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Norman Finkelstein reviews

Armand Schwerner

Armand Schwerner, Selected Shorter Poems. San Diego, Junction Press, 1999. 142 pp. $16.00.

Armand Schwerner, The Tablets. Orono, ME, National Poetry Foundation, 1999. 158 pp. + CD. $19.95.


Published just months after Armand Schwerner's death on February 4, 1999, the Selected Shorter Poems and the first complete edition of The Tablets together constitute a testament to one of the most important linguistic innovators of the late twentieth century. Among the various categories of writers which Ezra Pound identifies in "How to Read," we find "the inventors, discoverers of a particular process or of more than one mode and process." Schwerner was just such an inventor. Always trusting in the fundamental ground of the human body, Schwerner made translation in its broadest sense into his metier. With his colleagues in the ethnopoetics movement, he (re)discovered the poetic potential in the anthropologist's study of native cultures and languages, in the synchronicity of the archaic and the modern.

Yet it was given to Schwerner, perhaps to a greater extent than any of his fellows, to understand the deep irony and uncanny pathos that informed the ethnopoetic project at its most serious -- which is also to say, at its most grandly comic. Schwerner embraced the universalizing spirit of ethnopoetics -- the dream of total translation, total performance, total synchronicity -- while at the same time implicitly acknowledging its impossibility. The Tablets is his brilliant monument to this realization, but its step by step progress can be seen in his shorter poems as well, many of them as technically accomplished and beautiful as the best parts of his long work. Schwerner's poetry, from his early work in The Lightfall (1963), (if personal) (1968), and Seaweed (1969), and on through the various editions of The Tablets, presents a great range of forms and procedures. But what is to be found consistently, both on the page and in Schwerner's extraordinary readings, is the underlying assumption that language, particularly spoken language, embodies a kind of primacy which, when discovered anew (a discovery which is to be made endlessly), can restore a fundamental sense of wonder to human existence.


Armand Schwerner Part of this wonder is derived from the nature of the poetic process. As Schwerner explains, "The made thing, poem, artifact, product, will appear to the maker as Other and yet give the pleasure of recognition, to breed other discoveries. The voices of the made thing, poem, object, need no ascription by the maker. He does not know the necessary identity of a voice or many voices. They speak him in a way he later discovers. The locus appears later" (Tablets 131). This statement pulls together a number of the most important aspects of ethnopoetics as an original artistic tendency -- original in Pound's sense of "make it new" and original in the sense of a return to origins. When Schwerner describes the artifact's confronting the maker as an Other, he reflects a typically postmodern scepticism regarding the unitary self and its expression in the poem. The current notion that language speaks us, rather than vice versa, is likewise found in the image of unknown voices speaking the poet. But the sense of otherness that obtains between subject and utterance is also very ancient, going back to the shaman's trance, the possession of the tribal poet by a god, ancestral spirit, or totemic power. But whether one regards the phenomenon from an archaic or postmodern perspective, it is clear that what the maker fashions is not self-expressive or experiential in any conventional sense. And as Schwerner further asserts, "there is no nuclear self" (Tablets 130).

Because poetic form is experienced as both recognition and otherness, it is magical or uncanny. In Schwerner's work, this linguistic quality is most apparent in those texts that rehearse the spoken word, such as the early "Poem at the Bathroom Door by Adam":

push-car woman do you love me
watch woman do you love me
iron woman do you love me
bye woman do you love me
happy woman do you love me
store woman do you love me
bird with a heart in his mouth and a kiss in his mouth
present woman do you love me
ask woman do you love me
that's all I can think of (Selected 52)
In this poem, the speech act of Schwerner's young son takes on, as the boy's names appropriately implies, the adamic quality of primal naming. The chant-like quality of the verse, the use of repetition and variation, and the play of parts of speech, are not only qualities of the child's language, but are reminiscent of the poetry of "primitive" cultures as well. Rather than sentimentalize either the child-like or the primitive, however, the poem enacts the oral immediacy which the poet finds so valuable.


This same sense of immediate connectedness -- of sincerity, that quality so valued by Objectivists such as Zukofsky and Oppen, whom Schwerner knew personally -- is also to be felt when the poet uses the first-person pronoun. Note how the equally important Objectivist quality of precision comes into play in these stanzas from "the passage," one of my favorites in the Selected Shorter Poems:

I find eight raspberries, the last
of their season, along the high grass path
surprise of blueberries I eat
as I go

and vetch I now recognize, that Baker showed me,
half-inch long wild peas, three
tiny peas, tear the pod
carefully, watch the pressure at the seam

I practice the touch, four yellow warblers
fly into the brush
Girl sniffs along behind me, I think
of Corson Ave. she visited

this world by the ocean
is a grounding, deep auburn hair
of the seaweed I touch, I miss you
in this magic yard . . . (111-112)
The intimacy of these lines extends from the "grounding" natural world to the absent lover, whose "deep auburn hair"is transformed into the seaweed through the graceful but surprising enjambment. These are the sorts of moves one finds repeatedly in Schwerner's more lyric poems, as in this brief passage from the serial poem "sounds of the river Naranjana":
for a week watch the river Naranjana flowing
for a week, walk, and for a week watch
the bark of the balsam fir. now
the red-wing lights on it. now
the river eddies, now when you walk you walk.
(Selected 115)
Here, the epistemological and phenomenological concerns of Objectivism coincide with Schwerner's extensive studies of Buddhism, as the speaking voice becomes that of a sage instructing us on the path of enlightenment, an experience of the totality in and of every present moment.


But Schwerner's understanding of cultural change and historical rupture is too deep, too vexing, to allow him to rest content within the moment, even a moment that may lead to enlightenment. Remote, archaic, or primitive cultures are never idealized in Schwerner's work, nor does the apparent synchronicity of belief or experience, the shared instant when the boundary of self and other dissolves, remain unexamined. This is one of the great themes of The Tablets, a work that, genealogically, goes back further than almost any other exercise in ethnopoetics.

The deepest of deep parodies, The Tablets is a sort of Joycean hoax: a sequence of texts which purports to be translations of Sumerian/Akkadian clay tablets more than 4,000 years old. Riddled with signs indicating untranslatable or missing passages, filled with notes and speculations in a variety of real and fictive, living and dead languages, The Tablets is presented as the work of the "Scholar/Translator," an eccentric, perhaps even mad figure in constant dialogue with the voices of the archaic past, as well as with the equally strange tradition of research from which he comes. Much of the weird humor of the work arises from the manic discrepancies between the Scholar/Translator's observations and the material he has managed to decipher with varying degrees of certainty. This fundamental lack of temporal and discursive stability distinguishes The Tablets from other literary works of an "archaeological" nature: as Brian McHale notes in "Archaeologies of Knowledge: Hill's Middens, Heaney's Bogs, Schwerner's Tablets" we are never presented with the "archaeological primal scene."

McHale explains: "Nowhere in The Tablets are we shown the translator actually confronting the artifacts (the clay tablets or cylinder seals, or a photo of them); at most we hear him discoursing about them. Rather, it is we readers who enact the primal scene every time we look into The Tablets, every time we turn its pages, for the translated tablets are themselves the artifacts, or as close as anyone will ever come to them. No need to represent the encounter with an artifact when the text itself is that artifact" ("Archaeologies of Knowledge: Hill's Middens, Heaney's Bogs, Schwerner's Tablets," New Literary History 30.1 [Winter 1999]). It is this quality that leads Rachel Blau DuPlessis to observe that as the work develops, The Tablets reflects the evolving concerns of the ethnopoetics movement, from "the search for origins or primary emotional and cultural ground" to "the nature, functions, ideologies, and interests at stake in the transmission and the transmitter" ("Armand Schwerner," Sulfur 11.2 [Fall 1991]).

In the "Journals/Divagations" appended to The Tablets, Schwerner himself discusses the form of his major work, explaining its attraction for him, and by implication, its importance for ethnopoetics in general:

The modern, accidental form of Sumero-Akkadian tablets provides me
with a usable poetic structure.  . . .  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 mode suitable for seductions by the disordered large which is the contemporary, and the narrative, which is out of honor in the most relevant modern poetry. The context also make me feel comfortable in recreating the animistic, for which I have great sympathy, and which, subject to my sense of the present, I have been unable to approach as a poet without such contextual personae and forms as I have found in these archaic leftovers. (Tablets 134)
Through the temporal warpings ofThe Tablets, the literal shards of an animistic civilization that existed thousands of years in the past, Schwerner constantly reminds us of the founding cultural dialectic of the sacred and the profane. Body and spirit veer about and collide in the text in ways that continually expose the inadequacy of modern religious thought regarding our somatic being. From Tablet V:
is the man bigger than a fly's wing?          what pleasure!
is he much bigger than a fly's wing?         what pleasure!
is his hard penis ten times a fly's wing?         what pleasure!
is his red penis fifteen times a fly's wing?         what [pleasure]!
is his mighty penis fifty times a fly's wing?         what pleasure!
does his penis vibrate like a fly's wing?         what terrific pleasure! (23)
For Schwerner, this is "not poetry as obeisance to the sacred, but as a creation of it in all its activity; not as an appeal for its survival in spite of a corrosive sense that the sacred is lost, but as a movement which itself might add its own small measure to reality" (Tablets 130). How does the sacred arise out of the profane, how does the profane enhance our sense of the sacred? How does this dialectic contribute to our sense of reality? Consider the opening lines of Tablet VIII:
go into all the places you're frightened of
and forget why you came, like the dead

what should I look for?
what should I do? where?
aside from you, great Foosh,
who is my friend? a little stone,
a lot of dirt, a terrible headache
and more than enough worry about my grave. Hogs
will swill and shit on me, men
will abuse me (29)
Part prayer and part kvetch, this passage resonates with an existential melancholy worthy of very differerent Jewish writers like Bellow or Malamud, but supposedly precedes even Job or Ecclesiastes by many centuries. At the beginning of Tablet VI, we are informed that "Foosh" is the last in a long list of ridiculous names (including "Sore-Ass-Mole-Face-Snivel-Kra," "Anxious-Liar-Fart-Flyaway ," and "The Porous Poppycock"), though "we have no information about the identity of the addressee; anger and ridicule are directed toward some immanent power which keeps changing its attributes" (25). No wonder then that the speaker in Tablet VIII is so distraught! From the tone of the address, Foosh is, in all likelihood, some sort of deity, and there is a note of intimacy in the passage that is reminiscent of a patriarch's or prophet's speech with God in the Hebrew Scriptures. But if this god's attributes keep changing, then a sense of uncertainty enters into the life of the speaker, leaving him with nothing but headaches, worry, and abuse.


It is at such points that one feels the modernity of The Tablets, and not merely in the anxieties of its ancient speakers. "[T]he right words wait in the stone / they'll discover themselves as you chip away" declares the voice in Tablet VIII: writing becomes the means through which the speaker deals with his worries, and finding himself "getting stiff" in a "cold place," he composes a poetic curse ("this curse / better work" he cries) to free himself:

If you step on me
may your leg become green and gangrenous
and may its heavy flow of filth
stop up your eyes forever, may your face
go to crystal, may your meat be glass
in your throat and your fucking
fail. If you lift your arms in grief
may they never come down and you be known
as Idiot Tree and may you never die (30)
And so it goes for another three stanzas: surely one of the funniest send-ups of "the primitive" in the entire body of ethnopoetics. Yet Schwerner's Sumerian/Akkadian curse (along with the hymns, love songs, plaints, meditations, and other speech-acts found throughout The Tablets) is charged with the urgency of the fully lived moment, however remote in time. It is a moment when rhetoric counts, when poetry comes as close as possible to magic in the power it is believed to hold over reality.

Schwerner does not relegate this sense of the magical to the primitive or the archaic alone, however, and this is one of The Tablets' greatest strengths. In his note following Tablet VIII, the Scholar/Translator reflects on the course of his work:
Looking back myself to that first terrific meeting with these ancient poems,
I can still sense the desire to keep them to myself all the while I was strain-
ing to produce these translations -- desperately pushing to make available
what I so wanted to keep secret and inviolable.  . . .  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. Do I take advantage of the present
unsure state of scholarly expertise? On occasion it almost seems to me as if
I am inventing this sequence, and such fantasy sucks me into an abyss of
almost irretrievable depression, from which only forced and unpleasurable
exercises in linguistic analysis rescue me. (31-32)
The Scholar/Translator's fantasy is true, of course: not only is the sequence an invention, but he himself, forced into unpleasurable linguistic exercises, is an invention as well. Schwerner's metafictional fun with his character is one indication that the magical power of writing holds even in the realm of "objective" modern scholarship. Like the scribes and librarians of Kafka and Borges who are his closest kin, the Scholar/Translator is fanatically devoted to a text which is his world; the book is the scholar's author, rather than the scholar authoring the book. The ambiguity which the Scholar/Translator experiences is derived from this intricately folded condition of fiction and reality, creator and creation, past and present, magic and science, original and translation.

It is this last dichotomy, fundamental to the Scholar/Translator's identity, that puts such a strain on this figure. The Scholar/Translator regards it as his responsibility to translate, and thereby "make available" to a general readership, or at least to other experts in the field, a set of texts that he regards as "secret and inviolable." By the time we reach Tablet XXVI (subtitled "From the Laboratory Teachings Memoirs of the Scholar/Translator"), it has dawned on the Scholar/Translator that "I am involved in the process of formation of the canon of this sacred material" (95). To what extent is he the rational scientist engaged in the objective study of these artefacts, and to what extent is he an initiate into the sacred truths which they may contain? At what point does the modern student of the sacred participate in the practice of the sacred? And given what we have seen of the Tablets and the world from which they come, where does ritual end and poetry begin?

"I would also call attention," notes the Scholar/Translator, "to the power of the unsullied literary imagination evident in the texts which are the objects of my studies, a power generously evident in the work of the so-called scribes, who were of course redactors, a vector we usually ignore. Thus often the line between redactor and author is hard to draw" (71). From author to redactor to Scholar/Translator to Schwerner, the poet himself pulling all the strings: the lines become increasingly hard to draw, but "the power of the unsullied literary imagination"deconstructs the binarisms that structure Schwerner's masterpiece.

Or as Schwerner observes, "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?)" (132).

Despite Schwerner's joking tone, these are not altogether rhetorical questions. The uncanny symbiosis of prose to poetry, commentary and text, present to past, that intensifies as the sequence proceeds indicates that in The Tablets, these distinctions exist so as to be subsumed by the maker's art. Yet that art of poesis, both original inscription and inventive commentary, seems always to be in crisis. In Tablet XXVI, a figure called "the blind artificer" emerges out of a welter of (computer-generated) pictographs, and we hear one of the most poignant laments to emerge from Schwerner's ancient world:
When I was young they would praise
just about all I'd say, as if I breathed
with them; my times are bad, the past is a joke,
former admirers hound me, alone and treed

what's left of my ties with them who
praised anything out of my mouth -- my voice
now that life floors me and they cut
my best song, seeing what, lies?

what we had together is lost; they praised me once
for any language at all; I'm now to fall,
now in my troubles; my merit is my seeing,
their hate infects my days (90)
"[T]he oracle / turns dunce" (90) says this poet-prophet of himself, but even as he mourns the loss of his visionary power, his lyricism reaches across the millenia, edging The Tablets away from satire to an increasingly elegiac register. The powers he represents, the powers his civilization have posited as truths, are perceived to be failing; faced with his apparent death, the process of cultural meaning falls away and a mournful voice declares that "The abyss is a hope / Yawning between mouth and star" (91).

Schwerner understands that the same is true for his contemporaries as well. As he says of his poor Scholar/Translator in a conversation with Willard Gingerich, "The S/T has an inclination towards meaning, but he's got a problem which he avows covertly and indirectly and with pain. He has a suspicion that his inclination towards meaning must find other paths from those he has been given by his own modes of scholarship and research, his own culture, his own theological antecedents. And that's the main problem; that's also the problem of Western civilization . . ." ("Armand Schwerner: An Interview," American Poetry Review 24.5 [September/October 1995]). What is remarkable about Schwerner is that he may have found one means of addressing this problem, that he may have an alternative path.

-- Norman Finkelstein


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