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Issue 212

Enjambement and Etel Adnan

Renowned poet Joan Retallack reads Adnan’s poetry

BY Joan Retallack in Books , Features , Roundtables | 25 JUN 20

1. Grave & Humorous Puzzles


. . .

mobil-mobilized by (bye)

money. Incurable propositions.

(Etel Adnan, In/somnia, 2002)

Adnan once noted that a poet friend ‘opens up ideas like landscapes open up, and poems too’. She might have said the same of herself. With a reader’s playful scrutiny, two short lines, seven words, beginning with ‘mobil-mobilized’, open up a semantic landscape ready to yield grave and humorous detail. Oil and gas giant (Exxon)mobil mobilized by money? Of course. But ‘(bye)’? With that oddity, phonemic and lettristic logics begin to perform a humorous stretch towards historical horizons: the shortened form of goodbye, itself a contraction of God be with ye, on the way to bye into, bye to all that, bye-bye!, bye-bye baby, bye-bye birdie (oil spill).

Which is not to say that Adnan had precisely this unspooling in mind. But her knowledge-embedded linguistic intuitions and intentional wordplay excite a reader’s love of collaborative poesis. In/somnia reminds that all reading – not always so piquantly – is an act of poesis. Adnan’s numbered fragments invite it. As does the startling phrase ‘incurable propositions’. Its near-paradoxical ambiguity spans stubborn meanness – misogynist, racist, demagogic – as well as unwelcome truths, such as this one from ‘Celestial City’ (2009): ‘In many of the unvisited latitudes / men women and children keep asking: / is America so fatalistic as to stage / killing fields all over this planet?’

Etel Adnan at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1979. Photograph: Simone Fattal

2. Grave & Humorous Horizons

a yellow sun a black sun a red sun a white sun

the sun moves in our eyes the sun is an Arab corpse.

(The Arab Apocalypse, 1989)

Adnan’s poetry negotiates desire for beauty, humour, happiness on the all-too-durable edge of lived and anticipated catastrophe. The Arab Apocalypse enacts a visceral need for witness, protest, lament, rage as woman, global citizen, poet, visual artist. Inked-in hieroglyphs annotate textual residues of disaster – non-stop wars, betrayals, the Nakba. The marks – ornamental and scarring – register linguistically inexpressible emotion, multiply the semiotic import of ancient landscapes (textual, earthen) with eternally desecrated horizons. In the broad scope of Adnan’s visual art, there has emerged another side of the apocalyptic horizon. In recent work, elemental landscapes assert immutable presence: unbudgeable mountain terrain, monochromatic skies free of portent, suns improbably buoyant in their yellow, red, blue, white, circular, square, rectangular nearness. These are scenes of painterly elation brought on by full-saturation colour and an uncannily monumental scale unimpeded by the small canvases Adnan favours. Profound humour metamorphoses gravity into untethered joy.

After all, ‘The sea and the horizon / are just making waves. Yosemite Valley occupies the same / mental space as a corn muffin.’ (Night, 2016). 

Main Image: Etel Adnan, Untitled (detail), c. 1995–2000, oil on canvas, 35 × 46 cm. Courtesy: Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg

Joan Retallack is a poet. Her book BOSCH’D: Fables, Moral Tales & Other Awkward Constructions was published by Litmus Press in April.