The Tablets by Armand SchwernerArmand Schwerner
National Poetry Foundation
($32.95 hardcover, $19.95 paperback)

by Eric Lorberer

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 selected shorter 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?)

*doubtful reconstruction

we are struck by the impossibility 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

(Tablet VI)

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 archaeological 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.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999