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Lisa Suhair Majaj and Amal Amireh (eds.). Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist.

Lisa Suhair Majaj and Amal Amireh (eds.). Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002. 221 pages. Paper $28.50

[Written in ten-line prose-poetic form]

However far out into solarity, however into the ether the great Etel Adnan soars with her imagery, in flight that's a deeply hidden desire of a desperate Arab world to escape the horrors of colonialisms within and without, it is from the very ground of those atrocities that her words are born, herself a daring nomad poet who understands that homelessness is not simply a physical condtion for millions but a destiny for all in these alienated (and, for the Arab world, doubly alienated) times.

The essays in this book, which is the first collected recognition in the English language of this eminently important contemporary poet and artist, do indeed touch upon the wanderings, as it were, of Adnan--the importance of places like her native Lebanon, as well as Paris, and California. The book is divided into two parts, preceded by two essays by the editors themselves, the first locating Adnan within a literary context, the second presenting a brief but succinct biography beginning with her birth in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925. Following these introductories,

The book is composed of a first section of six essays on Adnan as a poet and artist; a second section is made up of six essays on her most important prose work, the prose-poetic document called Sitt Marie Rose, a deeply moving homage to a woman political activist who fell victim to middle-eastern fascism. This work, now in its sixth edition and translated into many languages, is the one by which Adnan is most generally "known" to a reading public. But it is important to understand the dynamic that underlies that work, as well as all her written and, even, graphic works.

I mean by dynamic the driving energy-core that sets her in motion as a creator. It is the poem as passion. Simple as that. But with Adnan--and this is what distinguishes her from other poets--that passion is red by two other, to some contradictory, forces: philosophy and journalism. By philosophy I mean the drive to understand the truth of the meaning of existence. And by journalism I mean the breathing in and out of the daily horrors that the peoples of the world are subjected to. Adnan has worked as a journalist, and she has taught philosophy as well.

But where others who are poets have refused to allow those dimensions of human understanding to serve and nourish the poetic core of their being--seeing them as either a form of academic necessity, of a workaday job that could not dignify so fine an art as poetry, Adnan has embraced both, out of the deeper necessity of trying to remove the boot of capitalist oppression from the neck of both islamic and christian worlds. And she has done so because, to her, philosophy and reportage, as well as the act of drawing, all are the same as, or "on the way" to, writing a poem.

In a very recent and, I believe, in the time I am writing this review (June 2003), unpublished poem of Etel's called "The Coming War" (written between the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and its invasion of Iraq), writing of Afghani prisoners, she says: their children jump high in the air, but their feet remain on the ground. If ever lines reflected Adnan's work itself, it is these, and the resonance is to both the philosophical and the quotidianly grounded imagery which informs all of her poetry.

It should be plain by this time I'm partisan to this poet and woman. I was aware almost 30 years ago, when in San Francisco I read a translation of Jebu and The Beirut-Hell Express that Adnan was a major voice in the French language. Since the death of Antonin Artaud in the late 1940s, the greatness of poetry in French has come out of Third World necessities, rather than from the voids of post WWII within France itself. I am thinking of Rene Depestre of Haiti, Aime Cesaire of Martinique, Ismail Ait Djafer of Algeria. These are the poets who saved the French language

and Adnan is among them, of that I was and still am certain. Eric Sellin, in his essay in this anthology of tributes to Adnan's work, sees her in a cosmic context. Which is true. But the cosmos that Adnan delineates is one that includes flights of imagery that are almost sci-fi but which are never left in space but continually return to the atrocity of the wringing of the Fertile Crescent by the beast hands of capitalism. I am no fan of science fiction, but to my mind no poet has so successfully used imagery of flight from oppression with such brilliance, counterposing the newest with the oldest civilizations, the better, hopefully, to re-civilize us all.

And when I was asked in 1989 (by which time I'd become good friends with Etel and her publisher partner Simone Fattal) to write the back-cover blurb for the American-English edition of Adnan's The Arab Apocalypse, I found myself in the presence of an immensely important work--a tapestry (for Etel is also a great creator of tapestries and in this work has transferred many of the intricacies of weaving to the written word), as well as a contemporary palimpsest, in the sense that the verbal constructions are punctuated throughout with both pictographic and hieroglyphic forms, amid images of militant thrusts, cries, gasps, stutters, abruptions and burning suns.

And yet the work--from the point of view of words and images--with its constant woof and warp of despairs and affirmations and joys of Arab life can be entered, as if beginning were everywhere, at any given point, and one can find oneself in its meanings and revealed truths, so much so, with its dynamism of chanceless chance and destined accident/incident so much a part of the texture of the poems, I was impelled to compare it to the Chinese Book of Changes, at which one threw one's senses instead of coins, because there is a thread of oracularity in the work that underlies the many strata of imagery in which the whole panorama of the Arab world is embedded.

The 59 poems that comprise The Arab Apocalypse are discussed with brilliance and understanding by Caroline Seymour-Jorn in her essay in this anthology. She clarifies Adnan's ironic use of the telegram--her many STOPs used throughout the text as both messages sent and cries for order amid the general chaos; --and she takes no step backward in delineating the militant message of warning that underlies Adnan's creation of verbally tapestried plateaus of cries and admonitions: that colonialisms, within and from without the Arab world must end of there will be an Armageddon such as never before has visited the people of the world.

If anything can be said toward future forays into the world of Etel Adnan, it is that the Sellin and Seymiour-Jom essays, as well as the excellent one on Etel's visual work presented by Simone Fattal, could and should be extended into book-length studies. In and of themselves, each of them is brilliantly composed, but because the space of the book demanded limitations, we are everywhere left with a sense that more, and still more, needs to be written about the poems and the art. Make no mistake: Etel Adnan is one of the major voices of our time, and this anthology of essays is a superb beginning of that honored recognition.

Jack Hirschman is an American poet who is currently traveling in Italy where he read his poetry with Etel Adnan at an international festival of poets. This City Lights published a 50-year selection of his poems. He also works with the League of Revolutionaries fora New America.
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Author:Hirschman, Jack
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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