In Review: Shifting the Silence by Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan dispenses down-to-earth wisdom in her poetic work Shifting the Silence, bringing readers along as she recounts her global travels and lessons learned. We are lucky to glimpse her 95 years of life condensed into these pages, and thumb through her thoughts on the passage of life. Hailed as a meditation or rumination on the inevitability of dying, this work has a blunt calmness that makes  conversation about death seem like a light-hearted talk over tea rather than a morbid whispering.

Adnan addresses the pain of dying is in its finality, the inability to go back, but she also inserts a touch of humerous exasperation with the wonder, “how many tomorrows do I have to worry about?” There is a tired bitterness in the question fundamentally, but not in the way she asks it. She speaks of eternity as a useless concept, and asserts that eternity probably only lasts for a little while too, so it is pointless to entertain the idea that our days could go on forever. She seems not in a hurry to live or to die.

“how many tomorrows do I have to worry about?”

Her words in stream-of-consciousness form rather than separate poems enhance the feeling of just drifting through the book, through time, through life. Adnan sprinkles her thoughtful inquiries throughout, envisioning the ideal place to spend the night – or to die – as straightforwardly as discussing where to pack up and move house. The notion of moving on, at its core, is the same, and the ease with which she confronts death as a natural next stage is comforting.

Many of us are just gathering dust here, half-awake and not appreciative enough of our lives, leading a somewhat melancholic existence. We don’t have an inkling of what we’ve missed or what we’re waiting for. The earth as we know it is dying, but we don’t have many solid facts about what to expect next, in the grand scheme of things. “We’re in the universe, but don’t really know where we are,” Adnan points out.  There is much we cannot be certain of, but there is much we can value regardless.

We distract ourselves from our personal destinies and the fate of the world. We are encouraged to celebrate the beauty we can observe in this very moment, expand our brain cells devoted to tides and mountains. Adnan details for us the lovely geography of the countries she has visited, keeping us up to date on the city and weather throughout her mindscape of a book. “The fish is calling for help. As I am, often, these days,” she confesses after an offhand comment on a heat wave in Paris. She grounds us in the magnificence of the lands she wants us to hold dear, but also inspires us to mourn and to accept the inescapability of saying goodbye.

“The fish is calling for help. As I am, often, these days”

In silence and solitude there are miracles; in absence there is a special kind of presence; in loneliness there is an ending but also a new beginning. Etel Adnan does not give us a hopeful worldview in the sense of a circle of life, necessarily, as she concentrates on a linear life from start to finish without much dwelling on an afterlife or rebirth. However, she does give us the logical reassurance that life in some form will go on without us.

The world does not revolve around us, and this can lift a burden of anxiety off our collective shoulders, that to some extent what we do does not matter. Of course there is despondence hand-in-hand with this realization. Adnan acknowledges this frustrated hopelessness with the admission, “I feel deprived of the things that used to carry me forward.” How flat and barren we can be when we are not fully at our best or happiest. This is just another part of the realism with which Adnan outlines her emotional journey through life. Everything is fleeting, the good and bad alike, and everything deserves our clear attention and consideration. That is the full experience of life.

Keep up with Etel Adnan’s own life, news and events on her website, www.eteladnan.com.

(Nightboat Books, September 2020)


BETHANY MARY has studied both health science and creative writing, and currently works as a medical scribe in Alabama. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.