Paul Buck

The Tablets I-XV

Armand Schwerner

The Tablets purport to be the poetical artifacts of a society approximating the Sumero-Akkadian of pre-biblical times, presented with notes and commentary by a modern ‘scholar-translator’, as Schwerner calls him. These comprise ‘the emptying’, a seasonal rite of fertility with Gnostic overtones (…).” Allen Planz continues: “The poems in The Tablets are themselves rude, funny, learned, barbarous, poignant elaborations of what just such a text might be; and into it fall our pre-conceptions and pre-occupations and yearnings about the primitive condition – ‘an uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor …’; and these are played upon, satirized, satisfied.” To elaborate, these texts are accomplished with (1) missing parts (represented by plus-signs), as well as passages (2) for which the ‘translator’ offers queried alternatives or ‘variant readings’, and (3) which he himself interpolates (within brackets) and (4) which parts he finds untranslatable (noted by lines of dots).


Schwerner approached it in another way in an interview on its origins in Vort. “And so one day I was sitting up there (in his study, at his desk, because ‘often things don’t happen at the desk’) [my addition] and for some reason (and I don’t know why) the idea came to do this gigantic trick. A trick with holes, but a trick with holes which would be of such a strange quality that it would at the same time constantly fall apart and at the same time pull itself together. It says in the Heart Sutra for instance – the Buddha says now here Chariputra emptiness is form and form is emptiness and there is no difference. It’s like the absolute paradox, the absolute identity of absolute opposites. That’s how I’m saying it now. And that’s what it seems to me I’m doing there.”


Or, as he writes at the end of Tablet VIII: “The reader who has followed the course of these Tablets to this point may find, upon looking back to Tablet 1 particularly, that I have been responsible for occasional jocose invention rather than strict archaeological findings. I now regret my earlier flippancy – an attitude characteristic of beginnings, a manifestation of the resistance a man often senses when he faces the probability of a terrific demand upon his life energy. 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 straining to produce these translations – desperately pushing to make available what I so wanted to keep secret and inviolable. In addition I am worried that I may have mistranslated part of the preceding Tablet, a combination of dialogue and narrative. How unsteady the ground I am plowing, walking on, measuring, trying to get the measure of.… 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 a fantasy sucks me into an abyss of almost irretrievable depression, from which only forced and unpleasurable exercises in linguistic analysis rescue me.”


The final collection, years later, gathering all twenty seven Tablets, also contains a CD of recordings of Schwerner’s vocalization of some of these Tablets. In the notes / ‘divagations’ in the final pages, Schwerner says that the scholar/translator might on occasion bear relation to the Celia and Louis Zukofsky sound translations of the poems of Catullus, which is indeed another great work worth seeking. Until recently I hadn’t taken note that Schwerner has his own roots in Belgium, in Antwerp, where he was born. Some people know their onions, he undoubtedly knows his mayonnaise and frites.


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