The Poetry Project

Shifting the Silence by Etel Adnan

Review by Molly Schaeffer

“Word-languages are a trap, aren’t they?” (p. 11). Early into its text, Shifting the Silence invites a negation of the thing we’re reading. Though this deft specificity—word-language—seems to draw attention to a lack, its naming gives shape to everything that remains untouched outside it. The signified thing is called out as insufficient but, with its address, Etel Adnan challenges us to seek alternative forms of connection. Where might the limits of word-language lie, and how does our relationship to it—and our need for other communication—change as we age, as our memory sags?

At 95, Adnan brings us a book—a solid thing. But steadfastness, here, isn’t always calming; to stop is to allow one to be engulfed by “the void.” Adnan is preoccupied with movement, with an un-book, other languages: those we might observe, those we know exist as we stand in the tidepool looking down through the shifting water. Word-languages limit, but naming them as such extends. We see all we don’t have access to and, to attempt to transcribe it, chase it, even to know it’s there—that’s another collection of tiny movements proving life. “The tides, which through their restlessness carry a phosphorescence we’re not equipped to hear,” (p. 12) Adnan writes—and we see the phosphorescence upon the word’s impact with our eye. To see it is to acknowledge that we can’t hear it; yet, to know it’s there is to remain outside the stillness, to “open our arms not knowing what else to do, arrest us as if struck by lightning, a soft lightning, a welcome one. I wait for those lights, I know some of you do too, wherever you are, I mean when you are standing by an ocean, alone, within the calmness of your spirit. Be planetary” (p. 17).

I’m orbiting Adnan’s insistence on maintaining movement, even repetitively so—the tide pulls and pulls back again, it never surpasses a relative point on the beach—that seeking or circling or reckoning with an intensity causes “reverberation [that] hurts my eyes, but I am happy” (p. 19). To buoy herself alive, alive some more.

What’s happening here is an insistence to remain, even as the engine slows. “Happening” is an action, movement through recognition, “tornadoes we barely notice” (p. 13). If we know enough to know what’s not, that is. So long as we change, we’re here.

There’s a section in Sheila Heti’s Motherhood about caterpillar transformation:

I recently learned what happens in a cocoon is not that a caterpillar grows wings and turns into a butterfly. Rather, the caterpillar turns to mush. It disintegrates, and out of this mush, a new creature grows. Why does no one talk about the mush? Or how about, for any change at all to happen, we must, for some time, be nothing—be mush. 

Shifting the Silence dwells in the in-between—in the mush, and though it unsparingly talks toward, hurtles toward death, I wouldn’t say Adnan’s mush is any sort of purgatory. The in-between that snakes its way through the text—horizon lines, fog-shapes, tears, negative space, relentless hammering waves—feels akin to a tool, but it’s not a gavel. There is no judgment or precipice of judgment in the mush, which itself proves a capacity for change—proves aliveness. The mush isn’t stagnant, it’s a blurred state. It’s becoming.

The text has quiet moments of indoor reprieve—this is often where Adnan mentions corners—but primarily takes place outside, on a verge: “I reach a land between borders, unclaimed, and stand there as if I were alone, but the rhythm is missing” (p. 2). There’s a kind of omni-dusk that ribbons throughout, that time of day that’s broadly labeled but within it’s some liquid-silver quilt, minutes sliding the sky into evening: “Things are translated into something alien” (p. 13), “the night’s different shades, its infinite richness. Once in a while, there were sounds, the night’s own music, dispersed. There was some visibility but no particular object came to the fore. I could sense waves, I could see obscurity’s own kind of brilliance” (p. 29).

Like all motion Adnan writes of, it’s not about speed, nor is there a need to witness movement; we merely need to know it’s there, that “[t]he horizon’s shimmering slows down all other perceptions” (p. 1), which isn’t to say they aren’t moving. I think of the way a horizon oscillates and wonder if the slowing that comes with a blur is simply a way to be more attentive to pulse, to breath, to slow change, a seed splitting. To look at the horizon necessitates a kind of obfuscation of something already abstracted—we stare out at that line we know is a trick of the eye, and if we stare long enough, and if the sun’s dipping its way down, that brightening ahead makes for a blurry scene. You can’t stare at the sun, you can’t reach the horizon: when the two meet it’s the job of the eyes to make tears, to mush it so we might continue looking, might approach a closer closeness. And again, action is abstracted, but no less real, merely internal: “And melting our eyes in the next horizon. This is a way of not giving up” (p. 21).

I think of Eric Rohmer’s film The Green Ray, which I almost delight in describing as trivially as possible: a young woman in Paris just wants to go on vacation but can’t stop crying. The protagonist, Delphine, has a restlessness that’s palpable, almost comic. Even when she goes to the beach, that neverending expanse, she can’t seem to immerse herself: its crowds and shallow waves thwart her every move, her tears can’t seem to share their salt with the sea. It’s like you just want to push her out into the water and demand she dunk, already.

In a later scene of the film, Delphine overhears a book club talking about Jules Verne’s novel, also called The Green Ray. The actual ray is an optical phenomenon, a rare flash of green light that can only be seen at the moment the sun crosses the horizon line, at which point “you can read your own feelings, and others’ too.” Shifting in her skin, Delphine’s tears might provoke a flash, cumulative tiny motions to reckoning. Adnan’s constantly witnessing this waver: “I had a rendezvous with some sort of destiny, and I arrived late, very late. The sunset had subsided. Only a few lines, badly lit, were still lingering on the sky. I cried, oh not too much, but I sat and cried” (p. 13). Is Adnan channeling her inner Delphine? Crying could be a tool to make clear, a blurring mechanism that teases out key colors and shapes to form a fuller image.

“The thing left to do is to be willing to go to the end of just anything, like burning your eyes, metaphorically and physically, by staring long enough at the sun, like when you were a child (in Beirut), and tears were running down. Those were moments transcending” (p. 24). Adnan takes us from our horizons to hers—which, through that “you,” become ours—and we are an active witness. The sun blends as the horizon blurs eyes send water down the screen of the sky to smudge that descent. Crying is a horizon. The sun ducks and we stare at it to burn a blur through. The blur is movement, not a void. To be shocked into silence isn’t to be stopped: “Silence is a flower, it opens up, dilates, extends its texture, can grow, mutate, return on its steps. It can watch other flowers grow and become what they are” (p. 68).

In these later years Adnan is restless. She dreams of places she knows she’ll never get to see again, “afraid of the day’s end, now I fear the day itself” (p. 36). The day’s end implies another day after it; the day itself a canvas of stop. “The pain of dying is going to be the impossibility of visiting that site one more time” (p. 4).

So many languages—that is to say, moving pieces—in this text are minuscule, or repetitive, or a shred of something larger, a shuffle rather than a leap. Adnan ages. Her personal ocean darkens—that’s the appearance of a great shift, accomplished by many small steps. Her movements are smaller. They are repetitive. They are hers, so she remains.

#262 — Fall 2020