How does a poet’s work change as her perspectives shift decade after decade? A life containing a publication history as prolific as Etel Adnan’s resonates differently than one unrecorded, no matter its length. That is, whatever Adnan was thinking about in the 1960s, the 1980s, the 2000s remains vibrant in her previously published work, something that not every writer can claim as a legacy. In Surge, a new book of (mostly) taut prose formations, what she is thinking about at 93 seems to be the whole range of life on earth, explored with a more palpable sense of mortality than perhaps she could have expressed at 43 or 53. The moon, computers, volcanoes, the financial system, birds, marriage…nothing is too small, too large, too abstract nor too specific for her to meditate upon. The action of the book is like a sewing machine: jabbing deeply and decisively into a subject and then quickly moving on. For example: “Death exists only for the others. Then, tell me, can we keep speaking of the dead as we do of people alive?”
Such economy and philosophy could meet only in the work of a poet who has practiced for decades. For about 35 pages, Adnan records thoughts along this line, everyday reflections that feel like aphorisms and wash too quickly across the mind. It would be better to stop after every piece of prose and think, let the fragment absorb, before moving on. The sensation of reading Surge is challenging to summarize or communicate. The language is so simple as to be unremarkable, and although the poet artfully uses generous white space between blocks of prose, the blocks are so small that the breaks feel less like signal flags and more like breaths, easy and involuntary. Lines like “Yellow leaves in yellow wind” feel monumental. The book reads as if the wisdom of nine decades is being presented in compact segments, and it’s impossible to slow its continuous nature in order to comprehend it—or perhaps just feel it—deeply enough. Even Adnan knows this is not possible in today’s world: “We can’t stop this inner flow, this river of ideas that traverses our brain, that we freeze, and call it mind, call it the bed of reality.”
In its aphoristic nature, the book is similar to Sarah Manguso’s small and potent 300 Arguments, but Manguso’s title indicates her attitude in the book. Adnan’s work does not seek to persuade, but to observe. In its parataxis, its stacking of meaning in tiny chunks, Surge calls up the later work of David Markson; however, his occupation with death in The Last Novel was not as dignified as Adnan’s in this work. “At some point, we’ll stand, move, go, will not return,” she writes. “Time continues to speed frantically, remembering that it was once a divinity.” And unlike Markson, Adnan is not interested in recounting the past—telling a story of it—so much as observing it—granting responsibility to the reader to make meaning of it. Even as it grants the reader such power, however, the book insists that our corner of life, as individual people, is much smaller than the spread of life on earth.
Or, as she writes in the poem, “Conversations with my soul (III)” that composes the last seven pages of Surge: “A long night I spent / thinking that reality was the story / of the human species.” After three dozen pages of compressed prose fragments, Adnan closes the book with this poem, perhaps as one might turn to an old friend after a long lecture to strangers. “Conversations with my soul (III)” reprises many of the same themes and words from earlier, but the distinction between the two sections, prose and poetry, lies in the organization of Surge’s prose into full sentences that accumulate together, and then shift and sway apart. By contrast, “Conversations” feels not like a sentence, an organized syntactic unit, but like a continuity of thought arranged on the page.
With its two formally distinct sections, the book resembles a diptych: two mirrors reflecting each other’s concerns. Whatever it is, Surge is special. It’s a beautiful, profoundly thoughtful book, much larger than its page count and much more vulnerable than its confident style suggests.