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The Tablets
Armand Schwerner
The National Poetry Foundation, $19.95 (paper and compact disc)

by Andrew Zawacki

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
numbered, say
whether my name begins in rage or music rooting about for its pleasure
o draw me from my Alabaster Self....

Andrew Zawacki is co-editor of Verse. He is currently in Australia on a Fulbright. His review of Gustaf Sobin appeared in our December/January 1999-2000 issue.

Originally published in the October/ November 2000 issue of Boston Review



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