On A Girder

This is poem number 69 in Charles Reznikoff's collection Jerusalem the Golden.

    Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
    a girder, still itself among the rubbish.


Why is the girder "still itself"?

In these two lines, brick and plaster become "rubbish" whereas the girder is "still itself". It isn't broken, it hasn't lost value – it could still be used in a new building. This worries me: for a thing to be "still itself" it has to have kept its use-value. This is not an idea of energy or forces but of thing-span.

The problem is magnified because this very couplet is often lifted, from the many such short Reznikoff poems, as somehow exemplary, to be placed next to that frustrating "red wheelbarrow" on which so much depends. Williams doesn't even give us a hint, whereas Reznikoff throws out this "still itself", causing the lines to tip towards emblem.

This girder picks up resonance from other girders. Joshua Clover, in a review of Reznikoff's Collected Poems, says "If the girder must stand for something, it stands better for fact itself, the basic unit of construction in what he called 'the iron world.' Or let it stand for nothing else. 'Crowds / and more crowds,' he wrote later under the heading Subway, 'a thousand and ten thousand iron girders / as pillars.' Things mean themselves so thoroughly it's crude and beautiful."

The girder, thing-in-itself, remains itself in this industrial version of atomism.
The couplet becomes more like an instruction, Be like the girder, strong and durable.
A position not dissimilar to H.D.'s shell-fish (The Walls Do Not Fall, 6):

    be indigestible, hard, ungiving,

    so that, living within,
    you beget, self-out-of-self,

    that pearl-of-great-price.

That pearl, in H.D.'s Trilogy, is life-given-back-to-itself. The context of both H.D.'s and Reznikoff's reflections is a time of destruction – the bombing of London, the dismantling of a building. After an explosion, the eye (and soon the photographer) will often search for that ONE INTACT THING which, by remaining, will show how utterly everything else has been smashed in contrast, and will also speak, Hope, for this (staircase, sink unit, window-frame, girder) at least remains!

The girder lines were often mis/quoted/re/written by George Oppen in his letters. Usually it came out:

    "the girder/Still itself among the rubble"

where "rubbish" becomes the less pejorative "rubble", and "a" girder now acquires a whiff of the transcendental, "the" girder, which has shunted to the front, so we see the girder, outside history, which then arrives as the rubble we are among.

© Edmund Hardy 2006

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