Stephanie recommends To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is: An Etel Adnan Reader by Etel Adnan
Etel Adnan’s work showed up in my life one morning a couple of years ago and I’ve been a superfan ever since. The idea of writing any sort of review of her work is terrifying to me; I’d so much rather talk your ear off in-person at Malvern about all the gifts this creator brings into the world. But this is a website, so here we go.
Adnan, who has spent her life in Lebanon, France, and California, is a force to be reckoned with both as a poet and as a visual artist (she’s a prose writer, too, though I’ve delved less into this area of her work). To Look at the Sea collects a half-century of Adnan’s writing, republishing several of her books in full, and the two-volume title is one of my personal I-Can’t-Live-Without-You books.
Adnan was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1925 to a Muslim Syrian father and a Greek Christian mother. Raised in Beirut and educated in French schools, she moved to the United States in 1955, not yet an English-speaker, to continue her studies in philosophy, pursuing post-graduate work at UC Berkeley and Harvard. She taught college philosophy in California for 15 years and published her first book of poems, Moonshot, in 1966.
According to Adnan’s website: “Based on her feelings of connection to, and solidarity with the Algerian war of independence, she began to resist the political implications of writing in French and shifted the focus of her creative expression to visual art. She became a painter. But it was with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam that she began to write poems and became, in her words, ‘an American poet.’”
Adnan’s vast oeuvre brilliantly crosses languages, countries, genres, mediums—perhaps not surprising given the role exile plays in her life: as a child raised in a country foreign to her parents, educated and culturally groomed in a foreign language; as a young adult scholar in another foreign country; as a graduate student and later professor in yet another foreign country; as a person of color; as a woman; as a lesbian.
She writes primarily in a language not her first. She paints her beloved Mount Tamalpais in California with a poet’s obsession. She writes poems with a painter’s sense of composition. She has been called arguably the most accomplished living Arab American author and has also had visual art exhibited around the world, including in the Whitney Biennial. She is multilingual, multitalented, and of many homes.
For my money, Adnan’s best poetic work is her lineated verse, which To Look at the Sea offers up in healthy quantity. Her latest collections, featuring prose poems—Night (Nightboat, 2015) and Sea and Fog (Nightboat, 2012)—read as mislabeled nonfiction, offering readers perhaps more Professor-of-Philosophy Adnan and less of the magic that comes from Poet-and-Painter Adnan’s skill with compression. There’s incredible value in both, but it’s the lineated, musical, fragmented, image-busting Adnan I’d run into the street joyfully screaming about, whether of the center-aligned, short-lined long poems running throughout her life’s work like “Five Senses for One Death” and “The Spring Flowers Own” or of the left-aligned, long-lined “The Arab Apocalypse” with its lines interrupted by / repeatedly generating glyph-like ink strokes.
In her work and life Adnan inhabits so many spaces, none of which belong to her and all of which are home, that there truly is an Artist Adnan for everyone: the poet, the painter, the novelist, the philosopher, the essayist, the bookmaker, the journalist. And To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is does the English-reading world an immense service by collecting over 700 pages of these Adnans and their many landscapes and languages.
Images: (1) Book cover; (2) Installation view of paintings by Etel Adnan featured in the international exhibition dOCUMENTA in 2012 (image credit: Andreas Meichsner for the New York Times); (3) Excerpted from “The Spring Flowers”; (4) Excerpted from “Five Senses for One Death”; (5) Excerpted from “The Arab Apocalypse”