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Lebanese-American artist, philosopher, and poet Etel Adnan’s recent publication, Night (Nightboat Books, 2016), is in equal measure a series of meditations on intersubjectivity and spirituality, and a dialogue between prose poetry and short verse. But it’s a contrast to the usual songs of the self, which emphasize intensity of feeling and an essence of the person that exists beyond the constraints of language. Night shows that language itself is more supple than reductive ideas of feeling or essence, which either instrumentalize language or try to surpass it.
The language Adnan uses is clear, although her ideas are complex. Because of this, her language can appear confusing, as if one is looking through a crystal and, seeing simultaneous refractions of light. Yet this refracted clarity compliments well her motif, night. Night, signified by darkness for Adnan, calls out for illumination or clarity. However, that illumination would be impossible without the precondition of darkness.
It’s unusual to see a poet write poetry with philosophical subtlety — the diametrical opposite of the Conceptual Poets who use allegory and trompe l’oeil effects to make a larger point. For example, Adnan writes philosophically and movingly about one of the greatest pre-modern poetic and philosophical subjects, “God”:
It was also said that God was light, so that nobody and nothing could see Him. But some did. Therefore He is not light.
He resides in the night. There’s an affinity between the functions of our brain and those of God. He is memory, and the brain is an agent borrowing that memory, and it functions in total darkness. Like everything divine.
What we mean by “God” is that He is night. Reality is night too. From the same night. (37)
Adnan shows that “the divine” is both transcendent and material. Although God shows “an affinity” with human thinking and action, God lives in “total darkness,” without illumination, while “we” desire illumination — clarity. Adnan rejects illumination to embrace both reality and the divine in an unclear state of “total darkness.”
This dense passage contrasts reason (“the functions of our brain”) and unreasoned experience (“memory”) — then collapses them into each other (“the same night”). Only William Blake comes close to this in his serious considerations of the divine, and in the manner he employs reason on behalf of poetry.
But must one make a choice between the unreason of poetry and the reason of philosophy? Adnan doesn’t seem interested in proving a theoretical point. Her writing overwhelms any simple method of investigation, much as light shows color through refractions in a crystal. For example, in the verse sequence “Conversations with my soul,” Adnan continues her exploration of the divine by asking:
am I only because I have been? (47)
The pause before “am I only because I have been?” is as much a mark of the epistolary genre as it is an apparent hesitation before asking about oneself. The self may be a space of obscure darkness for Adnan, but without language it doesn’t seem to exist. Her poetry has the capacity to assemble and discern the “sides” of the self as well as the literature and literary personalities which frame the self of her writing.
Adnan turns her earlier rumination on the obscurity of reality and God into a dialogue between the two Blakean aspects of herself: her “shadow,” the part of the self that remains unintegrated and only half-consciously known, and the “spectre” of reason, which casts doubts and asks questions. But reason leads to further obscurity for Adnan: by showing an affinity with Blakean mythology, she shows a preference for written language over a distillation of pure ideas or points which summarize a poetics.
In the same poem she later evokes an often-vilified poet, Ezra Pound, whose theories and poetry have recently been subject to charges of racism and anti-Semitism, and whose legacy as a modernist “master” translator and poet has been questioned as a reification of aggressive and orientalist fantasies. I have no doubt that Adnan is aware of the charges against Pound — so what is the purpose of bringing him into the poem? She doesn’t seem to be excoriating him.
Ezra Pound is
climbing a volcano,
his thoughts, burning
And me hearing water running down,
the living room… (49)
Adnan writes these two tercets as contrasts of him/me, upward/outward, and interiority/exteriority. Even “burning” thought is answered with an ellipsis. But this is not creating moral opposition or answering critiques— if anything, Pound is shown as the more vigorous of the two. But like the spectre of reason and its shadow, Pound and Adnan show complimentary aspects of the self in this instance. Adnan is absorbing the legacy and energy of Pound at the same time that she is asserting her own capacity as “the living room”: the space where people can relax.
When Adnan looks to origins of the physical body in the prose section of Night, the grounds for its existence and its potential to expand beyond its apparent self grow dimmer:
Born in a sealed room, where night is origin, I will say that something always remains from anything, even from nothingness. (11)
Instead of undertaking a philosophical inquiry, the philosophical project of Night seems to be to make manifest the apparent contradictions and paradoxes of such an inquiry. For if a sealed room is taken to be a limited number of possibilities, and night and the obscurity of darkness is the origin of the writer, the “something that remains” is paradoxically the lack (“nothingness”) of the self. And what is nothing if not the absence of an identifiable thing? Adnan’s poetry revels in “the thing” as something imprecise and ultimately unnameable. This is what makes poetry in general: not seeking to explain away the darkness or apparent confusion, but letting language show it indefinite nature.
Fittingly, earlier in the volume she invokes the Western philosopher perhaps closest to Blake or Pound in spirit, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche called for a renewal of the volcanic Dionysian spirit of destruction and creation, through which the self would be affirmed. He himself used writing as a primary form of affirmation, letting the complexities of the words and thought affirm their difficulty. Similar to the way she treats Pound, Adnan cuts across literary history in order to both dissolve and affirm the self through writing.
Coming, coming, and coming again, the tides repeat Nietzsche’s recurring passion for Dionysus, sustain his vision of the eternal return of heroic times. For now, it’s the return and the return of the ocean repeating itself over itself, water on water, movement over movement, waves over waves, breathing following breathing, affirmation coming over
Here we see Adnan raising poetry past both expression and technique towards what might be called “thought.” Yet thought here is guided and put into motion by language: what one thinks is predicated upon what one writes. Night stands as testament to that kind thought which remains unpredictable. Instead of looking for a way to clarify difficulties, Adnan is at home in the murk, seeing it clearly and defiantly.