E. underlines a line in my poem, writing in the margin—Etel Adnan! The words are in fact Forough’s, taken from the disintegrating recording of her poem ‘Earthly Verses’ that sent chills through me and my mother as we listened. Forough’s prophetic and apocalyptic vision was written 60 years ago, 20 years before Etel’s own apocalypse poem.
Apocalypse. From Greek apokalupsis, from apokaluptein ‘uncover, reveal’, from apo- ‘un-’ + kaluptein ‘to cover’. To un-cover.
I spend the night absorbed inside Etel’s The Arab Apocalypse. I’m struck by the uncanny resonance of the first line in ‘XXXVI’: ‘In the dark irritation of the eyes there is a snake hiding.’
I recall the experience of hearing Bhanu read from Etel’s The Spring Flowers Own in April for her Close Reading contribution to the Flow Chart Foundation series followed by reading from her own poem ‘Seven poems for Seven Flowers and Love in All Its Forms’:
I am trying to write about something that is private to my family. / Someone I love is gone. / I can’t write about this here, but I want to mark it. / To press it in this poem. / Just as the night eats every flower. / Just as memory resembles floral output or energy.
Cooking dinner, I half listen, half watch a conversation between Edward Said and Salman Rushdie. Said expands on the idea that repetition is crucial to Palestinian identity, explaining that Palestinians must repeat their story over and over again in order to keep it alive in the face of persistent erasure, ‘like Scheherezade’ he says.
I think of an interview with Derek Jarman on Blue, where he too invokes Scheherezade (more accurately translated into English as Shahrazad), the skilful narrator who tells stories each night to appease a murderous King, not only for her own survival but of all women under the oppressive regime. Weaving stories in an ever expanding web to see the sunrise once more.
Shahrazad’s framing story has long fascinated me, more so than the tales themselves. A new edition of Arabian Nights has been recently translated by Syrian poet Yasmine Seale, who is the first Arab speaking woman to translate the tales into English. In the introduction to the text, editor Paul Lemos Horta writes that Yasmine’s translation seeks to recover Shahrazad’s voice as central to the telling of the tales. A voice eroded over the many translations performed by “the dynasty of masculine English translators.” Among other motivations, this new translation also attempts to do away with the Orientalism imposed onto the shapeshifting story cycle by this long lineage of Western translators.
Another translation session with my mother. The words - written in the form of diaristic notes - are my own.
I think back to an essay H. shared with me by Etel Adnan - ‘To Write in a Foreign Language’: ‘Someone can stand up and ask me why didn’t I, on my own, learn Arabic? This is a question that sometimes haunts me.’ Like Etel, I am both a stranger and native to the land of the mother tongue.
Etel’s words call to mind Paul Celan, who, when asked why he continued to write in German after the war, replied, ‘only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth … in a foreign tongue the poet lies.’
Early morning message from M. ‘Bhanu!’ After a moment of confusion, the penny drops and I open the podcast app on my phone: Bhanu in conversation with David. Cocooned in a bean bag dragged under a blossoming tree, I listen. A salve. I call to mind Alanis’s instruction to listen not only to the words spoken but the sound of the voice: this is how one should listen to Bhanu.
I latch onto her term ‘notebook genre’ which she uses to describe her work, though I detect some hesitation in her voice in labelling writing that resists categorisation. I think back to her conversation on Tender Buttons where she touches on a difficult period in her life, during her mid-30s, describing it as a non-time, a void time, a notebook time. Writing without the intention of a readership.
I find Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, which arrived in the post some weeks ago now. It’s been buried under stacks of books arranged in piles around the living room as I’ve unpacked my library. I open the book from right to left, a habit from childhood. Beginning at the end.
Note 248: ‘This is a love letter to my mother.’
I think of Chantal, who considered her entire oeuvre a love letter to her mother Natalia, the only member of her family who survived the Holocaust. In Hemlock Forest (2016), Moyra writes that: ‘[her 2011 film] Les Goddesses was a love letter to my family.’ I read Hemlock Forest as a continuing love letter to Moyra’s kin, namely to her son, but also to Chantal, and perhaps through her, a love letter to Natalia. Amator was a love letter to my mother and to my family through my mother’s eyes, hands and tongue.
As I leaf through Ordinary Notes, I’m drawn to a page on which there is a reproduction of a photograph of Christina's mother and grandmother.
‘It is my mother’s hands in the photograph that constitute what Roland Barthes called the punctum—the detail, “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”’
Reading the surrounding notes, Christina’s critique of Barthes, who she writes ‘constructs a universal taxonomy of the photograph … But there is no universal taxonomy,’ reveals to me my own uncritical reading of Camera Lucida.
Christina writes that many of the photographic examples in Barthes's study of photography are of Black people, taken from both colonial and personal archives. Quoting Jonathan Beller, ‘[w]ith respect to practices of looking, there is a deep-seated dialectic, if you will, between racism and photography,’ she goes on to elucidate that ‘Barthes’s survey of blackness is a gaze and not a look.’
Feeling regret over not having read her book earlier, I close this doc. and settle into the late morning sun to read—from the beginning—Christina’s notes.