A Book of Witness: Spells and Gris-Gris


A landmark collection by one of America's leading avant-gardists.A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris is Jerome Rothenberg's passage from one century—one millennium—to another. Of the one hundred poems that comprise the book, the first half were written in 1999, the second in the two years that followed. But far more than a marker of era-shifting, it is a collection that reestablishes the primacy of the poetic "I," not in the sense of a confessional, personal voice, but of the grammatical first person as ...
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A landmark collection by one of America's leading avant-gardists.A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris is Jerome Rothenberg's passage from one century—one millennium—to another. Of the one hundred poems that comprise the book, the first half were written in 1999, the second in the two years that followed. But far more than a marker of era-shifting, it is a collection that reestablishes the primacy of the poetic "I," not in the sense of a confessional, personal voice, but of the grammatical first person as both a singular witness and conduit for others—a kind of prophecy. Often incantatory, the poems in A Book of Witness are a reaffirmation of self in the face of history's darknesses, a shout for life against an indifferent universe.

Author Biography: A Book of Witness is Rothenberg's thirteenth book with New Directions, his first since A Paradise of Poets (1999). An internationally celebrated poet, translator, and experimentalist, he is also the editor of several groundbreaking anthologies, most recently, with Pierre Joris, of Poems for the Millennium (University of California, 1995 and 1998). In 2002, he was the recipient, with Milos Sovak, of PEN Center USA's translation prize, for Antilyrik & Other Poems (Green Integer), by the Czech poet Viteslav Nezval.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Rothenberg, a longtime experimental voice in American poetry, here presents "a century of poems," representing, as he says in a "Postface," "a passage from one millennium to another." His 13th book of poetry with New Directions since 1960 blends Walt Whitman's drama of identity with Surrealism's interest in interior and external realities. What results is authoritative, sparkling poetry that seeks visionary sensitivity ("My life bled through/ my skin./ I was connected to the moon/ by sonar") and a desire to broaden the associative resources of poetry ("We are on a football field/ with grass/ the color of old hair"). Starting with what Rothenberg calls "little silences," each poem ignites a search for psychic truth by juxtaposing deeper images that "break through language/ & touch life." These "i-songs" comprise a hallucinatory extravaganza of thought and syntax, a "book of witness," "the key with which we open up to voices other than our own." Few poets today have Rothenberg's dedication to synthesizing free-floating form and disparate content, a postmodern dream of "mysteries/ of being born." This is yet another successful effort. Recommended for all libraries.-Frank Allen, Northampton Community Coll., Tannersville, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780811215374
  • Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 3/19/2003
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Spells & Gris-Gris


Copyright © 2003 Jerome Rothenberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0811215377

Chapter One


I was amok & fearless
twice deceived
for which I sought out
in a tree. Too carelessly
I reached for love
& beaten down
I found you
in a froth or frenzy
spent my days around
the pan yards.
I would ask no help from those
whose trust is weak
but I would buy the latest
& the least.
I live for something practical
-the case for memory-
I set one foot into the space
the others leave abandoned.
Not your lord or slave
I meet you
in an equal clash of wills
& face you down.
I only touch the ground
on Sundays


It was always dark.
The red hole's
wetness threatened
the lost sheep.
Sharp exchanges
were not clearly heard.
Rivers did
not flow.
You did not defend
your brother.
We ascend
toward progress.
I scratch fire &
remove it from your throat.
I run out of
distant shadows
now that no one
tries to stop
the passage from a city
that is drowning.
You must dodge
the summer fire
to free your soul.
You cannot stand
back of the burning
house from which
strangers emerge
like wolves
to run you down.


The lost in hell
among the rat-faced

I am with them.
Standing at the tunnel's mouth
the water underneath
I see the figures floating
raised in air
then pitched into the vortex.
Here where god is light
a brown globe
hangs above
a burning hell.
Eyes turn right.
Hieronymus (my namesake)
let me lift this picture
from your hands.
I cherish walking in your circles.
Do you think the light is wet?
Forget it little father
& go home.
Return the keys to management.
When someone asks
if you believe in god
turn cautious.
There are now angels everywhere.
Never look back.


God of the universe
you issue from my mouth.
I watch you dying.
Muscles like flowers gather
at your throat.
You shake a wrist at me.
Your watchband comes apart
& freezes.
I can see you with a babe
propped on your lap
or else a lamb.
Old man with blisters
working against time
you plunge a knife
into my book.
The babe limp as a doll
tilts forward
A man in chains
on a woman's breast.
without a body.
I have paid the price & lost,
And you?
Have you watched them play
the game of tribute?
And have you failed to pay
& won?


I look for lights
under my fingers.
I will take them & will make
foolish minds wise.
Then when I flick my half closed eyes
your mouth will open wide
& I will sail by with my flags.
You will applaud me
when I scratch for cash
under your shadows.
I who am geared to tear down
what you build
your houses like your ashes
swept away.
I search the sky for you.
It rains.
The wind too warm for Sunday
sears my eyes.
There is a map inside my pocket
I can't read.
All day I tried to call you.
Where the bus stopped
people walked by
like the dead.
I knew your house was there
down by the corner.
A house without a bell
without a way to find your way
around it.


I walk with you into
the little houses.
Rings slip through my hands.
You pierce your tongue
for love.
How bright the fields grow
yellow blue & red
this morning
where the owl's prey drops down.
Look at me.
Be first.
The others will come through
in shallow order.
Someone not a king
is fancier
a thief among a thousand
shattered crosses.
broken columns
flutist on a hill
old man who lugs a basket
two old men who push
a stone door into place.
A line of walkers
coming up the road.
I blow a whistle.
Then I bang your teapot
like an empty bell.


No one looks for garbage
your windows.
No one waits alone
& hears
the slow wave rising.
There are some who shadow us
for what we love.
Nightly the passengers
still blind me
while I bind their wounds.
I feel their final jabs
between the covers & the sea
no time for preening.
I watch my feet move
among the stars.
Everything we offer
to the world
is what the world gives back
without a thought
or breath.
Mythology as science
fact as trope.
I walk into a cavern
where a bear lies dead.
You can divine my words
because my words
ring true.
It doesn't matter
if the rhyme
is slant or straight.
I feel it on my tongue
my eyes
see through it.


It is a battle between
this & this.
An armageddon.
One pursues & hobbles
finds the ground rise up
to hurt him.
From the left a boat
so small
I would not think
a space was left
for sailing.
we were on a mountain top
with strangers.
Tell me if my mind
was set
too firmly.
She who was our leader
We had a premonition.
With his knife
the old man
cut his way
out of the room.
It ill behooves us
someone said
as though her words rang true.
A thousand bodies
from a thousand trees
ended the dream.


Day by day
I watch the sidewalk.
Light builds up.
A man without a face
is still a man.
He is the victim
of his own
worst thoughts.
The light runs from his eye.
Robbed of its speed
it blinds him.
Every moment
is the last
before death ends it.
Launched through space
he stumbles
but he makes it back.
I can replace him
sin my thoughts
like all the rest.
The secrets of arithmetic
are what he leaves me.
Open up the vents.
Your eye is dead.
Your mind is not your own.
Your fingers burn.
Your tongue speaks from your mouth
but no one listens.
It is too late to eat
or piss
however urgent.
Time spreads out between us
like a wall.
A radio in space
can't overcome it.


Mangled fingers
push the stones aside.
The scars run deep.
Hate suits
the human face
far better
than a mask.
The price of happiness
is wisdom.
Stones that interfere
with speech
will interfere with sleep
no longer.
Soon he wipes away
the stain.
The motor seems outrageous.
Back & forth
he walks.
I watch the fathers
throwing caution in the winds.
My body hovers
in an air
the man can hold forever
in his sights.
I do not trust his way
of dealing.
He & I
are brothers
for this moment
Watch his fingers closing.
He is a real man
when he murders
is he not?


I slip through streets
hoping that a dog
won't bag me.
I turn my back to strangers
when my own skin
grows too hard.
I spend long nights
in mausoleums
like a prince.
When I bite the flesh
over my thumb
it bleeds.
I lost my fear of death
last summer
& I want to teach the trick
to all my friends.
Mine is a case of
double vision.
The taste arises
from my throat
& not
the other way around.
The way I cry
calls out for pity.
I struggle for a chance
to hide from sleep
but every night at ten
it runs me over.


Above the clouds
is nothing
but a leprous
single star.
(B. Brecht)
The more I look at it
the less I feel.
I try to recollect. I shake
a distant hand
& pay for laughter.
The odds are heavily
against me.
There is never enough time.
When I place a foot
in the hot water
someone declares me lost.
I smile into a mirror
& my face
glares back.
A father holds his babe
up to the light.
Where will it lead us?
Heaven is no place for fools.
I run my fingers
through your hair
& feel the universe
shut down.


The day the last friend
we sit alone.
A visitor
from outer space
tries hard
to summon us.
Someone says
I fish around for answers
but the questions
still won't come.
I take the small vial
from your pocket
sniff it & near die.
The police are negligent
at best.
Nor is there room for angels.
The storms drift in from Mexico
where once we roamed.
The way your chest
moves up & down
when breathing
is a clear response.
I want some reassurance:
that even when I die
the world goes on.


When I close my eyes
I see them.
Never more & never clearer
than they were
before your heart broke.
I am mad by turns.
Those who lead me to the trough
can never
make me drink.
The time shines like a signal
from my wrist.
Every pattern you observe
will disappear
even those the stars make
in their long sleep.
Is that enough to please us?
I am moved to say it
moved too that Blackburn died so young
& Armand now.

I am waiting for everyone
to die.
For this the just man
spews but holds
his ground.
His strength too distant
to return his hands
two pools of sweat.
He must resemble someone
I saw walking backwards
once & up a flight of stairs
a tray of food
in gentle balance
letting go
& hurtling
to his death among
the thorns.


You did it
made me cry
in hemorrhage.
You were on my mind.
I ran to you
& bones broke.
I who was finger mad
now learned to live
Unglued I sucked the wind
into my glottis.
I could be split in two
not whole
the rage emptied my scrotum
& I sagged.
You signaled from the car
ahead of me.
The screen lit up
with buttons
that were more than stars.
An egg escaped.
It could have happened
all at once
but I
was ready.
I embraced a cat
& spattered.
How I do love to touch
that ancient keyboard
wet from sleep.
None of you asked my name
& I kept silent
balanced on a dime.
I would delude them all
by dialing backward.
The time is near
I told them.
Nobody living will escape. (Continues...)

Excerpted from A BOOK OF WITNESS by JEROME ROTHENBERG Copyright © 2003 by Jerome Rothenberg
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

1 The Case for Memory 3
2 The Burning House 4
3 Where God Is Light 5
4 I Have Paid the Price & Lost 6
5 There Is a Map Inside My Pocket 7
6 An Empty Bell 8
7 What the World Gives Back 9
8 A Premonition 10
9 Like a Wall 11
10 A Real Man 12
11 Every Night at Ten 13
12 There Is Never Enough Time 14
13 The Last Friend 15
14 I Am Mad by Turns 16
15 More Than Stars 17
16 A Cruel Nirvana 18
17 Enhancing the Pleasure 19
18 When We Do One Plus Two 20
19 At Night 21
20 To Make Life Real 22
21 The Messages of Slaves 23
22 Better Than Numbers 24
23 In the Stars 25
24 Despair Is Never Universal 26
25 The Kings of Water 27
26 I Will Not Save the World 28
27 I Practice Dying 29
28 In Defiance of the Dead 30
29 A Medicine That Kills Me 31
30 To Slow the Passage 32
31 This Does Me Proud 33
32 The Curse Was Stronger 34
33 The Search for Truth 35
34 When Sleep Draws Nigh 36
35 I Believe in the Magic of God 37
36 I Feel a Surge of Power 38
37 Going Crazy 39
38 I Weave a Circle Thrice 40
39 The Fire Deep Inside 41
40 I Take a Page Out of Your Book 42
41 I Prefer a Poem with Spaces 43
42 That Is Who I Am 44
43 I Count It by a Thousand 45
44 It Is a Day of Miracles for Me 46
45 I Give Up My Identity 47
46 I Is the First Word 49
47 I Dare Not Starve 50
48 The End Is the Beginning 52
49 A Town Called Meter 53
50 I Can't Say Who I Am 54
51 I Come into the New World 57
52 It Is a Shame to Watch My Face 59
53 I Hold Dark Matter 61
54 What Was Begun in Anger 62
55 As from a Distant Height 63
56 A Giant for the Moment 64
57 I-Songs Exist 65
58 A Lucky Day 66
59 I Am Not a Native of This Place 67
60 I Make My Way by Stealth 68
61 Eager to Break Through Language 69
62 I Live in Dungeons 70
63 I Will Not Eat My Poem 71
64 A Calendar That Fluttered 73
65 I Arrive in Paris 74
66 The Voice Inside 75
67 Therefore I Am 76
68 I Am Where You Dropped Me 77
69 In Nerval's Tower 78
70 Because I'm Foreign 79
71 Cursing the Light 80
72 I Lose the Sound That Music Makes for Me 81
73 I Speak in Tongues 82
74 The Miracle of Death 83
75 History Is What I Like to Call It 84
76 A Missal Like a Bone 85
77 I Leave No Time for Pleasure 86
78 I Am Thankful for Your Words 87
79 I Fend Off What Was Done Before 89
80 I Am Not Like Anyone Among You 90
81 I Feel the Sand Between My Teeth 91
82 I Vent My Wrath on Animals 92
83 In the Way Words Rhyme 93
84 I Accept Their Nomination 94
85 Feckless with Disgust 95
86 Confessions 96
87 Because Completeness Is Our Virtue 97
88 The Fabled City 98
89 A Little Thought 100
90 The Victim I Once Shunned 102
91 In Frozen Motion 103
92 I Let Them Speak for Me 104
93 I Write My Name on Air 105
94 I Fail As a Celibate 106
95 I Am the Uncommitted 107
96 I Exceed My Limits 109
97 In Love with Love 111
98 A Living Heart 112
99 I Am the President of Regulation 114
100 I Am That I Am 115
Postface 117
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