In a meeting with my students at the American University of Beirut on December 14, 2000, the Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan told us that she began writing her long, prophetic poem “The Arab Apocalypse” (The Post-Apollo Press, 1989) in January 1975 in Beirut, two months before the outbreak of the Lebanese War (1975-1990). “Then, the war took the poem over,” said Adnan, and she added: “The war wrote this poem. I started with tensions and rhythms and later wrote 59 pages corresponding to the 59 days of the Tal-el-Zaatar (a Palestinian camp in the outskirts of Beirut, destroyed by the Lebanese Forces in 1976) siege and destruction.”
An elegiac tone is set as the poet sings,
O Camp of thyme and verbena carrion-smelling Tell Zaatar.
And the poetry is shattered by cannons and storms:
The BIG RED SPOT of Jupiter is a storm. Matter is desperate/ Beirut is eaten by civil war children listen to the roar of cannons matter in fury turns in circles/ in the big void of the planets Beirut wallows in misfortune HOU ! / HOU ! / HOU ! / Beirut bleeds matter circles in tornadoes on nebulae’s surfaces O Milky Way!/ more blood than milk more pus than wine Jupiter/ defies the sun a yellow sun makes love to Jupiter/ hatred is filled with phosphorus jealousy wears a black ribbon/ Jupiter gets away from the sun and runs back to it: it is a hunting dog/ any Arab crowd is a crowd of poets. Listen to its maledictions! incandescent planets darkly flutter in the heart of the war.
geomagnetic forces dry up our regions We implore the rain we receive solar particles We want to see We are blind
We go in hordes to praise the Lord the solar Face is pitiless/ Jupiter and the sun fight over Gilgamesh’s mortal remains.
I chose this arresting example at random from the 59 sections which form “The Arab Apocalypse.” Each piece occupies a page or sometimes less than a page with verse so powerful, however, that it invades the blank space and spills over from all sides. Adnan’s surrealistic language pushes her poetry to the extreme limits of expression in words. Totally banishing verisimilitude, Adnan’s anger and rebellion burst forth, literally and figuratively, in hundreds of splinters. And when words fail to convey the poet’s extreme passion, tiny drawings in thick black ink, dots, arrows, and other visual elements enter into the game as she cleverly mixes poetry and painting. The musical element is also very much present in the syncopated sun imagery which lies at the core of the poem. As the sun imagery immediately sets the tone, the color, and the climate of the poem, jazz-like rhythms beat the perfect accompaniment. We read the grand overture of the poem:
A yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun, a blue sun a sun/ A sun a blue a red a blue/ a blue yellow sun a yellow red sun a blue green sun / yellow boat a yellow sun/ a red a red blue and yellow a yellow morning on a green sun a flower/ flower on a blue blue but a yellow sun A green sun a yellow sun A red sun a blue sun
a yellow A sun a small craft a boat a red blue
a quiet blue sun on a card table a red which is blue and a wheel/ A solar sun a lunar sun a starry sun a nebular sun A yellow sun/ A green sun a yellow sun Qorraich runner ran/ A blue sun before a red sun a green sun before a lunar sun/ A floral sun a small craft as round as a round sun A solar moon
Another sun jealous of Yellow enamoured of Red terrified by Blue horizontal/ A sun romantic as Yellow jealous as Blue amorous as a cloud/ A frail sun a timid sun vain sorrowful and bellicose sun/ A Pharaonic boat an Egyptian sun a solar universe and a universal sun
A solar arrow crosses the sky An eye dreads the sun the sun is an eye/ A tubular sun haunted by the tubes of the sea a sun pernicious and vain/ A Hopi a Red Indian sun an Arab Black Sun a sun yellow and blue.
In this fashion, throughout the poem, different types, irregular verses, blanks, harsh rhythms, very small drawings abruptly interrupted, or in contrast long elegiac lines combine to create a totally liberated versification. Free, free, free...is what the reader feels like saying, as he runs and gasps to catch up with the maddening pace of the words, as she is totally intoxicated with the unbridled imagery.
André Breton comes to mind. The high priest of surrealism aspired to create shock images with fire-like characteristics. Such images would bring together remote elements of reality, provoking endless sparks and burning metaphors. Thus, Breton added, poetic intuition would be totally free; new forms and new structures would come forth, and a surreal vision would be born. Adnan’s sun metaphors perfectly reflect Breton’s fire imagery.
Indeed, in the wake of the surrealist poets, Adnan’s language ceases to be an instrument she commands. Instead, the language takes off, becomes the subject itself, conquering all elements. The poet’s freedom and that of language are totally fused, and a tremendous amount of energy is released. An immediate relationship binds the poet’s apocalyptic mood to language itself. No intermediary is needed. A voice speaks, formulating words that seem to precede rationality, to function paradoxically at the pre-verbal level of humanity. The surrealists’ automatic writing appears to be operating here.
Adnan’s sun images sparkle, flitter, then abruptly dim as they run throughout the poem incorporating a kaleidoscope of color and light. Adnan brilliantly uses a cluster of other devices which has defined modern poetry since Baudelaire. The poet telescopes epochs, cultures, and historical and legendary figures, giving an epic dimension to her poem. The utter destruction of the Palestinian camp in Beirut in 1976 — the poem’s point of departure — is propelled forward by other universal destructions announcing the waning of the sun and the end of time: There is a refuge only in death, the poet writes, there is no refuge but in fire. Beirut, Jerusalem, Babylon, Mari...; the killing of the Kurds, Armenians, Indians, Palestinians... all are fused: Syrian races Oinsane nomads drinkers of dust, laments the poet. A desperate cry follows: Stop the war / the war laid its flowers under tombs, and later: Bread is a piece of steel, the sun is an Arab corpse. The poet, prophet of a useless nation, lowers her voice and continues in a highly stylized imagery: the sun is a frozen lemon [...] / Each wounded is a dead man Beirut is a corpse presented on a silver platter.
Biblical overtones intensify Adnan’s elegy, while free words, tattered sentences, broken ideas, dried up images — or, in contrast, brutal, incoherent, incandescent ones — announce the end of Time:
OUT OUT of TIME there is spring’s shattered hope
In the deluge on our plains there are no rains but stones.
“Eliotic” echoes reverberate without any hope for the rain. Adnan’s Wounded Beirut is captured in an instant and a space at the brink of a total disaster. Indeed, Adnan’s dislocation of reality, the high voltage words and metaphors, and the jarring juxtapositions of a range of contrasted feelings all remind the reader that the poet is also a painter. Highly visual, her cosmic vision turns “The Arab Apocalypse” into the Arabs’ Guernica.
In conclusion, Etel Anan’s grand poem announced a biblical type of Apocalypse. One wonders what the coming millennium has in store for us “human, all too human.” Will Adnan’s Apocalypse give birth to a better world in which antinomies will be resolved?
Such questions shimmer in the mind with great reverberation. Answers are yet to come.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, No. 34 (Winter 2001)
© Copyright 2001, 2015 AL JADID MAGAZINE