Online Edition: Summer 2000

Selected Shorter Poems by Armand Schwerner

Selected Shorter Poems

Armand Schwerner

Junction Press ($16)

by Eric Lorberer

Not so much lyrics as discrete pieces of a larger tapestry, these shorter poems of Armand Schwerner combine the adroit playfulness and formidable erudition of the master architect of The Tablets. When placed beside that volume and his Cantos from Dante's Inferno, this book completes an essential trilogy in the annals of poetry.

As a reader of The Tablets might expect, several works here--mostly those presented in the section "Eskimo and Others"--derive from ethnographic sources, though these poems are also somewhat caged by their contexts. Schwerner's best work ranges over the page in powerful strides, an "endless speaking to voice" in which "it is impossible / to not overhear the endless speaking in all the bodies…" This attention to the infinite rescues Schwerner from being merely contemporary; though the world in which one can read to a friend "in his Datsun / by the Staten Island Ferry" exists in these poems, it exists simultaneously with, or perhaps even within, an intimate understanding of "the grief / of the stegosaurus, pointing / like all long grief / to nothingness."

A collagist of the first degree, Schwerner incorporated into his later poems material from a variety of other sources: fellow like-minded poets (e.g. Robert Kelly, Ted Enslin, George Oppen), but also obituaries, mystic works, philosophical texts, and, in a humorous piece of invention, "from second and third order American and Italian computer generated Shakespearean monkeys." Schwerner's formal range is revealed here to have been equally expansive; the book contains prose-poems, a "crypto-play," compositions by field, list, and aleatory technique, the rending "Bacchae Sonnets," and a group of truly astounding pantoums whose impeccably handled falling lines and rhythms perhaps best illustrate Schwerner's radically intuitive word-smithy.

For those who love language, Schwerner's Selected Shorter Poems will not disappoint. Sensuous, complex, and often elegiac, the body of work here delivers with shamanic force on its promise to be "song and arrow in the unrivalled moment."

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Cantos From Dante's Inferno

Cantos From Dante's Inferno

translated by Armand Schwerner

Talisman House ($13.95)

by John Olson

Years ago when I was a student, I had an instructor who announced, with unabashed glee, that he was spending his summer vacation taking an intensive, eight-week course in Italian for the express purpose of being able to read Dante's Divine Comedy. My instructor's enthusiasm was eminently understandable. To read Dante's magnificent poetry in the original Italian was tantamount to cruising the Tuscan hills in a Lamborghini, a luxury of rare endowment, the only true way to engage Dante. To settle for anything else but the actual Italian was to compromise the integrity of the whole experience. Imitations are tacky. The idea of translating Dante's Commedia seems doomed from the start. Yet, paradoxically, the impossibility of matching the power of Dante's language incites more of a challenge than a deterrence. Translations abound. A good many of them ape Dante's original terza rime structure, stuffing the lines with extra padding or straining the meaning to get everything to fit, and end up sounding moldy and forced, a pale approximation.

Not so with Armand Schwerner, whose Cantos From Dante's Inferno stands out as one of the most radical entries into this much traversed realm. Schwerner has jettisoned the terza rime scheme altogether and focused on the real richness of Dante's poem, which is its vocabulary. The uncanny vividness of Dante's inferno--the reason it draws so many into its labyrinths and bubbling fens--derives directly from the passionate devotion Dante concentrated in choosing his words and adjusting his grammar so that it would depict, as palpably as possible, the scenery and action of Hell. "There is no end to the number of qualities which some people can associate with a given work or kind of word," observed Pound in his ABC Of Reading, "you have to go almost exclusively to Dante's criticism to find a set of OBJECTIVE categories for words. Dante called words ‘buttered' and ‘shaggy' because of the different NOISES they make. Or pexa et hirsuta, combed and unkempt. He also divided them by their different associations."

Schwerner has demonstrated an equal devotion in his exacting choice of words. One of the real assets of this edition are the "Translator's Process Notes" in the back of the book. It is here that we can follow Schwerner's decisions with fascination, as in his translation of e poi se ne rammarca, from Canto VIII, the episode in which Phlegyas, the Boatman of the legendary Styx (which Dante chose to represent as a putrid marsh rather than a river), races toward the two figures thinking to find new souls for torment and howls with rage when he discovers they are not spirits but living, breathing Poets: Qual è colui che grande inganno ascolta / che li sia fatto, e poi se ne rammarca, fecesi Flegiàs ne l'ira accolta. John Ciardi's translation ("Phlegyas, the madman, blew his rage among / those muddy marshes like a cheat deceived, / or like a fool at some imagined wrong") stiffens the syntax with too much starch, whereas Allen Mandelbaum's rendition ("And just as one who hears some great deception / was done to him, and then resents it, so / was Phlegyas when he had to store his anger") devitalizes the energy of the drama with a lusterless literality, creating a storage depot for Phlegyas' unwarranted wrath. Schwerner's translation ("Phlegyas, in his tamped fury, was like / a being who in building vexation hears / he's been taken by a massive swindle") hews close to the complexity of the situation, paying attention to the dynamic force of Dante's vocabulary and devotion to detail. Schwerner explains his choice of phrasing with a keen emphasis on the boatman's psychology. Building vexation, he writes, "combines the relevant ambiguity of vexation accreting with the suggestion that Phlegyas represents the kind of person who to some degree willfully irrigates what may appear to others as spontaneously occurring emotionality." A figure, then, that is simultaneously fierce and comical, an irascible crank wholly unable to keep a lid on his feelings. A cartoonist would draw him with steam coming out of his ears.

Schwerner's translation--from a purely visual standpoint--has a spacious feel to it. Narrative is assigned to the left of the page, speech and oration to the right. "This lineation," writes Michael Heller in the preface, "focuses on the opposition between interior voicing of narration and rumination and the externality of speech, between psychic state and self-presentation." Essentially a work-in-progress (Schwerner's untimely death in 1999 prevented completion) the twelve cantos represented in this book nevertheless offer one of the most vital and revolutionary treatments of Dante's Commedia to date: Dante's rich Italian recast in an Americanized English that pulses with vividness and fresh creation. Indeed, it is not just a translation but a revival and a revelation.

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Summer 2000 Table of Contents