“In the beginning was the white page. In the beginning was the Sufi in orbit… In the beginning was color. In the beginning was music.”
“When you realize you are mortal,” the polymathic poet, painter, journalist, novelist, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) wrote in her sixtieth year while wresting wisdom from the mountain, “you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.”
These questions of space, time, morality, and transcendence, which continue to permeate Adnan’s century-wide body of work and wonder, had come into formative focus two decades earlier, in one of her most original and unexampled works: a hybrid of poetry and painting — a new form Adnan christened leporello, after the Italian bookbinding term for concertina-folded leaflets — reflecting on a triumphal and tragic moment in the history of our species.
In 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human animal — of all the hundred-some billion of us who ever lived and died — to leave the planet on which we had evolved several million years earlier. It was an era of terror and wonder — science had swung open new portals of possibility for knowing the miracle of life more intimately, and politics had hijacked science to build new weapons for destroying that miracle.
Adnan wrote an 11-part epic poem in watercolor and ink after Gagarin died in a plane accident seven years later. The First Cosmonaut’s Funeral March — at once a memorial for the new Icarus and new scripture for the human mythos of space, painted into an accordion book, exploring the largest questions of existence: life, death, loneliness, longing, creation, destruction, the relationship between the ephemeral and the eternal, our relationship to the cosmos and to each other.
The monkey tree was looking at you.
This pipeline will take you up into the heavens
Light incoherent, like a wave
Was moving behind clouds
And you went swimming in that distant ocean
You went there to suspend the pool
Cool as the west side of palm leaf
Under the noon break
There are many potholes in our skyes
The sierra wanderers will be familiar with these words
Moving icebergs that taste good
Physics goes crazy with antimatter
Gagarin Scott Gherman Titov McDivitt
Komarov the new hierarchy of archangels
Sending messages from space
Understanding the protons, and how to move under
An abundance of moving electrons.
Seven sunsets in one evening
The uninterrupted moon
The look will grow into their eyes.
We are all mothers who look back from one side to the other
Seven sunrises for the cosmonaut
Born in Beirut and educated in Paris, Adnan was then living at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in California, teaching philosophy at a local university, painting and writing poetry — the polyphonous calling through which she soon met the Lebanese-American artist Simone Fattal, now her partner of half a century, who has made the most astute observation about Adnan’s paintings of rising and setting celestial bodies, horizons perched on infinity, and mountains rising toward eternity: that they do for us what icons used to do for believers, conferring upon our everyday lives a certain supranatural energy, an aura of awe at the sheer miracle of existence.
The First Cosmonaut’s Funeral March is an elegy for humanity in the classic sense, a hybrid of celebration and lamentation — an elegy for us creatures forever “eating and remaining hungry,” “kissing and remaining lonely,” “speaking and remaining doomed”; creatures who bomb and imprison each other, but who also never cease to “struggle towards freedom, struggle toward meaning” with the fury of a song. In this respect, it is kindred to Maya Angelou’s staggering poem “A Brave and Startling Truth,” which voyaged into the cosmos aboard the Orion spacecraft a generation later.
Adnan, who recently turned 94 while living in Paris together with her partner and is now living there with her family, collaborated with Ulrike Haage (German composer and sound artist) to adapt the 2019 edition. The First Cosmonaut’s Funeral March into an experimental radio requiem — a kind of spacetime sound installation, beautiful and haunting, fusing musical elements from the classical tradition of Gagarin’s native Russia and the ancient Middle Eastern tradition of Adnan’s native Beirut, embodying the opening verse of the poem’s third sequence:
The white page was at the start
The Sufi was in orbit at the start
At the beginning, the sword existed
The rocket was at the start
At the beginning, the dancer was present
The beginning of color was color
Music was the first thing to exist.
The First Cosmonaut’s Funeral March is the first artwork greeting the wonder-smitten visitor to Light’s New Measure — the Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective of Adnan’s work, launched midway through her ninety-seventh year, titled after a line from her 2012 poetry collection Sea and Fog:
The distribution of patterns and the flow of information is not something that can be understood by the heart. In darkness, light’s new measure.
Complement with Umberto Eco’s semiotic children’s book The Three Astronauts, written and painted in the same era, then revisit astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to Earth and poet Sarah Kay performing her ode to awe, “Astronaut.”
Giving = Being Loving
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