Witness – Book Reviews

Review Excerpts

Witness 2017-2020

By Hilton Obenzinger


Irene Weinberger Books
Witness 2017-2020
108 pgs.
Print: $16.95
E-book: $3.99

ISBN 9780990376798

Hilton Obenzinger is the kind of political poet who has, for decades, inspired praise from the likes of Diane DiPrima and Margaret Randall. He is very funny; he is in frequent spiritual pain; he watches the world around him go crazy and tries to stay sane but not too sane.

For some, reading Obenzinger may recall certain poems from Ferling- hetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. As in that masterwork, the politics here do not need to sneak up on you; in these poems put the history of struggle right in front, where it won’t be overlooked or forgotten:

April 6, 2020

Why is this night different from all other nights? Anyone got a good answer?
Maybe this night is different because
We are not in the Warsaw Ghetto launching our revolt.

We are thus with the poet in body as much as spirit, even as he lives through the forest fires of 2020:

The plague chooses the Pharoah But the Exodus has yet to begin Trump is in the hospital
The smoke level is too high
Day after day
And my lungs flutter
Bronchial butterflies

Having taught on the Yurok Indian Reservation and served until his retirement as an associate director of Stanford’s Chinese Railroad

Workers in North America Project, Obenzinger has walked the walk of antiracism and real leftwing multiculturalism, not just rhetoric or grant proposals about what we should all do. This is made clear in “Zoom Thanksgiving,” where we hear the poet intone, “Thank you, Native People, for surviving murder and theft / Thank you, Black Lives Matter, for surviving murder and theft.”

The poems are also deeply personal, as he misses his dead friends and ponders (with good humor) getting old: “I’m trying to get my affairs in order / Even though the world is out of order.” His closing thought is one that yokes the personal and the political together, and that bears much reflection:

It’s always when the bombs are about to drop
That you notice what the world can be
And what you want to leave behind

— Paul Buhle, Rain Taxi

Nov. 4, 2021 Green Arcade Book Reading Event
Review by Jonah Raskin, The Rag Blog
Review by Michel Berkowitz, People’s World
Review by Lincoln Bergman
This book of poetry is truly excellent. Highly recommended. The poems are right on target with a unique blend of optimistic/pessimistic/dialectical social commentary, wry/ ironic humor, brash irreverence (“God Picks His Nose,” for example) and growing wisdom as the virus hits. Given my own state, I especially enjoyed “Old Men with Canes,” but there’s a whole gamut of emotions and reflections throughout this fine book.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Must read, the truth of this moment.
Shelley Fisher Fishkin: Bravo, Hilton! A compelling, bracing, necessary collection that speaks to our condition (as the Quakers say) with enduring eloquence and clearsighted compassion.
Rob Sean Wilson: Trusting Hilton Obenzinger as lyric witness to recent disturbed American cosmopoetics and global geopolitics…
Nina Serrano: A wonderful book of insightful poems!
Stephanie Palewski Brumbach: It’s an astonishing collection. Political, funny, radical, universal.
Peter Clapp: “Mysteries of Pandemia,” was a favorite of [late wife] Nancy’s. Two of my favorite lines: (1) on the suggestion that climate change may force humanity to colonize outer space, “Earth is so bad, Mars is a relief”; (2) on romance during COVID. “Stay away and be my love.”
Ron Turner: I’ve had the pleasure to know Hilton for more than 53 years. This most recent publication is unputdownable. Really special .
Mitch Sisskind: This book is unique in my experience of contemporary poetry in its blending or alternating a personal voice with a public one. In this sense, it’s in the tradition of Whitman, with a clear generosity of spirit but also real anger at authoritarian politics now personified by guess who (or whom.) I recommend the book both for what it says and how it says it. I definitely enjoyed it.
Genevieve (Genny) Lim: An excellent book, full of heart, anguish, humor and wisdom!
Steve Brooks: Witness 2017-2020 speaks about the politics of the pandemic, of the crisis of climate change, of the worldwide threat of plague and fascist politics, but it is personal and caring, forgiving and heartfelt, without being saccharine or fearful, even as it speaks clearly of certain fears in a dangerous time. The poems are wise and appreciative in a way that age may have opened the heart to. That’s why the book is lovely – the way love speaks beyond the times. And thanks for that, Hilton.
Bruce Kawin:  You know those people who don’t want you to read Beloved?  They wouldn’t want you to read this either.  Hilton Obenzinger’s Witness 2017-2020 is a lyrical, precise, painful, and darkly amusing walk through the Trump years with a poet who here reminds me of Whitman.

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