The Poetry Project

Mirene Arsanios

I don’t know how to remember Etel Adnan, a “person of the perpetual present,” or how to look back at her life without grieving the loss of a way of being in the world—one stubbornly anchored in a love of life and faith in humanist values. “J’aime le fait que la vie existe,” she said in a short clip widely shared on social media shortly after her death. “I love the fact that life exists”—a conviction increasingly harder to sustain on a planet in which life is relentlessly violated.

Throughout sa vie, Etel witnessed the world end and begin anew several times: she lived through the Nakba, the Vietnam War, the Lebanese Civil war, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently, Syria—each calamity bringing forth new and more deranged world orders. She wrote these disasters in her poems, addressing History with a capital “H.” But she also wrote of a kind of time extraneous to linear progression: the time it takes for a mountain to become language or for fog to dissolve space, the messianic time of black suns.

If I’m having trouble writing about remembering Etel it is because every single thought about Etel yields another thought about Etel, none of which can truly capture the totality I want to convey, or the continuum in which she lived, the way her phenomenological attunement to natural elements shared with her political engagement a same luminous presence. I also struggle with punctuation; semicolons and dashes introducing parenthetical subordinates that are as important as main clauses; I want to say everything at the same time. Perhaps we need more than sentences, a linguistic system on the verge of codification like the one in The Arab Apocalypse where hieroglyph-like symbols illustrate the multitude at the root of every creative gesture. Perhaps to remember Etel is to extend writing beyond the page.

Like the cafe in which I first met her in Hamra, Beirut. I think my father was there and that he introduced us, my younger, semi-clueless self—long hair, summer tan, red tank top, always mildly hungover—completely unaware that, as a Lebanese writer who would later live in the United States, I would become one of Etel’s many spiritual children, or that I would inhabit her work like an environment both familiar in its references and obscure in its mysticism that I often desire but can’t fully comprehend, or that I would learn to model the relationship to my fractured identities in the way she never reduced herself to a single being or gave in to the demands of an estranging market logic, or that I would teach To Write in a Foreign Language, prompting my students to write essays that begin with “Languages start at home, so I will start with the history of my involvement with many languages…,” or that I would one day write long, tangled sentences to remember her because I want to keep remembering the way she taught us to chase the light and to remain in awe at “le fait que la vie existe.”

Etel Adnan Remembrances