BY Etel Adnan in Books , Features | 25 JUN 20
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Issue 212

‘Shifting the Silence’: Etel Adnan’s Elegies to Confinement

 An exclusive excerpt from her forthcoming book

BY Etel Adnan in Books , Features | 25 JUN 20

Yes. The shifting, after the return of the tide, and my own. A question rushes out of the stillness, and then advances an inch at a time: has this day ever been before, or has it risen from the shallows, from a line, a sound?

When we name things simply, with words preceding their meaning, a cosmic narration takes place. Does the discovery of origins remove the dust? The horizon’s shimmering slows down all other perceptions. It reminds me of a childhood of emptiness which seems to have taken me near the beginnings of space and time.

Now, dark animals roam in the forest, you could touch them. A particular somnolence takes hold of you when the shadows start groving. Then, the heart creates different beats. You want to touch the leaves, look intensely at each tree. The night falls, already tired, already bare.

The size of the future is not any longer than this alley’s. And questions are falling, and failing. But to go by a narrow gully, find the tide at its lowest, watch ducklings follow their mother in search of evening food, is a sure way to some kind of an illumination.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, c.1960, watercolour on paper, 27 × 33 cm. Courtesy: Sfeir-Semler, Beirut/Hamburg

I am wearing the rose colour of Syria’s mountains and I wonder why it makes me restless. Often my body feels close to sea creatures, sticky, slimy, unpredictable, more ephemeral than need be. From there I have to proceed, as an avalanche of snow falls. That’s what the radio has just said: that entire villages have been made invisible. But they are faraway: the news never covers my immediate environment.

And having more memories than yearnings, searching in unnameable spaces, Sicily’s orchards or Lebanon’s thinning waters, I reach a land between borders, unclaimed, and stand there, as if I were alone, but the rhythm is missing.

Etel Adnan, Hyper Espace (Hyper Space), 1964, watercolour on paper, 38 × 46 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

Why, oh why!

I miss the cosmic energy of ancient Greece. They loved their gods to whom everything was given save the supreme power. Free, none of them were in the absolute sense, only Zeus was, though his arbitrariness was often looked at with a critical eye. Prometheus was chained because he rebelled, and Io was condemned to suffer an opposite but equally radical punishment, to turn and turn and never rest. There was a raw cruelty to their world, but I miss them, just the same.

To put one’s feet on the rocks of Delphi is worth damnation. And to Sikiyonou the offerings for the oracle are still coming. For me, the pain of dying is going to be the impossibility of visiting that site one more time.

When you have no way to go anywhere, what do you do? Of course, nothing. But that’s no answer. We let so many replies go unformulated, as a liberation of sorts, so many tides uselessly advance, so many desires are buried (the mind gets tired too). In the middle of the night I measure the cold outside, the silence.

To speak Greek is to use most of Aristotle’s own words. But I rely on Eschylus. He reminds me of the mystics from Bukhara. He placed Prometheus on Mount Aetna, linking him to Empedocles. How can one live away from their circle?

But, returning to my condition, if I had to choose a place to spend the night, what would it be? At this point, I will turn my back and go into my room. The major part of the beauty of the world I will ignore, if not all.

There are so many islands I dreamed of visiting, where have they gone? They’re probably lying where they have always been. Do they possess a consciousness all of their own? I would think so. They are probably like the peacock who recognized me after all the years I had been absent, when he made a loud sound, of a kind I had never heard, and made me joyful. He stirred a kinship between us.

That was at the end of a game for a world championship, a European football game. England against Colombia; the British team playing war, the South Americans playing for the fun of it, always the same story. The peacock followed the excitement, it was late at night and he couldn’t sleep.

My thoughts drip, not unlike the faucet. They don’t let me know what they’re about. Other ones follow, strangers equally.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 1970–73, watercolour on paper, 21 × 15 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg

The daylight is getting dim. We’re not in winter, no, we’re somewhere in early July. The sunset will happen soon. Then it will disappear too.

Dreams lack any power of decision, but come in bunches, flood the spirit, shake the bones. They favour love-making while we refuse what we yearn for. Watching sunset after sunset doesn’t heat the house.

Watching the hours go by doesn’t help either. Thus, we’re cornered. I leave my door open, pretending it’s because of my difficulty breathing, but nothing is true. Better to admit that with the passing of days we know less about just everything. Let’s let things roll their own ways, whenever they have some.

I am not used to asking for help, but on what kind of a ground am I standing? An incantation puts me to rest, at last, in undue hours. With eyes swollen we try to see the here, and the overthere, never sure, always dissatisfied. Let’s wait even when we don’t know what for, a faint line on the horizon always more welcome than this void.

We have lost the liturgies under the wars, the bombings, the fires we went through. Some of us didn’t survive, and they were many. The Greeks had their exuberant gods, the sunrise over Mount Olympus. The Canaanites had Mount Sannin. We have our own private mountains, but are they already too tired from waiting for us? I have no roads to them, no wires. In their splendour let them be.

Excerpt from Shifting the Silence, which will be published by Nightboat Books in September.

Main Image: Etel Adnan in I See Infinite Distance Between Any Point and Another, 2012, film still. Courtesy: The Otolith Group and LUX, London

Etel Adnan is a poet, essayist and artist. In May, Sarah Riggs won the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize for her translation of Adnan’s Time (2019). Adnan lives in Paris, France.