Armand Schwerner: Hall of mirrors, an auto-Dialogue, with accompanying tribute
[The following dialogue or auto-conversation was salvaged from Schwerner’s notebooks by Mark Weiss & previously unpublished. The most recent version of The Tablets, mentioned throughout this commentary, was published by the National Poetry Foundation, Orono, Maine, in 1999 – a necessary modern/postmodern work & still readily available.]
December 14, 1991
S.A.: You mirror me.
A.S.: You humor me.
S.A.: Inside this glass case there's an ancient Chinese mirror. I can only see the back of it, which is well worth seeing. On the back is the world mountain, rough terrain, terraces and plateaus, levels. It reaches to the clouds.
A.S.: The back is not shiny.
S.A.: I can't turn it over, locked in the case as it is. But I think I could climb it. I see shadows.
A.S.: I see myself.
S.A.: I see black wings.
A.S.: I see a fedora hat.
S.A.: I'm blinded by a flash of light.
A.S.: A glass of lightning? How do you explain it?
S.A.: It's something in my left leg, in the marrow.
A.S.: (He has a large bone and is sucking it and making loud sucking noises)
S.A.: Do you see the search light? The brightness is full of cracking sounds.
A.S.: I don't hear a thing. I've got my leg stuck in something sticky.
S.A.: I'm sorry. Do you think it will walk by itself?
A.S.: Marzipan, spelunking territorial ferrets again.
S.A.: Let's go to the zoo.
(The scene changes to a zoo; the cages are made of glass. A monkey is looking out at them)
S.A.: This isn't what I had in mind.
A.S.: Too obvious. Metaphors have a way of falling into clichés.
S.A.: Do you think we could get something to drink?
A.S.: Not if water is falling.
S.A.: Never mind. That monkey is making me thirsty.
A.S.: I'll never understand the sound of scratching.
S.A.: Think of it as chanting or a sort of intermittent drone.
A.S.: That drone is made of glass.
S.A.: Then I can fill it with water and quench my thirst.
A.S.: An astounding thing just happened to me.
S.A.: A standing stone?
A.S.: A stand in foam.
S.A.: A wing in a glass, that's what I was trying to say.
A.S.: All along.
(They are back in the museum again, surrounded by glass cases)
S.A.: I can see myself in all these glass cases.
A.S.: The mirror stage.
(They are in a theater completely built of mirrors, even the curtains are made of reflective material)
A.S.: The potential to be dazzled is not lost. I'll breathe more easily now.
S.A.: Will you play some music now or recite a verse?
A.S.: I want to lie down in the grass.
S.A.: This field of glass is sharp and fallow.
A.S.: Not if you green it. I'll show you how. Shall we dance?
S.A.: I've forgotten the steps.
(They are both limping. Words appear in several mirrors. They are backwards and some are from exotic and ancient languages)
S.A.: Read to me.
A.S.: This act of translation is bothersome. I'll have to take off my shoes.
S.A.: Your feet. . .I'm astonished.
A.S.: Yes, they are rather large now, and still growing. It's taken me years to learn how.
S.A.: Could I grow feet too? Starting now.
A.S.: Your feet have odd bumps and pustules. Where did you get them?
S.A.: The usual place.
A.S.: You'll have to return them or take them in for repair.
S.A.: I'm losing track of the words.
A.S.: Choosing rack of lamb? Snoozing crack of dawn? Oozing slick oysters?
S.A.: What's for dinner?
* * * * * * *
A fish can only swim. If a poem is a fish it must discover that swimming’s what it does. (A.S.) And again: 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.
But trouble relished & defied by incorporating these different modalities into one multiphasic oeuvre by Schwerner, a lyric poet of epic ambitions — as well as a trained musician (he studied improvisation with Lennie Tristano) & a major figure in ethnopoetics. As behooves these (postmodern) times he is a poet of many voices — “palimpsestic,” writes Paul Christensen, “his voice ... one whose depths shimmer with other voices, his mouth issuing language it conduits in from the past or the ‘outside’ and uses as its own speech. ... The voices overlay one another like the strata of various civilizations.” For this — in his long ongoing work (beginning: circa 1968), The Tablets — he creates an open-ended book or series of fictive translations, modelled on the fractured “accidental” form in which old Sumerian & Babylonian cuneiform writings have come down to us & accompanied by a “scholar-translator’s” commentaries that are at once — as Schwerner tells it — “more than ironic and other than nostalgic.” What this highwire act of mixed high comedy & profound seriousness foregrounds is (Schwerner again) “the delicate complex balance between performance, which recognizes the otherness of audience, and individual lyric or narrative or philosophical poetic utterance, which lives in another dimension.” The Tablets are an attempt, suggests Kathryn van Spanckeren, “to recreate archaic art not as metaphor but as given psychological process and concrete/phenomenological reality,” while simultaneously deconstructing classical Western notions of selfhood & unitary consciousness in favor of (Christensen again) “a version of consciousness that is alarmingly unpossessive and entangled in other people’s minds.” The auto-conversation, above, is a singular instance of his mind at play.