In 1968 the Cummington Press published the first eight parts of what
would eventually be considered Armand Schwerners 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 Schwerners 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
Schwerners 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 poems
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 souls relation to the body, and the bodys
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 equivalentslinguistic
or cognitiveof 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 vanishedbut 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/Ts
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 anotheror 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
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 Tabletss 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 irrelevantthough
hilariousexperiential 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 Nabokovs biographer
of Sebastian Knight:
I have been responsible for occasional jocose invention rather than
strict archaeological findings. I now regret my earlier flippancyan
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 Im 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
whoif anyonecreated 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 deitys
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 arein an asyndetonic
litany recalling Isaiah 9:6Big 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 Schwerners
own Buddhism, albeit one which, in the S/Ts 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 thats
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 "doesnt exist in a realm of fantasy; theres
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 movements early & forever problematic
offspring." The Tablets is equally a late Modernist supreme
fiction in the lineage of Pounds Cantos, Zukofskys
"A," Williamss Paterson, Duncans
Passages, and Olsons Maximus poems, by virtue of
its pretension to a comprehensiveness that manifests itself, paradoxically,
as a fragmented text resisting not merely totalization but the readers
impulse to devise a totalizing narrative. According to Schwerners
The Tablets incarnate a new genre: "all thats 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 findablethe
meaning of the digs progressively wafting into common airnot
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 Pounds 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 theyre 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 Schwerners
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 endsor,
as it were, beginnings.
In keeping with Schwerners 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. Its 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 tableteleven lines preceding,
eleven lines followinghas suggested that the two missing words
would read, "the the."
One recognizes the allusion to Stevenss "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 imaginedbut 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 Schwerners 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
expectbut is grateful to findsuch consummate, consuming
music as this: