POETRY MONTH: 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition: DAY 12 :: Frank Sherlock on Etel Adnan
Etel Adnan was born in 1925 in Beirut, Lebanon. Her father was a Syrian Muslim and her mother was a Greek Christian. She was raised speaking French, English, and her father taught her written Arabic. Adnan studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris, University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard. She has many books of poetry and fiction published, including Paris When It’s Naked, Of Cities and Women, and Sitt Marie Rose, which has been translated into over ten languages and is considered a classic of Middle Eastern literature. She also creates oils, ceramics and tapestry.
“A life spent writing has taught me to be wary of words. Those that seem clearest are often the most treacherous.” So begins Amin Malouf’s In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. [Ed: free e-book/pdf at link] As words are navigated into the public sphere, to be watchful requires an interrogation of language, conscious of its make up and observant of mutations as it travels across borders and time.
So this is Poetry Month, this is spring, and it is also my season of Etel Adnan. I’ve recently become involved with a workshop of young Palestinian immigrants examining Philadelphia’s 1844 Nativist riots against the Irish. Through history and the arts, the teens are negotiating 19th century otherness layered in suspicion, free speech issues, identity crises and parallels that resonate with the present condition in which they live. This sounds like it could be straightforward, and of course it will not be. After all, the fuse of this particular unrest was the word — or more accurately “The Word”, as conflict of bible versions in schools led to its removal altogether and a perception of an assault on national tradition.
Adnan was also wary of the word, abandoning her literary work for creative expressions found through visual arts. She did return to poetry, and it was the carnage of the Vietnam War that brought her back. Her work unflinchingly engages the fictions of mutual belonging that lead to the horrors of territorialization in all its gendered, sectarian stupidity. The big ideas that rationalize violence are countered with the insistence of particulars.
My April started with Jen Hofer’s One, where I came upon an epigraph from Adnan’s novel Sitt Marie Rose. “Death is never in the plural. Let’s not exaggerate its victory. It’s total enough. Let’s not sing about that victory. There are not millions of deaths. It happens millions of times that someone dies.” These words bring me back to 2006, reading Adnan’s In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country. I was particularly moved by her poem To Be in a Time of War.
from To Be in a Time of War by Etel Adnan:
To rise early, to hurry down the driveway, to look for the paper, take it out of its yellow bag, to read on the front-page WAR, to notice that WAR takes half a page, to feel a shiver down the spine, to tell that that’s it, to know that they dared, that they jumped the line, to know that Baghdad was being burned, to envision a rain of fire, to hear the noise, to be heartbroken, to stare at the trees, to go up slowly while reading, to come back to the front page, read WAR again, to look at the word as if it were a spider, to feel paralyzed, to look for help within oneself, to feel helplessness, to pick up the phone, to give up, to get dressed, to look through the windows, to suffer from the day’s beauty, to hate to death the authors of such crimes, to realize it’s useless to think, to pick up the purse, to go down the stairs, to see people smashed to a pulp, to say yes indeed the day is beautiful, to not know anything, to go on walking, to notice people’s indifference toward each other.
To have lunch. To ask for a beer. To give one’s order. To drink, eat and pay. To leave. To reach home. To find the key. To enter. To wait. To think about the war. To glance at the watch. To put on the news. To listen to the poison distilled by the military correspondents. To get a headache. To eat dry biscuits. To put the radio back on. To hear bombs falling on Baghdad. To listen to ambulances. To go out on the deck. To look at the lengthening shadows on the grass. To count a few dead flies on the pane. To go to the table and look at the mail. To feel discouraged. To drink some water. To not understand the wind. To wonder if the human race is not in chaos. To wish to blow up the planet. To admire those who are marching against the war.
I responded to this work with a poem called Spring Diet of Flowers at Night, my attempt to write through a time of mendacity and massacre while negotiating the daily complicities that legitimize war. The title is a nod to Adnan’s The Spring Flowers Own, and begins with an epigraph quoting her from Further On: “One day I gave an orange to a monkey and what did he do with it? He ate it. I was surprised. I expected him to play with it, smell or squeeze it, thank me for it…I don’t know. Somehow, I was disappointed… My monkey took the orange and, in a moment of perfect intelligence, he ate it.”
from Spring Diet of Flowers at Night by Frank Sherlock:
Subsumed by the tissue
of glowing hues
the halos of others
begin to declare
the attentions are
I insist that you
& the force of
inside my undershirt
Both sides are
blood petal blood
spit blood diamond
judas turns out
to be a good
save the future
The sentence I didn’t use for the epigraph that completes Adnan’s stanza is “I realized that we, humans, are trained like singing dogs, tamed like dying lions, programmed to think and hesitate.” For better or worse, we have words to use intelligently and with great care- to untrain, untame and deprogram.
[Editor’s note: Recently, I met with my good friend, the polymath and community development guru James Johnson Piett to pick his acute and seasoned brain for business advice for the formation of the Heroes and Hobos Poetry and Publishing Cooperative. Over lunch in the sunny, lush, cloisters, conversation moved to what we’re doing here at Exit Strata and he immediately suggested that I befriend Frank Sherlock, a friend of James’ from Philadelphia. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I could make that be in less than 24 hours. No, but really — Frank is already a friend to the magazine in his writing this beautiful piece on Adnan, and in his enthusiasm for our work. Happily met! We grow, we grow…]