Armand Schwerner - Apocryphal Sumero-Akkadian texts 4,000 years old, translated by a Scholar/Translator who is as much a fabrication as the putative material he purports to annotate and interpret: go into all the places you're frightened of and forget why you came
Armand Schwerner, The Tablets, Atlas Press, 1989.
Armand Schwerner, The Tablets, The National Poetry Foundation, 1999.
"Why leave fictive experiments to the prose writers?” the author asks in his afterword. THE TABLETS is his answer. Armand Schwerner has been “reconstructing” these fictional Sumero-Akkadian inscriptions, apparently from the time of The Epic of Gilgamesh, since 1968. A playful and powerful poetry is the result, at once visual and literary. Gaps and hieroglyphics speak eloquently, and Schwerner takes full advantage of the liberty provided by “indecipherable and untranslatable” passages - the poems include notes from a rather pedantic and often hilarious scholar-translator.
All this beautifully realised paraphernalia allows Schwerner to be many voices at once: funny, passionate, banal, ecstatic, uncouth and profound. The result is a tour-de-force at every level, poems from an imagined world when writing was new, directed at now."
“Likely to force a re-evaluation of the possibilities of visual poetry... An extraordinary book of poems... reveals a staggering complexity, wit, and style.” - Art In America
"Schwerner (1927-1999) was a maximalist, whose interest in anthropology and religion fueled a poetry that explored the very nature of civilization... He draws on a ‘wild spectrum’ of sources—Eskimo poetry, Buddhism, Zuni myths—but frequently allows his playful sense of language to lighten the oracular load. Stuffed with enough puzzles to keep poetry readers and scholars busy through the next century." - Library Journal
"Armand Schwerner has been one of the master poets of my time. What he leaves us is a lifetime’s work that stuns the imaginations of those who hear him. The ancients called it ‘wisdom poetry,’ & I know of no contemporary who has been more into its practice." - Jerome Rothenberg
"In 1968 the Cummington Press published the first eight parts of what would eventually be considered Armand Schwerner’s magnum opus, The Tablets. Seven more appeared from Grossman in 1971, followed by three others in 1976 from Heron, and another eight in an Atlas edition of 1989, while Conjunctions ran Tablet XXVII in 1991. These small-press editions have long been unavailable. Since Schwerner’s death last year, the poem concludes at 27 cantos, all published together for the first time by The National Poetry Foundation, in an edition that includes Schwerner’s commentaries ("Tablets Journals/Divagations") plus a 66-minute compact disc of the poet reading over half the series. The Tablets presents itself as apocryphal Sumero-Akkadian texts 4,000 years old, translated by a Scholar/Translator who is as much a fabrication as the putative material he purports to annotate and interpret. Parodying conventions of archaeological-paleographical research and academic presentation, the Scholar/Translator ("S/T") opens with a symbol key: "...." for untranslatable fragments, "++++" for missing sections, "(?)" for variant readings, and "[ ]" for clarificatory portions supplied by himself.
The built-in foils to authenticity are various. From the poem’s opening line, which the S/T admits is of "doubtful reconstruction," numerous word fissions and frissons haunt meaning: "dry" might mean instead "unforgiving" or "underwear," "dance" might be "breathe" or "image," "power" may be "damage," and "shit" might be "lentil-soup." More confusingly, "inside" could be "on the side of" or even "outside." A system of semantic overlaps suggesting chromatic and directional convergences comes into play, whereby color is an "analogue of segmented compass readings": yellow, for instance, may signify north. That associative nexus is broadened, as yellow/north might likewise signal "shad," and east, west, and south are each assigned a respective piscine corollary (cod, tuna, mackerel)–then further complicated by somatics, as yellow/north/shad may also evoke "vomit." Via this obsessively mapped web, Schwerner teases with glimpses of how this presumably ancient culture conceived the soul’s relation to the body, and the body’s sexual, ritualized relation to a tempestuous world.
Yet glimpses are all readers are given, as other impediments to "truth" are encountered. English is at a loss for translated equivalents–linguistic or cognitive–of tenses such as the "hortatory vocative imperative," or of verbs like "will-would-might-have-can-change" or the more beguiling "was / will-be / is / is-just-about-almost." Tablets IV and V are apparently vertically fractured, and while the reconstruction of V "is almost certainly correct," says the S/T, "[d]oubt lingers about IV. The edges do not meet in three places." XXIV disappeared from the museum at Ferney, and the "original" of VII vanished–but not before the nineteenth-century Norwegian scholar Henrik L. tainted it with his "idiosyncratic translation method." This involved transmitting the cuneiform into Crypto-Icelandic, "a language we cannot yet understand," as well as inaugurating yet another interpretive symbol, "[[plus sign enclosed in a circle]]," to mean "confusing"–a symbol the S/T finds helpful enough to use sporadically hereafter. And, because he was a pastor and a "divine," Henrik L. interjected an anachronistic, Lutheran nomenclature into his version, prompting interruptions of "gott Jesu" and "Jesu Kriste sakrifise!" Beyond the S/T’s warning that in the interests of their own teachings redactors of XXVI may have omitted things, several extant versions exist. The greater the number of sub-versions of the "original," the reader realizes, the greater the subversion of the very idea of originality. The trouble with XXVII is that while the electron microscope testifies to the structural origin of its nine ("dilapidated") clay cylinder-seals, "it does not absolutely guarantee the congruence of the materials."
Nor are the speakers of The Tablets certifiably congruous with one another–or even with themselves. The author of XIII was "very likely a ‘cured’ schizophrenic looking back." VI may be the first instance of "a particularized man … rescued from the prototypical and generalized ‘I’ of these Tablets," though he laments, "I am not what I was." The S/T asks in XI, "who is speaking here?" eventually disclosing, "I do not know who I am when I read this. How magnificent." A major cause of The Tablets’s user-unfriendliness is obviously the unreliable Scholar/Translator himself. Portions of the text he finds simply "interesting," "curious," or "odd." Proceeding by self-professed "intuition," his emotions preventing objective scholarship, the S/T approaches one passage in VI according to whether he is "deeply moved," and elsewhere he deems aspects "touching" and "beautifully musical." When confronted with information to which he has no empirical or even speculative entry, he imports hashed psychoanalytical dogma or resorts to irrelevant–though hilarious–experiential data. About the diagrammatic Design Tablet he notes, "[M]y long experience warrants that concentrated meditation in it bears metaphysical rewards of a high order," and in XXVII he reminisces, "I will never forget the vibrations, the shimmerings, that overmastered me when, my arms outstretched, I first experienced the pressure of one of these Seals on the palm of my left hand." He is as untrustworthy, self-involved a guide as Nabokov’s biographer of Sebastian Knight:
I have been responsible for occasional jocose invention rather than strict archaeological findings. I now regret my earlier flippancy–an attitude characteristic of beginnings, a manifestation of the resistance man often senses when he faces the probability of a terrific demand upon his life energy.... There is a growing ambiguity in this work of mine, but I’m not sure where it lies. Some days I do not doubt that the ambiguity is inherent in the language of The Tablets themselves; at other times I worry myself sick over the possibility that I am the variable giving rise to ambiguities.... On occasion it almost seems to me as if I am inventing this sequence, and such a fantasy sucks me into an abyss of almost irretrievable depression, from which only forced and unpleasurable exercises in linguistic analysis rescue me (VIII).
The origin of this fictive Sumero-Akkadian civilization is not merely effaced to readers but was obscure even to those who lived in it. The hieroglyph for "god" may be translated "pig," and while the capitalization is certain, the number regarding "One" or "Ones" is not. The term pintrpnit is conjectured to be a transliteration of an archaic form of "alleluiah" or "selah," implying worship, but II introduces the word knom for "the spirit which denies," and it is never clear exactly who–if anyone–created this universe. A curious negative theology is insinuated in the first Tablet: "he is un- +++++++++ / he is dis- ++++++++++++ / he is +++++++++++ -less / he is de- +++++++++++ / ... he is non- ++++++++ / he is pre- ++++++++++" Whoever "he" is would appear to have been ineffable, yet the Tablet "seems rubbed out with care," as though someone purposefully preserved a deity’s anonymity. In VI, on the other hand, though "we have no information about the identity of the addressee," the S/T is certain "some immanent power which keeps changing its attributes" is involved and that "rough approximations of its being may be embodied in variously found names." Among those names are–in an asyndetonic litany recalling Isaiah 9:6–Big Fat Flux, Sore-Ass-Mole-Face-Snivel-Kra, Little Mover, The-Mean-Sucking-Sponge-Pinipnipni, Great Hole in the Cock Liver, Old No-Name, The One of That Way, The One of No Way. The Tablets exist under the headings "The Emptying" and "The Filling," and if any theology informs their progress it is Schwerner’s own Buddhism, albeit one which, in the S/T’s clumsy hands, becomes a logocentric pipe-dream. In XXVI the S/T yearns for "a massive graphic large enough to accommodate this entire Tablet," to ameliorate his "unappeasable desire to lay it all out at once." This craving for a transcendental signifier occurs within a prolix discourse on the pseudo-mystical dynamics of the symbols Schwerner fabricated by what he called in his "Glosses" (from a 1997 issue of Boxkite), "my Macintosh cottage-industry." His belief in the "creative cooperation" offered by computer programs like Ready/Set/Go, Quark XPress, Fontastic Plus, Fontographer, and Popchar marries his arcane, archaic material to cutting-edge method.
The divide between subject matter and procedure, though, is precisely what is unsettled by The Tablets, which agitates any facile distinctions among fact, artifact, and artifice. The S/T observes in XVII that "invent" may be a variant translation of the pictogram for "discover," as The Tablets consciously constructs itself on a there that’s not there, even as Akkadian and Sumerian civilizations did, of course, exist– hundreds of years apart, as the S/T notes. The work is definitive of the tradition-breaking, tradition-expanding ethnopoetics movement of the late-1960s, which "looks away"–as its avatar, Jerome Rothenberg, expressed in a talk given at the MLA in 1994–"from the modern & experimental, to focus on ancient & autochthonous cultures (often under threat of mass extinction or long since blown away)." As Schwerner argued in a 1998 Talisman interview, The Tablets "doesn’t exist in a realm of fantasy; there’s too much deep structure of familiar archaeology and paleography and ritual for that easy course, and thus the work is continuously subject to anchoring constraints." But ethnopoetics is also, according to Rothenberg, "the product of our most dedicated & outrageous modernism, even surviving (under fire) into that postmodernism taken as the older movement’s early & forever problematic offspring." The Tablets is equally a late Modernist supreme fiction in the lineage of Pound’s Cantos, Zukofsky’s "A," Williams’s Paterson, Duncan’s Passages, and Olson’s Maximus poems, by virtue of its pretension to a comprehensiveness that manifests itself, paradoxically, as a fragmented text resisting not merely totalization but the reader’s impulse to devise a totalizing narrative. According to Schwerner’s "Journals" notes,
The Tablets incarnate a new genre: "all that’s left is pattern (shoes?)," the initial line followed by song after song of demurrer and semi-presence, pick-up and drop-away of insult-poem, dirge, evocative sexualized ritual apostrophe and lesbian devotional susurrations, conflation of a cuneiformoid epistolary with a radical sense of the unsettledness of the temple language, continued slide-away of referents. Here the genre of the archaeological is undone by the sense that whatever could be findable will not be findable–the meaning of the digs progressively wafting into common air–not without appearance of the epic, the psychodramatic, the irredeemable word-pain. The self-undoing genre crowded with doing.
The Tablets does not, in fact, inaugurate a wholly new genre, though the two Tablets comprising its latter half, for instance, have found a partial, intermittent solution to Pound’s quandary of how to approximate the density, immediacy, and multivalence of the Chinese written character. Unlike its Modernist precursors, however, The Tablets does not conform, as critic Brian McHale has explained, to the Freudian archaeological trope that the deeper one excavates, the closer one gets to the truth. The Tablets revels in the postmodern manufacture of a world that, because of its proximity to historically credible civilizations, appears to be real yet cannot be verified as such, thus enunciating the difficulty, if not impossibility, of objective historiography. The reader can never be certain, according to Schwerner, whether The Tablets are "telling a truth or their truth or aspects of social verity or as it were whether they’re objects of scribed emendations." The very notion of depth, not to mention its referent, is itself exposed as a narrative, which, like all narratives, however foundational, earns its temporary claim to "truth" by a consensus under continual scrutiny and revision. Part of Schwerner’s ethical concern, inseparable from his aesthetic preoccupations, is to structure his work in a manner that insures his readers will have to bear this narrativity in mind while pursuing epistemological ends–or, as it were, beginnings.
In keeping with Schwerner’s statement that The Tablets is intended as "a form sympathetic to the oral," this edition includes a compact disc. Schwerner has a precise, animated voice, and hearing him read is a pleasure, if not an exercise in eloquence. But what strikes one as odd is that despite oracular passages in the work, its erratic typography would seem to render it the least sort of poetry capable of vocalization. It’s riddled with untranslatable and missing segments, alternative translations, and scholarly intercalations, all of which have to be announced and distinguished as such when the text is spoken. The entirety of track 7 runs:
Tablet X consists of 23 lines, all in a combination of "untranslatable," "missing," or "confusing." The Scholar/Translator has, in the exact center of this tablet–eleven lines preceding, eleven lines following–has suggested that the two missing words would read, "the the."
One recognizes the allusion to Stevens’s "The Man on the Dump"–which, like The Tablets, interrogates the aptness of and aptitude for building on top of previous monuments, be they real or imagined–but it is difficult to visualize the Tablet. Quite apart from distorting the work itself, vocal performance further problematizes the polyvalent, palimpsestic notion of "the work itself," though it does frustrate easy listening. What are served especially well by oral presentation are the highly lyrical passages bursting sporadically from The Tablets. Junction Press has recently released a Selected Shorter Poems, highlighting Schwerner’s talent as a lyric poet. His urge to sing is more formidable, however, when brought to bear on The Tablets, amid whose complex rigors one does not necessarily expect–but is grateful to find–such consummate, consuming music as this:
From nothing from nothing find me my name, say
in some clear way if the end is sadness, how the days of fishing are
whether my name begins in rage or music rooting about for its pleasure
o draw me from my Alabaster Self.... " - Andrew Zawacki
"Armand Schwerner's death in early 1999 came too soon, sadly, for the Belgian-born poet to see the various projects he was working on to fruition. Yet here at year's end, readers can bear witness to his astounding legacy, represented by three new publications: a volume of selectedshorter poems, a collection of Dante translations, and a new (and now, it seems, final) edition of the ongoing long work for which he is best known, The Tablets. Schwerner's magnum opus, The Tablets is a stunning long poem that purports to present translations and commentary of a series of 4,000 year old hieroglyphic texts. Schwerner's genius here is in interpolating the voice of the "scholar-translator" of these texts, a move which allows the poem both its extraordinarily broad range of voice and its labyrinthine depth of meaning. Indeed, from the very first lines of the poem,
All that's left is pattern* (shoes?)
we are struck by the impossiblity of a unified voice or stable meaning in the poem–and intimately aware that the scholar-translator's conundrum of interpretation demands, a la Schrodinger's Cat, that he'll be implicated in his rendering of the text. And gloriously so. Using plus signs to indicate what's missing, and including his own speculative words in brackets, the scholar-translator develops delightfully uncertain yet musical lines:
O Pinitou Pinitou Pinitou in dry cricket sperm
[break unhappy] my mouth is full of blood Beautiful (Strange?) Liar
I ate in a dream, I won ++++++++++, in a dream
The beauty of erasure and invention thus become swirled in a delicious combination, made all the more rich by humor; Schwerner's poem is truly one of the few works of modernism/postmodernism that serves up a serious meal and yet never loses the savory pleasure of the joke. The whole of Tablet X, for example, surrounds the scholar-translator's bracketed inclusion of Wallace Stevens' famous phrase "the the" with a field of plus signs and ellipses (amply illustrating his admission "I have been responsible for occasional jocose invention rather than strict archaelogical findings" (VIII). But ultimately, the scholar-translator's enthrallment with his primary text, as when he notes "a singular confusion of pronouns here. I do not know who I am when I read this. How magnificent" (Tablet XI), mirrors the feeling the attentive reader of The Tablets will have as well.
If the voices of ancient Sumeria are overwhelmed by the scholar-translator's antics, they nevertheless rise to the surface often and genuinely enough to counterpoint the concerns of our modernity. Here, an engraver talks to himself in a combination of sacred ritual and pep talk:
the right words wait in the stone
they'll discover themselves as you chip away,
work faster, don't think as long as you want (Tablet VIII)
while elsewhere a timeless lament is sounded:
seeing you now after your death, I study, you
invested with such surprise
of movement, look, now, here,
gone, gone back to return . . . (Tablet XXIII)
Virtually all of human experience is given voice in The Tablets, but the poem's attention to sexuality is perhaps most remarkable. Repression hasn't yet been invented in the Sumerian psyche:
is his mighty penis fifty times a fly's wing? what pleasure!
does his penis vibrate like a fly's wing? what terrific pleasure! (Tablet V)
But apparently the notion of physical memory has, as in the song of a prostitute/priestess,:
let me open my thighs for your hands as I do for my own that I do you
that my hair thinks of you and remembers you, that my fingers
that the sweat on my thighs/bronze bronze heavily flying/thinks of you
and reminds me of me… (Tablet XV)
Most engaging is Schwerner's confluence of sex and timelessness, the latter being one of the great themes of The Tablets:
O Oualbpaga I would suck you off longer…………………………longer
than anyone thinks possible, your red sperm was/will-be/is/is-just-about-almost* Time
* tense unclear (Tablet XVI)
One of the richest elements of The Tablets is the inclusion of Schwerner's "Journals/Divagations," in which the poet muses on his singular creation. Whether identifying specific goals in his work ("The Tablets: formal games and invention give rise to substantive concerns and social reality") or considering larger, not-necessarily-poetic issues ("Good taste is boredom and death"), Schwerner's ramblings, like those in the notebooks of Joseph Joubert, reveal an aesthetic curiosity so powerful it becomes transfixing. At one point, the poet isolates an intriguing issue for at least this reader of The Tablets:
Prose is eloquence, wants to instruct, to convince; wants to produce in the soul of the reader a state of knowledge. Poetry is the producer of joy, its reader participates in the creative act. Thus Commentary and Text in The Tablets? (Is that distinction stupid?)
Stupid or not, it is a distinction that I believe Schwerner's epic transcends. Most often compared to other 20th century landmarks such as The Cantos or "A", The Tablets might also be usefully placed in the continuum of works such as Nabokov's Pale Fire, sophisticated fictions in which a text within a text provides the occasion for an expansive discourse on literary production and consumption. It might at the least be read more and taught more if seen in this tradition, and one thing is certain about this work of monumental uncertainty: it deserves to be celebrated, studied, and enjoyed by more than a small group of devotees.
This edition of The Tablets contains the final, 27th tablet Schwerner composed in the 1990s, which continued the work (begun in Tablet XVI) of detailing the scholar-translator's "laboratory-teachings-memoirs," in which he explicates his translation process and reveals some of the 'original' cuneiform pictographs. It also contains an additional 20 pages of journal notes written since the 1989 Atlas Press publication of The Tablets, and a CD of Schwerner reading several sections of the work, which is immensely useful in confronting the visual and auditory innovations of the poem. Three cheers for the National Poetry Foundation for putting this volume so beautifully into print." - Eric Lorberer
"The final edition of Armand Schwerner's The Tablets arrives as a valuable, important book, extending and challenging our conceptions of poetry, reading, certainty, completeness, and instructing us in the value of humor and the centrality of various modes of not-doing. The National Poetry Foundation has done a beautiful job of producing this book, giving it a properly large page-size format, pricing the book reasonably, and including an excellent, helpful CD recording of Schwerner's superb reading of a great many of The Tablets.
The Tablets exists at a timely and seemingly timeless intersection of the written/visual and oral/performative. It is a profoundly moving and flawed project, at once greatly humorous, learned, and outrageous. When I call Schwerner's great work "flawed," I do so with the awareness that all writing is inevitably flawed. But, as part of my taking this work seriously, I do wish to consider what I see to be some of the limitations of Schwerner's work as well as the great accomplishment of it.
The Tablets is, among other things, a key book in the work of a particular generation--a group of writers/thinkers that includes David Antin, Jackson Mac Low, Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock. These writers extend the encyclopedic impulse of modernism--the beginning globalism of Pound and Eliot and Olson--to make (in Robert Duncan's words) "a symposium of the whole," and an ethnopoetics pursued with a rigor intelligence, curiosity, and passion that has changed forever the scope of poetry, particularly in the United States. Set beside the anthologies, translations, and books of poems by these writers, much contemporary poetry, particularly the poetry of official verse culture, is readily seen to be minor, narrowly conceived, and claustrophobic in its scope and ambition.
Schwerner began work on The Tablets in 1968, and, as Arthur Sabatini notes, Schwerner's career "is a paradigm of the way, during the past three decades, poets and poetry have become enmeshed in the many forms of discourse and performance that characterize contemporary art" (DLB DLB Dementia with Lewy Bodies
DLB Dynamic Load Balancing
DLB Don't Look Back
DLB Digital Lecture Board (University of Mannheim, Germany)
DLB Digital Loopback
DLB Downline Builder (multi-level marketing) , 243).
In an interview with Ed Foster, Schwerner describes the incident that triggered the conception of The Tablets:
[ldots]the thing that spawned the beginning stages of that work occurred when I was a graduate student working in the Columbia Library. At the end of one of the long stacks I stuck out my arm to rest it on one of the shelves for a moment, looked at what I was covering and there was a large format edition of Samuel Noah Kramer's translation and transliteration from the Sumerian. I interpreted my experience as an omen. I have never forgotten the power of that initial charge. Charge in both senses, both electricity and the responsibility for a task I hadn't yet formulated. (T, 43)
For me, The Tablets opens up tremendously and extends its scope of consciousness in crucial ways with Tablet XXVII (the final Tablet) and with the concluding section, Tablets Journals / Divagations. Finished in the last year of Schwerner's life, Divagations constitutes one-fifth of the final book. Perhaps it is fitting that a book such as The Tablets, with its key figure of the Scholar/Translator, would conclude with such a superb commentary on a commentary, an extended meditation less ruled by the governing conceptions of the rest of the work itself. For me, this Apocrypha becomes the heart of the text itself, where we learn most passionately and exactly what is at stake in The Tablets. Schwerner was quite aware of the significant departure and "violation" involved in adding the Divagations (which first appeared in the Atlas Press 1989 edition of The Tablets, and now appears in a much more extended version in the new National Poetry Foundation edition):
For so many years, I'd been deeply convinced that everything should go into the poem, that there should be no need for external divagations. And then, years after that profoundly held belief, I added "Divagations," a long section of citations and commentary as an appendix to Tablets I-XXVII. (T, 30)
The Divagations section gives Schwerner an occasion to ask fundamental questions and to state fundamental premises (of the work and of human being). Schwerner asks, for example, "is man the only animal that laughs?" (129). That laughter is, of course, an essential feature of the knowledge embodied in The Tablets--and it is an action that anyone who hears Schwerner read aloud will inevitably come to know (as I did when I first listened to a tape recording of The Tablets in 1972). Schwerner writes The Tablets in a manner consistent with a key maxim: "the greatest daring is in resisting what comes easily" (129). Though, as I will argue throughout this essay, that via negativa ultimately limits the pleasures available in The Tablets, I don't mean to suggest that Schwerner should have been striving for a sustained lyricism throughout. But his scrupulous avoidance of various modes of "accomplished" composition severely limits the modes of beauty allowed to take up residence in the text.
While Schwerner asserts that "there is no nuclear self," in Divagations there is one, even if and as it is a self that recognizes the multiple and complex nature of selfhood. In places, Schwerner is simply wise, as when he defines "Poetry as that playful and difficult activity which is a part of the life-effort to heal the self..." (132), or when he suggests that "The Space inside the poem is the necessary precondition for a perception of infinity" (133). It seems to me that it is Divagations that enables such directness--a mode of sporadic insight and (unmediated) didacticism which is not an option in The Tablets (proper) due to the many layers of filtration essential to the form of the work and to the partial nature of the voices/scribes of the work.
Schwerner is deeply concerned in his thirty-year work not to make certain mistakes--mistakes that often (through arrogance or egotism) characterize the most ambitious modernist works that precede The Tablets. Even as he invents and investigates the ground of human spirituality and ritual, Schwerner seeks in his work "the avoidance of spiritual fascism" (T, 32). He has a fundamental ethical commitment to an epistemological incompleteness and to a truthful in-conclusiveness:
The Tablets are involved in wave after wave of denial about any significance in all the looking, checking, interpreting, which their own Scholar/Translator apparently embodies. Not only is there no there there, but the very bases for the ideas and constructions of joke or woes or civilized particularizations, these founder endlessly. No Kung-Fu-Tse behind the Poundian arras, no Anglo-Catholic deep thumpings to sadden the reader into a melting sense of loss to be overcome by the music of eternal verities behind the sucking sounds of the Waste Land. All is ego and all founders, although the Tablets' humor and litanies and erotic intensities go on in their susurrations on page after page of text. (T, 31)
Schwerner's great work constitutes a serious challenge--achieved, ironically, by an archaeological method of digging and probing--to the myth of depth. As Brian McHale Brian wonders,
Sink a shaft into the psyche, the Freudian counsels, and in its depths you will find buried truths. Cut a trench into the ruins of the Unreal City, the middens of Gloucester, a northern bog, says the poetarchaeologist, and you will uncover our culture's mythic substrate, its authentic history, the ancestral mummy whose face you will recognize as your own. This myth of depth is itself one of the foundational fictions of (post)modern culture. But, whispers the trickster-archaeologist, what if the deep truths are really just another story? What if the ruins are only stage-sets or scale-models? What if the mummified face is really just another Piltdown skull, planted there for you to find? (T, 89)
Schwerner, as trickster-archaeologist, has, from the outset, built in that element of fabrication as essential to the documents, texts, pictographs, and rituals that we investigate in The Tablets. Of the various protagonists who inhabit The Tablets, Schwerner says,
The reader doesn't know whether they're telling a truth or their truth or aspects of social verity or as it were inventing parts of a world; you don't know whether they're the object of scribal emendations; you don't even know whether the whole sequence has any kind of verifiability. But the work doesn't exist in a realm of fantasy; there's too much deep structure of familiar archaeology and paleography for that easy course, and thus the work is continuously subject to anchoring constraints. (T, 35)
Schwerner concludes that
In spite of the unverifiabilities the human figures are there. So the reader's constantly "inter," and as the Tibetan teacher Gampopa says, "irrigating one's confusions." And that's I think, the most consistent climate from which the need to write poetry comes. In any case mine. (T, 35)
For me, though, the activity of "irrigating one's confusions" is, in part, an individual story. Hence, my intense appreciation for the importance of Divagations in giving us another (more commonly individualized) location for the need and the activity of the text. As Brian McHale suggests,
In place of a "direct" encounter with the past, there is a Chinesebox puzzle, in place of a primordial scene of archaeological insight, a game of hide-and-seek, in place of "knowledge," uncertainty, speculation, make-believe and trompe l'oeil effects. These are the kinds of epistemological cul-de-sacs into which the narratological structure of The Tablets leads us, and in which it abandons us. (T, 88)
But the primary artificer--the trickster-archaeologist-poet--does not stand apart from that experience of entering an epistemological culde-sac. Divagations gives us an opportunity to feel and see and hear Schwerner in that cul-de-sac too. His text, then, with the addition of Divagations, becomes a construction from which he too does not stand apart.
Above all else, The Tablets, as a conceptual site, represents Schwerner's deepest attempt to find a usable form--one that could accommodate what he knew (and what he didn't know), one that would be true to consciousness as we experience it. He writes,
The modern, accidental form of Sumero-Akkadian tablets provides me with a usable poetic structure. They offer, among other things, ways out of closures--which I find increasingly onerous--as well as the expansion of the syntactical girdle, pectoral girdle of English. They also invite spontaneous phonetic improvisations. The uses of the past, by means of these found archaic objects, are thus more than ironic and other than nostalgic. The context of sober translation creates a mode suitable for seductions by the disordered large which is the contemporary, and the narrative, which is out of honor in the most relevant modem poetry. The context also makes me feel comfortable in recreating the animistic, for which I have great sympathy[.] (134)
In fact, this may be a major contribution of modernism-extended by Schwerner's generation: a serious quest for (invented) usable forms. I think, for example, of Antin's talk-poems, or the various manifestations of Jerome Rothenberg's anthologies (as well as his marvelous "total translations"), and John Cage and Jackson Mac Low's variously constructed forms. This era of modernism-extended (from 1950 to the present) may indeed be characterized by a quest to create nontrivial nontrivial - Requiring real thought or significant computing power. Often used as an understated way of saying that a problem is quite difficult or impractical, or even entirely unsolvable ("Proving P=NP is nontrivial"). The preferred emphatic form is "decidedly nontrivial" forms that are responsive to a broad range of discoveries (in many fields) and to extend the range of knowable poetries. These practitioners of, to use David Antin's comprehensive term, "the language arts" make varieties of poetry that may offer a fit embodiment of the complexities of human consciousness. Antin in particular directs our attention to the centrality of collage as a formal principle in the art of this century. Works such as The Tablets seem to me to make the case for formal inventiveness itself--with collage as one key techniq ue but not necessarily as the most central--as the primary inherited activity (as much as any particular thematic or philosophical premise) from works such as The Waste Land, The Cantos, Paterson, and from the serial formal inventiveness of Gertrude Stein.
In the promotional materials that accompany The Tablets, a claim is made for Schwerner's work in relation to other great twentieth-century modernist poem-projects: "Worked on by Schwerner for over 30 years, The Tablets bears comparison to other great experimental sequences of our century: Pound's Cantos, Olson's Maximus poems, Williams's Paterson, Duncan's Passages, Zukofsky's "A"." While one might be tempted to argue with the list of "greatest hits," arguing for the inclusion of works such Ronald Johnson's ARK and George Oppen's Of Being Numerous, it is more important to observe that Schwerner's The Tablets demonstrates a profoundly different relationship to "source" materials. Also, in overcoming some of the ego-based "deficiencies" of earlier great modernist texts, there is in The Tablets a Buddhistic reticence, an ethical not-doing, that is both admirable and a serious limitation on Schwerner's work. Perhaps there is a valid desire not to fall prey to a kind of masculine, display-bravura (as found especi ally in some of Pound and Olson's writing). But Schwerner's ego-reticence, which, to some extent, gives way in Divagations, combined with his distrust of poetic craft-on-display, means that there are far fewer (recognizably) "beautiful" passages in his major work than in those of his modernist precursors.
Oddly, Schwerner's encounter with and presentation of "archaic" materials is in perfect harmony with (and even somewhat dependent upon) contemporary technology. As Arthur Sabatini suggests, "a convenient and not wholly irrelevant analogy for Schwerner's poetry, writings, and performances is a hypertext program for computers" (DLB, 244). Schwerner's work embraces this odd conjunction of the pictographic past with the hypertextual present, and his method of textual creation makes substantial use of the layout and design capabilities of the computer. As Sabatini concludes, "that one would need a hypertext program (or its image) to return one to the original energies of the body, voice, song, spirit, writing, and the performance of the self and others is an irony for which there is not resolution--except, perhaps, in the always elusive realm of poetry itself" (DLB, 252).
Schwerner differs in essential ways from his modernist precursors in his use of and relationship to source materials. He observes:
Eliot and Pound structured ironic and tragic commentaries by confronting past and present. Why not go further, I thought, and recreate the past itself, in a series of subjectively ordered variations suggestively rooted in the archaic? (134)
Schwerner adds another layer to his work through "the further invention of a scholar-translator," a "fictive fic·tive, adj.
1. Of, relating to, or able to engage in imaginative invention.
2. Of, relating to, or being fiction; fictional.
3. Not genuine; sham. but oppressively present self" (134). The combination of an imagined limitation upon the archaic text (in translation) and the limitations of the at times annoying scholar-translator constitute, in my opinion, the heart of the conceptual flaws of The Tablets. While Schwerner's conception allows him to avoid certain "errors" of his modernist kin, his own grand project (prior to the composition of Divagations) is, in different ways, hamstrung. Even so, Schwerner is aware of a prime virtue of his imagined, archaic text and its ongoing interpretation-as-text. Quite clearly, The Tablets embodies and illustrates a fundamental question: "To what degree is any poem a translation, or a thereness?" (134).
At the heart of Schwerner's project is a refreshing seriousness, a passion for a kind of metaphysical and ethical honesty. There is, as well, a subdued or somewhat covert sense of crisis that energizes the work. Schwerner believes that "Poetry, as game, as act of faith, as celebration, as commemoration, as epic praise, as lyric plaint, as delight in pattern and repetition--poetry is in trouble." To which he adds, "Not any more trouble than the Earth, concepts of nobility and sefflessness, senses of utility, hope" (135). For Schwerner, as for many other adventurous late-twentieth-century poets, our writing is situated within a serious crisis of representation. But Schwerner's sense of that crisis is much more encompassing than the aestheticized version that, in the name of a now old and quite standard but ever self-proclaiming "new" fragmentation, calls attention to the limitations of a self-expressive, conventionalized "realism." For Schwerner too, the cooptation and corruption of language (by advertising an d other modes of manipulation that cast into doubt one's ability to trust words) poses a threat and leaves him longing for "a new language, one that we cannot speak, may not be able to speak, unseizable, proliferating like the elementary particles in physics: no end to it: uncertain statistical places left from which to look at the negative-muons which are told by their uncertain traces" (136-137).
For Schwerner the complexity of adequate representation gets framed not so much in terms of an adequate picture or object but of an adequate medium for representing the dynamic interplay of mind and reality. For him, the central questions (and they are the defining questions for The Tablets as well) are:
How will the mind work? By the eidetic confrontation of the "real"? The real changes. By feeling through Cassirer's moving elaboration of the primitive ethos as "the consanguinity of all living things"? Intermittently at best, and with the edges of despair for being so irrevocably far. The real changes. (136)
A concluding passage of Tablet XXVII gives us a complex, ritualized version of that world-language-person-mind interchange for which we are a point of intersection:
so this world is the one it constitutes our food language-food we eat and we are translatable let's say equidistant from every point or we are a bloody loin of soul like them that's all right language-cannibal bait (123)
Like the complex inter-relationships that the passage registers and that The Tablets makes manifest, this particular passage is susceptible to many different readings as we decipher, interpret, translate, pull apart, reconstitute, and give voice to what goes with what.
It is, then, an odd faith that Schwerner brings to the poem, and to his poetic project: "Poetry is a body invested with rhythmic cells; it is neither the Way nor the object" (137). Particularly if one can resist the lure of using the poem as a site to display one's (personal) craft, mastery, or grace, the poem may become a treasured site for discovery. As Schwerner puts it, "The voices: the maker does not know the identity of a voice or many voices. They speak to him in a way he later discovers. The locus appears later" (136).
A governing anxiety of Armand's text stems from his own claim that "all concepts are misconceptions" (139). Such a position will inevitably produce a reticence about many modes of action, though concepts and forms can always be advanced as necessarily provisional and incomplete, or as ironized deeds (perhaps further ironized by the interpretive overlayering of the only partially insightful Scholar/Translator). Armand creates a large text that exists within an ancient dialectical tension: "The archaic pre-Christian antinomies of kenosis and plerosis, emptying and filling, characteristic of early Middle Eastern civilizations, served largely as a generalized and suggestive context" (138). I suppose that what I'm saying throughout this review amounts to little more than a complaint that kenosis got too much of an upper hand.
Clearly, Armand is perfectly aware of the hazards created by the recurring "interruptions" of the Scholar/Translator:
The pain I felt when I interrupted a lyric song by any of my unknown archaic speakers by intercalating--or rather by finding necessary the presence of--the S/T's discursive, often apparently irrelevant comments, often wrongheaded inventions which nevertheless brought the reader into a consideration of the essential ambiguities of syntax, grammar and translation, a kind of undependable groundlessness of appearance. I remember part of me would almost agree with a hearer's wish that I omit the S/T's commentary as unnecessarily clotting; I'd almost want to accede To consent or to agree, as to accede to another's point of view. To enter an office or to accept a position, as to accede to the presidency. . But precisely such ambiguities, left somewhat to integrally radiate, is useful work done. The thing is, I wanted not to separate the song from the entropic world. This and that. (157)
Armand, then, retains an ethical and decisive commitment to the "realism" of the Scholar/Translator's interruptive function. My own critique is not directed strictly at the interruptive nature of the Scholar/Translator. The fact that all modes of writing in The Tablets--the Scholar/Translator's and the "original" imagined/fabricated archaic texts--are filtered through a preconceived limitation and a predetermined inadequacy leaves me hungry for the more author-empowered text that constitutes the concluding Divagations. I am interested finally in hearing Armand write and think (at his fullest--for even that fullness can be assumed to have its own qualities of incompleteness and emptying). Armand is a better poet than The Tablets shows. I know that that is a viewpoint that would have drawn his contempt--as having missed the point and nature of the text's creation. But, for me, too much of the intelligence and beauty of The Tablets exists outside the text itself--in the form, ethics, and wisdom of its compositio nal methodology--and not enough in the text itself, not enough in the primary text itself. aving raised this objection, let me hasten to add that I am perfectly respectful of some of the sources and reasons for Armand's textual decisions, including Armand's fundamental subverting of any writing that would have an unmediated status as the "primary" or "original" text. The Tablets is very much a thinking about thinking. Like his friend David Antin--particularly in Meditations and in the three decades of talk-poems--Armand too draws on the work of Descartes, Montaigne, Pascal, and la Rochefoucauld as key predecessors. Like Antin, Schwerner explores how we think, and Armand is interested in making a writing that does not present thinking in a merely decorous, trivially accomplished, trivially "well-crafted," or formulaic manner.
There is immense glory in what The Tablets is. As Armand puts it in one of the most essential fragments: "[ldots] crossroads where biology, philosophy, linguistics[ldots]intersect" (147). For me, that intersection is greatly enhanced by the extraordinary meditation of the concluding (though not conclusive) Divagations. Among other things, Divagations is an intimate and tremendously intelligent meditation on a writer's life. Armand is beautifully lucid and honest about the forces at war within him: "There's a negative force within me that wants to stop writing this, to go elsewhere, to leave as in every sesshin I've ever suffered through, almost every group I've involved myself with" (144). Rather than valorizing the isolato or critiquing the superficialities of group identifications, Armand analyzes unsparingly his own complex (and mostly unfulfilled) needs for recognition:
The work on The Tablets was not the result of a "divine madness"; it involved clear thinking in radiant context of self-confidence and aloneness. Somehow, in some rock-bottom way I didn't care about the introjected authorities in my mind, the success-ghosts, the lyrics of reward-mongers--I cut through them. But I assumed there would be a worldly reward, a permanent order of recognition, a clear and continuous placement of my work in the critical adumbrations of the establishing world. To live awaredly in that world, no longer envisaging myself as say Emily or Melville in his last 30 dog years, is the outer mandala, the inner and secret ones potential. Fear's part of all mandalas; my fear of being out-there comes from a tactician's pettiness. Awareness of literary politics is not the same as craven submission; since I'm not craven, but thirsty for la gloire, I've sometimes elected withdrawal. (144-145)
In spite of my criticisms, The Tablets and Armand Schwerner clearly merit la gloire. Armand has said that his poetry "embodies the complex and obdurate persistencies of soul-making" (DLB, 250). Arthur Sabatini concludes that "The Tablets are spectacularly representative of Schwerner's learning and understanding, as well as his artistry, joy, and fearlessness" (250). At times, as I read Divagations, I feel like the adequate Scholar/Translator that I have longed for throughout The Tablets emerges in that final section. Perhaps the more annoying qualities of the Scholar/Translator get on our nerves because, in truth, the reader's consciousness is more similar to that S/T's fumbling efforts than to the more comprehensive (though ethically self-limiting) consciousness of the poet himself. As Michael Heller observes, "The Scholar/Translator seems to be performing our work, our questing, seeking to becalm himself by creating some form of tranquilizing story, some encompassing 'translation' of the archaic culture un der hand which will give him certainty by explaining the present" (T, 84). The final voice of Divagations--what I think of as the ruminations of a super-Scholar/Translator--offers readings and conjectures, interpretations and contextualizings that are wise, beautiful, and provocative. What emerges with this final publication of The Tablets is a kind of double palimpsest which includes the source-text and its multi-layered markings and translations along with the written-over journey of Schwerner's own remarkable career. As Sabatini concludes, "there is an intimate, felt voice throughout the text and an inescapable depth created by Schwerner's pursuits in this primordial, archetypal spiritual, and artistic journey. In this dual sense, The Tablets are a palimpsest that reveal all the technical skills, themes, and intellectual concerns of Schwerner throughout his career" (252).
The Tablets represents one of the most important documents--called "poetry"--in the latter half of this century. It is a composition that is, in the words of the Scholar/Translator, a "sacred forgery" (98). The Tablets allows Armand simultaneously to affirm and to advance the project of ethnopoetics and, in ways that are complex, humorous, and subtle, to ironize that activity. It is also, as Michael Heller concludes, "one of the great ironic workings of the scholarly quest for self-knowledge, a masterwork of what we might call 'experimental scholarship'" (T, 83). For me, with the addition of Divagations, the flaw or error of an overly absolute erasure of self-immediacy gets beautifully corrected. Schwerner concludes by locating himself with us in the epistemological cul-de-sac of his great work. The Tablets thus takes its place beside a range of important poetry-archaeologies of this century which "play out some highly important, real, revelatory skirmishes of soul and dream and cultures" (T, 31). Finally, i t is a work that merits and rewards our extended consideration." - Hank Lazer
"In December 1988, I had the pleasure to attend a performance/reading by Armand Schwerner, at the Logos Foundation in Ghent, Belgium, where I was employed at the time. Schwerner had aroused my curiosity from the his very first epistolary contact on. His letter was accompanied by excerpts from “Tablet” XXVII, illustrated with what looked like hieroglyphs to my inexperienced eye. But it was only during his performance on December 6 that things started to become somewhat clearer: the “Tablets” were imaginary, the scribe was imaginary, the narrator was imaginary. They were all layers of persona that Schwerner could inhabit at will, that gave him the opportunity to peruse a manifold of literary concepts.
Still, the presentation was such that most people in the audience, including myself, were confused about what they had been listening to; about the possible veracity of the texts or their origin. It was all so intricately constructed and convincingly performed, that it seemed almost impossible to have all been purely invented.
The next day I asked Armand if I could interview him about his work, because I wanted to know more and because I found it all so fascinating that I thought it would be sad to limit its local audience to the few people that attend performances and concerts of experimental work. The interview, which you can hear on the PennSound website, clarified a number of things and assessed the fact that it was all a remarkable invention indeed. I was a very naïve young man (I guess I am a naïve older man these days) at the time and in later years, especially after getting hold of the Tablets as they were published by the National Poetry Foundation, I wish I had another chance to question Armand. Alas, by then he had passed away. So I’m now left with the memorable encounter with a remarkable artist (the kind the average mortal gets to meet once or twice only in lifetime), with The Tablets and the recording of a number of them and Armand’s addendum: “The Tablets Journals/Divagations.”
Each time I reread The Tablets I discover new things. I came to compare the multi layered authorship (“Who is talking?”) in some way with the multiple poet-persona of Fernando Pessoa, allowing him to express himself in different styles. From “Tablet” to “Tablet” Schwerner would also tackle various genres. They clearly gave him freedom to do things which would not make sense within one uniform oeuvre. For instance “Tablet” VIII reads like a song, while “Tablet” XIV (“[…] siren me a road father. try to die, envelope goat tripe. explode, coast pie, go below.[…]”) has something of a beat rant not unlike some of Ginsberg’s work.
On another level reading The Tablets is like attending a pathological poetry dissection. The Tablets are larded with “missing” (+++++), “untranslatable” (…….) and confusing segments, and variant readings provided by the “scholar/translator”. But however strange at first lecture, they seem to be existing, without being explicitly noted, in most, especially contemporary poetry. Missing, untranslatable and confusing is what discerns a lot of poetry from prose.
Leave the +++++ and the ….. out of The Tablets and you will be looking at somehow more straightforward poetry. One of the nicer examples of this is the end of “Tablet” XXV where the last word is separated from the rest of the text by 6 “untranslatable” (……….) lines. Leave out the dots and it reads:
[…] ah the ground yesterday
a vast invitation of voices, wet through by flooding,
alive with drone and crawl, track and shimmer of beings in love
with the hazy dusk of water
On the other hand, the “Utterance/Texture/Indicators” and the “Mind/Texture/Determinatives” are wonderful inventions, ideal tools for Gestalt poetry analysis. I am a musician, at the consuming end of literature, not a poet, but my guess would be that these tools could be compared to what composer James Tenney gave the contemporary music world in his book “Meta/Hodos”.
Armand Schwermer was born in Antwerp, Belgium (in 1926) and lived here 6 years before emigrating to the US. But it is long enough to make him my favorite Belgian poet." - Guy De Bièvre
"The latest and final installment of Armand Schwerner’s life-long endeavor, The Tablets, arrived virtually simultaneously with news of his death early in 1999, and takes its place besides those large-scale poetic projects — Pound’s Cantos, Williams’s Paterson, Olson’s Maximus Poems, and Zukofsky’s "A" — which have provided some of the most stunning lineaments of American poetry this century.
How does one describe The Tablets? There is nothing quite like Schwerner’s masterpiece: it consists of "translations" of twenty-five "Tablets," purportedly from ancient Sumerian, plus two more "Tablets" with exegesis, and a "Tablets Journals/Divagations" appended. Yet Schwerner — whose career as a poet and translator also includes lyric and translations ranging from classical Greek drama to Dante to Native American texts — has not translated anything in this book. Rather, the tablets are parodies of translations of ancient texts, Schwerner’s own invention, averaging about three pages each, with a swiping ken broad enough to include onanism and high religious ceremony.
The concocted quality of the tablets endows the book with a quality of humor surpassing that of "Language Poets" such as Andrews and rivaling Ashbery’s which grows from beginning to end: the reader cannot help but laugh at the sheer ludic fictivity of the project on the whole. Another comic stimulus is the "Scholar/Translator," whom Schwerner has created as his arch-persona. The Scholar/Translator, described as "wrong-headed" by Schwerner in the appended commentary, will interfere with judgements such as "odd" (Tablet II), will offer his affective side to the reader, adding "I am not deeply moved" in Tablet VI, and confessing to altering the tablets and entering periods of depression in Tablet VIII. Like the best of modern (by modern here I mean avant-garde, Modern or Post-) poetry, Schwerner forces us to rethink basic assumptions about the art itself, in this case the binary duality of the serious and the comic. Besides serving as a comedian persona, the Scholar/Translator conveniently brings "the reader into consideration of the essential ambiguities of syntax, grammar and translation, a kind of undependable groundlessness of appearance," writes Schwerner in his journals.
This groundlessness of appearance, its epistemic problematizations, is essential to understanding The Tablets. Without coincidence, the first Tablet begins, "All that’s left is pattern* (shoes?) / *doubtful reconstruction." We have either "pattern," form, a statement of poetics itself, or quite the opposite: the mundanely representational, and meaningless, "shoes." The very first constative statement is one of doubt, epistemic uncertainty. The whole text is ridden with a sub-textual leviathan of uncertainty: a white whale of nihilism which swims the water of the text in two of its central notations, introduced even before the poetry itself (of course this early introduction belongs to the poem, but the coincidence of priority is something of a thematic pun). Here is an early example of the notation from Tablet III:
let us hold. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the long man upside down
let us look into his mouth. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . selfish saliva
let us pluck + + + + + + + + + + + + + for brother tree
The periods stand in for putative untranslatable sections, the plus signs for sections Schwerner has decided is missing. Such notations mix with the renderable text and the Scholar/Translator’s notations, so a typical segment might read:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + purple foxglove*
*one of the first mentions of the finger shaped plant, source of digitalis, the heart stimulant: intense consciousness? rise into awareness?
A resumption of the text follows. The effect is not so much as to render the text unreadable, but so as to endow the text with its ancient texture and to operate on the level of art: as Schwerner points out in his "Journals" the commentary is itself a level of poetry; interestingly enough, at times one finds oneself filling in the omitted section, literalizing the Iserian reader and confirming the receptive half of a post-structuralist allegory of writing at work here, an allegory which includes relativization of meaning and the indeterminacy of the signifier.
How well do the Tablets approximate actual Sumerian poetry? Here is an example of an actual translation of Sumerian poetry from Jerome Rothenberg’s seminal anthology on ancient poetry,Technicians of the Sacred:
I am lady I
who in this house
of holy lapis
in my sanctuary say
my holy prayer
I who am lady
who am queen of heaven
let the chanter
chant of it. . .
I who am Inana
give my vulva song to him
o star my vulva of the dipper
vulva slender boat of heaven
new moon crescent beauty vulva. . .
And from Schwerner, a "song of a temple prostitute:"
much, heavily flying, much, the vagina musk bleeding
they bring the wild ass
slow spectrum enormity penis enormity ravage till
much, spectrum, soil-tiller, heavily flying and till till vagina musk
they bring in the wild ass
never of when whenever coming coming coming now power ziggurat tureen
of much, heavily flying, enormity ravage penis in sperm mass blue river god
they bring in . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
lapis and obsidian and bronze gird about gird about bronze testicles
he climbs suspension my back raw inside lips suspension my teeth together
nettles nettles sacred bath of sperm and blood bronze in my sleep
Anaphora, scatalogical imagery, many qualities of actual Sumerian poetry — all reside here.
The above selection is not the sole voice in The Tablets representing the lyric of a specific persona. Schwerner notes in his journals, "a pain I felt when I interrupted a lyric song by any of my unknown archaic speakers" with the notation or the commentary of the Scholar/Tranlator, however necessary and effective a medium the conceit of the Scholar/Translator is. Such "pain" though — an interview Schwerner gave shortly before his death emphasizes the importance of the various subjectivities of The Tablets — clues us into how Schwerner constructs his lost world, a masterful balance of subjects coming alive in their song and ancient society coming alive in the apparatus of the textual reconstruction. One such subject appears in Tablet VIII, a persona who desires a curse on his tombstone:
what should I look for?
what should I do? where?
aside from you, great Foosh,
who is my friend? a little stone,
a lot of dirt, a terrible headache
and more than enough worry about my grave.
He obtains one from his addresee, and declares, among other curses:
if you throw your garbage on my grave
may its spirit haunt you and sneak into your bed
may your skin become viscous
from the visits of grease, may your woman
become bright with loathing
and sneer at your balls. May your nostrils
be stuffed with the spirit of garbage
and you be known as Big Nose and Fat Head and may you never die.
The speaker’s transition from self-doubt before obtaining the curse to seething confidence
indicates the feel Schwerner expresses for the speakers of each tablet. Another example is "a
psychotic rant," in "Tablet XIII," according to the Scholar / Translator, of a "’cured’ schizophrenic looking back:"
this chair this yellow table these pots this tablet-clay this lettuce
this stone jar these blue flowers this silver lioness this electrum ass on her rein-ring
here’s my eye and here’s the great emptiness surrounding the object hating me
this tablet-clay hating me separated from its name
this stone jar hating me separated from its name outlining
a piece of the air to silver me through this piece of blue flower hating me
surrounding myself in anger with me in anger with me copper adzes
hating me the white-green light around the scribe the market-pile the lettuce
hating me in a white-green light separated from its name to silver me with ice*
The note is the Scholar/Translator’s diagnosis. Yet another prominent set of characters are, the Scholar/Translator informs us, "close friends," addressed in "Tablets XX-XXIII," and one "Ahnanarshi," their addresser, "clearly epistolary Tablets," including personal reminiscences such as:
you didn’t like your ears no lobes but mine so full
I loved your thighs, you shuddered
and called them thick, a late evening in bed
we. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .I . . . . . . . . . . . . .++++++++ and
how I loved your face ‘in the half light’ I said
‘yes in the half-dark’ you said
and how many times than a staggered inner-healing* for me
Clearly these "close friends" are involved in physical intimacy, another poignant instance of an ancient world coming alive. A final character which the scholar-translator singles out for note is "Pinitou" from Tablet Six: "show yourself Lak, let me blind you Pnou / o Pinitou, Pinitou, Pinitou*, this is not me," whom the Scholar / Translator identifies as a self-addresee who may be the first named speaker of The Tablets. One may not pick up so carefully on the individuation of speakers that Schwerner is so concerned with, perhaps because of the work of the Scholar/Translator which standardizes the appearances of each tablets with his notation, but however diminishing the Scholar/Translator’s necessary and ultimately salutary presence, Schwerner gives voice to a wide chorus of ancient voices.
In any case, a primitive world, however under erasure, arises, and here one must be careful with the word "primitive," and also with whom exactly is "under erasure."
In his preface to Technicians of the Sacred, Rothenberg states the similarities between the "primitive" and "modern," a theme endemic to modernism. Rothenberg’s six "intersections and analogies" comprise the poem as voice, image-thinking, minimalism, intermedia, the body as basis, and the poet as shaman. All six characterize the Tablets. There are the constant voices, the imagery of "mazey sunlit dust-motes suggesting earth" ("Tablet XVI"), a minimalism suggesting the highest degree of concision, the intermedia of the "design tablet," XII, the body as basis for sound poetry, such as "belabedies kran kran kran kran bekran kran" of "Tablet XXII," and the religious character of the poet, who will occasionally uter "pintrpnit," the "archaic form of ‘alleluiah’ or ‘selah’" according to the Scholar / Translator, or who will often refer to the god "stronger than a thoughtless child," in "Tablet III." Interestingly, the Scholar / Translator tells us, "god" is indiscriminate from what may be "pig." That such a crucial word may have such an antonymic semantic value is only appropriate for the tablets, which carry modern epistemic woes into the past, and vice versa, problematizing the duality between primitive and modern.
With the modern provenance of the "Laboratory-Teachings-Memoirs of the Scholar / Translator" the final two tablets represent a departure in treatment of the ancient from their predecessors, a departure deserving some attention of its own. The tablets include generously numerous pictographs of the (non-) actual tablets "XXVI" and "XXVII," along with commentary by the Scholar / Translator. Twenty-six uses the markings of "Mind / Text / Determinants" to examine what Schwerner imagines the origins of western consciousness to be, in Sumeria rather than Hegel’s ancient Greece. To see the "translations" gestate from the actual pictograph is a breath-taking experience of a virtuoso performance. Yet Schwerner surpasses himself in XXVII, in which he describes the cylinder-seals the Scholar / Translator has found and adds U/T/I’s — Utterance / Texture / Indicators, which describe the bodily position in which the tablets ought to be read. On one level, and Schwerner confirms such a reading in his Journals, the scholar/translator has finally gone mad, wildly quoting from a myriad of texts in support of aimless polemic. But the Tablet is tricky, and if the drama of the state of the Scholar / Translator’s mind has reached a climax, so too has the sophistication of Schwerner’s theories of translation. One such feature is noted in the Journals: the EEV, or Entrance-Exodus Vibration the Scholar/Translator detects in the twenty-seventh Tablet, possibly a reference to the multivalencies of translation. In any case, tablets twenty-six and twenty-seven are unique performances, which are sure to generate interesting writing in the years to come.
With their postmodern characteristics of epistemic doubt, questioning binary oppositions, and a conceit which represents representation The Tablets offers its readers with multifarious rewards. They are a flavor of primative culture, a lost civilization; they carry the pleasures of a poetry informed by Zen which seems Biblical in intonation; the final two Tablets are unlike anything ever written; and the "Journals" surpass the straightforwardness and limitations of, say, the notes to The Wasteland — rarely has a poet invited the reader into the mind forming the work, with statements on poetics, quotations of favorite authors, and hints on reading Schwerner’s work included. The Tablets, which come with a Compact Disc of Schwerner reading, will delight and inspire readers and writers for some time indeed." - Ramez Qureshi
Performing the Text: Versions of Armand Schwerner's "design-tablet" by Thomas Lavazzi
Armand Schwerner, Selected Shorter Poems, Junction Press, 1999.
"Published just months after Armand Schwerner's death on February 4, 1999, the Selected Shorter Poems and the first complete edition of The Tablets together constitute a testament to one of the most important linguistic innovators of the late twentieth century. Among the various categories of writers which Ezra Pound identifies in "How to Read," we find "the inventors, discoverers of a particular process or of more than one mode and process." Schwerner was just such an inventor. Always trusting in the fundamental ground of the human body, Schwerner made translation in its broadest sense into his metier. With his colleagues in the ethnopoetics movement, he (re)discovered the poetic potential in the anthropologist's study of native cultures and languages, in the synchronicity of the archaic and the modern.
Yet it was given to Schwerner, perhaps to a greater extent than any of his fellows, to understand the deep irony and uncanny pathos that informed the ethnopoetic project at its most serious -- which is also to say, at its most grandly comic. Schwerner embraced the universalizing spirit of ethnopoetics -- the dream of total translation, total performance, total synchronicity -- while at the same time implicitly acknowledging its impossibility. The Tablets is his brilliant monument to this realization, but its step by step progress can be seen in his shorter poems as well, many of them as technically accomplished and beautiful as the best parts of his long work. Schwerner's poetry, from his early work in The Lightfall (1963), (if personal) (1968), and Seaweed (1969), and on through the various editions of The Tablets, presents a great range of forms and procedures. But what is to be found consistently, both on the page and in Schwerner's extraordinary readings, is the underlying assumption that language, particularly spoken language, embodies a kind of primacy which, when discovered anew (a discovery which is to be made endlessly), can restore a fundamental sense of wonder to human existence.
Part of this wonder is derived from the nature of the poetic process. As Schwerner explains, "The made thing, poem, artifact, product, will appear to the maker as Other and yet give the pleasure of recognition, to breed other discoveries. The voices of the made thing, poem, object, need no ascription by the maker. He does not know the necessary identity of a voice or many voices. They speak him in a way he later discovers. The locus appears later" (Tablets 131). This statement pulls together a number of the most important aspects of ethnopoetics as an original artistic tendency -- original in Pound's sense of "make it new" and original in the sense of a return to origins. When Schwerner describes the artifact's confronting the maker as an Other, he reflects a typically postmodern scepticism regarding the unitary self and its expression in the poem. The current notion that language speaks us, rather than vice versa, is likewise found in the image of unknown voices speaking the poet. But the sense of otherness that obtains between subject and utterance is also very ancient, going back to the shaman's trance, the possession of the tribal poet by a god, ancestral spirit, or totemic power. But whether one regards the phenomenon from an archaic or postmodern perspective, it is clear that what the maker fashions is not self-expressive or experiential in any conventional sense. And as Schwerner further asserts, "there is no nuclear self" (Tablets 130).
Because poetic form is experienced as both recognition and otherness, it is magical or uncanny. In Schwerner's work, this linguistic quality is most apparent in those texts that rehearse the spoken word, such as the early "Poem at the Bathroom Door by Adam":
push-car woman do you love me
watch woman do you love me
iron woman do you love me
bye woman do you love me
happy woman do you love me
store woman do you love me
bird with a heart in his mouth and a kiss in his mouth
present woman do you love me
ask woman do you love me
that's all I can think of (Selected 52)
In this poem, the speech act of Schwerner's young son takes on, as the boy's names appropriately implies, the adamic quality of primal naming. The chant-like quality of the verse, the use of repetition and variation, and the play of parts of speech, are not only qualities of the child's language, but are reminiscent of the poetry of "primitive" cultures as well. Rather than sentimentalize either the child-like or the primitive, however, the poem enacts the oral immediacy which the poet finds so valuable.
This same sense of immediate connectedness -- of sincerity, that quality so valued by Objectivists such as Zukofsky and Oppen, whom Schwerner knew personally -- is also to be felt when the poet uses the first-person pronoun. Note how the equally important Objectivist quality of precision comes into play in these stanzas from "the passage," one of my favorites in the Selected Shorter Poems:
I find eight raspberries, the last
of their season, along the high grass path
surprise of blueberries I eat
as I go
and vetch I now recognize, that Baker showed me,
half-inch long wild peas, three
tiny peas, tear the pod
carefully, watch the pressure at the seam
I practice the touch, four yellow warblers
fly into the brush
Girl sniffs along behind me, I think
of Corson Ave. she visited
this world by the ocean
is a grounding, deep auburn hair
of the seaweed I touch, I miss you
in this magic yard . . . (111-112)
The intimacy of these lines extends from the "grounding" natural world to the absent lover, whose "deep auburn hair"is transformed into the seaweed through the graceful but surprising enjambment. These are the sorts of moves one finds repeatedly in Schwerner's more lyric poems, as in this brief passage from the serial poem "sounds of the river Naranjana":
for a week watch the river Naranjana flowing
for a week, walk, and for a week watch
the bark of the balsam fir. now
the red-wing lights on it. now
the river eddies, now when you walk you walk. (Selected 115)
Here, the epistemological and phenomenological concerns of Objectivism coincide with Schwerner's extensive studies of Buddhism, as the speaking voice becomes that of a sage instructing us on the path of enlightenment, an experience of the totality in and of every present moment.
But Schwerner's understanding of cultural change and historical rupture is too deep, too vexing, to allow him to rest content within the moment, even a moment that may lead to enlightenment. Remote, archaic, or primitive cultures are never idealized in Schwerner's work, nor does the apparent synchronicity of belief or experience, the shared instant when the boundary of self and other dissolves, remain unexamined. This is one of the great themes of The Tablets, a work that, genealogically, goes back further than almost any other exercise in ethnopoetics.
The deepest of deep parodies, The Tablets is a sort of Joycean hoax: a sequence of texts which purports to be translations of Sumerian/Akkadian clay tablets more than 4,000 years old. Riddled with signs indicating untranslatable or missing passages, filled with notes and speculations in a variety of real and fictive, living and dead languages, The Tablets is presented as the work of the "Scholar/Translator," an eccentric, perhaps even mad figure in constant dialogue with the voices of the archaic past, as well as with the equally strange tradition of research from which he comes. Much of the weird humor of the work arises from the manic discrepancies between the Scholar/Translator's observations and the material he has managed to decipher with varying degrees of certainty. This fundamental lack of temporal and discursive stability distinguishes The Tablets from other literary works of an "archaeological" nature: as Brian McHale notes in "Archaeologies of Knowledge: Hill's Middens, Heaney's Bogs, Schwerner's Tablets" we are never presented with the "archaeological primal scene."
McHale explains: "Nowhere in The Tablets are we shown the translator actually confronting the artifacts (the clay tablets or cylinder seals, or a photo of them); at most we hear him discoursing about them. Rather, it is we readers who enact the primal scene every time we look into The Tablets, every time we turn its pages, for the translated tablets are themselves the artifacts, or as close as anyone will ever come to them. No need to represent the encounter with an artifact when the text itself is that artifact" ("Archaeologies of Knowledge: Hill's Middens, Heaney's Bogs, Schwerner's Tablets," New Literary History 30.1 [Winter 1999]). It is this quality that leads Rachel Blau DuPlessis to observe that as the work develops, The Tablets reflects the evolving concerns of the ethnopoetics movement, from "the search for origins or primary emotional and cultural ground" to "the nature, functions, ideologies, and interests at stake in the transmission and the transmitter" ("Armand Schwerner," Sulfur 11.2 [Fall 1991]).
In the "Journals/Divagations" appended to The Tablets, Schwerner himself discusses the form of his major work, explaining its attraction for him, and by implication, its importance for ethnopoetics in general:
The modern, accidental form of Sumero-Akkadian tablets provides me with a usable poetic structure. . . . The uses of the past, by means of these found archaic objects, are thus more than ironic and other than nostalgic. The context of sober translation creates mode suitable for seductions by the disordered large which is the contemporary, and the narrative, which is out of honor in the most relevant modern poetry. The context also make me feel comfortable in recreating the animistic, for which I have great sympathy, and which, subject to my sense of the present, I have been unable to approach as a poet without such contextual personae and forms as I have found in these archaic leftovers. (Tablets 134)
Through the temporal warpings ofThe Tablets, the literal shards of an animistic civilization that existed thousands of years in the past, Schwerner constantly reminds us of the founding cultural dialectic of the sacred and the profane. Body and spirit veer about and collide in the text in ways that continually expose the inadequacy of modern religious thought regarding our somatic being. From Tablet V:
is the man bigger than a fly's wing? what pleasure!
is he much bigger than a fly's wing? what pleasure!
is his hard penis ten times a fly's wing? what pleasure!
is his red penis fifteen times a fly's wing? what [pleasure]!
is his mighty penis fifty times a fly's wing? what pleasure!
does his penis vibrate like a fly's wing? what terrific pleasure! (23)
For Schwerner, this is "not poetry as obeisance to the sacred, but as a creation of it in all its activity; not as an appeal for its survival in spite of a corrosive sense that the sacred is lost, but as a movement which itself might add its own small measure to reality" (Tablets 130). How does the sacred arise out of the profane, how does the profane enhance our sense of the sacred? How does this dialectic contribute to our sense of reality? Consider the opening lines of Tablet VIII:
go into all the places you're frightened of
and forget why you came, like the dead
what should I look for?
what should I do? where?
aside from you, great Foosh,
who is my friend? a little stone,
a lot of dirt, a terrible headache
and more than enough worry about my grave. Hogs
will swill and shit on me, men
will abuse me (29)
Part prayer and part kvetch, this passage resonates with an existential melancholy worthy of very differerent Jewish writers like Bellow or Malamud, but supposedly precedes even Job or Ecclesiastes by many centuries. At the beginning of Tablet VI, we are informed that "Foosh" is the last in a long list of ridiculous names (including "Sore-Ass-Mole-Face-Snivel-Kra," "Anxious-Liar-Fart-Flyaway ," and "The Porous Poppycock"), though "we have no information about the identity of the addressee; anger and ridicule are directed toward some immanent power which keeps changing its attributes" (25). No wonder then that the speaker in Tablet VIII is so distraught! From the tone of the address, Foosh is, in all likelihood, some sort of deity, and there is a note of intimacy in the passage that is reminiscent of a patriarch's or prophet's speech with God in the Hebrew Scriptures. But if this god's attributes keep changing, then a sense of uncertainty enters into the life of the speaker, leaving him with nothing but headaches, worry, and abuse.
It is at such points that one feels the modernity of The Tablets, and not merely in the anxieties of its ancient speakers. "[T]he right words wait in the stone / they'll discover themselves as you chip away" declares the voice in Tablet VIII: writing becomes the means through which the speaker deals with his worries, and finding himself "getting stiff" in a "cold place," he composes a poetic curse ("this curse / better work" he cries) to free himself:
If you step on me
may your leg become green and gangrenous
and may its heavy flow of filth
stop up your eyes forever, may your face
go to crystal, may your meat be glass
in your throat and your fucking
fail. If you lift your arms in grief
may they never come down and you be known
as Idiot Tree and may you never die (30)
And so it goes for another three stanzas: surely one of the funniest send-ups of "the primitive" in the entire body of ethnopoetics. Yet Schwerner's Sumerian/Akkadian curse (along with the hymns, love songs, plaints, meditations, and other speech-acts found throughout The Tablets) is charged with the urgency of the fully lived moment, however remote in time. It is a moment when rhetoric counts, when poetry comes as close as possible to magic in the power it is believed to hold over reality.
Schwerner does not relegate this sense of the magical to the primitive or the archaic alone, however, and this is one of The Tablets' greatest strengths. In his note following Tablet VIII, the Scholar/Translator reflects on the course of his work:
Looking back myself to that first terrific meeting with these ancient poems,
I can still sense the desire to keep them to myself all the while I was strain-
ing to produce these translations -- desperately pushing to make available
what I so wanted to keep secret and inviolable. . . . There is a growing
ambiguity in this work of mine, but I'm not sure where it lies. Some days
I do not doubt that the ambiguity is inherent in the language of the Tablets
themselves; at other times I worry myself sick over the possibility that I
am the variable giving rise to ambiguities. Do I take advantage of the present
unsure state of scholarly expertise? On occasion it almost seems to me as if
I am inventing this sequence, and such fantasy sucks me into an abyss of
almost irretrievable depression, from which only forced and unpleasurable
exercises in linguistic analysis rescue me. (31-32)
The Scholar/Translator's fantasy is true, of course: not only is the sequence an invention, but he himself, forced into unpleasurable linguistic exercises, is an invention as well. Schwerner's metafictional fun with his character is one indication that the magical power of writing holds even in the realm of "objective" modern scholarship. Like the scribes and librarians of Kafka and Borges who are his closest kin, the Scholar/Translator is fanatically devoted to a text which is his world; the book is the scholar's author, rather than the scholar authoring the book. The ambiguity which the Scholar/Translator experiences is derived from this intricately folded condition of fiction and reality, creator and creation, past and present, magic and science, original and translation.
It is this last dichotomy, fundamental to the Scholar/Translator's identity, that puts such a strain on this figure. The Scholar/Translator regards it as his responsibility to translate, and thereby "make available" to a general readership, or at least to other experts in the field, a set of texts that he regards as "secret and inviolable." By the time we reach Tablet XXVI (subtitled "From the Laboratory Teachings Memoirs of the Scholar/Translator"), it has dawned on the Scholar/Translator that "I am involved in the process of formation of the canon of this sacred material" (95). To what extent is he the rational scientist engaged in the objective study of these artefacts, and to what extent is he an initiate into the sacred truths which they may contain? At what point does the modern student of the sacred participate in the practice of the sacred? And given what we have seen of the Tablets and the world from which they come, where does ritual end and poetry begin?
"I would also call attention," notes the Scholar/Translator, "to the power of the unsullied literary imagination evident in the texts which are the objects of my studies, a power generously evident in the work of the so-called scribes, who were of course redactors, a vector we usually ignore. Thus often the line between redactor and author is hard to draw" (71). From author to redactor to Scholar/Translator to Schwerner, the poet himself pulling all the strings: the lines become increasingly hard to draw, but "the power of the unsullied literary imagination"deconstructs the binarisms that structure Schwerner's masterpiece.
Or as Schwerner observes, "Prose is eloquence, wants to instruct, to convince; wants to produce in the soul of the reader a state of knowledge. Poetry is the producer of joy, its reader participates in the creative act. Thus Commentary and Text in The Tablets? (Is that distinction stupid?)" (132).
Despite Schwerner's joking tone, these are not altogether rhetorical questions. The uncanny symbiosis of prose to poetry, commentary and text, present to past, that intensifies as the sequence proceeds indicates that in The Tablets, these distinctions exist so as to be subsumed by the maker's art. Yet that art of poesis, both original inscription and inventive commentary, seems always to be in crisis. In Tablet XXVI, a figure called "the blind artificer" emerges out of a welter of (computer-generated) pictographs, and we hear one of the most poignant laments to emerge from Schwerner's ancient world:
When I was young they would praise
just about all I'd say, as if I breathed
with them; my times are bad, the past is a joke,
former admirers hound me, alone and treed
what's left of my ties with them who
praised anything out of my mouth -- my voice
now that life floors me and they cut
my best song, seeing what, lies?
what we had together is lost; they praised me once
for any language at all; I'm now to fall,
now in my troubles; my merit is my seeing,
their hate infects my days (90)
"[T]he oracle / turns dunce" (90) says this poet-prophet of himself, but even as he mourns the loss of his visionary power, his lyricism reaches across the millenia, edging The Tablets away from satire to an increasingly elegiac register. The powers he represents, the powers his civilization have posited as truths, are perceived to be failing; faced with his apparent death, the process of cultural meaning falls away and a mournful voice declares that "The abyss is a hope / Yawning between mouth and star" (91).
Schwerner understands that the same is true for his contemporaries as well. As he says of his poor Scholar/Translator in a conversation with Willard Gingerich, "The S/T has an inclination towards meaning, but he's got a problem which he avows covertly and indirectly and with pain. He has a suspicion that his inclination towards meaning must find other paths from those he has been given by his own modes of scholarship and research, his own culture, his own theological antecedents. And that's the main problem; that's also the problem of Western civilization . . ." ("Armand Schwerner: An Interview," American Poetry Review 24.5 [September/October 1995]). What is remarkable about Schwerner is that he may have found one means of addressing this problem, that he may have an alternative path." - Norman Finkelstein
"Armand Schwerner 1927-1999
Belgian-born American poet, translator, and essayist.
Schwerner was a twentieth-century American poet whose primary work, The Tablets, evolved over three decades in various print versions and as live performance art. His poetry has been described as satirizing modern life and the philosophies and practices of language, religion, antiquities scholarship, and art.
Schwerner's poetry superimposes fragments of text and symbol, image and sound, print and voice in an exploration of relationships, identity, and ethnopoetic traditions. He once said, “I'm deeply interested in language work simultaneously and inextricably occurring along with the pictographic, the alphabetic, the oral dimension and the abstractive.” In live performances of his most significant work, The Tablets, which did not appear in its final published form until the year of the poet's death, Schwerner often incorporated slide presentations or photocopies of the so-called ancient text hieroglyphics, and played music on ethnic folk instruments such as the Guatemalan bird-ocarina, a Balinese flute, or an African rain stick. The first published version of The Tablets appeared in 1968, featuring “Tablet I” through “VIII.” Subsequent volumes, each expanded beyond the previous release, appeared in 1971, 1975, 1983, 1989, and 1999. The Tablets are presented as the magnum opus of a fictive, eccentric scholar/translator. The work purports to be a series of clay tablets, rendered in Sumerian/Akkadian symbols and dating back more than 4,000 years. It is distinctive for its simultaneous illumination and parody of the process of discovering and interpreting ancient texts and text fragments, as well as for its evolutionary style that parallels advances in actual archaic materials scholarship between 1968 and 1999.
Schwerner's literary output also includes criticism, essays, translations, and collaborative efforts. During the 1960s Schwerner authored numerous critical commentaries of major literary works. In the 1970s and 1980s he produced translations of poetry from various tribal, ethnic, and archaic sources, and worked with other artists to adapt his work for theater, dance, and audio recordings. In the last decade of his life, he turned his attention to essays on a variety of topics related to his career in oral literature. Although Schwerner published several collections of poems throughout his career, none achieved the notoriety or critical attention of The Tablets.
Schwerner is considered a pioneer for his efforts to transcend the limits of print and oral traditions in linguistic expression. Peers including poet Diane Wakoski noted that Schwerner's creative expression was dampened by the boundaries of print, suggesting that his work, particularly The Tablets, is best suited to live presentation. Schwerner presented The Tablets, the centerpiece of his career, as the life's work of a scholar/translator who employs unorthodox techniques of research and translation. Critics have not overlooked the parallel between the poet's own nontraditional literary expression and the eccentricities of his invented scholar/translator. Schwerner's wide-ranging literary accomplishments defy easy categorization, although he is considered part of a group of twentieth-century writers known as the second generation of ethnopoets." - eNotes
a letter to Paul Blackburn preceded by a letter Rainer Maria Rilke wrote 13 days before his death in 1926 to Rudolph Kassner
my dear Kassner, so this it was
of which my nature has been urgently forewarning me
for three years: I am ill
in a miserable and infinitely
painful way, a little-known cell alteration in the blood
is becoming the point
for the most horrible occurrences
scattered throughout my body. And I,
who never wanted to look it squarely in the face,
am learning to adjust myself
to the incommensurable
pain. Am learning it with difficulty,
amid a hundred resistances,
and so sadly amazed. I wanted you to know of this
condition of mine
which will not be of the most passing. Inform the dear Princess of it,
as much as you consider well.
my dear Paul, so this it is
that I never wanted to look at squarely in the face
you are ill
in a miserable way that Jerry and Si and Joanie say
is not infinitely painful, a well-known cell alteration in the epithelium
becomes the point
for the most horrible occurences
scattered throughout your body. And I,
who never wanted to look it squarely in the face,
will be working for the rest of my life to adjust myself
to the incommensurable
pain. Am learning it with difficulty,
amid a hundred resistances,
and so sadly amazed. I wanted you to know of this
condition of mine
which will not be of the most passing, that your passing is
into us, bodies and poems, Paul dear, is very little comfort to you but it is what there is for both you and us.
ARMAND SCHWERNER: A Brief Survey
Schwerner reads Tablets (mp3)
Armand Schwerner: A film by Phill Niblock (c. 1973) (RealVideo)