Guest Poetry Blog # 10 – Arleen Paré features the American-Lebanese Poet and Visual Artist Etel Adnan (1925-2021) – Part Two of Two

Etel Adnan – the American-Lebanese poet and visual artist at home in her Studio Workshop on April 8, 2015 in Paris, France. Photo Credit: Catherine Panchout / Sygma via Getty Images

from October 27th, 2003

I say that I’m not afraid
of dying because I haven’t
yet had the experience
of death

on the walls of an overheated
bedroom images on paper
fade like my bones in a bed

women love the night
which hides their
lack of love.

Etel Adnan from Time, Nighboat Books, 2019

It’s what we’ve always done. Left a mark on a cave, or on a page. Showing who we are, sharing our view of the world, the life we’re made to bear. . . . (A)rt becomes a mirror. That’s how it becomes part of us. And as a counterpoint to our suffering, we have beauty. . . . Beautiful art opens our eyes to the beauty of the world. It repositions our sight and our judgement. Captures forever what is fleeting.

Sarah Winman from Still Life, Penguin Random House Viking Canada, 2021

ARLEEN PARÉ FEATURES ETEL ADNAN (For Arleen’s First Post in Her Two-Part Post Click Here)

Sarah Winman’s epigraph quote captures something of the importance of humans and art. How art, and, here I say, what is written, has the power to give ourselves back to us. And that’s what Etel Adnan’s poetry collection Time did for me. Beauty, and reflection, in all senses of the word reflection.

And as I picked up Time for the first time and read the first poem, the epigraph poem above, I was smitten, riveted. Her line breaks, unorthodox, captivating. And her mysteriousness. The puzzle in the poem above when she writes “lack of love”. What lack of love? But, yes, because, despite, I would follow her anywhere.

I did not know of Etel Adnan, her work or life, until 2021, when my poet friend, Maureen Hynes, suggested I read Etel Adnan’s new poetry collection. Height of the pandemic, the depth of lockdown. But the library remained open, and I borrowed a copy. I opened the book as I sat in a armchair inside the CIBC bank where I waited for my wife to complete a banking transaction. Her mother had just died. It was so quiet in the bank. Covid restrictions.

That moment I describe in the first poem of my tribute poetry collection I wrote to Etel. Here it is:

Etel Adnan 1

The first Time is
an empty bank 2 p.m.
first page
the Pandemic
empties out all ambient noise
the hush
the pages make as they turn
the glass doors monumental
onto the unpeopled street

Arleen Paré from TIME OUT OF TIME, Dagger Editions, 2022

Before I read Adnan’s collection I had checked out the biographical notes at the end of the book. I suspect I was supposed to read them last, but I like to know the poet before I read the poems.

The notes read with my interjections in square brackets:

Etel Adnan was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925. [She was 96!]. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, UC Berkley, and at Harvard, and taught at the Dominican college in San Rafael, California, from 1958 to 1972. In solidarity with the Algerian War of Independence (1954 – 1962), Adnan began to resist the political implications of writing in French and became a painter. [She became a renowned world-class painter]. Then, through her participation in the movement against the Vietnam War (1959 – 1975), she began [again] to write poetry, and became, in her words, an American poet.

The notes went on the say, among many other things, that she wrote over a dozen books in English in her lifetime and that in 2012, her collection Sea and Fogwas the winner of theLambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and the California Book Award for Poetry.

In terms of reflection, reflection of a lesbian sensibility, for instance, I immediately understood this poet could be promising, and of course, she had been recommended by a friend. Later I learned more. That, in 2003, Adnan was named “arguably the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American author writing today” by the academic journal MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. And as well the year before, Time had won the international Griffin Poetry Prize.

As I read those first poems, page after page, I was in poetic thrall, I wanted to be able to write like Etel Adnan. And so I decided to undertake a project of stylistic derivation. I practiced imitating her short, spare, intellectual, querying style. It was the cool clear mentation of her work, her philosophical interests juxtaposing a range of geographies, the brief sizzle of bodies, that seduced me.

Following her, her signature form, her trail of words, tracking her, I wrote Time Out of Time in the next four months.

Etel Adnan # 3

I would follow you anywhere
leave the pear halved
on the plate
meet you at O’Hare or Heathrow or Marrakesh Menara
get lost once again
or forever
in your words
just your words
with or without any meaning
the shape of them
in perfect translation
I don’t even know what you look like

Arleen Paré, ibid

I must admit that in my poem “with or without any meaning” suggests a lack of meaning in Etel’s work. But even at her most obscure, which is rare, but nonetheless occasionally present, she is full of wise meaning and clarity. As she has said, “We don’t separate thinking from feeling in real life, so why should we separate it in writing?”

Despite its title, style, and content, Time opens into eternity, infinity. It is a portal to what lies beyond clocks. The seeming forever. It is a lot about death, about thought, and about the human mind, which more or less runs the universe as we know it. Of course it is entrancing.

Much of Adnan’s poetry was originally written in French. Time’s translator, Sarah Riggs, notes that “part of the magic is that I found (Adnan’s) work seeping into my own as influence. I recall Cole Swenson saying how to translate means you feel the other under your own skin. And I would add under and into your own writing.” This, she seems to be saying, is a way to learn to write, differently, to expand your own writing style. As if in derivation, taking the master (sic) as an immediate firsthand guide.

We do it all the time: studying other poets, using a master poet, a favourite, to lift up our own work. It was the method that Renaissance painters used to learn to paint in their master’s studios. Direct copying. The results are clear. Not that I would advocate copying in poetry but learning the master (sic) styles can be useful to loosen up our own.

Riggs goes on to say that Adnan loved the “postcard poem”, a style that uses an address (‘you’), in the way of a postcard, short as well, and often with geographic reference. In Time Out of Time, I object to the term “postcard poem,” believing that it diminishes Adnan’s poetry.

Etel Adnan 9

although I respect its provenance
it’s friendly corresponding intent
I cannot
term your poems postcard poems
as if
they were tossed off at poolside
somewhere club med blue sky
wish you were here

do your lines handhold such modest heft

as if Sappho’s fragments
can be forgotten

does brevity not bear
its fair share
of depth

Arleen Paré, ibid

As the translator, Sarah Riggs writes of translation, “It felt like pouring water from one pitcher into another, to translate these poems, so clear and lucid and succinctly chosen was each word.”

from BAALBECK #17

When I climbed up
the pink granite
to the summit
I saw the beginning
of Asia –
timelessness joined us.

Nothing is closer
to the sacred than nothingness.

Etel Adnan, ibid

Before she died in November 2021, the Guggenheim Gallery in New York mounted an exhibition of Etel’s work. She had just won the international Griffin Poetry Prize. As Time Out of Time was going to print I learned of her death – in Paris, the City of Light. She was 96. An enormous inspiration in every sense; I have learned so much from her and her work, her philosophical insights.

Nothing is closer / to the sacred than nothingness, writes Etel Adnan. And, maybe, as Phyllis Webb writes: The degree of nothingness is important.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *