Ramez Qureshi

Armand Schwerner
The Tablets

National Poetry Foundation, 1999, $19.95. [Order from SPD]

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
wild god
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

*nakru-salmu: hostile-image

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.

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