Presenting engagements (including reviews) of poetry books & projects. Some issues also offer Featured Poets, a "The Critic Writes Poems" series, and/or Feature Articles.

Saturday, May 2, 2015



To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader (2 vol. set), Eds. Thom Donovan and Brandon Shimoda
(Nightboat Books, Callicoon, New York, 2014)

(DP = Deborah Poe; JBR = John Bloomberg-Rissman)

DP: My father was a pilot. I dream of flying. One of my close friends in Seattle is passionate about amateur astronomy and space exploration.  In February 2013, I went on a trip to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. One exhibit showcased bizarre and enormous portrait paintings of Russian dogs that went to space. A favorite read of mine during the last five or so years was Brandon Shimoda’s O Bon in which Shimoda nods to Adnan’s work (such resonances there). One of my handmade books was in the New York City exhibit of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here in 2013 at the Center for Book Arts. All of these things undoubtedly were with me as I approached Etel Adnan’s Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut at the Whitney Biennial in the spring of 2014.

Susan Howe’s Tom Tit Tat was actually the first project in the realm of book arts that caught my eye on the floor devoted mostly, it seemed, to mixed media experiments. But it was Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut that blew me away. Adnan’s Funeral was the most interesting work there in my view, and I spent most of my time with this piece.

Adnan created the accordion-fold book, or leporello, handwritten in ink. Space ship, eye, planets, rocket trails, and evocative spherical shapes in watercolor launch forward from behind the text.

(Click to enlarge)

When John Bloomberg-Rissman asked if I would like to collaboratively write this piece on Adnan’s landmark two-volume edition, I was energized by the idea. My own experiences in moving every few years, while growing up in a military family, have made me sensitive to questions around cultural identity, home and belonging. I felt like the show at the Whitney was my first real introduction to Adnan’s work, and Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut struck me as thoroughly invested in those questions: cultural identity and hybridity, the politics of geography, and the relationship of colonization and imperialism to “home.”

I do not think it an accident that Adnan includes California to place the piece and to remind us of our country’s bloody inheritance by way of colonialism and imperialism—an ugly contradiction presented as a supposed multicultural melting pot replete with possibility in achieving the American Dream, and the racism and ethnocentricism that goes hand-in-hand with American exceptionalism.

But I get ahead of myself. One of the things that interests me most about Funeral is how Adnan traverses the literal and figurative on the page, which for me parallels the conceptual drives of the piece. Inventively she weaves the concrete with the metaphorical. Adnan acknowledges the material conditions of cultural identity, the cultural politics of difference relative to place, and the relationship of colonization to home. She simultaneously questions how those material conditions can be negotiated through art, science, and the imagination.

Adnan situates us in the concrete: San Quentin, Frank Lloyd Write, the inmates, the paper.

            In the beginning was San Quentin
            I saw it at twilight   a gigantic casino
            a Frank Lloyd Wright building   a
            floating dream but
            it was rejecting light
            like a mirror
            its sadness all written in that refusal

light was not going through
it was being arrested in all its glory
the prison transfigured, only for
those outside
the inmates remaining in the dark

and these images are imprisoned on
I see them struggle toward freedom,
toward meaning

and they fall like Gagarin today
fell: (15)

The evocation of Genesis “in the beginning”—is inextricably linked to prison. Thus the subjugation of people of color, part and parcel of the prison industrial complex, is systemic, perhaps dogmatic. The casino arises not without its colonial context in a structure designed by a white architect . Adnan’s work is “like a mirror” but not a mirror. This work is not about narcissistic reflection or blind idealism. And though the images and language are “imprisoned on paper,” those images and words allow us to attempt refusal of arrested glory. They allow us to “struggle toward freedom, toward meaning,” even as we repeatedly fall.

JBR: I think that mixed in with the biblical imagery is also a gesture towards the Platonic myth of the cave, which is almost as culturally determinative as Genesis. But since (within Funeral, at least) that really only applies to the situation of the inmates, I won’t push it, except as a way to situate my response to what you have written as well as to the poem. And yes, I use the word “situate” twice, intentionally, because it was the word cosmonaut in Adnan’s title that revealed to me my own “situation”, a kind of “cultural inmate” status, imprisoned or at least deformed by the very forces of US American exceptionalism to which you so rightly refer.

Speaking of inmates, I want to comment on a line you quote, the one that associates Frank Lloyd Wright with San Quentin. I am not at all claiming that what I am about to say is what was in Adnan’s mind, in fact it couldn’t have been, given that Funeral was written in 1968, but I have plenty of associations that connect Wright, Gagarin, and San Quentin that affect the way I read this line. Wright did build the Marin Civic Center, not far away. Which has been described, not as a rocket, but as a sci-fi building (Gattaca was filmed there). So that’s one association we can make between Wright and Gagarin. But there are others, even stronger ones, ones that directly associate the Civic Center with San Quentin. The furniture for the courtrooms there was built at San Quentin, which has a century-long history as a place that makes furniture. But, most interestingly, I think, is this: On August 7, 1970, Jonathan P Jackson, “initiated an attempt to negotiate the freedom of the Soledad Brothers (including his older brother George) through the kidnapping of Superior Court judge Harold Hale from the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California an incident in which he was one of four people killed.” (Wikipedia). Which just goes to show how little an author can remain in control of the impact of her own writing.

Back to my own “cultural inmate” status. Now I don’t want to be all melodramatic about this, I mean, there’s no way I think my situation is the same as someone locked down 23 hrs/day in a Supermax. But. Why was I shocked–not too strong a word, tho it was low-voltage–by the focus on a cosmonaut rather than one of “our own” astronauts? Why is my personal library so Anglo-European? Why does it in NO WAY representative of the totality of all wonderful written things. (You don’t need a VIDA count to see which way the wind blows …) And which therefore in no way acts as a conduit, so to speak, to the reality of the lived experience of most humans on the planet. (Yes, I still think texts have something to do with lived experience …)

So my very first debt of gratitude to Adnan is the title of this poem, which showed me just how very provincial I am. Am hopefully slowly ceasing to be (better late than never). In honor of which hoped-for transformation I would like to make mention of Laika (real name Kudryavka), the first world hero (species be damned) to leave the biosphere behind.

Oh, and I should note, before plunging into the poem, that while reading about Adnan’s leporellos, I discovered that one from the same year as Funeral (1968) is called Late Afternoon Poem, in which one can find a line that will turn out to be prophetic: “Why is a solar ray burning my eye when the sky still lies in ice?”

So. For our readers who may not know. Funeral is the second poem in the first volume of To look at the sea is to become what one is. It was written only about three years after Adnan began writing poetry in English. The cosmonaut for whom / because of whom Funeral was written is Yuri Gagarin. He was the first human in space. The occasion of the poem is his death, in a plane crash, 7 years later.  

As hinted at above (my reaction to the title), one of the features of Funeral that most strikes me is global orientation, which is so appropriate for a poem memorializing someone who experienced (in reality or in the poet’s imagination) “seventeen sunrises in one day.” No borders. Or, rather, no borders that aren’t ultimately porous. Which means that Adnan is able to apply an incredible range of poetic affects and allusions:

You were searching through the hands of the monkey tree
that pipeline to the sky

an incoherent light-wave was moving
behind the clouds
and you went swimming into that distant
pool you went to be suspended there
cool as the western side of palm leaves
under the break of noon (9)

This is how the poem opens, and somehow I am in the territory carved out by Aimé Césaire and/or Léopold Senghor, et al., a francophone surrealism. Which is surprising, given that Adnan is Lebanese, tho it shouldn’t be, given that French was her first language, or at least her first literary language (she was educated in French schools). Perhaps surprising is the wrong word, and I should refer back to the mild electric shock the title gave me. The main thing I am instantly aware of is that this, might have been written in California, but it is not US American poetry of the late 60s. This sense is reinforced later on the same page when she lists the names of US American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts side by side, “the new hierarchy of archangels”, as if they were all on the same team. In the midst, at the height, of the Cold War? Amazing.

By the next page she is dialoging with the North African (“Carthaginian”) Augustine. On the page after that we find the first lines of a new Genesis:

in the beginning was the sufi in orbit
in the beginning was the white page
in the beginning was the sword
in the beginning was the rocket
in the beginning was the dancer
in the beginning was color
in the beginning was music (11)

A new Genesis means a new mythology, which is appropriate given that we are now in a new age (“seventeen sunrises in one day”), but the old mythologies are never left behind, because suddenly we are in the midst of “Icarus remember Dedalus remember Gagarin remember the archangel remember the / white rose Roses blanches tombez! remember Icarus remember Icarus remember / Dedalus remember Gagarin /   / …” (11) and around it goes for the rest of the page because why? because we are orbiting …

But one thing Adnan never is, is naïve. We turn over the leaf and are in post-Hiroshima Japan, no, not only post-Hiroshima Japan, but post-Kamakura earthquake Japan. The earthquake took place in 1293. The sun on the flag of Japan is a black halo here. I think of the astronauts and cosmonauts, who have already been identified with archangels, as Benjaminian angels of history, especially as depicted in his Ninth Thesis on History:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Later we encounter Omaha Indians, Batman, Martin Luther King, Jr., a camel, San Quentin (etc; what we find in the lines you quote above), Leonardo’s bats, the sun god Ra, Elijah, Jesus, Mohammad (these last other, earlier, cosmo/astronauts–we know the stories of all their flights). Gagarin’s ascent into space might have marked the beginning of a new hope in some sense, but his death returns us to the earth, the only one we have, and from our human history, from which nothing, despite the way some of those ancient cosmo / astro nauts are still worshipped, offers an escape.

This makes the poem a rather harrowing experience, for me at least. As Andrew Durbin notes in his encounter in The New Inquiry with To look at the sea is to become what one is:

In 1966, the American writer Stewart Brand petitioned NASA to release a then-rumored image it had photographed of the whole earth. He printed the question “Why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole earth yet?” on a series of buttons and pamphlets and distributed them around the country with the help of Buckminster Fuller. The campaign took off—and, in 1968, it led Stewart to start the Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural journal that focused on space, ecology, and art and writing related to the environmental movement. NASA released the image and, for the first time, humanity had a full portrait of Spaceship Earth. Brand believed that the photograph would provide a universal image that might unify the world in efforts toward peace and environmental consciousness. (It is often remarked that Earth Day began only a few years after the release of the image.) The image of the whole earth provided a counterpoint to the mushroom cloud, which had become “a symbol for the collapse of Western civilization,” as Anselm Franke points out in his essay for The Whole Earth, a recent exhibition inspired by Brand. Franke writes,

The blue planet, on the other hand, exhibits a completely different tendency for bringing about the end of history. It appears to transcend all frames, borders, and preconfigured notions of order, dissolving them into oceanic vertigo: the astronaut Russell Schweickart gave the title “No Frames, No Boundaries” to his memories of seeing the earth from space. Here, all antagonisms, borders, and conflicts “down below” fade into the background, and with them history with its contradictions and struggles. Of course, the image’s appearance failed to bring about the end of history—or an end to conflicts “down below.”

Rather, it presaged the globalist movement, which saw, in the smallness of the whole earth, a whole market, interconnected and easily reached. While the photo of the earth energized the nascent green movement, the blue planet—later downsized by Carl Sagan to a “pale blue dot”—remained mired in its countless contradictions and struggles.

Etel Adnan knew all that in 1968. What makes the poem harrowing, tho, isn’t just her foresight. I said above that she never seems naïve. Well, she never seems defeatist or cynical either. It’s her ability to spin round and round the globe at space-orbital speed without ever once losing her balance that really gets to me.

DP: John, there are so many points of departure from which to respond, but I want to pick up on the following. You write:

Gagarin’s ascent into space might have marked the beginning of a new hope in some sense, but his death returns us to the earth, the only one we have, and from our human history, from which nothing, despite the way some of those ancient cosmo / astro nauts are still worshipped, offers an escape.

Adnan brings back Gagarin in The Arab Apocalypse (1989) “the sun waits for SOYOUZ the sun waits for APOLLO the sun is GARGARIN” (183). I bring this up here because I appreciate the cohesion between The Arab Apocalypse and Adnan’s earlier work in Funeral. But your thinking also strikes me as relevant to this sense of multiplicity across her work and which undermines binary ways of thinking. I keep coming back to this; it seems such a vital aspect of The Arab Apocalypse.

Margaret Simonton makes so many wonderful points about Adnan’s Apocalypse in her essay “The Sun is a Deaf Star; the Sun Eats Its Children: Etel Adnan’s ‘The Arab Apocalypse.” But at this point in our discussion, I want to focus on one aspect, the sun. Simonton writes:

The poem‘s basic building block, the word, “sun,” is repeatedly paired with other adjectives, nouns, and proper nouns—as if tossing words into a hopper of chance and calculation—to produce images, words, lines as above. The sun pulls in other bodies (moon, stars, planets, galaxies) in primary colors, accompanied by objects (boats, flowers, body parts, esp. teeth, eyes, and belly), set in a landscape (sea, Beirut), engaged in acts of creation/destruction, movement. (3)

There are so many binaries which Adnan turns on their head, upside down, and inside out by using that basic building block in the way that Simonton describes: death and life, the hegemony and the disempowered, the mythological and the real, and (in)visibility.

From the beginning, Adnan’s project is chromatically driven, beginning in “A yellow sun      A green sun      a yellow sun       A red sun      a blue sun.” I won’t talk right now about the glyphs marked throughout their text but agree with Simonton who writes that they “reify and equate the historical and mythic dimensions of the text” (2).

I finished Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (Penguin Books 2005) last week (the night in fact before I was supposed to meet the deadline for this correspondence). It haunted me for days. The novel is about an Irish young man fighting in World War I. He’s often marginalized by the English he’s fighting alongside. Even some of his fellow citizens persecute him due to nationalist issues at the time. It is a heartbreaking book, bleak and beautiful both.  So why do I bring it up here? Because both Barry and Adnan write the unequivocal waste of war, the futility of violence, and of art as a means to negotiate said violence.

A Long Long Way uses traditionally lineated prose of course. As such, it is a wildly different project from The Arab Apocalypse.  But to contrast what Barry and Adnan are doing has been productive for me.

It is Adnan’s repetition—“that hopper of chance and calculation” in Simonton’s terms—as well as the contacts with colors and “other bodies” that makes Adnan’s rendering of war and violence unique and compelling. To spin with her on these axes makes us invested, provides us opportunity to think in a more nuanced fashion, perhaps even makes us look at ways in how we are complicit in such violence.

I do not wish to reduce the chromatic aspect to race because that would grossly oversimplify what I think Adnan is doing. But in the beginning of the book, the chromatic aspect does seem to at least provoke thoughts of race or ethnicity, especially because Adnan does so much work at the beginning and throughout putting the indigenous American experience on the same page as the Arab one: “A Hopi a Red Indian sun an Arab Black Sun a sun yellow and blue / a solar Hopi a solar Indian reddening a solar Arab darkening” (164). 

As we proceed through at least the first third of the book, there are other distinct parallels with America’s colonial, imperialist, and exceptionalist history and the yellow sun: “a yellow sun over Mexico trembles” (169). In the first third of the book, I get the idea of yellow sun as some symbol of this dominant paradigm of light, idealism, and white power. That said the yellow sun as a symbol of Western power is consistently undermined:

a yellow sun over Mexico trembles. sleeps the sun
a green sun and a solar green the slowness of the solar boats along your arm
a world. I rolled as grass at the slug my flowers are cut
a Nubian nubile spring rape of almond trees in no-flowers. Diaphanous flowers.
an Arab tortured mutilated vomits the sun hangs from his feet. Meticulously.

A privileged yellow sun trembles over Mexico, changes to a green sun creeping like boats along the arm. Another world is acknowledged with a different color sun where the earth is raped and the Arab is tortured and mutilated. (169; vol. 1)

This is not a simple equating of yellow sun to hegemony. It is one of many pivot points around which the dominant paradigm is at once manifested and turned on its head:

. . . There is a rallye in yellow chaos
a sun lying on the highway a sheriff checking its heart. Have a good laugh.
??? when the bordello opened its door they found the sun fucking
a yellow sun yawns over Beirut and Paris dying and New York is fainting. O unsewn Time! (170; vol. 1)

All the films with problematic representation of Arab and Arab-American peoples (we could just say people of color) came to mind at this point. There’s a spectacle going on here, and what it represents is surficial and painful.  Violence of and to the “sun” produces a good laugh—a thoughtless moment of levity where violence is furthermore sexualized.

You write aptly that Adnan never seems defeatist or cynical. It is that she spins around the globe without ever losing her balance that gets to you. I hear you. I think it’s the repetition and ever-changing contacts. The sun in The Arab Apocalypse is not the violence or the peace, the rape or the tenderness, the visibility or the invisibility, the perpetrator or the victim, life or death. In this way, she levels the field of violence.

I have a phrase in my poem “Magnesium (Mg), or Basalt” that comes from Hannah Arendt: “evil reveals itself as thoughtlessness.” For some reason I think of that here. One constant in Adnan’s Apocalypse seems to be thought-fullness. She puts everything in play:  

the sun unites the Arabs against the Arabs
the sun married its mother to better crucify its son. (196).

She puts everything in play so that we can find our way among the complexity. The field rises above us, interstellar. Even the mythological mirrors our violent ways. Our stories reflect what we are. As Simonton puts it:

The horror of human war, modeled from time immemorial by the gods of myth, will be put to rest only by the first and greatest god, the Sun. Adnan maintains that true apocalypse, with omens of ecological disaster, waits entirely on the astronomical clock. (7).

JBR: OK. I understand why you (hesitantly and assuredly at the same time) read race into the chromaticism, and, as I have come to learn via Alexander Wehilye’s discussion of the thought of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter in his Habeas Viscus (Duke University Press 2014) racializing assemblage are implicitly invoked and put into motion every time we talk about peoples as peoples (we, or rather the assemblages of which we are a part as well as a function, “racialize” them). But I’m not absolutely sure how much of that comes into play here (I could say “I’m not absolutely sure how much of that does not etc” just as easily), but I find myself wanting to note that The Arab Apocalypse is (for me at least) a companion-piece to one of the pieces in the reader not on our mutually agreed upon reading list, but which I read anyway: Sitt Marie Rose. Just as the Apocalypse is a visionary, cosmological, universal and “surreal” take on the pivot point of the civil war in Lebanon, Sitt Marie Rose is a straightforward narrative novel describing a particular incident during the war, the murder of a teacher who is considered a traitor to the Christian Falange because she insisted on teaching Palestinian children, the blatantly racialized “enemy”. What I’m trying to say is that I think that at least one reason that this civil war hits Adnan as such an apocalypse is because there really is no chromaticism that can come into play here: tho the Christian Falange has racialized itself, so to speak, as well as racializing the Palestinians, they are (in chromatic terms at least – at least) the same people. 

This is not to suggest that Adnan would have been happier had racialized chromaticism actually come into play. She makes that extremely clear, as you note above with her examples of “chromatic others”, who are also caught in the tentacles of the world holocaust. I’m just trying to suggest that the real subject of The Arab Apocalypse is a true civil war, and not much is more horrifying to Adnan (and countless others) than that. At least at the time of the writing of the poem. All of which perhaps underscores how central racializing assemblages are to our whole notion of who we are and what makes others others (why should a civil war be more horrifying than any other kind of war?. I don’t want to go down that road here, as that would turn this into a very different discussion.)

You also, rightly, emphasize the importance of the sun as a sign and a trope and a unifying device in this poem (other devices, which I would like to discuss later, are the use of the word “STOP”, and the centrality of the glyphs will are found throughout the poem, I haven’t counted them, but there are hundreds …). But what is the sun, here? I will quote you quoting Simonton:

The poem‘s basic building block, the word “sun,” is repeatedly paired with other adjectives, nouns, and proper nouns—as if tossing words into a hopper of chance and calculation—to produce images, words …

However true that might be, and to a great degree it is, it must be made clear–I want to assert – that there is nothing arbitrary or chancelike about the sun itself here. Resuming writing this morning, I find this note to myself: “[Go into a discussion here of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonpedia “thesis” that the sun is in some sense at war with the warm core of the earth; tie the sun to the psychoanalytic Oedipus; tie that to Anti-Oedipus]”. And I wonder why I was feeling the need to so over determine and at the same time limit what Adnan might be doing with her “basic building block”. Today that seems more destructive than helpful. Especially because I have to say that I can’t help but read Apocalypse fast, and as a piece of music, in which we can pass thru a million rhythms and melodies without getting to stop on any of them. I think that’s an intentional feature of the poem. The glyphs which intersperse it serve, for me at least, as notice that there is something here “beyond interpretation.” Something that can’t be reduced to language, or at least to any known language. Which is, perhaps, why the glyphs were redrawn for this edition. Which is why I have both this and the Post-Apollo editions: to indicate that meaning is not intended to be fixed. This is a sample page from the Post-Apollo edition, as found on Adnan’s web page:

(Click to enlarge)

I can’t find an image from the Nightboat edition, but it is indeed full of different glyphs. As is the German edition …

I want to follow this with a bit from an interview between Adnan and Lisa Robertson because it gives a bit of “authority” or “resonance” to why I think it would be a mistake to follow my original impulse to try to tie down in any way what is meant by the sun:

LR The last sentence I read before I got off the metro on my way here was, “Behind an image there’s the image.”

EA There are layers of images—that’s what I meant, very simply. There is thickness. Vision is multidimensional and simultaneous. You can think, see, see beyond: you can do all these things at the same time. Your psyche, your brain catches up. Some people today say that an image is not necessarily a clear figuration of something; it could be like a blurred abstract drawing, like a sliding door.

LR An event in perceiving.

EA Yes, an event. It is a speed that you catch. Images are not still. They are moving things. They come, they go, they disappear, they approach, they recede, and they are not even visual—ultimately they are pure feeling. They’re like something that calls you through a fog or a cloud.

LR So they are immaterial, in a way.

EA That’s it! They are immaterial in essence. But they could be strongly defined, or they could be fleeting, almost like a ghost of things or of feelings going by. So the word image is very elastic. It’s a very rich concept. Although we are bombarded with images, our culture is anti-image. We think we don’t like it; it’s not fashionable. That is why Surrealism exists: it intends to amplify the image, to force us to see it. Andy Warhol understood that we are surrounded by so many things, and people, that we do not see them. We are rather blinded by them. So he forced our attention on soup cans and Marilyn Monroe.

On an other level, there are also different clarities. Some things are not meant to be clear; obscurity is their clarity. We should not underestimate obscurity. Obscurity is as rich as luminosity.

LR I was thinking about the way that light moves through your work. There is, for me, a very strong sense of light as being human light, spirit. Also, the light of a single day is a human unit.

EA The environment was my life, maybe because I was an only child. I didn’t have brothers and sisters to play with, so the light coming in through the window was a great event for me. I played with that instead of playing with other children. It was my companion. Beirut is a very sunny city and there were very few cars when I grew up. That was a blessing, because there were people in the street. I remember trying to walk on my shadow. Shadows and light were two strong entities. In Spain or southern France or Italy shadows are very strong and beautiful—the patterns are very clear. Light is an extraordinary element. It’s a being on its own, it’s something you look at, and that also you inhabit.

LR I wrote down the phrase: “The situation of consciousness in the daylight.” The idea of the French Enlightenment and the meaning of enlightenment in the sense of 18th-century rationalism is also in your work—

EA I went to Catholic schools all my life. There were no other schools in Lebanon. We had religion around all the time. I’m lucky—I never believed in catechism or any of that. I was always a dissident without effort, at a distance from all the things the nuns were saying. I never liked saints. What touched me was their speaking of revelation, even the word itself. That always made sense to me. We owe life to the existence of the sun; therefore light is a very profound part of our makeup. It’s spiritual, in the way that even DNA is spiritual. What we call “spirit” is energy. It’s the definition of life, in one sense. Light, as an object, as a phenomenon, is magnificent. I am talking to you and the light coming in through the window has already changed. You go on the street and you look at the sky and it tells you what time it is. We are dealing with it constantly, and obscurity is also maybe its own light, because it shows you things. Obscurity is not lack of light. It is a different manifestation of light. It has its own illumination.

LR You call it the “Palace of Night.”

EA That comes from Joanne Kyger. She wrote, on what I call a little floating paper, a folded page, a piece titled “Night Palace.” …

One of the things that’s really interesting about Apocalypse is it’s – in my opinion – the most surreal and least linear of all the writings in the Nightboat reader. So let the sun just be the sun, and whatever the sun suggests to the reader in the context of this particular Apocalypse.

One of the things that blows my mind about Adnan’s writing is her ability to find a form that fits the circumstance, so to speak. Most of us writers have much less range. A good example of a completely “different clarity” is the next piece we read together, “To Write in a Foreign Language”. This is a truly straightforward (in comparison to the two poems we have discussed so far) autobiographical account as focused thru the lens of the languages she learns, and how they both close and open doors for her. As I read this piece, whatever language she is writing in, it is a foreign language, so that she is in some sense a perpetual exile everywhere. And, as you not above, all her work plays forward and backward in a kind of lifetime intertextuality, tho inter*text*uality isn’t exactly the word I’m looking for. She writes, after describing how her father, “no pedagogue”, gives up teaching his francophone daughter Arabic by handing her an Arabic-Turkish grammar and saying “copy these lessons … and you will learn Arabic”:

So I remember that once in a while (did it last one year, two years, a single season? I can’t tell) I used to sit and copy – which means reproduce faithfully – words after words whose alphabet I understood, but seldom their meaning –
never trying to understand what I was writing: I think I loved the act of writing things I did not understand … There must have been something hypnotizing about these exercises because much later, and for different reasons, I ended up doing practically the same thing …

Since I had so much fun writing the words “truly straightforward” above (as if there were such a writing anywhere), it seems almost unfair to focus on her phrase “and for different reasons”, and to say hmmm, I wonder. In any case, I think that it’s easy to see the glyphs of The Arab Apocalypse in utero, as well as some of the poem’s textual/procedural strategies, as well as her career as a visual artist, which we really can’t talk all that much about here, which I regret, because it is obvious to me that any attempt to draw a line between her work as a writer and her more strictly visual work leads to false impressions and conclusions, as the illustrations above already evidence.

DP: I want to return for a bit to the question of chromaticism relative to race. I think it would perhaps have been more apt to question chromaticism as an evocation of difference. The civil war—and you’re right, horrifying in and of itself—involves as you say “the same people.” I am not an expert on Lebanese history by any means. But the historical context of this civil war was undoubtedly precipitated by the creation of the Israeli state (and the associated changes in populations) and French colonial rule, which in my mind intensified us-and-them lines or divisiveness. 

You write: “All of which perhaps underscores how central racializing assemblages are to our whole notion of who we are and what makes others others.” Yes, agreed, a very different discussion. Which is why I think the idea of difference would be more useful here. The cultural politics of difference (whether in Lebanon or the US, whether in civil war or “peacetime”) that incites so many to violence against another human beings. Adnan writes in “To Write in a Foreign Language” of Lebanon’s “opening onto the world, a thrilling diversity.” But she qualifies this:

But it also created, in a country too small to easily absorb such a strong wind of change and cultural pulling apart, undercurrents of tensions that were to explode a generation later and practically destroy it. (251; vol. 1)
I know. What really incites violence against another human being? It is much more complicated than difference.

I want to turn now and say how much I love—“love in all its forms is the most important matter that we will ever face” (375; vol. 2)—when you write of the glyphs that they are “[s]omething that can’t be reduced to language, or at least to any known language.” That is beautifully stated. Even the sun of The Arab Apocalypse operates like this, I think: irreducible, an image not still but moving (to return to Adnan’s interview above), light producing but also obscure where obscurity is “a different manifestation of light.”

In “To Write Another Language,” Adnan writes that “[p]oets are deeply rooted in language and they transcend language” (257; vol. 1). I think about the glyphs again, which not only are irreducible but also reach beyond language.

We did not select Cole Swensen’s essay, “Etel Adnan: The Word in and by Exile,” for your and my readings. But the subject matter is just too related, it seems, to the direction we are taking here. In the essay, as the title indicates, Swensen unpacks not just exile but an internal exile, an “inile” if you will. In the essay she speaks of Adnan as a “poet of place” (379; vol. 2). I don’t think any reader would disagree with that label. But Swensen complicates that name or label. Swensen writes:

In a sense, it’s an exile from exile itself, and thus a way of making a permanent home there, which is the beginning of inile. (380; vol. 2)

I appreciate thinking about this relative to the statement Adnan made in the Lisa Robertson interview you shared: “We should not underestimate obscurity. Obscurity is as rich as luminosity.” Is it just me? Or do you too see exile and inile pivoting on the same axis as obscurity and luminosity? Herein those images that are “pure feeling” reside.

And I agree with you, intertextuality doesn’t seem right. There does seem to be a symbology. Yet it’s not a set of archetypes or symbols, is it? Still, there are undoubtedly these resonances that Adnan seems to carry with the pure feelings of elements like sea and sun and fog.

But I want to get back to this notion of exiled language relative to being “a poet of place.” There are so many examples in “To Write in a Foreign Language.” There are the letters her father wrote to her mother “in the tone of the German, Austrian, or Russian novels of the time,” from the Dardanelles front (247; vol. 1), which heartbreakingly were lost to Adnan over time. When Adnan was a child in school “Arab was equated with backwardness and shame” (248; vol. 1). Frustrated with Adnan’s lack of proper education in anything but French, her father classified “everything” as “propaganda in this country” (249; vol. 1). Adnan too pretended “to learn a language . . . just by writing it down” (250; vol. 1). And Adnan explains a translation problem with The Book of the Sea, which I thought so profound:

. . . the sea, as a noun, in French, is feminine, and the sun is a masculine word. In Arabic it is the contrary; the whole poem is developed along the metaphor of the sea being a women [sic] and the sun a warrior, or a masculine principle. So the poem is not only not translatable, it is, in a genuine sense, unthinkable in Arabic. (251; vol. 1)

All of these things I think present a literal exile from language—a perpetual exile everywhere. As we have begun to elucidate, this manifests itself in her work in a myriad of ways. Swensen writes:

“[The] irony and paradox of being a poet of place who is endlessly displaced is one of the driving forces of her art, and is echoed in its medium, for at an elemental level, language too is always in exile, can operate only by exiling itself, always forcing itself outward from what it has already said. (379; vol. 2)

I do not want to dive too much into the theoretical aspect of language nor do I wish to take us in a Marxist direction. But I love this bit by Raymond Williams on language, where “language has…to be seen as a persistent kind of creation and re-creation: a dynamic presence and a constant regenerative process” (31). Poetry, as art and through language, is a social presence, a material process, and a productive activity. It is the language of poetry that can offer alternative ways of thinking. It is through art as poet that the exilic consciousness attempts to cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience, and encounter limits of ideological paradigms. Poets like Adnan make something new in terms of language and experimentation.

Glyphs exile themselves and find their place. Language reaches beyond language. Adnan pushes and pulls language into an anti-stasis, an anti-permanent permanence. Even with a word as basic as the sun, in repetitions, usage, context, contacts, stability is destabilized. Presence is absence. Language is exiled from itself yet finds a (temporarily) permanent home.

JBR: It feels to me that we are at a possible crossroads in this conversation, Deborah. We can either to continue to work our way thru the two volumes, discussing “representative” texts, or we can have that discussion we keep saying is a discussion for another time, the one we keep teetering on the cliffedge of, the one about what we have been calling “racializing assemblages”, or “difference”, and now “exile / inile”, “poetry of place”, etc etc. I think we should have that discussion. In other words, as I see it, we can begin to talk about why Adnan’s work is important (I have no doubt that it’s important, very important) in a broader sense than hey, she’s a good writer, eh? I would like to have that discussion.

I think I will segue into that broader conversation via a response to one of the questions you ask above.

You write: “What really incites violence against another human being? It is much more complicated than difference.” Yes, indeed. For thousands of years people have asked that question. I do not propose to answer it here, because how would I know. But I do want to say, and this I think is a central feature of the phase of modernity in which we live, that just because “what really incites violence” is indeed “more complicated than difference” (I won’t quibble here over the difference between racializing the other and rendering them different), it would be a terrible mistake to allow that “more complicated than” to minimize the importance of “othering” (to introduce a third term) as an enabling factor. I’m going to quote, at some length, from Karen M Gagne’s “On the Obsolescence of the Disciplines: Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter Propose a New Mode of Being Human:”

This article discusses the difficult but necessary task of dismantling our disciplinary
boundaries in order to even begin to understand the who, what, why, when and how of human beings. Sylvia Wynter argues that when Frantz Fanon made the statement “beside phylogeny and ontogeny stands sociogeny” in Black Skin, White Masks (Fanon 1967) he effectively ruptured the present knowledge system that our academic disciplines serve to maintain, by calling into question “our present culture’s purely biological definition of what it is to be, and therefore of what it is like to be, human”. This rupture that Fanon caused remains the space, Wynter argues, that will necessarily move us out of our present Western/European/bio-economic conception of being human whereby the Self requires an Other for its definition, toward a hybrid nature-culture conception that needs no Other in order to understand Self.

If we do not move beyond, as we have already moved through, our present disciplines, the maintenance of which functions to insure our present world order, then we will never be able to properly deal with all the local and global crises that we confront and the study of which sociologists make our life’s work until we first see these struggles as different facets of the “central ethnoclass Man vs. Human” struggle. These crises, Wynter notes, not the least of which includes the possibility of our species extinction, the sharply unequal distribution of the earth’s resources, poverty […] [it’s an endless list – JBR].

That we have been unable to reach “another landscape”—as proposed by Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) in the 1960s—in order to “exoticize” Western thought to make visible its laws whereby we would be able to unfix the sign of blackness from the sign of evil, ugliness, and the negation of whiteness, has been for two reasons. These are, according to Wlad Godzich as quoted by Wynter, first, “the imperviousness of our present disciplines to phenomena that fall outside their pre-defined scope” and, second, “our reluctance to see a relationship so global in reach—between the epistemology of knowledge and the liberation of the people—a relationship that we are not properly able to theorize.” The shift out of our present conception of Man, out of our present “World System”—the one that places people of African descent and the ever-expanding global, transracial category of the homeless, jobless, and criminalized damned as the zero-most factor of Other to Western Man’s Self—has to be first and foremost a cultural shift, not an economic one. Until such a rupture in our conception of being human is brought forth, such “sociological” concerns as that of the vast global and local economic inequalities, immigration, labor policies, struggles about race, gender, class, and ethnicity, and struggles over the environment, global warming, and distribution of world resources, will remain status quo.

Two thoughts. First, while there are good reasons for Gagne’s focus on “peoples of African descent,” that is narrower than my focus here, and narrower than the theses she discusses provide for. There is no reason that this can’t be extended to all who fall outside Wynter’s definition of Man. Man is not coterminous with human. Man is coterminous with male white Christian Europeans. We can see that definition enshrined in the US Constitution, in which the only citizens with voting rights were rich white men. We can see that in present-day France, in which Marine Le Pen’s fascist National Front is increasingly popular, because millions of formerly colonized people who are not white now live in France, and in the insanity that ensued after the Charlie Hebdo journalists were murdered, an insanity that went so far as to racialize even whites who refused to say Je suis Charlie, noting that “Charlie” was, among other things, racist, Islamophobic, etc. We can see it in the popularity of a movie like American Sniper, which makes a hero out of a racist psychopath, because he killed dark people. So: we don’t want to ever underrate: racializing/differencing/othering, even if it’s not the whole answer to anything.

Just to note, anyone who reads Adnan carefully and ever tries to “other” people again will have to feel at least a bit hollow. To reiterate a passage you quote above, which shows how her work does not allow for an othering: “A Hopi a Red Indian sun an Arab Black Sun a sun yellow and blue / a solar Hopi a solar Indian reddening a solar Arab darkening” … I will add that, since poor whites, especially those who have been imprisoned don’t count as Man, either, that racializing has more to do with a “racial” imaginary than anything else, so we can incorporate your notion of chromaticism, as long as we accept that we are talking about a chromaticism with consequences make it hard to distinguish between racializing and chromaticizing and … they become more or less synonyms in practice.

OK, to my second point. Why did I quote the bit that goes: “These are, according to Wlad Godzich as quoted by Wynter, first, “the imperviousness of our present disciplines to phenomena that fall outside their pre-defined scope””? Because, and this applies to you and me at least, if not to all the potential readers of this peace, we are on the wrong side of the line, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos has it, to be the actual “ralliers” (Santos again) for the new world proposed above, the one in which Man is no longer defined against the Other, the one in which becomes possible what is called in certain parts of Latin America sumak kawsay / buen vivir / good living. This of course is not true for all poets all the time, etc.; I really hope no one reading this thinks that’s what is being said here. It is really only those on the front lines, say, those indigenes in Brazil fighting to save the rainforest with their very bodies on a daily basis, or #IdleNoMore, and I could of course name others, who can fight that fight. And there are poets among them. And there are activists on “this side of the line”. But that doesn’t mean those of us not positioned so close to the front as, say, the Brazilian indigenes, need be nothing. We can be a certain kind of ally. In fact, after much work with the World Social Forum and other such gatherings, Santos claims that that’s what the ralliers want us to be. Now I will quote from the “manifesto” that opens his most recent book, Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide to explain what I mean (and this, I think, has a lot to do with poetry):   

The second reason why I consider that writing from the perspective of the impossibility of radicalism is promising has to do with the mission ascribed to intellectual-activists by ralliers for good living/buen vivir: to contribute to the elaboration of theories of the rearguard (more on this throughout the book). This mission is almost impossible, but to the extent that it can be accomplished, it constitutes the greatest novelty at the beginning of the millennium and is the best piece of news for those who genuinely believe that capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and all other satellite-oppressions can be overcome. These political experiences witnessed by ralliers for good living/buen vivir cause surprise because they were not conceived of, let alone foreseen, by the political theories of Western modernity, including Marxism and liberalism. Particularly significant, among many other examples, is the case of the indigenous peoples’ movements in Latin America and their contribution to recent political changes in some countries. The surprise is due to the fact that both Marxism and liberalism have ignored the indigenous peoples, both as social and political actors. The great Peruvian Marxist José Mariátegui was stigmatized as “romantic” and “populist” by the Communist International for having ascribed a role to the Indians in the construction of Latin American societies. Such a surprise poses a new question to theoreticians and intellectuals in general—namely, whether they are prepared to experience surprise and wonder. This question has no easy answer. Critical theoreticians are particularly trapped in this difficulty since they have been trained in vanguard theorizing. Vanguard theory, by its nature, does not let itself be taken by surprise or feel wonderment. Whatever does not fit the vanguardists’ previsions or propositions either does not exist or is not relevant. To answer positively to the challenge of allowing oneself to be surprised presupposes that the process of untraining and reinvention is in progress and proceeds successfully. Intellectuals willing to let themselves be taken by surprise are those who are no longer surprised by the imagined novelties, however extravagant and seductive, of vanguard theories, having reached the conclusion that the time of vanguard theories (the time of linearity, simplicity, unity, totality, and determination) is over. Once intellectuals enter the untraining process, the academicist, overintellectualized, and stagnated character of vanguard theories becomes gradually more obvious.

I don’t know what you hear here, but I hear a description of poets, and one possible (and very attractive) path forward for my poetry. [Other poets have other paths, I know, and I honor them. This isn’t meant to be prescriptive …] I hear Keats’s negative capability. And, probably more important here: I ask myself, isn’t this what Adnan has been doing? Yes, it is, and given the above, it’s important. And: if Adnan is important, that presupposes that poetry is, or at least can be important.

DP: Why is Adnan’s work so important? To use some of the phrases you include above, John, I think it is important for its forged “ruptures,” a “hybrid nature-culture conception,” a writing that seems to resist definition of “other” in order to understand the “self,” the seemingly tireless reaching towards/creation of “another landscape.”

A different infrastructure is what Adnan attempts to build. She gets inside of binaries and explodes them. I just thought of my December Christmas-tree-hunting adventure in rural Oregon with my friend Clay, along with some of his friends and family. I won’t relay the tale of how we went to buy a $5 tree from an old geezer whose field was utterly empty upon arrival. Clay and company found their trees anyway at a nearby tree farm. To prep the trees before loading, the workers used this gripping machine, which shook the tree of all its dried leaves. This image just came back to me relative to Adnan’s vibration against and within this system of binaries, whereby the us-and-them mentality—by contrast to something like the abhorrent American Sniper—is challenged rather than reinforced.

(A resistance to binary ways of thinking is one of thinking is one of the reasons eastern philosophy attracted me as early as nineteen-years-old and why, to date, a more and more regular contemplative practice brings me some peace. In that practice, I find that I can be the best “kind of ally.”)

The Santos passage that you share resonates with me—for two reasons especially. First, I appreciate thinking about the phrase “writing the perspective of the impossibility of radicalism.” The connection for me here is that there is a difference between saying “Using language to attempt to drive change won’t help” and “Using language to revolutionize won’t happen, so I’ll do nothing.” By using language to attempt to drive change and/or to revolutionize, we shake the latent politics of language up, regardless of medium, perhaps inspiring change, even if it’s not change in our lifetime. Poets do something. They innovate, provoke, incite with language. Even though I don’t believe language is itself revolutionary, I do believe writers like Adnan can shake the foundations, driving long-term change.

My notion of language has broadened. And that notion of language comes into play here with Adnan’s work, for example her glyphs in The Arab Apocalypse and drawings of Mount Tamalpais in Journey to Mount Tamalpais about which we have talked a little. She uses all these different kinds of text, playing too with the relationships between those texts, to construct new spaces on and off the page.

But I want to talk about the second reason I am keen on the Santos passage. Santos writes that “the time of vanguard theories (the time of linearity, simplicity, unity, totality, and determination) is over.” What this points out to me, at least in part, is that poetry allows us to seek alternative realities—beyond totalities. Poetry is a medium through which we can push, prod, challenge, and undermine the status quo. Marjorie Perloff writes:

Language theory reminded us that poetry is a making [poien], a construction using language, rhythm, sound, and visual image, that the subject, far from being simply the poet speaking in his or her natural "voice," was itself a complex construction, and that--most important--there was actually something at stake in producing a body of poems, and that poetic discourse belonged to the same universe as philosophical and political discourse (emphasis added).

To consider Santo’s and Perloff’s passages together nods to the importance of Adnan’s work. The dehumanization that occurs within mainstream media and relative to the dominant paradigm (male, white, European, Christian) is acknowledged and defied in Adnan’s work. Adnan’s work swims along a current of the mythological, the philosophical, the political. She imagines better worlds, but in ways I talked about earlier she also “keeps it real.”

I am thinking again of Swensen’s beautiful idea of Adnan making a “permanent home” in exile (inile I suppose). In his essay “Reflections on Exile,” Edward Said writes:

We take home and language for granted; they become nature, and their underlying assumptions recede into dogma and orthodoxy…The exile knows that in a secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience. (185)

Adnan’s work is innovative as it reflects on the detemporalized modern age and embraces spatial considerations with an exilic consciousness. Her work is vitally important in terms of border and boundary crossings.

I do not believe in an essentialist notion of home, which is still another reason I think Adnan’s work resonates so deeply. She does not seem to believe in such a notion of home either. Mount Tamalpais is “her” mountain, as it is not. My heart’s home, the northwest, is my home, but it is not. “I’m from Seattle” always seems a truth but not; I lived there longest. Hudson Valley is home but not home. My beau is my RV, a mobile home. Visual artist Kazumi Tanaka recently said at Lee Gough’s and Olana’s Deep Air Art Series in Hudson that home is the body. 

In any case, I view Adnan as a thinker and artist in the spatial camp.  An exilic consciousness and the importance of place are inextricably linked with her oeuvre. There is this sense of displacement (and replacement) around which she orients herself. For example, in “Journey to Mount Tamalpais,” she writes:

In front of the Buena Vista Café, in San Francisco, Jack Burlybum was selling jewelry
made of Indian bones unearthed in a Northern California burial ground. The Indian sitting next to me by the sidewalk said: “They took our land and now they are selling my bones!”

I told him how the Bay was blue, and that Angel Island was dark brown, the color of live deer skin, and Tamalpais was as green as a crushed bottle of beer. . . .  And he smiled. America, I told him, was torn between paradise and hell, and it was not suffering, it was numb. (295; vol. 1)

As in this example, Adnan connects with another human being (not withstanding the readers), reaching beyond binaries through the mutuality of place. You mentioned in [a separate conversation] what you get from Santos’s writing and relative to this Adnan excerpt from Journey. I want to recite that here, in case you do not think to include in your response: 

[S]ince I am on the privilege side of the line, it is not the job of my language to determine vanguard positions; it is the job of my language to surrender its privilege and to attempt to forge alliances. Adnan does just this, I think, in front of the Buena Vista Café. She renounces any and all privilege and becomes “one with the other” to use a Levinas phrase. We with privilege can no longer sell indigenous bones as if they are ours to sell with our words. But that doesn’t mean we can do nothing. Her forging an alliance with the Indian is doing something. I may or may not be misreading Santos here (is there any kind of reading that is not a misreading?). But what I want to do is to walk a line with my writing that rejects privilege and still forges alliances. I want my words to be included in the human megaphone, even if that means they cease to be mine. Or, better, if they are both mine and not-mine at the same time.

Adnan walks this line. She resists the divisiveness of identity politics and concerns herself with the rise of an imperialist and globalized world that produces greater and greater subjugation. She is not creating art pieces in a vacuum, or dehistoricized work, or work stripped of sociopolitical contexts. Adnan is not creating an essentialist or exceptionalist object that’s logical conclusion is idolatry or ideology by way of binary thinking.  I think all of these things distinguish Adnan’s thinking as particularly spatial.

And it is that spatial consideration that allows Adnan to present exilic consciousness as an alternative to discursive practices that extol the value of History with a capital H. Truth with a capital T—dominating ideologies that (re)produce exile in the wake of all its –isms (imperialism, colonialism, racism, homophobia). Adnan writes in Journey to Mount Tamalpais “to each place, there is a counter-place, like the second plate of scales” (325; vol. 1).

Place, landscape, mountain, sun. These, in Adnan’s work, are loved.
More and more people behave as if they ignore Nature, dislike it, or even despise it. We wouldn’t have the ecological catastrophe in which we live it were otherwise. They absolutely cannot understand Native American Chief Joseph’s response to American settlers when they tried to use Indians to plow the land: “How can I split my mother’s belly with a plough?”—and he meant it not metaphorically, but literally. After all, Earth is mother. It sustains life. We come from it: religions say it their way; science says it too, as well as common sense. So we do not love our first, our original, mother. We quit her. We left her behind. We went to the moon. (“The Cost for Love We are Not Willing to Pay,” 371; vol. 2)

By the end of this essay (I should add also the last piece in the two-volume collection of Adnan’s work), Adnan writes:

. . . . Love in all its forms is the most important matter that we will ever face, but also the most dangerous, the most unpredictable, the most maddening. But it is also the only salvation I know of. (“The Cost for Love We are Not Willing to Pay,” 375; vol. 2). 

I am troubled with the messianic evocation of the word salvation, but as I read Hilton Als’s The Women last week I thought of this particular passage of Adnan’s again. Als writes:

Time has not changed my point of view, nor has the knowledge that what divide people are not the dreary marginal issues of race, or class, or gender, but this: those who believe friendship and love dispel our basic aloneness, and those who do not. (19)

As with much of Als’s book, and like you, I am in agreement and disagreement with this quote. (I find Als’s book at once illuminating, disagreeable, and wise). But I welcome what both Als and Adnan present. Love means a kind of openness that moves beyond divisive marginal issues. I try always to remain aware of my privilege as I move through the world. On the train when the conductor doesn’t check my ticket and checks the two Hispanic passengers next to me. On the street. Posting on social media. In discussion with a Saudi student that is upset (and rightfully so) with American Sniper.

Friendship and love (undoubtedly the same thing) provide a space that we can aim for something else—poeti-politically and otherwise, to build bridges between our differences and to make something(s) new.

Still, I can’t help but go back to Wynter’s argument that you presented earlier about “our present Western/European/bio-economic conception of being human.” A lack of willingness to step fully into the space of love very well may be the key element that divides us. Love might be what is missing from our present conception of being wholly human. Love might not be our salvation, but it might bring us closer to some semblance of equality and liberation.

JBR: First, I want to note (temporarily fixate on?) a metaphor of yours. Which has to do with shaking. I know this is not at all what you said, but I pictured the dead leaves being shaken out of the tree, and, suddenly it occurred to me that, vis-à-vis poetry’s “mission” (to get all hyperbolic), as we’ve discussed it here with Adnan as an exemplar, I want to distinguish between shaking out and shaking up (I take your “shaking the foundations” as a form of shaking up). Shaking out makes me uncomfortable, since it’s what the Lebanese Christian Phalange wanted to do to the Palestinians in Lebanon (we see the result of that not only in the civil war, of which Adnan writes, but also in the slightly later massacres of Sabra and Shatila; it is still ongoing). It’s what the worst of humans wants to do to the rest of us (cf. the recent revelations that have come out of the publication of Heidegger’s “black notebooks,” which leave us in no doubt of his Nazism, and of the centrality of the Shoah to it and to his entire philosophy. I will stop myself before I begin ranting). Let me quote a bit on shaking out from an interview of Adnan by Lynne Tillman:

EA: I wrote The Arab Apocalypse [sic] when Tel al-Zaatar was under siege. Tel al-Zaatar is a neighborhood in Beirut, where 20,000 people, not all Palestinian but mostly Palestinian, lived basically underground. The Phalangists and their allies attacked in ’76, [the men had some advance notice?]; the women, children, old people who remained were slaughtered. It was worse than Sabra and Shatila.

LT: Worse than Sabra and Shatila?

EA: It was as bad and worse. There was only one well, so women would go there for water. Maybe 20, to make sure one got back; they were surrounded by snipers. The Arab Apocalypse is about Tel al-Zaatar – the hill of thyme – but its subject is beyond this siege, which was the beginning of the undoing of the Arabs. This war was the sign of disaster coming, that by mismanagement and mistakes, the Arabs would undo themselves.

LT: The form and content of The Arab Apocalypse are imaginatively fused.

“A sun and a belly full of vegetables, a system of fat, tuberoses. A sun which is SOFT.

The eucalyptus. The Arabs are under the ground. The Americans are on the moon. The sun has eaten its children. I myself was a morning blessed with bliss.”

What’s produced is a sense of survival, even in the midst of atrocious conditions and

EA: I started this book when I lived in Beirut. It’s 59 poems, the same number as the days of the siege. I could hear the bombs from my balcony. For 59 days they didn’t let any food in, water, nothing. I saw a manifestation of pure evil. In metaphysics there is no word for that. I saw evil.

So I want to distinguish between shaking out (which can be evil) from shaking up. Which is an utterly different thing. You write:

… there is a difference between saying “Using language to attempt to drive change won’t help” and “Using language to revolutionize won’t happen, so I’ll do nothing.” By using language to attempt to drive change and/or to revolutionize, we shake the latent politics of language up, regardless of medium, perhaps inspiring change, even if it’s not change in our lifetime. Poets do something. They innovate, provoke, incite with language. Even though I don’t believe language is itself revolutionary, I do believe writers like Adnan can shake the foundations, driving long-term change.

I really like that notion of shaking the foundations, which I call here “shaking up” (I do live in earthquake country, after all, so what may be a metaphor to you is literal to me) That’s something poets can do, and something Adnan does. From the interview with Tillman:

LT: The Arab Apocalypse takes a unique approach to writing on the page, you use signs, lines, curves, symbols.

EA: The signs are there as an excess of emotion. The signs are the unsaid. More can be said, but you are stopped by your emotion.

As Adnan notes in the interview, one way of shaking up language is by pushing it beyond its boundaries, e.g. via the glyphs she mentions. Via what you call “forged ruptures.” It is in the space created by these ruptures that new possibilities come in.

But I think that the really important way of shaking up language is what you come to in the end: love. Talk about a rupture. Talk about new possibilities. You mention your attraction to  and practice of eastern religion. Adnan is a bodhisattva. Of that I have no doubt. While I have no desire to prescribe to any poet what they should and shouldn’t do, or how they should do it, I am drawn to the notion of love as the basis of poesis, as the reason for it. Love need not take the form that it takes in Adnan’s work. As a relatively extreme counterexample, Joyelle McSweeney’s necropastoral, strikes me as a deep form of love as well. So does (or did) flarf, which seems, at least originally, as a way of being discontent with the status quo. So does conceptualism, in spite of itself (I’m thinking of Claire Bishop here, of her Artificial Hells, in which she discusses the whole notion of contemporary “creativity” as essentially an acceptance of neoliberal precarity, and of at least some forms of conceptualism as a rejection of that). Which is not to say that the high romanticism, which values creativity and inspiration, of a Dorothea Lasky is not also a way of loving. Just as Spinoza said, no one knows what a body can do, no one knows how to love correctly, or even if there is such a thing, which I doubt. But, to quote something from my youth, “without love in the dream it’ll never come true.”

Let’s talk a little about home in this context. It seems to me that you, and she, make an almost explicit connection between home/inile/exile and the ecopoetics of the anthropocene. This too is bodhisattva work, and there is perhaps none more crucial. I will speak indirectly about this below in a minute, when I quote Santos again.

You write: “Friendship and love (undoubtedly the same thing) provide a space that we can aim for something else—poeti-politically and otherwise, to build bridges between our differences and to make something(s) new.” I want to tie that to another metaphor of Santos’s: baroque subjectivity. He writes:

Baroque subjectivity lives comfortably with the temporary suspension of order and canons. As a subjectivity of transition, it depends both on the exhaustion and the aspiration of canons; its privileged temporality is perennial transitoriness. It lacks the obvious certainties of universal laws–in the same way that baroque style lacked the classical universalism of the Renaissance. Because it is unable to plan its own repetition ad infinitum, baroque subjectivity invests in the local, the particular, the momentary, the ephemeral and the transitory. But the local is not lived in a localist fashion, that is, it is not experienced as an orthotopia; the local aspires, rather, to invent another place, a heterotopia, or even a utopia. Since it derives from a deep feeling of emptiness and disorientation caused by the exhaustion of the dominant canons, the comfort provided by the local is not the comfort of rest, but a sense of direction. […]

We get that from Adnan. From all the work we’ve mentioned and from all the work we haven’t. To the degree that this is still a review, I want to say that if what we are talking about here is as necessary in reality as it seems to us, this Nightboat reader is crucial.

Works Cited

Adnan, Etel. To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader (2 Vol. Set). Ed, Thom Donovan and Brandon Shimoda. Callicoon, New York: Nightboat Books, 2014. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. "On the Concept of History / Theses on the Philosophy of History." Andrew Feenberg, Simon Fraser University. Web. 15 February 2015. <>.

Durbin, Andrew. “Lessons of Engagement.” The New Inquiry. 12 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 January 2015.
Gagne, Karen M. “On the Obsolescence of the Disciplines: Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter
Propose a New Mode of Being Human”. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge Volume 5 Issue 3 Reflections on Fanon. 2007. Web. 15 February 2015.  
Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 2000. Print.
Perloff, Marjorie. “After Language Poetry: Innovation and its Theoretical Discontents.”
University at Buffalo State University of New York. Web. 1 March 2015.
Robertson, Lisa. “Etel Adnan.” Bomb Magazine 127. Spring 2014. Web. 30 January 2015.
Simonton, Margaret. “The Sun is a Deaf Star; the Sun Eats Its Children: Etel Adnan’s ‘The Arab
Apocalypse.” 6 July 2012. Web. 15 January 2015.
Tillman, Lynn. “Etel Adnan interviewed by Lynne Tillman.” Etel Adnan web site (Bidoun
Magazine). Web. 1 March 2015. <>.
Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Boulder, Colorado:
Paradigm Publishers, 2014. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.


Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections the last will be stone, too (Stockport Flats), Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène (Furniture Press). Her writing regularly appears in journals and is forthcoming or has recently been published in Touch the DonkeyPositLoose ChangeJacket 2, the DusieECOPOETHOS Issue, and Court Green. Handmade book objects have recently appeared in Casper College Handmade/ Homemade Exhibit in Wyoming (2014) and Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here Exhibit at Center for Book Arts in New York City (2013). Deborah Poe is associate professor of English at Pace University, Pleasantville, where she directs the creative writing program and founded and curates the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit

John Bloomberg-Rissman has just finished a 5-year textual project/poem, In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life mashup called Zeitgeist Spam. Want to publish it? It’s only 1.5 million words, not counting the notes. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press 2010). His working title(s) for the fourth section are In the House of the Hangman: The Baroque Feast and Adouéke, an untranslated plant name in a Kanaka war chant which was translated by Louise Michel while she was exiled on New Caledonia in the 1870s, after the Commune (adouéke makes warriors “fierce, and charms their wounds.”) In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, Black Widow Press has just published an anthology which he co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg, titled Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Anthology of Outside & Subterranean Poetry, and he’s just embarked on another anthology project, called Nuestra America, about which he’ll be more than happy to wear out your ear. He’s also learning to play the viola and he blogs at (Zeitgeist Spam). 

1 comment:

  1. Of Interest may be John Bloomberg-Rissman's engagement with HOMAGE TO ETEL ADNAN in this issue at