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Sacred Forgery and the Grounds of Poetic Archaeology: Armand Schwerner's The Tablets.

The final edition of Armand Schwerner's The Tablets arrives as a valuable, important book, extending and challenging our conceptions of poetry, reading, certainty, completeness, and instructing us in the value of humor and the centrality of various modes of not-doing. The National Poetry Foundation has done a beautiful job of producing this book, giving it a properly large page-size format, pricing the book reasonably, and including an excellent, helpful CD recording of Schwerner's superb reading of a great many of The Tablets.

The Tablets exists at a timely and seemingly timeless intersection of the written/visual and oral/performative. It is a profoundly moving and flawed project, at once greatly humorous, learned, and outrageous. When I call Schwerner's great work "flawed," I do so with the awareness that all writing is inevitably flawed. But, as part of my taking this work seriously, I do wish to consider what I see to be some of the limitations of Schwerner's work as well as the great accomplishment of it.

The Tablets is, among other things, a key book in the work of a particular generation--a group of writers/thinkers that includes David Antin, Jackson Mac Low, Jerome Rothenberg, and Dennis Tedlock. These writers extend the encyclopedic impulse of modernism--the beginning globalism of Pound and Eliot and Olson--to make (in Robert Duncan's words) "a symposium of the whole," and an ethnopoetics pursued with a rigor, intelligence, curiosity, and passion that has changed forever the scope of poetry, particularly in the United States. Set beside the anthologies, translations, and books of poems by these writers, much contemporary poetry, particularly the poetry of official verse culture, is readily seen to be minor, narrowly conceived, and claustrophobic in its scope and ambition.

Schwerner began work on The Tablets in 1968, and, as Arthur Sabatini notes, Schwerner's career "is a paradigm of the way, during the past three decades, poets and poetry have become enmeshed in the many forms of discourse and performance that characterize contemporary art" (DLB, 243). In an interview with Ed Foster, Schwerner describes the incident that triggered the conception of The Tablets:

[ldots]the thing that spawned the beginning stages of that work occurred when I was a graduate student working in the Columbia Library. At the end of one of the long stacks I stuck out my arm to rest it on one of the shelves for a moment, looked at what I was covering and there was a large format edition of Samuel Noah Kramer's translation and transliteration from the Sumerian. I interpreted my experience as an omen. I have never forgotten the power of that initial charge. Charge in both senses, both electricity and the responsibility for a task I hadn't yet formulated. (T, 43)

For me, The Tablets opens up tremendously and extends its scope of consciousness in crucial ways with Tablet XXVII (the final Tablet) and with the concluding section, Tablets Journals / Divagations. Finished in the last year of Schwerner's life, Divagations constitutes one-fifth of the final book. Perhaps it is fitting that a book such as The Tablets, with its key figure of the Scholar/Translator, would conclude with such a superb commentary on a commentary, an extended meditation less ruled by the governing conceptions of the rest of the work itself. For me, this Apocrypha becomes the heart of the text itself, where we learn most passionately and exactly what is at stake in The Tablets. Schwerner was quite aware of the significant departure and "violation" involved in adding the Divagations (which first appeared in the Atlas Press 1989 edition of The Tablets, and now appears in a much more extended version in the new National Poetry Foundation edition):

For so many years, I'd been deeply convinced that everything should go into the poem, that there should be no need for external divagations. And then, years after that profoundly held belief, I added "Divagations," a long section of citations and commentary as an appendix to Tablets I-XXVII. (T, 30)

The Divagations section gives Schwerner an occasion to ask fundamental questions and to state fundamental premises (of the work and of human being). Schwerner asks, for example, "is man the only animal that laughs?" (129). That laughter is, of course, an essential feature of the knowledge embodied in The Tablets--and it is an action that anyone who hears Schwerner read aloud will inevitably come to know (as I did when I first listened to a tape recording of The Tablets in 1972). Schwerner writes The Tablets in a manner consistent with a key maxim: "the greatest daring is in resisting what comes easily" (129). Though, as I will argue throughout this essay, that via negativa ultimately limits the pleasures available in The Tablets, I don't mean to suggest that Schwerner should have been striving for a sustained lyricism throughout. But his scrupulous avoidance of various modes of "accomplished" composition severely limits the modes of beauty allowed to take up residence in the text.

While Schwerner asserts that "there is no nuclear self," in Divagations there is one, even if and as it is a self that recognizes the multiple and complex nature of selfhood. In places, Schwerner is simply wise, as when he defines "Poetry as that playful and difficult activity which is a part of the life-effort to heal the self..." (132), or when he suggests that "The Space inside the poem is the necessary precondition for a perception of infinity" (133). It seems to me that it is Divagations that enables such directness--a mode of sporadic insight and (unmediated) didacticism which is not an option in The Tablets (proper) due to the many layers of filtration essential to the form of the work and to the partial nature of the voices/scribes of the work.

Schwerner is deeply concerned in his thirty-year work not to make certain mistakes--mistakes that often (through arrogance or egotism) characterize the most ambitious modernist works that precede The Tablets. Even as he invents and investigates the ground of human spirituality and ritual, Schwerner seeks in his work "the avoidance of spiritual fascism" (T, 32). He has a fundamental ethical commitment to an epistemological incompleteness and to a truthful in-conclusiveness:

The Tablets are involved in wave after wave of denial about any significance in all the looking, checking, interpreting, which their own Scholar/Translator apparently embodies. Not only is there no there there, but the very bases for the ideas and constructions of joke or woes or civilized particularizations, these founder endlessly. No Kung-Fu-Tse behind the Poundian arras, no Anglo-Catholic deep thumpings to sadden the reader into a melting sense of loss to be overcome by the music of eternal verities behind the sucking sounds of the Waste Land. All is ego and all founders, although the Tablets' humor and litanies and erotic intensities go on in their susurrations on page after page of text. (T, 31)

Schwerner's great work constitutes a serious challenge--achieved, ironically, by an archaeological method of digging and probing--to the myth of depth. As Brian McHale wonders,

Sink a shaft into the psyche, the Freudian counsels, and in its depths you will find buried truths. Cut a trench into the ruins of the Unreal City, the middens of Gloucester, a northern bog, says the poetarchaeologist, and you will uncover our culture's mythic substrate, its authentic history, the ancestral mummy whose face you will recognize as your own. This myth of depth is itself one of the foundational fictions of (post)modern culture. But, whispers the trickster-archaeologist, what if the deep truths are really just another story? What if the ruins are only stage-sets or scale-models? What if the mummified face is really just another Piltdown skull, planted there for you to find? (T, 89)

Schwerner, as trickster-archaeologist, has, from the outset, built in that element of fabrication as essential to the documents, texts, pictographs, and rituals that we investigate in The Tablets. Of the various protagonists who inhabit The Tablets, Schwerner says,

The reader doesn't know whether they're telling a truth or their truth or aspects of social verity or as it were inventing parts of a world; you don't know whether they're the object of scribal emendations; you don't even know whether the whole sequence has any kind of verifiability. But the work doesn't exist in a realm of fantasy; there's too much deep structure of familiar archaeology and paleography for that easy course, and thus the work is continuously subject to anchoring constraints. (T, 35)

Schwerner concludes that

In spite of the unverifiabilities the human figures are there. So the reader's constantly "inter," and as the Tibetan teacher Gampopa says, "irrigating one's confusions." And that's I think, the most consistent climate from which the need to write poetry comes. In any case mine. (T, 35)

For me, though, the activity of "irrigating one's confusions" is, in part, an individual story. Hence, my intense appreciation for the importance of Divagations in giving us another (more commonly individualized) location for the need and the activity of the text. As Brian McHale suggests,

In place of a "direct" encounter with the past, there is a Chinesebox puzzle, in place of a primordial scene of archaeological insight, a game of hide-and-seek, in place of "knowledge," uncertainty, speculation, make-believe and trompe l'oeil effects. These are the kinds of epistemological cul-de-sacs into which the narratological structure of The Tablets leads us, and in which it abandons us. (T, 88)

But the primary artificer--the trickster-archaeologist-poet--does not stand apart from that experience of entering an epistemological culde-sac. Divagations gives us an opportunity to feel and see and hear Schwerner in that cul-de-sac too. His text, then, with the addition of Divagations, becomes a construction from which he too does not stand apart.

Above all else, The Tablets, as a conceptual site, represents Schwerner's deepest attempt to find a usable form--one that could accommodate what he knew (and what he didn't know), one that would be true to consciousness as we experience it. He writes,

The modern, accidental form of Sumero-Akkadian tablets provides me with a usable poetic structure. They offer, among other things, ways out of closures--which I find increasingly onerous--as well as the expansion of the syntactical girdle of English. They also invite spontaneous phonetic improvisations. The uses of the past, by means of these found archaic objects, are thus more than ironic and other than nostalgic. The context of sober translation creates a mode suitable for seductions by the disordered large which is the contemporary, and the narrative, which is out of honor in the most relevant modem poetry. The context also makes me feel comfortable in recreating the animistic, for which I have great sympathy[.] (134)

In fact, this may be a major contribution of modernism-extended by Schwerner's generation: a serious quest for (invented) usable forms. I think, for example, of Antin's talk-poems, or the various manifestations of Jerome Rothenberg's anthologies (as well as his marvelous "total translations"), and John Cage and Jackson Mac Low's variously constructed forms. This era of modernism-extended (from 1950 to the present) may indeed be characterized by a quest to create nontrivial forms that are responsive to a broad range of discoveries (in many fields) and to extend the range of knowable poetries. These practitioners of, to use David Antin's comprehensive term, "the language arts" make varieties of poetry that may offer a fit embodiment of the complexities of human consciousness. Antin in particular directs our attention to the centrality of collage as a formal principle in the art of this century. Works such as The Tablets seem to me to make the case for formal inventiveness itself--with collage as one key techniq ue but not necessarily as the most central--as the primary inherited activity (as much as any particular thematic or philosophical premise) from works such as The Waste Land, The Cantos, Paterson, and from the serial formal inventiveness of Gertrude Stein.

In the promotional materials that accompany The Tablets, a claim is made for Schwerner's work in relation to other great twentieth-century modernist poem-projects: "Worked on by Schwerner for over 30 years, The Tablets bears comparison to other great experimental sequences of our century: Pound's Cantos, Olson's Maximus poems, Williams's Paterson, Duncan's Passages, Zukofsky's "A"." While one might be tempted to argue with the list of "greatest hits," arguing for the inclusion of works such Ronald Johnson's ARK and George Oppen's Of Being Numerous, it is more important to observe that Schwerner's The Tablets demonstrates a profoundly different relationship to "source" materials. Also, in overcoming some of the ego-based "deficiencies" of earlier great modernist texts, there is in The Tablets a Buddhistic reticence, an ethical not-doing, that is both admirable and a serious limitation on Schwerner's work. Perhaps there is a valid desire not to fall prey to a kind of masculine, display-bravura (as found especi ally in some of Pound and Olson's writing). But Schwerner's ego-reticence, which, to some extent, gives way in Divagations, combined with his distrust of poetic craft-on-display, means that there are far fewer (recognizably) "beautiful" passages in his major work than in those of his modernist precursors.

Oddly, Schwerner's encounter with and presentation of "archaic" materials is in perfect harmony with (and even somewhat dependent upon) contemporary technology. As Arthur Sabatini suggests, "a convenient and not wholly irrelevant analogy for Schwerner's poetry, writings, and performances is a hypertext program for computers" (DLB, 244). Schwerner's work embraces this odd conjunction of the pictographic past with the hypertextual present, and his method of textual creation makes substantial use of the layout and design capabilities of the computer. As Sabatini concludes, "that one would need a hypertext program (or its image) to return one to the original energies of the body, voice, song, spirit, writing, and the performance of the self and others is an irony for which there is not resolution--except, perhaps, in the always elusive realm of poetry itself" (DLB, 252).

Schwerner differs in essential ways from his modernist precursors in his use of and relationship to source materials. He observes:

Eliot and Pound structured ironic and tragic commentaries by confronting past and present. Why not go further, I thought, and recreate the past itself, in a series of subjectively ordered variations suggestively rooted in the archaic? (134)

Schwerner adds another layer to his work through "the further invention of a scholar-translator," a "fictive but oppressively present self" (134). The combination of an imagined limitation upon the archaic text (in translation) and the limitations of the at times annoying scholar-translator constitute, in my opinion, the heart of the conceptual flaws of The Tablets. While Schwerner's conception allows him to avoid certain "errors" of his modernist kin, his own grand project (prior to the composition of Divagations) is, in different ways, hamstrung. Even so, Schwerner is aware of a prime virtue of his imagined, archaic text and its ongoing interpretation-as-text. Quite clearly, The Tablets embodies and illustrates a fundamental question: "To what degree is any poem a translation, or a thereness?" (134).

At the heart of Schwerner's project is a refreshing seriousness, a passion for a kind of metaphysical and ethical honesty. There is, as well, a subdued or somewhat covert sense of crisis that energizes the work. Schwerner believes that "Poetry, as game, as act of faith, as celebration, as commemoration, as epic praise, as lyric plaint, as delight in pattern and repetition--poetry is in trouble." To which he adds, "Not any more trouble than the Earth, concepts of nobility and sefflessness, senses of utility, hope" (135). For Schwerner, as for many other adventurous late-twentieth-century poets, our writing is situated within a serious crisis of representation. But Schwerner's sense of that crisis is much more encompassing than the aestheticized version that, in the name of a now old and quite standard but ever self-proclaiming "new" fragmentation, calls attention to the limitations of a self-expressive, conventionalized "realism." For Schwerner too, the cooptation and corruption of language (by advertising an d other modes of manipulation that cast into doubt one's ability to trust words) poses a threat and leaves him longing for "a new language, one that we cannot speak, may not be able to speak, unseizable, proliferating like the elementary particles in physics: no end to it: uncertain statistical places left from which to look at the negative-muons which are told by their uncertain traces" (136-137).

For Schwerner the complexity of adequate representation gets framed not so much in terms of an adequate picture or object but of an adequate medium for representing the dynamic interplay of mind and reality. For him, the central questions (and they are the defining questions for The Tablets as well) are:

How will the mind work? By the eidetic confrontation of the "real"? The real changes. By feeling through Cassirer's moving elaboration of the primitive ethos as "the consanguinity of all living things"? Intermittently at best, and with the edges of despair for being so irrevocably far. The real changes. (136)

A concluding passage of Tablet XXVII gives us a complex, ritualized version of that world-language-person-mind interchange for which we are a point of intersection:

so this world is the one it constitutes our food language-food we eat and we are translatable let's say equidistant from every point or we are a bloody loin of soul like them that's all right language-cannibal bait (123)

Like the complex inter-relationships that the passage registers and that The Tablets makes manifest, this particular passage is susceptible to many different readings as we decipher, interpret, translate, pull apart, reconstitute, and give voice to what goes with what.

It is, then, an odd faith that Schwerner brings to the poem, and to his poetic project: "Poetry is a body invested with rhythmic cells; it is neither the Way nor the object" (137). Particularly if one can resist the lure of using the poem as a site to display one's (personal) craft, mastery, or grace, the poem may become a treasured site for discovery. As Schwerner puts it, "The voices: the maker does not know the identity of a voice or many voices. They speak to him in a way he later discovers. The locus appears later" (136).

A governing anxiety of Armand's text stems from his own claim that "all concepts are misconceptions" (139). Such a position will inevitably produce a reticence about many modes of action, though concepts and forms can always be advanced as necessarily provisional and incomplete, or as ironized deeds (perhaps further ironized by the interpretive overlayering of the only partially insightful Scholar/Translator). Armand creates a large text that exists within an ancient dialectical tension: "The archaic pre-Christian antinomies of kenosis and plerosis, emptying and filling, characteristic of early Middle Eastern civilizations, served largely as a generalized and suggestive context" (138). I suppose that what I'm saying throughout this review amounts to little more than a complaint that kenosis got too much of an upper hand.

Clearly, Armand is perfectly aware of the hazards created by the recurring "interruptions" of the Scholar/Translator:

The pain I felt when I interrupted a lyric song by any of my unknown archaic speakers by intercalating--or rather by finding necessary the presence of--the S/T's discursive, often apparently irrelevant comments, often wrongheaded inventions which nevertheless brought the reader into a consideration of the essential ambiguities of syntax, grammar and translation, a kind of undependable groundlessness of appearance. I remember part of me would almost agree with a hearer's wish that I omit the S/T's commentary as unnecessarily clotting; I'd almost want to accede. But precisely such ambiguities, left somewhat to integrally radiate, is useful work done. The thing is, I wanted not to separate the song from the entropic world. This and that. (157)

Armand, then, retains an ethical and decisive commitment to the "realism" of the Scholar/Translator's interruptive function. My own critique is not directed strictly at the interruptive nature of the Scholar/Translator. The fact that all modes of writing in The Tablets--the Scholar/Translator's and the "original" imagined/fabricated archaic texts--are filtered through a preconceived limitation and a predetermined inadequacy leaves me hungry for the more author-empowered text that constitutes the concluding Divagations. I am interested finally in hearing Armand write and think (at his fullest--for even that fullness can be assumed to have its own qualities of incompleteness and emptying). Armand is a better poet than The Tablets shows. I know that that is a viewpoint that would have drawn his contempt--as having missed the point and nature of the text's creation. But, for me, too much of the intelligence and beauty of The Tablets exists outside the text itself--in the form, ethics, and wisdom of its compositio nal methodology--and not enough in the text itself, not enough in the primary text itself.

Having raised this objection, let me hasten to add that I am perfectly respectful of some of the sources and reasons for Armand's textual decisions, including Armand's fundamental subverting of any writing that would have an unmediated status as the "primary" or "original" text. The Tablets is very much a thinking about thinking. Like his friend David Antin--particularly in Meditations and in the three decades of talk-poems--Armand too draws on the work of Descartes, Montaigne, Pascal, and la Rochefoucauld as key predecessors. Like Antin, Schwerner explores how we think, and Armand is interested in making a writing that does not present thinking in a merely decorous, trivially accomplished, trivially "well-crafted," or formulaic manner.

There is immense glory in what The Tablets is. As Armand puts it in one of the most essential fragments: "[ldots] crossroads where biology, philosophy, linguistics[ldots]intersect" (147). For me, that intersection is greatly enhanced by the extraordinary meditation of the concluding (though not conclusive) Divagations. Among other things, Divagations is an intimate and tremendously intelligent meditation on a writer's life. Armand is beautifully lucid and honest about the forces at war within him: "There's a negative force within me that wants to stop writing this, to go elsewhere, to leave as in every sesshin I've ever suffered through, almost every group I've involved myself with" (144). Rather than valorizing the isolato or critiquing the superficialities of group identifications, Armand analyzes unsparingly his own complex (and mostly unfulfilled) needs for recognition:

The work on The Tablets was not the result of a "divine madness"; it involved clear thinking in radiant context of self-confidence and aloneness. Somehow, in some rock-bottom way I didn't care about the introjected authorities in my mind, the success-ghosts, the lyrics of reward-mongers--I cut through them. But I assumed there would be a worldly reward, a permanent order of recognition, a clear and continuous placement of my work in the critical adumbrations of the establishing world. To live awaredly in that world, no longer envisaging myself as say Emily or Melville in his last 30 dog years, is the outer mandala, the inner and secret ones potential. Fear's part of all mandalas; my fear of being out-there comes from a tactician's pettiness. Awareness of literary politics is not the same as craven submission; since I'm not craven, but thirsty for la gloire, I've sometimes elected withdrawal. (144-145)

In spite of my criticisms, The Tablets and Armand Schwerner clearly merit la gloire. Armand has said that his poetry "embodies the complex and obdurate persistencies of soul-making" (DLB, 250). Arthur Sabatini concludes that "The Tablets are spectacularly representative of Schwerner's learning and understanding, as well as his artistry, joy, and fearlessness" (250). At times, as I read Divagations, I feel like the adequate Scholar/Translator that I have longed for throughout The Tablets emerges in that final section. Perhaps the more annoying qualities of the Scholar/Translator get on our nerves because, in truth, the reader's consciousness is more similar to that S/T's fumbling efforts than to the more comprehensive (though ethically self-limiting) consciousness of the poet himself. As Michael Heller observes, "The Scholar/Translator seems to be performing our work, our questing, seeking to becalm himself by creating some form of tranquilizing story, some encompassing 'translation' of the archaic culture un der hand which will give him certainty by explaining the present" (T, 84). The final voice of Divagations--what I think of as the ruminations of a super-Scholar/Translator--offers readings and conjectures, interpretations and contextualizings that are wise, beautiful, and provocative. What emerges with this final publication of The Tablets is a kind of double palimpsest which includes the source-text and its multi-layered markings and translations along with the written-over journey of Schwerner's own remarkable career. As Sabatini concludes, "there is an intimate, felt voice throughout the text and an inescapable depth created by Schwerner's pursuits in this primordial, archetypal, spiritual, and artistic journey. In this dual sense, The Tablets are a palimpsest that reveal all the technical skills, themes, and intellectual concerns of Schwerner throughout his career" (252).

The Tablets represents one of the most important documents--called "poetry"--in the latter half of this century. It is a composition that is, in the words of the Scholar/Translator, a "sacred forgery" (98). The Tablets allows Armand simultaneously to affirm and to advance the project of ethnopoetics and, in ways that are complex, humorous, and subtle, to ironize that activity. It is also, as Michael Heller concludes, "one of the great ironic workings of the scholarly quest for self-knowledge, a masterwork of what we might call 'experimental scholarship'" (T, 83). For me, with the addition of Divagations, the flaw or error of an overly absolute erasure of self-immediacy gets beautifully corrected. Schwerner concludes by locating himself with us in the epistemological cul-de-sac of his great work. The Tablets thus takes its place beside a range of important poetry-archaeologies of this century which "play out some highly important, real, revelatory skirmishes of soul and dream and cultures" (T, 31). Finally, i t is a work that merits and rewards our extended consideration.


All passages for which there is only a page number (but no abbreviation) refer to Armand Schwerner, The Tablets (Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 1999).

DLB = Arthur Sabatini, "Armand Schwerner," Dictionary of Literary Biography 165 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1996): 242-253.

T = Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics # 19 (Winter 1998/99), Armand Schwerner Issue (pages 30-116), particularly Edward Foster, "An Interview with Armand Schwerner," 30-44; Michael Heller, "The Philoctetes and The Tablets," 82-85; Brian McHale, "Topology of a Phantom City: The Tablets as Hoax," 86-89.

Hank Lazer's most recent books include 3 of 10 (poetry, Chax Press, 1996), As It Is (poetry chapbook, Diaeresis, 1999), and Opposing Poetries (criticism, two volumes, Northwestern University Press, 1996). With Charles Bemstein, he edits the Modern and Contemporary Poetics series for the University of Alabama Press. He is Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Alabama.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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