To look at the sea is to become what one is by Etel Adnan

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I’m always surprised by the freshness of perspective to be found in Etel Adnan’s work. Born in 1925, she’s approaching her ninetieth year yet her writing continually experiences rebirth by way of ever new juxtaposition of idea and image. She relentlessly pursues a truth that isn’t over delineated by any set expectation or otherwise predetermined endpoint. It is instead set by the perception of the immediate act of writing itself. Her work remains explorative in nature: asking questions rather than representing any fixed display of talent or skill. She probes the means and measures of our common understanding, testing the bounds of what’s real. To read her work is to take part in a constant process of discovery that is at once beautifully startling, if at times also unsettling.

While the speaker(s) in Adnan’s work often appear autobiographical in nature this is not always strictly the case. Rather she intuitively immerses herself into the experience of the writing at hand, assuming whatever perspective is called for, whether that be man, woman, rock, or body of water and air. Adnan unselfishly pursues the exact environmental layering of consciousness required for addressing the immediate concerns of the work. Elements of this tendency are identifiably present in her earliest of writing included here.

Body of space swelling as woman after death
body of space beaten opened up in tracks in wounds
dripping with clouds

(from “A Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut”)

Whether events depicted are actual or imagined—is there a difference? Adnan’s work often seems suggest there is not—matters little. There’s a direct correlation of the senses, a transferal of what’s happening in the moment of perception resulting in a self-identifying between reader, text, and experience. As a poet of the senses she would but learn what the processes occurring around her have to offer.

The universe is my obsession:
the sea and the sun are
forever mating.
(from “An Alley of Linden Trees, and Lighting …”)

All of Adnan’s writings situate the reader within an interaction between the viewing subject and her surroundings, noting the interaction of thought and being, the physical language of things intruding through the depiction of the setting described.

Here I am, fallen from high into a yellowish excavation under a greyish sky. It doesn’t lead to happiness. Paris is a snare. We’re no foxes or rabbits: if we were, we would have escaped, or died. We do neither. Our dying is imperceptible. All people in buses are dying organisms. Some have reproduced themselves, some have not, like pigeons, fat and dark, birds of no good tidings. The weather is stormy. Something will burst. We’re moving towards something which does not exist. The voyage is infinite. The passenger is not.
(from Paris When It’s Naked)

Included here, after the short introduction by editors Thom Donovan and Brandon Shimoda, is Ammiel Alcalay’s “‘A Dance of Freedom’: In the Worlds of Etel Adnan” which in part charts the biographical course of Adnan’s life travels, intimating the correspondence existing between them and the hybrid nature of her work which keeps a sense of geographical place at its center.

For Adnan, the journey to understanding alienation and locating the body’s revolution would be long and intricate, leading from the Middle East and Europe to the Far West of the United States, and back and forth between these poles, in place, language, and form.

Adnan has lived many lives it seems. She’s moved between languages and cultures and loves and spent an equal amount of time traveling back through each again. It is in part through her roving exile she’s found her identity as poet. As she states in “To Write in a Foreign Language”:

Do I feel exiled? Yes I do. But it goes back so far, it lasted so long, that it became my own nature, and I can’t say I suffer too often from it. There are moments when I am even happy about it. A poet is, above all, human nature at its purest. That’s why a poet is as human as a cat is a cat or a cherry tree is a cherry tree. Everything else comes “after.” Everything else matters, but also sometimes does not matter. Poets are deeply rooted in language and they transcend language.

Her writing moves as readily amongst geographies as between standard representations of prose and poetry, mixing discourses from the philosophical to the literary to the journalistic. In the same manner, her visual artwork mirrors her writing, indeed at points the two are found to frequently intersect.

A central text in this regard is Journey to Mount Tamalpais where Adnan’s watercolors of Tamalpais appear beside meditative prose entries. In addition to these water colorings she has reeled off dozens of paintings of the Bay Area landmark over the years. Her Tamalpais prose reveals a self-interrogation regarding the nature of what draws her to the subject.

I make paintings and watercolors of Tamalpais. Again and again. Why do I insist? Am I trying to hold some image, to capture some meaning, to assert its presence, to measure myself to its timelessness, to fight, or to accept?

I think often of Cezanne and Hokusai, of their relation to their mountain, and of mind. I know by experience, by now, that no subject matter, after a while, remains just a subject matter, but becomes a matter of life and death, our sanity resolved by visual means. Sanity is our power of perception kept focused. And it is an open ended endeavor.

But I can ever understand what Cezanne says in Mont Sainte-Victoire, and Hokusai in Mount Fuji, if, after thirty years, I don’t know what Tamalpais means to me beyond the sketches, paintings and writings that involved me with her. I know that the process of painting and writing gives me the implicit certitude, carries the implicit certitude of what the Mountain is and of what I see: I perceive a nature proper to her while I work.

Tamalpais has an autonomy of being. So does a drawing of it. But they are mysteriously related.

Elsewhere in her tribute to the small mountain she asks, “So who can paint the weather?” As might equally be asked, who can write it? Yet Adnan certainly comes close in a number of her poems, including in lines from Fog such as these:

There’s malady in
 the air
the waters are temporarily

Adnan is continually questioning the ineffable qualities of the relationship between tactile sense and intellectual understanding, between thought and feeling, experience and the reflection upon that experience. Her writing is self-generative more often than not leading her to compose works which of their own necessity are book-length in nature. There is no containing what needs to be expressed in fewer lines, or less pages, the writing simply requires considerable length to significantly enough sound out all the ground it must cover.

There are numerous occasions within Adnan’s writing where political lines are drawn. She’s on the side of the displaced, the bombed out, those scattered across the diaspora: the ones left behind and ground down by oppressive, larger-than-life forces of power. Whether it be as expressed in the voice of a Viet Cong soldier in “The Enemy’s Testament” written during the Vietnam Era: “I sent my brain to your center for research / so they could see what made me fight” and “I sent my eyes to your President / so they can look him in the face” Or in these fiercely defiant accusatory lines found in “The Beirut-Hell Express”: “the dead are coming back in order to fight again / because the living are cowards!” Adnan’s writing is dedicated to refusing allow a whitewashing of history’s transgressions against the powerless or weak.

The inclusion of five articles from her time working as journalist in Lebanon for the paper Al Safa provides opportunity to witness her approaching these matters just as effectively from outside the poetic lens. For instance, “In Honor of the Algerian Revolution November 1, 1972” provides example of her bitingly accurate use of dark-tinged humor: “One could say that revolutions end up in either cocktails or betrayals: after all, the Nixon-Mao Zedong handshake is the Hitler-Stalin one—with a few, rather minimal, differences.” As well as her resolute desire for a different future from an ever present, painfully tragic endured reality:

The revolution is the idea of an Arabian awakening: the idea that Arabs can neither fight, nor self-organize, is no longer valid. One million Algerians died so that one hundred million Arabs would feel less ashamed of having missed the train of History, and so that they might dare to hope catch up to it even, and jump on board.

etel_c_geordie_martinez_2008Adnan is driven by writing’s revolutionary potential to realize actualities on the page which reverberate well beyond the appearance of any singularly isolated text. Reading her work is an education in consciousness-raising which never berates or chides. It simply encourages necessary resilience.

Cole Swensen’s afterword “Etel Adnan: The Word In and By Exile” contains a revealing insight into Adnan’s poetic practice. Swensen describes the unusual balancing Adnan accomplishes of what would be for most other poets unavoidably opposing approaches, divided along lines of poems being driven by either form or content. Adnan merges extremes of each in a surprisingly complementary manner.

It’s the edge both of content and form, which, at this limit, often cannot be distinguished, but if they were to be, we’d find her content right at the edge of political safety, often overstepping it, and her form balancing right on the edge of grammatical and syntactical incomprehensibility. Adnan often seems to separate them, riding each edge separately in order to better address two actually quite different cultural and political concerns: content comes to the fore in relation to political crises, such as the Lebanese Civil War or the ongoing Palestinian deracination, and in such cases, she often employs a powerful, strongly visual, direct language, while at the other end of the continuum, when form is foregrounded, when she’s addressing the machine of language, refining and upgrading it, she operates at a level of grammar and syntax, disrupting, dismembering, and thereby working it toward a more flexible, more nuanced mode of expression, yet the separation is not as clean as it appears, for even at the extremes of linguistic reconstruction, her manipulation and dismemberment of language echo the social and political dismemberment that she faithfully and tirelessly records.

Compare the previously quoted lines from poems and articles in Al Safa to some stanzas from Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse:

the sun’s tentacles Africa on fire STOP Arabs and Blacks are stabbed HOU !

an Apocalyptic sun explodes I hear the cracking of bones
a mercenary sun in love with the Jungle warms the snakes
blue bath blood is pouring over the BUSH like a nocturnal Opera


the sun is an opera STOP morbid singers are climbing down the stairs
a sun yellow and soft. the sun is bald like a hot afternoon


defeated androgyne androgynous sun clear androgyne
they’re biting their swords to rip children and immigrants


Impossible to reproduce here are the frequent sun icons hand drawn (a second time for their appearance in this collection) which appear with great frequency throughout lines of the poem. Every line an urgent message full of fury, confusion, surreal vision, and abundant passion directed outwards at a not so unrealizable world. The sentiments, values, and experience attested are so vividly imminent it as if the ink were scored out upon the page, gouging its way into the eyes of the reader.

Adnan has written the majority of her published work from her forties onward. As to look at the sea is to become what is: An Etel Adnan Reader attests, she’s enjoyed a blossoming as a poet of first rank much later in life than most. I’ve read Adnan’s work for many years and heard her read in person on one or two occasions but the weight of this biographical fact concerning her output somehow never struck me until looking through this gathering. The trajectory of her writing across the span of her life climbs in complete contradiction to the popular perception of “the poet’s arc”. There is no youthful voice, no breakthrough moment. No single major work. There are simply a series of major works which are all reproduced here in whole. Adnan’s writing embodies equally significant milestones illuminatingly fresh in both spiritual (bodily) and aesthetic (intellectual) realms. This collection contains nearly if not all of her essential work to date, it is without doubt a groundbreaking roll call stridently feminist and anti-war to its core. If you want an intercultural poet hero look no further.

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →