Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Patrick James Dunagan : Of Self and Other Selves: Adnan, Kennedy, & strom

Shifting the Silence, Etel Adnan
Nightboat Books, 2020

I am, am I, to trust the joy that joy is no more or less there now than before, Evan Kennedy
Roof Books, 2020

Instrument, dao strom

Fonograf Editions, 2020


“no self but in other selves”

- Lorna Dee Cervantes


The relative comparability of the poets whose books are under discussion: Etel Adnan’s stirringly meditative Shifting the Silence, Evan Kennedy’s ever discursive I am, am I, to trust the joy that joy is no more or less there now than before, and dao strom's hyper-experimental Instrument, is by no means overtly apparent. strom is a mother and Vietnamese immigrant living in the Pacific Northwest, Kennedy is a white male avid cyclist living in San Francisco, and Adnan is a truly cosmopolitan multi-lingual wonder of a poet/visual artist residing in France. Kennedy, the youngest, offers up a quasi-bildungsroman prose triptych; while Adnan, the oldest, gives a somber, emotionally panging at times, late in life assessment of day-to-day reflections in short prose blocks; whereas strom mixes photography, pages of collaged text a la Susan Howe, travelogue, and lyric rumination bringing various elements from out the pageantry of performance art to bear upon the book format (there’s also a companion album Traveler's Ode, not directly addressed here). Yet the comparability of these works is in fact ubiquitous.

In “The Poetic Vocation: A Study of St.-John Perse” poet Robert Duncan declares poets “are involved in poetry as they are involved in science, as a primary way into the heart of life—in order to find the universe.” A short while later he emphasizes that the poet’s work revolves around engagement with “the real” describing how “The real is not a substance but a being-in-flux, a dramatic imminence.” Duncan’s conception of “the real” is reflected in how these poets take up exploration of self as they seek out its ever fluctuating terms in, and by way of, the work itself. Echoing poet Lorna Dee Cervantes’ claim that there is “no self but in other selves” they locate self and its meaning(s) as manifest in other selves extending beyond that of mere personal identity. Their work offers up presentation of this evolving definition of self in a state of “dramatic imminence” preoccupied with identifying its place in the world, i.e. in Duncan’s terms “the universe”.

When poetry enters territory of this sort there’s the deceptive appearance of an ‘easy come, easy go’ universalism. Take Kennedy’s description of how “The exercises upon which my success depends look mundane, as though they are the everyday activity of just about anyone, perhaps because these exercises are the everyday activity of just about anyone.” (Kennedy 43) The poet could be “anyone”? Indeed, through much of the book Kennedy seems actively interested in having the writing be identifiable with everybody and anybody’s experience. Yet Kennedy is in essence only thereby revealing the process beneath which his practice lies. Intent upon pushing such identification deeper than mere surface associations Kennedy embraces activities/routines that could belong to “just about anyone” thereby shedding much of himself in search of the shared preoccupations of others in order to write anew the freshly forming ideas of self out onto the page.

As readers we tend towards needing to lose ourselves amid the busy scramble of our day-to-day lives. At times we seek to escape our own expectations and wish quite naturally to keep ourselves preoccupied by something other than our own concerns. Adnan identifies this as a quite natural tendency to which we all succumb: “We have ways to distract ourselves from our destinies. I don’t know how, we just play it by instinct. We manage to take our attention away, into outer space, into a history book, into our own imaginations, or just a post-card, but we do, we go.” (Adnan 66) So urgent is this need to “go” and not confront the present and/or future moment of “our destinies” that we urge ourselves in the direction of distraction rather than grounding ourselves in moments of understanding self. These poets locate and thereby ground their writing within the occasion of this momentary passing knowledge of self, so often avoided by many of us. Returning our focus, only now much broadened, as readers to the very place we sought escape from.

There are of course challenges to succeeding in the endeavor. strom expresses how “Feedback like memory always supersedes its source event.” (strom 38) The writing will not always prove capable of breaking through, connecting both reader and poet while extending further any such identifiable sense of self. Past history intrudes, especially when the memory is turbulent in nature: “For some of us it is so hard to let go / There is tension to inhabit no doubt        being of history trying to escape history”. (strom 38) The writing undertakes to articulate as well as overcome unavoidable intrusions of past events, necessitating participatory awareness of poet and reader, from confronting injustice to bringing solace or simply managing maintain the moment’s insight into self:  

i’m thinking of

that famous song    the one where

the singer

inhabits the voice

of the colonizer who is both

tormentor &


& the song makes us all

ironically devastatingly

just want

to dance

consider too: in positing that we must

slow ourselves down to appreciate


that they are something

we must look for

to the side

of the path    we place

the flower in

position of either


or dalliance” (strom 105)

“Digression / or dalliance”: descriptor for the balanced thread upon which this exploration of self in the works of these poets perseveres. Adnan and Kennedy explore and expand upon the two sides of strom’s balancing act of locating self: “While you’re young, you die many times. It’s an adventure into which you run head-on, it’s the great discovery of loss.” (Adnan 55) “Without my body, my soul is going nowhere, just as with my soul, my body is staying put.” (Kennedy 30) The poets are in the maelstrom, as it were, discovering a way ahead against the enclosing darkness of experience.   

Rather unavoidably there are times of hopelessness.

“Almost all of my beliefs have deserted me. I take it as a kind of liberation, and anyway, they were never too many. Our houses are cluttered, our minds too, so a fire as devastating as it can be, can well clear the air, enlarge the space, make room for some silence. Year after year all we do is gather dust.”(Adnan 9)

Random seeming observations fill many of the days.

“Small birds fluttering around inside the airport terminal at Tan Son Nhat, nowhere near any windows that open. Although the windows give illusion of sky in abundance of access. The obvious curiosity of course is how did they get inside, into this world of the transient humans-in-waiting? and what do they eat, how do they sustain themselves in such a place? how does a bird fathom how corridors work? or were they born in the terminal from the start, from a nest built by a lost, caught-wandering mother?” (strom 16)

On one level it simply doesn’t matter whether the birds in the terminal originally came to live by accident within its confines or if the enclosed spaces have been all they’ve known. For the birds the terminal hall mirrors the outer world as the outer world mirrors its interior, as Kennedy attests, “Though received by love, I was born ruined; though received by ruin, I was born loved.” (Kennedy 11) They are dual realities defining the everyday experience of reality.  

Kennedy questions the limits of experiencing experience. How deeply our sense of self extends when pushed further and further by the eagerness of our expectations of what’s yet to come. How we lose ourselves in constant urging and yearning over what’s yet to arrive.


“Aren’t I expending myself out of a body until I am all absence? When arriving and departing at once, the days last equally long. Sunday approaches a Monday with promise that Tuesday broadens for Wednesday’s realizations for Thursday to sway a restful Friday for the reflections that occupy a Saturday wherein I am stilled and all days are the same distance from me. I am not existing: I am being existed.” (Kennedy 71)

Adnan, however, revels in such times when there is the sense of losing one’s self in the experience of becoming pure experience, “The thing left to do is to be willing to go to the end of just anything, like burning your eyes, metaphorically and physically, by staring long enough at the sun, like when you were a child (in Beirut), and tears were running down. Those were moments of transcending.” (Adnan 24) Transcendence is the elevation of the sense of self beyond limitation. It’s all about the momentary feeling of overcoming, eclipsing any and all hindrances in order to free up the isolating effects of apparent singularity. These poets explore the boundaries of where the self falls away. And, as strom attests, they are not “interested” in participating in any structure other than that which further clarifies and assuages any past harm(s) experienced.


“Power is obsessed with its own vindications and validations. Binaries promote binary thinking. Polarities polarize; or they magnetize. Many readers seek lines, that is storylines, that re-evince the conscience, its depravities as much as its virtues, in its entangled [voluntary, intractable] relationship with power.          Power thus is obsessed with the storylines of itself:                  the potential of power      to          become transgressive. Power is obsessed          with the narrative of hope being  visible only in juxtaposition to: horror.             A line divides. A line carries. A line may connect                   or break, encircle        or fall. Slack. Lineation               attempts to arrange a rhythm by which we are guided to read—

and if one could make oneself very small, very tiny, within the space

of a line, what then? To become a line that betrays the purpose                  of a line by being no longer lineal; what then? In truth: I am little interested in             power. There is no such thing as one.” (Strom 148)

Engaging in a similar declaration of self that disabuses the curtailed fictions of personal self-exploration, Kennedy peels away autobiographical posturing, “I write my biography and lose interest in who I am. I am not performing an autopsy or life study. I might be past examination.” (Kennedy 60) This is a clear refusal to be constrained by characteristics of self that are imposed upon him from without. His work floats across an expanse of endless selves generated, indeed powered by his continued writing.

“Though life will not repeat, I make a life from beginning again in circumstances populated by my previous presences, shown one another, greeting or ghosting, vital beneath my skin. Such introductions make of my past presences a collective. It acts, and I go on examined.” (Kennedy 32)

The journey undertaken in these works is not an easy one. And though writing moves these poets to expression of belief in community beyond the self, they also despair the loss they have undergone. For Adnan the final summation, at first appearance, is one of isolation.

“I am a barren planet. Empty spaces, with no vegetation, but with the illusion that I smell thyme. When I reach an edge I see other planets, non-hospitable ones. Then I return to my module, my isolation: I think of the ocean, the steel-colored surface of the Pacific, and of my mountain, and try not to cry.” (Adnan 73)    

However, in a gesture bespeaking the shared fate of self towards which all these poets write, she also introduces the presence of “the choir” announcing “the Revelation is indivisible” (74) just before she cites Nietzsche: “the eternal return of the same”. Unchangeably, self is selves. We all partake in this joint form of knowing existence. These poets demonstrate how they serve as the tool for the ambitious agenda of communicating how this is so. It is a calling to which strom declares her allegiance:

“i have wanted to be instrument

and not just body to be felt

the cleavage of the world through

but instead to splay    the invisible

light    waned out   through skin” (Strom 159) 

The ultimate song of poetry is one of being opened. Gutted. To serve as the strings upon which the poem plays. That we as readers may hear echoes of the lives we would but live sounded back.



Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. A graduate of the Poetics program from the now-defunct New College of California he edited Roots and Routes: Poetics at New College of California, eds. Patrick James Dunagan, Marina Lazzara, Nicholas James Whittington (Vernon Press) an anthology of critical writings by Poetics program alumni and faculty. He also edited a Portfolio of work on and by David Meltzer for Dispatches from the Poetry Wars (where he served on the editorial board). In addition, he edited poet Owen Hill's A Walk Among the Bogus (Lavender Ink). His essays and book reviews appear frequently with a wide number of both online and print publications. His most recent books include: “There are people who think that painters shouldn't talk”: A Gustonbook (Post Apollo), Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling), from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil), The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil), and Sketch of the Artist (fsmbw).

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