Writing as “a window on the world”: Etel Adnan’s Night

How does the poet situate their body in relation to the world? The Western literary canon is full of examples of white male poets who claim a transcendental, universal voice to speak for nature. The apostrophe  (a shift in address from the reader toward something else, e.g., Wordsworth’s “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being!”) is one formal mechanism of this kind of invocation in Romantic lyric tradition. In The Pursuit of Signs, Jonathan Culler deconstructs the apostrophe as a performance to “alert the reader…to the transforming and animating activity of the poetic voice. The ‘you’ is a projection of that voice” (148). That is, the poet’s invocation of  another entity, usually in nature, serves only to project the male writer’s poetic voice and authority. I would consider this projection a solipsistic violence, insofar as it erases voices of alterity and further centers the experiences of white men as universal.

Etal Adnan, a Lebanese lesbian poet, challenges this dynamic in her lyric collection Night by positing a different, queer relationship with nature. Her poetry turns to traces like shadows and memories to explore the embodied epistemologies of nature, mediated in human terms.  Rather than presuming to speak for nature in a universal voice, Adnan demonstrates a radical receptivity to the universe’s voices. “By the way, we’re just a window on the world,” she writes (35). Windows are porous membranes: we look outward and discover more about ourselves, oscillating between reflection and refraction. To resignify the poet’s subject position as a window is to articulate a task of openness to show us what’s outside (as well as inside–for, after all, language is not a one-way window).

Adnan’s receptivity looks like fine-tuned attention to detail, at the microscopic and cosmic level alike. Her lens shifts in scale and orientation, defamiliarizing the surroundings we thought we knew and re-introducing us to nature. Adnan finds fullness in apparent voids and excess both within and without the self–an ecstatic acount of nature (ekstasis: outside the self). Adnan’s metaphors queerly blurs the line between human and non-human, between the abstract and the corporeal (as well as the spiritual). A few choice lines:

“My memories form a forest with unstable boundaries” (17)

“Night is a subtle rain, wetting body and soul.” (19)

“I can hear the night’s pulse. Divine will circulates around its edges.” (26)

“Water brings energy the way memory creates identity” (31).

If we listen hard enough, Adnan invites us to imagine “non-human memories from where our own surges, take us to the next thing” (16). The subjectivity of nature becomes a metaphor to re-enter her own subjectivity. For example: “I lived exclusively by my own wits, this is why I am a river” (35). This becoming is different than the Romantic embodiment I mentioned before–in this metaphor the poet’s self does not speak for a river; instead, the poet understands herself through the empathetic exercise of imagining the river’s subjectivity (how it lives exclusively by its own wits).

Adnan’s aphorisms and other dialogic forms, such as her “Conversations with my soul,” veer toward the philosophical. On the opening page, she suggests that “Philosophy brings us back to simplicity” (9).  However, her odyssey through the body of night troubles the idea of knowledge authority. Adnan frames philosophy as a series of investigative inquiries in place of assertive axioms,  bringing us ultimately to a point of aporia: a liminal and irresolute space of mystery. We are dizzied, in awe: “Each day is a whole world. / Worlds are pursuing their odyssey” (22).

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