Book Reviews, Critics at Large, Recent

From Witness From Speech From Image: On Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee

Summer Farah | Critic at Large

This essay is also available as a print zine through Open Books. All proceeds will be sent to Gaza Poets Society.

The Arab Apocalypse
by Etel Adnan
Litmus Press, 2007
First Published by Post-Apollo Press, 1989

by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
University of California Press, 2022
First Published by Tanam Press, 1982

In a Western Art History course, I learned to read images—to follow the eye, from the top left corner to the bottom right as if I was reading a page of words in English, but to let the artists’ lines guide and redirect my focus. To understand what the image is doing by identifying these moments of departure. I also learned art history as a comparative practice: to speak of an era is to put a collection of paintings next to each other and make conclusions about the time, to consider the world that presses into the frame. Before I am an editor, poet, critic, or any kind of writer, I am a reader; I want to follow the feeling. Reading the image and understanding art in the comparative made me a better reader of poetry; yes, follow the feeling, but follow it as you would follow the eye—where are the departures? 

When reading for fun, my favorite feeling is immersion: to be consumed by language, uncertain you will ever be able to wade out from the text. Conversely, my favorite feeling in study is disorientation: to continuously chase an understanding that cannot quite be caught. To experience the two feelings simultaneously is a perfect mess. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s  Dictee and Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse are two texts that have offered me this messy simultaneity. These books, both by experimental multidisciplinary artists, carry enormous legacies. They are also the titans of my personal canon. In reading them together, I am most compelled by their blending of the image and text. “Experimental” signals, of course, an attempt—something that cannot be immediately categorized, an alchemy of craft. This attempt is not always successful, whether in the execution of the work itself or how it is met by the reader. For both texts, I find myself determined to become the reader for whom they are successful. There are leaps in them that are still difficult for me, but I understand: Dictee is an epic poem wading through layers of empire that mutate and corrupt language; The Arab Apocalypse is a book-length poem that depicts the horrors of witness, languages the grief of it. They write from different places—Cha’s work is synthesis, threading histories together to produce a reading of her present, while Adnan’s work adds her present to historical record. In both cases, they attempt to communicate grief wrought by nationalistic violence. We cannot do this work justice in colonial language(s)—and so, we invent new practices. And so, the immersion of image. 

In Dictee, we begin with the transformation of the visual to text. Divided into sections named for the Greek muses, Dictee tells the stories of many women—from the Korean independence activist Yu Guan-Soon to Cha’s mother Hyung Soon Cha, a refugee Korean woman raised in Manchuria. I am attuned to the Western traditions that frame this book in two ways. First, the title: from the French for “dictation,” a language learning technique where students write down the sentences dictated by an instructor (the accent from the first “e” notably excluded). Our first interaction with written narrative is in the form of a lesson: “Aller Ă  la ligne    C’Ă©tĂ© le premier jour point    Elle venait de loin point.” Cha translates these instructions for us in the proceeding paragraph: “Open paragraph   It was the first day   period   She had come from a far   period”. These gaps between phrases that indicate verbal pause are compelling; even more so alongside the rendering of placement instructions—”open paragraph”—and punctuation written out as language instead of symbols. This can be read as a failure, sure, a too-literal interpretation of what is meant to be done, but as I consider the use of “point”/“period” rather than “.”, I am inclined to describe it as subversion and return to the opening image—dark contrast background against the white Korean characters I cannot read. It is a frontispiece, but also a prelude, an image of language—from the beginning, Dictee is about this mutability of speech across mediums and the varieties of attempts of its deliverance; the first page is instructive, immediately building a glossary for the text in which symbols are turned into words. 

On my first few reads of Dictee, I treated that early page after the Sappho epigraph as a table of contents: 


I reconsider it now, imagine it aligning more with this theory of glossary constructed by the dictation and frontispiece. The sections are framed by the muses, yes, but there is narrative material that moves in and out of these structures. This Western framing is subverted, the table of contents enmeshed as craft rather than rote frontmatter. 

And so Dictee continues with another prelude: a section headed “DISEUSE,” the word for a classical monologist. The speech begins, “She mimicks the speaking. That might resemble speech. (Anything at all.) Bared noise, groan, bits torn from words.” I love the staccato rhythm leading to that grossly lush phrase “bits torn from words”: an apt description for the words we’ve just encountered. The experiment is clear: speech. The heavy presence of the short, stagnated sentences is highlighted by the previous section’s “point”/”period”, and the italicized moments; “She would take on their punctuation. She waits to service this. Theirs. Punctuation. She would become, herself, demarcations. . . . Give her. Her. The relay. Voice. Assign. Hand it. Deliver it. Deliver.” Those last lines imbued with desire, an incantation. Dictee establishes an attempt at utterance before moving into its stories, presenting the reader with a narrator who is training her speech, building a craft under influence of “the others each occupying her.” What are the conditions of speech required to tell the stories of revolutionary women? What are the conditions of speech required to relay stories of family history under occupation? Cha writes in the English and French of mostly Korean women whose own native language was policed. I feel a loss in that English is the only language in which I can share my own mother’s stories, despite her having four; I feel despair at the conditions by which she knows some of those languages. This speech trains itself against the inherited experience of occupation in order to communicate it, filtered through colonial languages.

Cha does not caption her images. The reader must decipher source, subject, context. One of my favorite sections in Dictee, CALLIOPE  EPIC POETRY, opens to a photograph of Cha’s mother. Her gaze is soft, her dark clothes blend into the dark background. She and the reader look back at each other. Here, in this named-epic poem, the narrator writes her mother’s biography back to her: “You were born in Yong Jung, Manchuria and this is where you now live. You are not Chinese. You are Korean. But your family moved here to escape the Japanese occupation.” This exposition is so clear; a tether to keep from being misunderstood, perhaps, or a grounding technique to spark the memory of someone who has forgotten. 

In both Dictee and Arab Apocalypse, moments loud in their clarity feel like they must be clung to; there is something unallowed to be obscured, too urgent. What we are told for certain makes what we cannot understand even more poignant. The speaker continues: “To speak makes you sad. Yearning. To utter each word is a privilege you risk by death.” Cha writes of martyrdom in MELPOMENE  TRAGEDY: “You, my brother, you protest your cause, you say you are wise to die. Dying is a part of it.” There are many ways to speak, as argued by the text; there are, also, many forms of death. Dictee is not necessarily about martyrdom, no, but it does engage with the death of speech and its resurrections, with the act of dying for speech. 

This theme is only more apparent when paired with Arab Apocalypse. I read these texts on day 40, 60, 100 of the genocide in Gaza. I am feeling a grief beyond comprehension, witnessing more images of dead children than should ever exist—dead baby, an oxymoronic phrase—and learning ways in which the body can degrade I could not imagine prior. I approach both of these works with reverence, yes, but admittedly it is difficult to read much else—I know this witness is mind-altering. Etel Adnan wrote The Arab Apocalypse before and through the Lebanese Civil War. The massacres that took place in two Palestinian refugee camps are centered in this book-length poem, accompanied and narrativized by the sun—what Jalal Toufic, in the introduction to the reprint of the English edition calls a “doomed” figure. My favorite first poems of poetry collections are guides for the rest of the collection, an overture that teases motif but leaves us wanting for total immersion.  The opening page of Arab Apocalypse is reproduced below:

I think of the caesurae between “A yellow sun” “A green sun” “a yellow sun” and on, alongside the gaps in Cha’s opening dictation. There, the spaces felt like the natural pause of an instructor; here, the gaps slow down consideration, until the language speeds up. Of the glyphs, Toufic writes, “Even before having it translated to Arabic by someone else, it seems that the author, also an artist, had already partly translated it into graphic signs for the so many Arabs . . . for whom Arabic is as illegible as English and French—may they be jolted by its graphic signs . . . into, at last but not least, learning to read”. I am interested in this assertion of “learning” to read by spending time with the images of Arab Apocalypse, that there is some universal language to be uncovered in them. Toufic asks, “Have Arabs, who, with very rare exceptions, continue to indulge in their petty concerns, taken notice?” The first time I read this text in full I cried, for the context was too apt; the Arab apocalypse continues, over forty years after its original publication. 

In some ways, this page works as overture; we are introduced to our players—the sun, the sea, the Arabs, the indigenous peoples of the US colonies, the various glyphs. To attempt to decode a grammar in the glyphs is perhaps foolish; do they stand in place of verb, of noun, of any understood part of speech? I don’t think so. Even the glyphs that recur are irregular in shape and form. Adnan signals this irregularity in that first line—a litany of suns when read aloud could form a steady rhythm, but visually there are the small interruptions of the mixed case. The glyphs are, instead, meant to be changeable. While Cha’s images in Dictee join the text, Adnan’s play disruptive games as they draw our attention; Adnan is playing in departure, while Cha’s images feel like just another word in the line. 

Arab Apocalypse is often described as a text of “witness”; Aditi Machado writes, “I wish to read Adnan’s poem as one that doesn’t simply represent but becomes [witness]—and in becoming, weeps, interrogates, admits complicity, embraces; bears out, on the page, traces of extremity.” I read the glyphs in Arab Apocalypse as accumulations of this becoming, weeping, interrogation, complicity—to become so overcome with it all that language fails, and the language that we then create refuses stagnancy, as if running from failure. In this period of the constant bombardment of Gaza by Israel, I have written pieces in which I have marked time by marking the numbers of Palestinians killed by the IOF’s [Israeli Occupation Forces] aggression; in between drafting and filing, the number always changes. And so, as Adnan writes this collection over the course of the Lebanese Civil War, translating it into English years after its first publication, of course the glyphs morph; the raw emotion is always evolving, adapting. If only these violences were stagnant.

Often, pages with glyphs are accompanied by all-caps phrases, “HOU! HOU!” or “STOP,” or an excess of exclamation points, all different energy transfers. Machado writes of reading portions aloud: “I noticed how different people read the glyphs differently, but in silence. Some paused noticeably. I certainly did. And there was in that silence another power.” I, too, experience a silence when I encounter the glyphs; I am not inclined to graph them onto symbols I know when I encounter them, either—instead, I simply want to look. The “STOP,” of course, is an interruption—sharp, loud, desperate; it calls to mind a telegram, attuning us to speech stopped short by limitations, word in place of punctuation. I think back to the snipped speech in Dictee, of DISEUSE: “She allows others. In place of her. Admits others to make full. Make swarm.” Both a function of overwhelm, both a process of learning to express. 

While Dictee leans into prose for its most lucid moments, Adnan’s lyric never departs from her surreal signature. The pages without glyphs are perhaps the most eerie, despite the howls and blood that construct the others. The first such page begins, 

“The night of the non-event. War in the vacant sky. The Phantom’s absence. 
Funerals. Coffin not covered with roses. Unarmed population. Long.
The yellow sun’s procession from the mosque to the vacant Place. Mute taxis.” 

Here, the attention is on absence. The language Adnan has created is gone, momentarily, and so is the strife that it accompanied; except, not quite. Objects are both there and not there. How is war waged if the sky is clear? Are taxis functioning if they are mute? I return again to the notion of witness, this text as an amalgamation of witness. The uneasiness in this page comes from the absence of the grief the glyphs propelled—the grief and other uncategorizable emotion produced by witness. The violence continues, of course, even without such expressions of attention, but to write of it without rings hollow, an incomplete record and a contradictory text. Arab Apocalypse is built from repetition. Adnan plays with absence in these repetitions. There are few pages without any symbols or all-caps phrases or exclamation points, but the horror of absence manifests in language, too—notably, the repetition of “Palestinians with no Palestine” becoming “Palestine with no Palestine.” This language is clear, as overwhelming to this reader as the glyph of the dove struck by an arrow. 

Dictee is a retrospective; Cha synthesizes figures as she builds her language. The last pages of Dictee are prose; POLYMNIA   SACRED POETRY begins in third person, the story of a woman looking at and interacting with other women. The tone is hesitant, exploratory, folkloric. The last page reads:

“Lift me to the window to the picture image unleash the ropes tied to the weights of stones first the ropes then its scraping on wood to break stillness as the bells fall peal follow the sound of ropes holding weight scraping on wood to break stillness bells fall a peal to sky.” 

First-person pronouns outside of quotation marks are rare in Dictee; to end on this prose block is remarkable. From the movements earlier in the section, to land where the narrator reclaims the “I”; the speech processing has built to this. And where does it lead? To looking—through a window, studying an image, all in witness, in order to tell it back. 

Arab Apocalypse, in contrast, is a text composed as the events it depicts were ongoing. 

The frequency of arrow symbols increases as the text nears its end—the moment continues, is pulsating even as the pages thin. I am struck by this moment in section LIV: 

The page ends, “History is dead. the sun is Nothingness. the air is burning forever.” 

This is a peak of despair, I think; the arrows, pushing and pushing, until the repetition of absence, a demand for attention of it, and the condemnation of those opposed to witness. Again, I am thinking of Gaza; Adnan often was, in her later writings. I find Cha’s ending not necessarily hopeful, but a relief in some way—there is someone to look and someone to tell, a survival of these legacies contained in the text. What the narrator looks out to is unknown; Cha creates text from image, image from text, and so of course we do not see, the image is in the words. Adnan’s text, too, ends on another sort of hopeful note. This page near the end, still moving:  

Can the sun be empire, destroying and destroying until it eats itself, as all empires are destined to do? And in its fall, the relief of night. But Arab Apocalypse, too, with its very last page ends on image, the glyphs overtaking the page. 

We can call it an outpouring of emotion, that the scars of empire are not healed once it has fallen; we can say that the languages imagined in hardship live on, too, that these tongues are meant for more than desperation. Cha and Adnan build new forms to communicate the impossible; may they live on as we imagine better impossibilities. 

Summer Farah is a Palestinian American writer from California. The author of the chapbook I could die today and live again (Game Over Books, 2024), she organizes with the Radius of Arab American Writers and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is calling on you to recommit yourself to the liberation of the Palestinian people each day.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982) was a poet, filmmaker, and artist who earned her BA and MA in comparative literature and her BA and MFA in art from the University of California, Berkeley.

Etel Adnan (1925-2021) was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925. She is a celebrated writer, essayist, and playwright, and is the author of more than twenty books in all these disciplines. Her work as a whole is a faithful record of the times and places she has lived in Beirut, Paris, and in the San Francisco Bay Area. At least eighteen works by Adnan have been published in English. They include Sitt Marie Rose (Post-Apollo Press, 1982); The Arab Apocalypse (Post-Apollo Press, 1989); Sea and Fog (Nightboat Books, 2012), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and the California Book Award for Poetry; Premonition (Kelsey Street Press, 2014); Surge (Nightboat Books, 2018); Time (Nightboat Books, 2019), winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Best Translated Book Award; and most recently Shifting the Silence (Nightboat Books, 2020).