The Brooklyn Rail

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Friday March 25 at 4 pm


The following is one in a series of four texts written by Etel Adnan, initially upon receiving a postcard from Tunisia, from her friend Khaled Najar, who then translated them into Arabic, and published them with his press, TAWBAD. The short poems are direct, darting with politics, with distance, pain, insomnia, the love of detail.


Etel Adnan, Untitled, 1985. Oil on canvas. 30 × 29 inches. Private collection. Courtesy Callicoon Fine Arts.



what is new
in my life: the discovery
of a mass of stars in the
Milky Way

to flee the pocket of air
created by a bomb in
a Baghdad suburb I reread
the words of Al-Sayyab

to ward off adversity,
time speeds up the apparition
of flowers    the children

caught in the trap of our imagination
the angels appear in our
desires; the first light of day
provokes their vanishing

sadness punctures the walls of
the spirit which transforms [so
in rice fields and in trenches]

walk on the perimeter
of your dreams. it’s not
that the ways are blocked
but that the hearts have
succumbed to the wind’s violence

absence. displacement.
waiting. then comes rejection.
anger follows. shame makes
the beds

the shadows crowd between
the walls of the scarcely visited cities.
time nips at our heels we are
afraid to arrive last

I love the rain when it
envelops me as much as a
river. it grafts me to the clouds.
I partake in the qualities
of the sky. I grow
like a tree

the souls of the disappeared use
the television screen
tell me nothing
don’t knock at my door

can spring age in
a few hours? the outcome
of this battle depends on
the response to this question

a head riddled with bullets
filters the pain drop by
drop on the floor of
the kitchen where the family gathers

when thoughts come out all
colored from the brain’s corridors
the great paintings on
which are born the looks
wear out, and depart

there are wounds
waiting for the heart
to dress them

she buried her face
in a mattress the curve
of her back showed the loss
was unbearable

bleeding, a windy
crossroads, a taxi. this is how
the days begin

everything falls in the autumn
of contradictions. the past
inhabits us in the most
poisonous forms because blood is
polluted with fatty matter,
and with thoughts

halos of cold gas
separate us from our origins. our
perceptions surf on a ray
of light

in the meantime I swim in the
afternoon sun toward the
pleasure of the senses … even though
it can only be spent
in the body’s passivity

the great apes were mutilated
by mens’ jealousy. our
conversations remain faithful to
their banality

the sea is unleashed
and the earth is without support

blue-shaded lightning bolts
argue over the solitude of every fragment of
Being, of every will to live

Paradise Lost is not summed up
by an affair of palm groves.
and if I told you it was made
of sleeping bodies and early
wakings …

in the nonchalance of this day
the shadows stretch
under the trees to mingle
better with the night

we take the boat parting
for the islands even as
the horizon travels to the rhythm of
our inexistence

drink a glass of wine, you will be
warm in your body, you
will think of Dionysus

we were born at the origin of
sadness that’s why our parties
astonish. they end up
burning children and houses

the stars go out at intervals
of several seconds; the time
it takes information to cross
I watched the sky a-sheep
with clouds; I saw Arab
poets sitting in front of black coffees

I witnessed their efforts.
some sold their words
for a bite of bread,
others, their wives, but none
of them relinquished their

I went to sleep in sheets
bathed in my sweat. the month
of August in Beirut happens
without the world knowing

there is no other consolation
left against pain than
pain itself

desire intensifies on the
silver edge of the sea. my friends,
don’t wait for me any longer, my heart
is in the profusion of the same spring
as yours

listen to the sound of your arteries:
they were formed in the image
of the great rivers of Africa
that carry more fire than water

the mountain becomes a slide
of the razor. the moon is eaten
by the eclipse. the women, in the
morning, swim to rid
their body of insomnia, of sweat,
and of endured kisses

me, I love the still
sunsets. I fear the day
as much as the night




Etel Adnan

ETEL ADNAN was born in 1925 and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Her mother was a Greek from Smyrna, her father, a high ranking Ottoman officer born in Damascus. In Lebanon, she was educated in French schools. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris. In January 1955 she went to the United States to pursue post-graduate studies in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, and Harvard. From 1958 to 1972, she taught philosophy at Dominican College of San Rafael, California.
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.” In 1972, she moved back to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers?first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient le Jour. She stayed in Lebanon until 1976. In 1977, her novel Sitt Marie-Rose was published in Paris, and won the “France-Pays Arabes” award. This novel has been translated into more than ten languages, and was to have an immense influence, becoming a classic of War Literature. Adnan lives in Paris.


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APR 2016

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