In Paris for the Robert Duncan centennial conference back in June, my wife Ava and I walked over to Galerie Lelong & Co to check out the current show: James Brown Collages, monotypes et estampes (1986-1992). We had no idea the gallery also represented the poet and artist Etel Adnan. Soon we were browsing a half dozen recent books of Adnan’s published overseas ranging from her poetry with artwork, to a compendium of various writings of hers, and catalogs of her recent shows. This was a delight as we had not seen or even been aware of most of them. Ava saw to it that we picked up a handful to bring home. It felt lucky to have come across them in Paris where Adnan has spent so much time living and recently moved to from the San Francisco Bay Area. Memories of reading from these books while sitting out on our hotel balcony overlooking Rue de Latran near the Sorbonne are still quite fresh.
One of the books we picked up at Galerie Lelong & Co happened to be Van Gogh and St Augustine: Parallels and Affinities (2017), a talk Adnan gave at Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles. In it Adnan speaks of “the mystery of memory” stating that she “realized that memory is a subject very absent from contemporary philosophy. And yet it is a key subject.” With this remark afloat in my thoughts it was a splendid surprise upon returning home to San Francisco to find Adnan’s Time in the mail from Nightboat. A new work of meditative poetry, and as the title signals, reflections revolving around functions of memory are of paramount concern throughout.
Translated by Sarah Riggs, Time brings together a suite of six poem-series written in French since 2003 and originally published in small editions by Tunisian poet Khaled Najar’s Tawbad Editions. A postcard from Najar—whom Adnan first met in the late 1970s—having immediately provoked Adnan’s writing of the first series “October, 27, 2003”:
in Yosemite Valley,
with the color of the Pacific still
trailing in my eyes, I buried
the essential and the inessential. That
happiness will survive my death
my friend Khaled sends me palm tree
postcards because he knows that
Europe is covered in burned petrol
The seamless motion in the above lines moving from a California memory of Yosemite into the current act of writing in her Paris apartment where “Europe is covered in burned petrol” is consistent throughout these works where Adnan’s past and present (as well perhaps as imagined or fantasized alternatives) are blended together forming an ongoing momentary “now” of the poem. What emerges is an eternal ongoing sense of “time” as a fluid ambient conductor through which Adnan’s poetry engagingly offsets general expectations of its purpose: i.e. contentment or beauty, etc. Adnan is never settled with the ordinary remaining ordinary.
Although triggered by Najar’s postcard, these poem-series are not directly addressed to him. Rather than paying homage Adnan’s writing explores her consciousness adrift between locales and occasions of her life, at times interrogating certain experiences and feelings. Yet nothing is overly confessional. She will often describe effects of an experience as felt without ever specifying exact details from out her personal life. Imagery and philosophical speculation fills in any space left by lacunae in narrative.
There are moments when
the past ceases to be a form
of the present.
Rain and tears
Baalbeck, ancient site of Heliopolis, is a city in Lebanon, Adnan’s childhood homeland. A country to which she’s returned to at times but has been living in exile from for most of her life. At the opening line we are greeted with a first person speaker announcing “I am not going to sing” yet who at the close of the second section confesses “vibrations of Orpheus, | he, mirror of my soul.” A singer who won’t sing is nonetheless filled by song. She knows the city as a site where “A temple existed for real, | its stairs are solid” and mourns how
the gods, unwilling to
let go of it,
then decided to die. . .
a sun that we loved.
What better purpose does “time” serve after all then but as an opportunity to discover the dalliance between emotion and reason set against memory? Adnan’s takes up the natural world of things and sets speculative interplay afoot between them.
Beings and their shadow have
left the garden the chairs
look at each other, asking if
they should talk among themselves
or be quiet
(from “No Sky”)
Even our very identities as “beings” come and go with the passage of time.
me, I waited to grow up and suddenly
love burst in the middle of the street: I received
some of its mortal blows. that very person
(from “Return From London”)
Always probing, Adnan focuses attention on the stories left behind upon the landscape.
The mountain draws
above the chaparral
desire leaves this body
(from “No Sky”)
It remains open on just what “mountain” and where exactly “this body” that desire is discarding has been left. Or rather it remains the territory within the poem itself.
In the same talk on Van Gogh and St Augustine, Adnan declares, “I believe that our sense of identity is based on memory. It is because I remember that I was yesterday, and the day before yesterday, that I am conscious that I am here now. I think memory is truly the centre of our sense of self.” Poetry allows for simultaneity of these multiple selves that are our unitary self. The poet draws upon any number of yesterdays to form the writing happening today. The poem is a summoning of memory to yield knowledge of what tomorrow might be learned. It is the poet’s avowal concerning her activities in the world surrounding. With its unique mixture of lyric and philosophic self-reflection Adnan’s work fully exemplifies this activity at its highest operation.