Guy De Bièvre
In December 1988, I had the pleasure to attend a performance/reading by Armand Schwerner, at the Logos Foundation in Ghent, Belgium, where I was employed at the time. Schwerner had aroused my curiosity from the his very first epistolary contact on. His letter was accompanied by excerpts from “Tablet” XXVII, illustrated with what looked like hieroglyphs to my inexperienced eye. But it was only during his performance on December 6 that things started to become somewhat clearer: the “Tablets” were imaginary, the scribe was imaginary, the narrator was imaginary. They were all layers of persona that Schwerner could inhabit at will, that gave him the opportunity to peruse a manifold of literary concepts.
Still, the presentation was such that most people in the audience, including myself, were confused about what they had been listening to; about the possible veracity of the texts or their origin. It was all so intricately constructed and convincingly performed, that it seemed almost impossible to have all been purely invented.
The next day I asked Armand if I could interview him about his work, because I wanted to know more and because I found it all so fascinating that I thought it would be sad to limit its local audience to the few people that attend performances and concerts of experimental work. The interview, which you can hear on the PennSound website, clarified a number of things and assessed the fact that it was all a remarkable invention indeed. I was a very naïve young man (I guess I am a naïve older man these days) at the time and in later years, especially after getting hold of the Tablets as they were published by the National Poetry Foundation, I wish I had another chance to question Armand. Alas, by then he had passed away. So I’m now left with the memorable encounter with a remarkable artist (the kind the average mortal gets to meet once or twice only in lifetime), with The Tablets and the recording of a number of them and Armand’s addendum: “The Tablets Journals/Divagations.”
Each time I reread The Tablets I discover new things. I came to compare the multi layered authorship (“Who is talking?”) in some way with the multiple poet-persona of Fernando Pessoa, allowing him to express himself in different styles. From “Tablet” to “Tablet” Schwerner would also tackle various genres. They clearly gave him freedom to do things which would not make sense within one uniform oeuvre. For instance “Tablet” VIII reads like a song, while “Tablet” XIV (“[…] siren me a road father. try to die, envelope goat tripe. explode, coast pie, go below.[…]”) has something of a beat rant not unlike some of Ginsberg’s work.
On another level reading The Tablets is like attending a pathological poetry dissection. The Tablets are larded with “missing” (+++++), “untranslatable” (…….) and confusing segments, and variant readings provided by the “scholar/translator”. But however strange at first lecture, they seem to be existing, without being explicitly noted, in most, especially contemporary poetry. Missing, untranslatable and confusing is what discerns a lot of poetry from prose.
Leave the +++++ and the ….. out of The Tablets and you will be looking at somehow more straightforward poetry. One of the nicer examples of this is the end of “Tablet” XXV where the last word is separated from the rest of the text by 6 “untranslatable” (……….) lines. Leave out the dots and it reads:
[…] ah the ground yesterday
On the other hand, the “Utterance/Texture/Indicators” and the “Mind/Texture/Determinatives” are wonderful inventions, ideal tools for Gestalt poetry analysis. I am a musician, at the consuming end of literature, not a poet, but my guess would be that these tools could be compared to what composer James Tenney gave the contemporary music world in his book “Meta/Hodos”.
Armand Schwermer was born in Antwerp, Belgium (in 1926) and lived here 6 years before emigrating to the US. But it is long enough to make him my favorite Belgian poet.