Absent witness: Trauma and contemporary American poetry
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This dissertation engages with North American poetries, written after 1970, which witness, represent, and respond to traumatic events by utilizing the event's documentary trail. This dissertation treats the work of three contemporary American poets— Charles Reznikoff, Vanessa Place, Tracie Morris— who use the poetic strategy of textual "appropriation" to critique and remediate the cultural appropriation of trauma. It argues that their poetries activate new ways of witnessing the act of witnessing a range of traumatic experience— from the events of the Shoah to sexual assault, and from domestic abuse to the violence of indentured labor. Taking into account technological changes in archival processes and an increasingly privatized information management apparat, this dissertation explains how trauma narratives are regulated, managed, and circulated to historicize the stakes of poetries that interrogate how infrastructural and bureaucratic processes influence witnessing. This study thus demonstrates that whereas commerce and congress exploit trauma's collective manifestations, poetic witnessing has found ways to resist the exploitation of collective grief and personal trauma by documenting, historicizing, and engaging the suffering of strangers without appropriating this suffering. The dissertation further argues that a "poetics of appropriative witnessing" responds to large-scale disasters as well as intersubjective traumas by acknowledging witnessing as a process that is continually caught in cross hairs of reality and its representation, rather than a singular, static act undertaken by a single, stable "individual." I assert that a poetics of appropriative witnessing records how this struggle characterizes extant processes through which we bear witness, in order to articulate the unbridgeable distance between a traumatic event and the subject, as well as their unbearable intimacy. In contrast to models that locate individual experience at the center of the witnessing process, this dissertation asserts new models that prioritize collaboration, multivocality and inter-textual composition. This dissertation thus develops the model of proxy witnessing borrowed from Holocaust discourses, which is characterized by the displacement of narratives, the fungibility of identities, the collaborative nature of witnessing, and its constitutive asynchronicity to show how witnessing processes, in turn, innovate poetic intertextuality, collage, and mimesis. The first chapter sets up the frame of textual "appropriation" as a specifically contemporary articulation of modernist intertextual practice, to demonstrate that contemporary appropriation is a resistant, specifically post-colonial aesthetic strategy that counters the imperialist underpinnings of its modernist origins. I argue that a poetics of appropriative witnessing emerges in the context of a booming PTSD industry and during a time when trauma narratives saturate media products, and thus departs from modernist historiographic models informed by the discoveries of trauma's etiology in the field of psychoanalysis and personality studies. The second chapter, on Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust, analyzes the relationship between the poetic text and its source materials-- the transcripts from the Eichmann trial and the Nuremberg tribunal— to argue that Reznikoff's book interrogates the constitutive relation between his identity and the remote catastrophes of the Shoah to make possible a specifically Jewish-American response to historical trauma through appropriative methods. It also argues that Reznikoff's unacknowledged oeuvre as an appropriative poet offers significant resistance to his institutionalized iconicity as an Objectivist poet. The third chapter engages with the poetries that witness female-specific suffering, rape, and sexual violence through a comparative analysis of Vanessa Place's Tragodia, which appropriates the poet's own appellate briefs, and feminist, lyric poetries of Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Jayne Cortez. By analyzing discursive constructions of sexually violent predators in feminist, lyric poetries in contrast to appropriative poetry, this chapter asks how witnessing processes can interrogate extant forms of feminist solidarity. The fourth and final chapter focuses on Tracie Morris' sound poems that appropriate and remix popular love songs by Irving Berlin and Sam Cooke. Exploring ways in which contemporary sound poetry borrows an improvisatory model of witnessing established by Holocaust survivor Aleksander Kulisiewicz in his musical and theatrical performances, the chapter argues that Morris develops these models towards renovating passive forms of witnessing extant in contemporary popular music.