Reznikoff & the idea of "Two roads"

Reznikoff's Testimony in its horizontal expansions across "The United States" cannot help but meet other American literatures. It might be interesting to trace these meetings: with the pulp "wild" west of Elmore Leonard; with the "true-life" literature of criminal gangs; railroad tales; court-room drama...

But to start: a curious encounter with Robert Frost.


Difficult: To approach Frost with open heart, to find what Borges found, "He is at the same time tranquil and puzzling."

Frost's infamous "The Road Not Taken" presents two interesting details: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood" and "the passing there / Had worn them really about the same".

The "yellow wood" blazes, so this is the golden place, the leafy world; and the paths are really worn "about the same", which casts the final "all the difference" with a finer melancholy because at any point in the forking time of life "all the difference" was made, it was nothing to do with any particular two paths, we're constantly losing all those divergences. (The observation of which gets nowhere in itself.) The idleness of sizing up which path, "having perhaps the better claim, / Because it was grassy and wanted wear", when speeded up into "I shall be telling this with a sigh", becomes stark despair at the locked-in life, "sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveller".

It's a lament for singleness, for embodiment, where the body is perceived as one object, apart. But there are other perceptions, other ideas, locked-out. Wryly, despairingly, here's a poem from Reznikoff's Testimony, one case found and edited from the law reports of the United States 1885-1915:

Earl was about twenty-one;
his left hand had been caught in a cotton gin:
three fingers and the thumb were gone,
and only a stub of the forefinger remained;
the rest of the hand was mangled and useless.
With two other young men he left his home in Arkansas
to canvass in southwest Missouri
for a family photograph-album issued in Chicago.
Each had his own outfit - a horse, a cart, and samples.
The young men met with indifferent success.
The other two went to work on farms
but Earl, unable to do farm work,
kept on canvassing
but still with little success.
He decided at last to make his way home.

Jerry was about the same age as Earl,
taller and with a swarthy complexion.
He had worked in mines in Kansas and had left Ft. Scott afoot,
explaining o an acquaintance at whose house he stopped
that he had had a "difficulty" with some "niggers" in Ft. Scott
and was now getting over into Missouri.
Earl and jerry met somewhere and went on together,
Jerry riding in the cart with Earl,
a borrowed pistol sticking out of his pocket.

They drove into the town of Arcadia together.
Earl went into a bakery and told the baker
where he was going,
showed his crippled hand and said he was out of money
and asked for some bread.
The baker gave it to him.
Jerry went into another store at the same time
and asked for crackers;
gave a false name
and said his father living nearby would pay for the crackers in the morning
and explained that he had been in Ft. Scott
and had been on a "spree" and was "strapped."
The storekeeper did not know his "father"
but gave him some crackers, anyway, in a paper sack.

Some time after dark, Earl and Jerry left Arcadia together in the cart.
Later, they were seen trying to read a signboard by lighted matches
and a man came up with a lantern
and held it up for them to read by.
They asked their way of him
and he told the there were two roads -
one the main-traveled road and another,
a little nearer but rough
leading through a creek bottom and not much traveled.

About sunrise, next morning,
some teamsters driving along the road that led through the creek bottom
found Earl's dead body by the roadside
"just as if he had been asleep."
His head was lying on a bunch of hay,
a bullet wound in his right temple,
and the hair and skin powder-burnt,
showing that the bullet had been fired at close range.
There was no sign of a struggle
but his companion and his horse, his cart and valise were gone.

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