sequence that builds a stark intensity through its speaker's tonal immediacy and intimacy in the face of time's passage: "I will now count/ the century/ by ones and twos./ This morning/ all the voices in my dream/ spoke with one voice./ I feel privileged to be here/ among you./ From now on/ we will live/ on borrowed time." (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 04/21/2003
Release date: 04/01/2003
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