Etel Adnan’s Surge, Nightboat Books, 2018
Review by Alisha Mascarenhas
As a wave does. Of the sea, of emotion, of thinking. Meaning crests, blinks, and submits to the vast and chaotic flow of thought. Nothing stays. The workings of the mind keep happening. Etel Adnan’s long poem, Surge, published through Nightboat Press this summer, attunes to such a motion; humbling itself to the forces beyond a singular subjectivity. It is a philosophical succession of aphoristic thoughts, turning its reader in on herself and back out again; visiting questions of being, of perception, with the rigour of a thinker who has lived a deeply curious life. All certainty is laid to rest as every impulse to fix meaning in place is flipped on its side, inspected, considered, and swallowed again to the waters. One is brought into a mind space that invites a compassionate and deliberate attention to thinking as a natural occurrence; a movement beyond the grasp of the individual. Thinking is treated as an often futile, and nonetheless inevitable, process in which we are all involved and entrapped.
In Surge, Adnan is addressing some of the most basic human inquiries into being. Her text brings into consideration reflections that are timeless in their relevance as well as their possibilities for answers. That is to say, it is made evident that no clear answers exist in the absolute, and there is a pleasure to be found in releasing the illusion of knowing. Adnan offers a rest from the anxieties of trying to figure things out; acknowledging the persistence of analytic thought, giving it a little pet, and dismissing its hold. “We pretend to measure the invisible and the unknown,” she writes, “It can all be just some entertainment. Better to claim ignorance, with pride, “we need the pride of not-knowing, the breathing space.” If these declarations can still be called aphorisms, they undo themselves in their saying; announcing from the outset that “[m]eaning is ephemeral.”
The subjective “I” in Surge appears as an observer of all that passes: the weather, accidents, a madness which “can run as a sweat over the brain.” As someone who has lived and written—with a relentless sensitivity and passionate attention—now into her ninety-third year, it is evident that the poet’s intimacy with mortality is felt with specificity and experience. Reflections on being and dying are not abstractions, but known and felt on variously physical and spiritual planes.
Time keeps moving, we move with it, and at a given moment, we cease. Nevertheless, we continue with the notion that “Death exists only for the others,” turning insistently towards any available, immaterial void, “Oh the computer that replaces the cinema of the lost years!”, some fantasy or another. Adnan’s ruminations on the tricks of the mind that it calls reality are never given with disdain, always with an understanding for how pathetic human beings are, yet how resilient. A brightness perseveres, and indications of desire as given proof of being alive, “The fish’s ability to shift environments,” writes Adnan, “makes me want to inhabit the tummy of any whale that swims by the coast, to get out of my skin and lie under his.” She repeatedly refers to the elements and forces of the natural world as sites of wisdom; indications for how a person should be: “The tide comes at its own pace; this is why it never commits a crime.”
As a philosophical poet and painter who often turns to the sun (The Arab Apocalypse, 1989), the sea, (Sea and Fog, 2012) and the indomitable strength of mountains (Journey to Mount Tamalpais, 1986) as points of reference towards the creation of her art, this comes as no surprise. Adnan’s oeuvre has consistently addressed the natural world with awe, humility and a deep inquisitiveness that discernibly shapes and informs her poetics. At this stage in her life’s work, it is evident that this relationship with the forces of the natural world, the cosmos, and the mess that humans make in thinking ourselves separate, has been profoundly considered. Adnan’s wisdom is earned, is breathed, and is made humble because of it.
It is this depth of wisdom that brings the aphoristic quality of Adnan’s work such particular strength. Her declarations—clear shouts to the wind— land not with the arrogance of the unlearned, but with the comprehension of one who knows she cannot know. Adnan is thus taking up a form historically instrumentalized by a dominant tradition of western, male philosophers who have an unattractive tendency to take their perspectives as conclusive fact. Beyond the gender identities of individual thinkers, this is about the implications of patriarchal belief systems in literary conventions of thought. Adnan’s poetics brings the feminine power of the undetermined, casting language around what cannot, ultimately, be made certain. With skill, she uses words to obscure fixed notions of what it is to be a person, to experience pain, to think about it, and refracts thought matter back to the light of the moon. “That kind of motion,” she writes, “alters the world.”