November 27, 2022

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The Infinite Cartography of Etel Adnan by…

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Maps, oh maps! […] sometimes in my sleep, I find myself walking on a map-like space, searching for a place I can at last call my own. But it always sends me to another one, similar to it, but further away. Lonely people have always a map in their head. —Etel Adnan

The evening I first became aware of Etel Adnan—one of a handful of personages who have exploded petrified frames of what “being a poet” and “being a citizen of the world” and “being a friend” mean to me—she was in my house, or one that had been lent to me. She and Simone Fattal had come to a party I was hosting; email excavations tell me the date was February 15, 2002. I had curated a reading/salon/potluck/dance party series at the Josephine Miles House with Joshua Clover, then the Holloway Poet at UC Berkeley. (I was the grad-student caretaker and hoped to honor Miles’s desire—thus far unredeemed—that the house, a bequest to the English Department, become a Berkeley Center for Writers. Through the C21P poetics series, Joshua and I had set out to rescue the house from dry rot and the status of private property.) Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino were the first pair of readers featured, presenting their then-ongoing collaboration Hearing (recently published by Litmus Press). At a certain point Lyn leaned over and whispered in my ear, “That’s Etel Adnan.” I didn’t know what it meant, but the hushed tone imparted a level of reverence that startled me coming from Lyn, who is remarkably nonchalant around greatness. (I later learned that the reverence was mutual.)

I properly encountered Adnan’s work for the first time in 2004, at “Poetry and Its Arts: Bay Area Interactions, 1954–2004,” an exhibition curated by Steve Dickison and the San Francisco State University Poetry Center, and hosted by the California Historical Society (where I also first beheld Lyn’s “films”). I was seized in the face of two concertina books within whose accordion folds Adnan had transcribed and illuminated other authors’ poems. I recognized the folds, the form: the matrix of these compact yet panoramic books was identical to that of the sculptural leporelli, or orihon in Japanese, that I had picked up at temple gift shops and the antique flea markets at Nagoya’s Ōsu Kannon in the 1990s. Adnan’s painted lines of handwriting-drawing-cryptograms within these zigzag paper spreads defied the distinctions between the three—while indexing infinitude in the form of folds in the compressed space beneath the vitrine glass, where one couldn’t possibly take it all in at once. The languages of composition were multiple, I recall; the leporellos, as Adnan calls them, were “Untitled,” yet named the poets and texts partly transcribed within: Homage to Beirut (a 1991 Arabic text by the twice-exiled Kurdish Iraqi poet Buland al-Haidari, devoted “To those in whom Beirut remained, although they left, and to those whom Beirut deserted, although they stayed”), and Black Spoon (a multilingual 1993 poem by Bolinas-based poet Duncan McNaughton). As someone who had plunged into translating Amelia Rosselli—a poet whose geography obliquely mirrored Adnan’s from another edge of the Mediterranean, another vantage onto the Ottoman Empire’s collapse—I had grown familiar with the experience of not taking the language of poetic composition as a given, of having to suss out which languages were at play in any stanza. Here that puzzling was happening in a vibratory, multi-hued visual field whose horizontal bands of wash invoked a musical score.

These initial encounters with Adnan, coinciding with my exit from graduate school, formed the entryway into the rest of a lifetime of taking in her work. I heard her launch In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country—which includes a searing indictment of the second Gulf War composed exclusively in the infinitive tense—at City Lights in 2005, and listed Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz) as a highlight of my 2006 for Steve Evans’s “collectively drawn map of the field,” “Attention Span” (where I cited Adnan’s aphorism composed from Beirut in 1990: “Every theory is a burial”). There followed Sitt Marie Rose, and everything else I could find, as Etel continued to publish with abundance, so that I couldn’t keep up, and the art world began to “discover” that she was a distinguished painter (a fact that she humbly and with a sense of humor ascribed, in conversation, to the public’s hunger for painting by 2012: “People saw paintings, and they were happy”).

In 2017, lacking complete access to the precious dispersed primary sources yet still enthralled, I began research for an essay about the way the leporellos open up a space of expansive confusion and harmony—or simply of friendship—against geopolitical fracture. Attempting to understand what it would mean for her to “paint in Arabic,” I interviewed Etel at her Paris home in September of that year—spending all day Saturday in the light off Rue Madame and luxuriant conversation (culminating in dinner), and all day Sunday, as we hadn’t quite “finished”; we never would. That apartment materializes her joining of astounding forces with Simone Fattal, the brilliant Damascus-born, philosophically trained painter, ceramicist, sculptor, and publisher—founder, in 1982, of the Post-Apollo Press that harbored Etel’s poetry and that of many others, from Barbara Guest to Hejinian and Scalapino to Jalal Toufic. I routed our interview recordings toward PennSound to inaugurate a new page devoted to Etel, and hired a student to transcribe the conversations, but don’t need the archive to recall the vivid colors of this stupendous couple’s artworks and those of their friends surrounding a formal military portrait of Etel’s father, or the river of anecdotes linking the aesthetics of Étienne Souriau to Hopi artisans and Ansel Adams. The home of Etel and Simone concretizes for me the gravity of our losses in the face of the pandemic—being the scene, the arena, of a remarkable weaving of transgenerational community, through creative aperture to the outside that led to ceaseless kaleidoscopic reassemblages of the close and the critical.

In that set of conversations, Adnan described the Beirut household of her childhood as composed of “three strangers,” communicating through the spoken Greek of her mother (hailing from a Smyrna reduced to ash); the Arabic of her Syrian father (a defeated high-ranking Ottoman officer) and the Beirut streets; and the common Turkish of the vanquished Ottoman Empire. The only books present at home were a Koran, a Greek Bible, a German-Turkish dictionary, and an Arabic-Turkish grammar. The official language of the French “mandate” for Syria and the Lebanon (lasting until 1946) was also that of her parents’ love letters, and the one in which she fell in love with poetry. Educated in French convent schools, Adnan was barred from speaking Arabic, which was demeaned as “indigenous” and associated with sin by the nuns; she would attend the Sorbonne on a French government scholarship beginning in 1949 despite her mother’s protests.

Landing in California in 1955, Adnan found herself at “ground zero,” poised for (secular) “rebirth” as a poet—through resistance to imperial wars on several continents, in two languages, in community. Contributing “The Ballad of the Lonely Knight in Present-Day America” in 1961 to a free pamphlet series opposing the Vietnam War (printed covertly on the presses of San Francisco City Hall) made Adnan feel that she “became an American poet.” Meanwhile, she was meeting fellow students at Berkeley who were involved in secular movements of Arab solidarity, and began to resist identification with “Francophonie.” She chose to express her solidarity with the dream of pan-Arabism and to support the Algerian War of Independence by turning away from colonial French, resolving instead to “paint in Arabic”—having absorbed the pleasurable childhood exercise of copying pages from the Arabic-Turkish grammar imposed by her father many years before (though without absorbing the textbook contents). English became the primary language of her poetry, and Arabic the primary language of a new medium for her: the leporello. She would transcribe the poems of admired contemporaries from the Arab world into the folds, then give them to the authors as gifts.

Adnan had the leporello form “passed on” to her in the early 1960s by an opium-smoking writer/painter/war veteran named Rick Barton, in a café by Fisherman’s Wharf. Perhaps Barton intuited how enraptured she was upon witnessing his mass of live ink portraits unfurling like a scroll; one day he spontaneously handed her his partly filled accordion book to complete, in what she calls a “mystic transfer”: “something that came from a place preceding him and that had to go, to keep going, to acquire a new transiency, an open-ended trust.” She decided to use these impossibly long, folding books to house poems—mostly those of others, at the beginning strictly of Arab writers, and later, poems in English and French; she casts the calligraphic labor not as one of transcription and illustration, but of translation and illumination, in the sacred, “magic” tradition. Fattal, Adnan’s closest and most perspicacious interpreter, casts the leporellos as “‘readings’ of poetry taking place in the parallel world of color and sensory perception,” generating a triplicate interpretation: that of the poet, transcriber, and painter. She sees Etel’s painting, too, as translation in the sense that it speaks with two voices. In her 1989 essay “To Write in a Foreign Language,” Adnan testifies to the way abstract art opened expression to a space beyond the ethnic and national agons of languages, allowing her to realize that “the mind, unlike one’s body, can go simultaneously in many dimensions, that I moved not on single planes but within a spherical mental world.”

Adnan had studied aesthetics with Gabriel Bounoure in Beirut, and then with Gaston Bachelard and Étienne Souriau at the Sorbonne, before she matriculated in a doctoral program in philosophy at Berkeley (dominated by the analytic approach) only to be told that Nietzsche was not a philosopher, but a poet. If Nietzsche was not a philosopher, she thought, then philosophy might not be for her. Etel’s disappointment with her graduate education in the US seems nevertheless to have been trumped by wonder. Recounting this story, Adnan stressed the marvel in that experience of disorientation, which led her to Mexico, where she sought out the perfect room within which to resolve an Incomplete on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. She was effusive in her descriptions of the performative, painterly spectacle of obtuse symbolic logic equations evolving on the blackboard, and of a lecture on Death in Venice by the young Stanley Cavell, who presented Mann’s novella as a sonata through performance at a piano in the lecture hall.

Those were Adnan’s initial chapters in defying categories.

Soon afterward, in 1959, having begun to teach aesthetics at Dominican College, a position she was to hold for 14 years, Etel was approached by the art professor, Ann O’Hanlon, who maintained that one could not teach aesthetics without practicing it. Etel responded instinctively that her mother had told her she was clumsy; O’Hanlon immediately countered, “And you believed her?” That was the start of a friendship and an epic vocation in painting—being offered scraps and strips of paper left over from O’Hanlon’s art classes.

These anecdotes resound in my memory as I try to synthesize what Etel offered to me, as an immeasurable artist, mentor, friend, a Virgil in life above all (she was possessed of a Mediterranean affectionateness utterly lacking in professionalizing contexts, as various writers of my generation whom she collaborated with or took under her wing—Brandon Shimoda, David Buuck, Stacy Szymaszek, Sarah Riggs, Omar Berrada, to name only a handful that I know of—would attest). A precious and probably preposterous idea catalyzed by Rachel Levitsky, erica kaufman, and the Belladonna* Collective in 2008 brought me close to Etel. In a year-long project named the Elders Series (somewhat controversially at the time—though the controversy itself seems antiquated and vaguely sexist at this juncture), Belladonna* commissioned eight authors to invite two elders each into a book project, to be launched through a reading and conversation in Lower Manhattan. I asked Etel and Lyn to contribute new work toward a book of ours, and we corresponded about the texts as I composed a preface. This gave rise to Belladonna Elders Series #5: Poetry, Landscape, Apocalypse (2009), which included visual “pop-up pastoral” poems from my book The Republic of Exit 43, then in progress, and the beginnings of Lyn’s Positions of the Sun. Etel’s contribution, “Celestial City,” was a post-9/11 lyric linking the twinned “apocalyptic” rivers of Baghdad and New York at war: the Tigris and Euphrates, the East River and the Hudson—pairs of waterways yoked together through geopolitical antagonism.

Even as her career took turns toward the deservedly colossal, Etel followed up regularly about my projects, and about my visual artwork. When I was lucky enough to meet up with her, in London or in Paris, she’d declare to people in our midst, in her lusciously not-quite-French accent, that I was a painter. She intuited this on the basis of my collage work, though during the period of graduate school when I first met her, an empty easel had languished before my bedroom window of ample sun. She continued to gently haunt me with this institutionally outlandish idea, and I felt from time to time that I had abandoned myself in the order of things—that she saw a part of me that was latent, or sleeping. She cut off all excuses about space, time, and my constant motion between three or four cities by pulling out her leporellos. “You need these—they’re perfect for you. You can take them anywhere.”

I brought a pocket-sized leporello to Civitella Ranieri in Umbria with me in a period plagued by parental health crises, in the late summer of 2019. I was exhausted of citation and of screens and couldn’t finish the book I was writing, which included a chapter devoted to Etel. The book traces the byways of many motherless tongues invented by poets in the wake of Fascism, and aims ultimately at resisting specialization in fortressed languages and cultures as an ideal—advocating for absorbing, through the collective, as much as possible of the planetary continuum, rather than withdrawing into mastery of one’s own private trough. That book had outgrown its form. Instead of typing, I began collecting garbage along the tobacco field roadsides, and spilling ink, pasting and painting annotations surrounding the rising tide of Fascism in central Italy into the accordion folds; already possessed, I filled another, 386 inches long, with castle rubbings spelling out CANTERRE, collaging phrases from dreams contorted by the Trump era into a sort of ink georgic. Given the devastations that followed soon afterward, these leporellos, compact spaces of refuge from verbiage, proliferated, becoming a dozen or more.

A bunch of Sundays ago, Easter 2022, riding the Pacific on a 1944 patrol boat that never had the chance to go to war, surrounded across 360 degrees by hundreds of common and bottle-nosed dolphins, I found myself transcribing the edges of Anacapa Island as we backed away from it, fast, this precarious sketching a hit with the shy kids nearby. I pulled the book folds taut to expose the crag that was materializing as pigmented wash by fits and jerks of the channel waves and perceived Etel’s Tamalpais, “the first of the mountains that constitute the convulsive spine of the American continent,” painted by her hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, coursing from one world through to the next, one upwelling in contact with another—and apprehended her example, her guidance, her confidence, her affection bringing me to this juncture of delirious attempt to balance watercolors and ink on a speedboat under the marine layer, impossible to steady the stroke, seeing and feeling the island rock versus the rush as her beloved (un)lost mountain visiting my pocketable multidimensional leporello folded by hand.

Maps are not about shapes but about energies flowing in and out of places. They are about directions and obstacles. The circulation of the blood. The blood of cities. The blood of a Territory. —Etel Adnan

Grappling with Etel Adnan’s oeuvre has been an unexpected, because unprescribed, yet vital chapter in my book project on “xenoglossic” poetics. The leporello episode constitutes a swan song to the injunction of specialization that commandeers and fractures not only academic, but intellectual life more generally in the Occident—not in the sense that it rejects deep and prolonged study, but that it embraces being plunged into the humble stance of apprenticeship, discovery, and connection to the seemingly remote. I had to err far from whatever comfort zone I might have pitched to understand how Adnan’s work might land in the context of Arabic calligraphy and the literature of pan-Arabism (two subjects I am sure never to master), or what it might mean to collaborate and create within a language Adnan herself had not been permitted to master, not in the scripted sense at least. This work plunged me into dialogue with patient colleagues and generous new friends, Ghenwa Hayek, Alexander Key, Omnia El Shakry, Adrien Zakar, Aamer Nazih Ibraheem, M’barek Bouhchichi, Ghazal Mosadeq, among others. These conversations helped me begin to understand Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s Mother and Lost Daughter—both the poem and Etel’s 1970 illumination of it. The whole effort opened a world, the world, the only one we have, though I’m aware that I’m destined perpetually to be a beginner here, that unignorance is a glacial lifelong process.

I have cited a shifting assembly of names in this recollective tribute on purpose, to catalog (against the hero narratives of the art and literary fame-machines, whose echo with famine is curious to ponder) how Etel surrounded herself with people out of both camaraderie and openheartedness, and how, as she expressed multitudes, affective, cultural, and political, her work requires collectives of interpretation to even dream of comprehension.

Refugees, living divided geographies, suffer for that fact, that loss—so vivid in Etel’s conjuring Beirut and Tamalpais over and over from the narrow, inland vantage of Rue Madame, unable to go back. But they can simultaneously multiply geography for others through their work, patching together an ideal cartography.

In 2018, Etel and I were in touch about her archives (which she eventually decided to give to UC Berkeley). She wrote, “all I want is to forget about them […] we’re in a world of museums and archives (running after eternity) and it’s really a world of illusions […]. But the world is still wonderful […]. When one has a friend like you, the world IS wonderful.” I have trouble writing staid essays about her, when she was so youthful, curious, and intellectually protean; what she deserves is not theory as burial or preservation of oeuvre but illumination, infinite as the maps she drew up composed of arrows, infinite as the pleated, bridging cartographies of her leporellos. Those folds permit not only expansion of the text-as-landscape, but innumerable juxtapositions and reconfigurations: “Thus, although a painted landscape on a traditional canvas freezes, so to speak, its subject matter, a landscape on these accordion-like books can be seen in different manners […] so that a single landscape becomes many, according to the way the work is folded,” as she wrote. If maps govern circulation and blockage, the circulation of the blood of cities, “blood of a Territory,” the ample cartography implied by Adnan’s writing and visual art balks the conscriptions of Territory without disavowing the bloodshed produced in an unrelenting geopolitical process of containment and expulsion.

I recall dreaming collaboratively of taking a walk with Etel by the Ponte Rotto when I was living in Rome, in August 2010. It was getting harder for her to travel cross-continentally, and the multidimensional Etel spoke of having many lives wistfully, as if it were a possibility out of her grasp: “A new life—at least for the time being […] oh to have many lives!” There were and are psychic and material costs to having many lives; but plural lives provoke multiplication of the seemingly unimaginable materialized—in a body of work we can now cherish, as it demands that we be more than we are ordained or recognized to be.

“I am, each year, a year older. But there is a place in an anti-universe where I am, each year, a year younger,” writes Etel in In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country. It helps me break through from this realm of sorrow into the exuberance sliced by palette knife into geometries of critical truth that constitutes her legacy to the world. By world, I mean, as she meant, not the globe, that surveyed geopolitical construct, but the impossibly ample planet.

Jennifer Scappettone

Sunday, November 14, 2021 – Monday, May 2, 2022

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