Bio and bibliography
No, surely not -- it can't be:
A Surprise in the Peninsula
Advice to a Discarded Lover
Flowers of the Field
For Heidi With Blue Hair
Leaving the Tate
On the Border
Poem Ended by a Death
Proposal for a Survey
The Prize-Winning Poem
For Heidi With Blue Hair
When you dyed your hair blue
because, as the headmistress put it,
Tears in the kitchen, telephone-calls
'She discussed it with me first -
It would have been unfair to mention
Next day your black friend had hers done
A HEIDI COI CAPELLI BLU
Quando ti sei tinta i capelli di blu
see your next-door neighbour from above,
week later you meet your ex-lover
behaves as if he’s pleased to see you.
Unless you do? Or why that sudden
A scoppio ritardato
dall’alto l’uomo della porta accanto,
una settimana incontri il tuo ex
comporta come se gli facesse piacere vederti.
lo sei? Altrimenti perché
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
For a five year old
A snail is climbing up
I write in praise of the solitary act:
unpleasure. Just to avoid those eyes
. There is much to be said for abandoning
or more, perhaps, like the school drama
I advise you, then, to embrace it without
how the seemingly maddest of men -
Suddenly straightforward, they perform
After they had not made love
Later, though, drawn together by
My face catches the wind
But now that I am in love
If my face is to be weather beaten as well,
The sheets have been laundered clean
your forgotten pipe and tobacco,
Abandoning all my principles
'Please send future work'
It is going to be a splendid summer.
She will come out to me in the garden,
will be in production at the Aldwych
on Lucretius. But first I'll take a break
It will be typed, of course, and not all in capitals: it will use upper and
Scarcely two hours back in the country
Dreamy with illness
We sprawl transfixed
Epics of sound-effects
cars drone; someone
Draughts idle over
You lick my eyelid:
Then you gulp cold water
It has to be learned afresh
The sun is on the leaves again;
So yes: teach it to me again.
Advice to a Discarded Lover
Think, now: if you have found a dead bird,
Dear posterity, it's 2 a.m.
I prowled in the dark back room for water
Knobbly trees mark the horizon,
I don't care. I am standing here,
Coming out with your clutch of postcards
and there's a new one: light bright buildings,
a madly pure Pre-Raphaelite sky,
but it wouldn't matter. All skies work.)
Now swing to the left, and take in plane-trees
That's your next one. Curious how
marching out of their panorama
You can zoom in on figure studies
of the hanging committee. Put what space
The surface dreams are easily remembered:
I wake most often with a comforting sense
of having seen a pleasantly odd film—
nothing too outlandish or too intense;
of having, perhaps, befriended animals,
made love, swum the Channel, flown in the air
without wings, visited Tibet or Chile:
simple childish stuff. Or else the rare
recurrent horror makes its call upon me:
I dream one of my sons is lost or dead,
or that I am trapped in a tunnel underground;
but my scream is enough to recall me to my bed.
Sometimes, indeed I congratulate myself
on the nice precision of my observation:
on having seen so vividly a certain
colour; having felt the sharp sensation
of cold water on my hands; the exact taste
of wine or peppermints. I take pride
in finding all my senses operative
even in sleep. So, with nothing to hide,
I amble through my latest entertainment
again, in the bath or going to work,
idly amused at what the night has offered;
unless this is a day when a sick jerk
recalls to me a sudden different vision:
I see myself inspecting the vast slit
of a sagging whore; making love with a hunchbacked
hermaphrodite; eating worms or shit;
or rapt upon necrophily or incest.
And whatever loathsome images I see
are just as vivid as the pleasant others.
I flush and shudder: my God, was that me?
Did I invent so ludicrously revolting
a scene? And if so, how could I forget
until this instant? And why now remember?
Furthermore (and more disturbing yet)
are all my other forgotten dreams like these?
Do I, for hours of my innocent nights,
wallow content and charmed through verminous muck,
rollick in the embraces of such frights?
And are the comic or harmless fantasies
I wake with merely a deceiving guard,
as one might put a Hans Andersen cover
on a volume of the writing of De Sade?
Enough, enough. Bring back those easy pictures,
Tibet or antelopes, a seemly lover,
or even the black tunnel. For the rest,
I do not care to know. Replace the cover.
A SURPRISE IN THE PENINSULA
When I came in that night I found
the skin of a dog stretched flat and
nailed upon my wall between the
two windows. It seemed freshly killed –
there was blood at the edges. Not
my dog: I have never owned one,
I rather dislike them .(Perhaps
whoever did it knew that.) It
was a light brown dog, with smooth hair;
no head, but the tail still remained.
On the flat surface of the pelt
was branded the outline of the
peninsula, singed in thick black
strokes into the fur: a coarse map.
The position of the town was
marked by a bullet-hole, it went
right through the wall. I placed my eye
to it, and could see the dark trees
outside the house, flecked with moonlight.
I locked the door the, and sat up
all night, drinking small cups of the
bitter local coffee. A dog
would have been useful, I thought, for
protection. But perhaps the one
I had been given performed that
function; for no one came that night,
not for three more. On the fourth day
it was time to leave. The dog-skin
still hung on the wall, stiff and dry
by now, the flies and the smell gone.
Could it, I wondered, have been meant
not as a warning, but a gift?
And, scarcely shuddering, I drew
the nails out and took it with me.
Another poem about a Norfolk church,
They will wash all my kisses and fingerprints off you
They will remove the tubes and drips and dressings
At the blood-test laboratory
people come out one by one
each carrying a test-tube of blood
like a lighted candle.
(Could you carry a poem in your hand like that
without spilling a drop?)
Prickly smells, faces anonymous
as camomile, but plucked out and chosen.
The colours show up as clearly
as in a painting.
(Remember the well-known question:
“Which would you save from a fire, a famous picture
or a man who hadn’t long to live?”)
Reflections from the test-tubes make face blush red,
illuminate rough hands.
This is surely a picture that must be saved:
a procession of poppies
through the long corridors,
advancing, invading – making no mistake
about how long they’ve got.
Other poems online:
Fleur Adcock has been writing poems since she was five. But now, many books of verse and twists and turns in her life later, she has fallen out of love with poetry and found a new passion. By Sally Vincent
Saturday July 29, 2000
The book is an epitaph of a thing. POEMS 1960-2000, as though the poet is meant to be dead. Since she clearly is not, it must be more of a symbol of institutionalised acceptability, like an OBE. Exactly like that. One afternoon we had them both out, the book and the medal and gave them long shrift. She was saying something about liking the finality of it, the completion, sounding defiant and fatalistic at the same time, when the vicar's wife telephoned. Would she be an angel and read the lesson this upcoming Sunday instead of next? Yes, yes, of course she will. Sunday it is, then, lovely, and she laughed the girlish laugh of a particularly dependable monitoress.
Meanwhile, I have inspected the picture on the cover. "From a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger," it says, "1497-1543 A Lady With A Squirrel And A Starling": a solid female citizen with introspective gaze, hands folded piously around a chain that inches along her wrist and - good grief - enslaves the chubby squirrel to her bosom. Pure Adcockian shock tactic, I reckon, a sort of pictorial version of something wickedly sharp that suddenly leaps from the fastidious formality of rhyme and meter and bites you on the bum.
You can see why they value her vocal contribution at the lectern. Adcock's voice is literally ethereal, so light and pure it seems to be emanating from altitude. In front of you is this pretty, faded tapestry of a woman, smiling hospitably and bringing tea and ashtrays, while what she's saying floods your auditory system as though she is also behind you. No, she says, we hardly ever see squirrels in East Finchley nowadays. Do you take sugar? They're not very nice, you know. They're carnivores. Didn't you know that? Oh, yes, they creep about in trees looking for birds' nests and when they find one they look over the nestlings and finger them out, one by one, and gobble them up. First they nibble off their tiny feet, then they scoff the lot. She has this on the eye-witness authority of a friend of the old gentleman who lives next door and devotes himself to trapping the little murderers and slaughtering them wholesale. First he tried stabbing, but that didn't work, so now he drowns them. That does the trick.
Lilting on from the ether, she returns to the matter in hand. Ah, yes, her OBE, still in its box. She had, of course, toyed with the idea of turning it down on the grounds of the silly, school-prize-day elitism of the honours system. But then she thought if she did that she'd only go around telling everyone, which, perversely, would have a similarly unattractive effect. So she bought a hat and a smart suit which would afterwards do for funerals, and turned up at the palace for the big reward. Now she thinks back on it, it was all quite enthralling. You line up with a few hundred other worthies, long-serving town clerks and lollipop ladies and so forth, while a man sticks a hook thing into your brand new lapel and gives you the drill. Speak when you're spoken to, go when your time is up. Her Majesty will make it abundantly clear when that is.
I have to stand up for this bit. You be me, she says, I'll be the Queen. Right. Her Majesty comes before you, so, another man with a clipboard tells her who you are, then she tells you who you are, loops the gong on your hook, takes your right hand in hers, so, tells you well done and, still holding your hand, gives you an almighty shove backwards. Like so. A serious shove. If you're not well braced on your pins you could do a purler. We give each other the royal shove of honour so as to be quite clear in our minds as to the precise toppling potential of Her Majesty's dismissal technique.
There is no mockery intended. To Fleur Adcock, things are only what they are; sad or funny or painful or puzzling or silly or wonderful or any of a million, trillion things, none of which require to be tainted by judgmental inference. She exudes an air of serene pragmatism that punctuates itself with floaty giggles or helpless sighs rather than analysis or rationalisation. She is all of a piece, outside in, inside out. Small talk, life experience, the most bizarre machinations of her psyche are all the same to her.
At our first meeting, she lead me into her unreconstructed scullery and talked about the charm of Victorian plumbing and the ludicrous inflation of real-estate values in north London. Then of the arrival, from New Zealand this morning, of her sister's autobiography, in which she has read a faintly dismaying account of herself in general and, in particular, her hands. This last triggers the memory of Tiger-Spider, the lost companion of last summer, who wove her wondrous web in the scullery cupboard. She was large and her legs were striped black and gold and hairy and, as she grew old and seemed to be failing, Fleur bought cos lettuces for their greenflies and blew them on her web to supplement her diet. One day, Tiger-Spider came out of her cupboard and was observed legging it across the ceiling, alarmingly close to where she might topple into the sink and perish.
Fleur reached up, took Tiger-Spider into her hands and carried her home to safety. "Don't you think it extraordinary?" she said, "to have been together for so long and never to have touched her before?" And she looked at her hands, small and pale and sweetly cupped as when they cradled the late lamented arachnid. She sighed and winced. Her sister has written that, once upon a time, when they were both young, they compared hands and Fleur's were judged to be less pleasing. She is at a loss. There is no end to the vicissitudes of sibling rivalry.
The point is, you don't get it at the time. Your heart is broken and you don't even know it. It's something you have to work out later. She knows the precise moment now, as we climb the stairs to her study, so it comes, all cheerfully matter-of-fact from between her shoulder blades. "My heart was broken when my sister was born." And there on the landing she said that nobody really understands the visceral anguish of the first-born when the next one arrives. She was only 18 months old. Everything was perfect, then they kicked her in the teeth. Clearly it was because she wasn't good enough, so they went out and got themselves another one. A cuter one. You don't recover from that sort of betrayal. Sixty-two years it has taken her to work that out. After that, though, rejection is a piece of cake. You learn detachment. Even so, it's a bit much when you're supposed to be the big girl, protector of the little one, and you've just had the biggest shock of your life.
She was five years old when the big test came. Her parents had come to England from New Zealand, where she was born. The second world war was on the cards and they, good people that they were, meant to dig ditches for the war effort. They settled briefly in Sidcup, then evacuated their daughters to distant relations on a Leicestershire farm.
In England, Fleur found her spiritual home. Not to put too fine a point on it, she loved the weather. The seasons were real and distinct one from another. Winters were real winters with snow and summers were real summers and the skies changed face a million times a day and, putting it in a nutshell, there were primroses. In those first, halcyon days, she was a good big sister. Without a mummy and daddy to fight for, there was nothing to be cross about. Being the first to read, she did the decent thing and read aloud to the baby sister, good as gold. The worst she did was to charge a penny each for making up a new William story. "William and Ginger went for a walk. Just as they came to the old barn, William noticed . . ." And so on. She didn't get nasty till later.
In common with most children of her computer-less generation, Fleur seemed to have been born with a sort of literacy racial memory. Looking back, she has to presume her parents taught her to read and write, since they were both teachers, but her abiding memory is of being able to discern the sound of written words before she had the vocabulary to comprehend their meaning.
For instance, she'd be sitting on the bus, aged four, merrily reading "Do not spit. Penalty £5" off the wall and wondering how you go about spitting penalty and in what way it differed from ordinary spit. She liked to make sense of things, she wanted things to fit and, if at all possible, to rhyme. She had a huge book of nursery rhymes, as thick as it was square, and her mother would recite grown-up poems to her; Drinkwater, Brooke, Monroe. "Moonlit apples," she croons now. And "I will lie in the grass and howl for them/Your green glass beads." Adcock wrote her first poem when she was five. The silvered voice delivers it now, with no less reverence than she'd attribute to Wordsworth:
"Hurry up and
go to bed
For all night long you cuddle Ted."
And points out, in fairness, that she didn't really have a teddy bear, she had a soft-toy dog called Bob, but since Bob doesn't rhyme with bed she made Ted up. Later, she added a further couplet to that first fine, careless rapture.
good sleep all through the night
And when dawn comes we'll see the light."
By the time she was seven and England's pastoral heritage had become her own, she blossomed with the following:
bloom at Easter-time
And violets and primroses too.
They cover the wood
In a beautiful hood
Mauve and yellow and blue."
She was destined to become a scholar, mainly because doing her very best and passing examinations came easier to her than other childhood activities, like making lots of friends and hanging out with the in-crowd. Otherwise, she lived in books and a somewhat Blytonesque fantasy life in which she and the little sister dug imaginary tunnels in imaginary woods and founded imaginary communities where everyone ate what they pleased and went to boarding schools and made the teachers look silly. She read everything she could get her hands on. She even read a tome her father wrote, Fundamentals Of Psychology, or some fine thing, hoping to find something about sex in it and plodding instead through stultifying, Eisenckian disciplines and statistics and categorisings and measurings.
He was what we'd now call something of an emotionally absent man, her dad. A strange and isolated sort of chap, he was passionate about world peace. Throughout Fleur's early childhood he roamed around Europe speaking Esperanto with his Esperantist chums, turning his attention to the conflicts of family life only in times of dire emergency. He wrote just the once to his older daughter, a letter urging her to cease bullying her sister on the grounds that it was not something Captain Scott would have done. It was the best he could do, unaware, as he was, that his hero had long since been eclipsed by Scarlet O'Hara in Fleur's scheme of things.
She is a little hazy about the bullying. She once threw a fork, yes, and sometimes she'd just hit her. Well, she was irritating. Little sisters are. And when you're close, you do things. Like project your own horrors and dreads on to the nearest person. So, yes, she'd tell her spooky stories at night about ghosts and corpses and graves and frighten the life out of her. And - she can't believe she did this - she told her that her favourite doll, Pixie-Ann, had once been a little girl and she wasn't now because her father took a gun and shot her dead. Which was enough to put her off dolls and fathers and everything else.
She remembers being 11 and going yet again to a new school. There were 13 of those, all told. "Oh, we'll bring her out of herself," one headmistress promised, and Fleur looked at her powdered face and her warts and had her doubts. So here she was again, all alone in unfamiliar territory, where rather than hunch against a wall for the duration of morning break, displaying herself as a wretched isolate for the umpteenth time, she climbed to the top of a huge elm tree. It was, if you like, an exercise in ambivalence. On the one hand she was escaping, on the other she was courting attention. And, of course, they all gathered round. Who is that daring, interesting girl? See how fearless she is, let us climb up and join her. Some of them did just that, got stuck and had to be helped down. So it worked. Up a tree she was a fascinating figure; down to earth a bit of a disappointment. "Why do I write?" she says. "It's the same thing, isn't it? See me! Out on a limb."
They took her back to New Zealand after the war. The long journey home probably marked the end and the culmination of her childhood. She and the little sister strung up curtains in one of the ship's nether corridors and put on entertainment for the other children. They wrote and performed a series of what they took to be hilarious plays centred on a Mr Tommy Ato and his wife Poppette who ran a hat shop. Tommy Ah-to. Tomato. She was 13. The series ran and ran. The children paid up. England got further and further away till all she had left was an abiding sense of loss and a bad case of homesickness.
Five years later, she was sitting her finals at Wellington University, pregnant, married, a shit-hot Latin scholar and fondly imagining she was grown up. She had seen her husband across a crowded room and snapped him up for his physical beauty. He looked like Gregory Peck only better, not as tall, alas, but divine. Exotic. Half Polynesian. If she was obliged to live in Kiwi-land, she might as well have the benefit. She fancied him "like mad". He was a romantic poet, published, acclaimed, successful, all the things she wanted for herself. She wanted, yes, to be him. Instead, she married him. It was a long time ago. "Look," she says, "nobody took you seriously in the 50s unless you had a bloke or were married or something. You couldn't get away from home, you couldn't shack up because that was immoral. You weren't anyone. All the things Sylvia Plath suffered from."
So suddenly there she was with a little house and a little mortgage, pushing a pram along the street where Katherine Mansfield lived, desperately pretending to be grown up. She had her poet, but he had a wife. There was no more dressing up and going out having a good time. She was a suburban housewife, bored out of her mind. It was Catch 22. You couldn't be an adult without a man and you couldn't be an adult with a man. And when she thought about it properly she realised she didn't really want to be him anyway. She wrote a poem at that time, called The Lover. "Always he would inhabit an alien landscape," it went, so everybody thought it was about the poet hubbie. But it wasn't. It was about herself, only in those days you weren't allowed to have female personas in poems.
The marriage lasted five years. Somewhere along the way she got caught in flagrante with someone else, was as guilty as sin, had a second son, dwelt peaceably à trois with the romantic poet's second wife for a spell, got a job and took off with her baby under her arm.
She can't believe she did this. How to put it? She was a child, 23 going on 12. She'd been brought up to believe fair was fair; a cake for her, the identical cake for her sister. There was nothing for it but to leave her first-born with his father. It seemed fair. It was that bone-simple. She felt she had no more choice than if her child had been snatched or had died. He would have the same parent, the same home, the same bed, the same little tricycle, just a different mother.
"I just don't recognise the girl who did this," she says, her voice dropping like a stone. "I haven't a clue how her mind worked. This is me sitting here now, I've grown cynical and I don't know who she is. Only in bits. Her past and her memories I can see, but I don't recognise her in the mirror and I don't like looking back on her. I don't admire her." And, more in sorrow than anger, she concludes that she is jolly glad to have got away from someone so, so . . . so pathetic.
At 23, then, with one small baby and a university lectureship to bless herself with, she began to muddle through a facsimile of an independent life. The city of Dunedin, where she worked, was "all lace curtains and Calvinistic disapproval," and a divorced woman was ostracised in respectable company. The poems she wrote in those days, she thinks now, seem to have been written by someone pretending to be her. She had no idea how unhappy she was until one day she found herself standing by the wall in her kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil, with unstoppable tears pouring down her face. The enormity of it all hit her like a hammer. She had relinquished her child, and all the rationalisation in the world wouldn't make it right. It was all wrong. Everything. Hopelessly wrong. Her love affairs brought torment and obsession and guilt and going back to wives and attempted suicides and God knows what-all. Romantic idylls of the kind you imagine will continue in heaven have a tendency to be played out with married men or those separated from you by great distances. They work rather as an antidote to domestic enslavement but are invariably full of grief.
The citizens of Dunedin, by this token, were probably right about young Fleur. Well- meaning friends, perceiving her anguish, introduced her to various distractions, among them a gentleman by the name of Barry Crump. "But don't marry him," they counselled urgently, which was a mistake.
Among his many distinctions, Mr Crump was incredibly famous in New Zealand. Searching for a contemporary equivalent, Adcock thinks of Georgie Best. Or, better yet, Gazza. He was a Crocodile Dundee sort of fellow who wrote adventure stories with titles such as Hang On A Minute, Mate and A Good Keen Man. And, of course, he was an absolute knock-out in bed. "Well, they are, aren't they?" she says, giggling like a teenager. "Male chauvinist pigs always are. Think of Italians. Isn't it perverse?"
Anyway, it wasn't long before she displayed all the foresight and prudence of a lemming and married him. It was, she says, the most horrifying thing she could think to do to persuade herself out of more obsessive liaisons. He was soon routinely smacking her in the mouth. "They do that, don't they?" she says. "Manly men. They're fine in the pub telling jokes and stories, but in an argument they're not so good at the old logic, so that's when they smack you across the mouth."
The marriage lasted five months. By way of a divorce settlement, Mr Crump agreed to pay her passage to England, less the £30 she'd already salted away for the purpose. And she ran away. No. Correction. She ran towards.
It was mid-winter when she arrived in London, as though the whole of England had been kept on ice for her, waiting for her to come home. Sylvia Plath had taken her life one week earlier. Nobody had heard of a poet called Fleur Adcock. She had a six-year-old son, a couple of tea chests and some loose change, but the frost was cruel and she was literally sparked by that. "When it's frosty," she says, "I feel as though I've been taking some interesting drug."
Within months she had a pensionable post as a librarian with the Civil Service in the Colonial Office, which astoundingly respectable day-job sustained her for the next 15 years. That is to say it bought her a few hours of solitude each day to write in.
She didn't need anything else.
At 29, she knew she would not marry again. Her record in this regard was not auspicious. "Five years," she says, "then five months. What could I expect? Five weeks? Five minutes?" For her, the difference between solitude, as in the need for tranquillity with which to entertain her muse, and solitude, as in where is everybody, were already fairly clear. Loneliness and solitude sometimes overlap, but only sometimes. Sometimes you long for the phone to ring or someone to knock on your door, but the feeling goes away if you allow it to.
The truth is, she says, that she isn't really interested in relationships. Affairs, yes, relationships, no. "People say you must work at a relationship. Well, I don't want to work at it. I don't want to sit down and discuss it, I just want to have it. Oh, God," she says, lapsing into giggles, "Speak to me! Let us set aside time to hammer out our problems! Let us have Quality Time together!"
Clearly there are no conventional rules nailed to her masthead. "You have to listen," she says, speaking of her development as a poet, "to your own voice. Not your heart, not your instincts, not any of that self-permissive psycho-babble stuff. No, none of that. If it was just about instincts and bright ideas it wouldn't need to be a voice. It's about words. You hear them, read them, then you write. But mostly read. Read the bloody poems."
Her poems are often born in the early morning or late at night when she is close enough to sleep to have an open line to her unconscious thought processes. "The voice of inspiration, or whatever corny title you choose to give it, comes from that place. But it is also your own voice. And, on the whole, it speaks in colloquial language and uses proper grammar and syntax." And, not for the first or the last time, she insists, "There's nothing airy-fairy about being a poet."
"Art," she declares, not at all portentously, "is whatever you choose to frame." This is so neat it makes me laugh, but she is entirely earnest. She explains that she was judging something or other, a poetry competition, and found herself in an argument with Antonia Byatt. There was a poem she particularly liked; a verse, a tiny, tiny thing that touched her. What's so wonderful about it, Byatt wanted to know; any self-respecting novelist has this kind of thing on every page. Well, yes, replied Adcock, but this has got white space around it. It's separate and you look at it in isolation and not as part of a 200 page narrative, so it fulfils another function. It's a poem.
Lately, she has consciously abandoned her muse, which is odd considering she has just written a new poem exploring the rift. Forty years spent skittering her small fingers across progressively lighter keyboards has landed her with a nasty dose of RSI, a notoriously depressing ailment. It prevents her from driving and mowing her lawn and opening screw-top jars, but does not seem to have stopped her being up to her elbows in a hefty work of prose. For the past several years she has been drawn deeper and deeper through tunnels of her own genealogy, partly as a homage to English history, partly as a love affair she is conducting with her ancestors.
Goodness only knows who'd be interested, she says, but it has been entirely enthralling to sleuth her way around the country leafing out the branches of her family tree with stark information from parish registers and graveyards and tombstones. There have been few thrills in her life to equal that of personally, physically wrenching undergrowth from a 17th-century grave and knowing that the bones of a forebear are personally, physically there, just below the stone. Or of discovering in an ancient register that a male ancestor had been buried on the same day that his illegitimate daughter was christened. What happened? He was married, the mother of the child was a widow. These things are easy to check. Did someone kill him? Did the widow wait till he was dead before she outed her shameful bundle? There is no end to the goings-on, the intrigue and coincidence. It has her quite hooked, like a soap-opera.
"The thing about one's ancestry," she says in the intense whisper she reserves for matters of particularly compelling intimacy, "is it's really about sex. These people made us. It's about sex and the way you want to touch people, like wanting to pat your grandchildren on their heads. Ancestors and poetry and religion are the same. All about wonder. Having a sense of wonder."
Fleur Adcock has entitled her latest poem The Ex-Poet. I don't believe a word of it
POEMS 1960-2000, by Fleur Adcock, is published by Bloodaxe Books, priced £10.95.
Saturday 15 May 2010
Julian Stannard admires beautiful crafting and laconic punchlines
Dragon Talk, by Fleur Adcock, 64pp,
Poems 1960-2000 gathered Fleur Adcock's many discrete volumes into a hamper. There was a calendrial neatness to the project. Adcock had made her name in the 20th century and the 20th century was over. The final poem in the book, coming out of a sequence generated by a residency in Kensington Gardens, was called "Goodbye". The summer was over, the residency had come to its end – "Goodbye, summer. Poetry goes to bed" – and the valedictory nature of the piece hinted at longer silences: "What wanted to be said is said." When I interviewed Adcock for the poetry journal Thumbscrew, she took up the idea: "I've just got less interested in writing poetry but you're not allowed to say this; people are terribly shocked. What really grips me – what I continue to compose – is the narrative of my family history."
Adcock can wear these two hats at the same time. Family history, which becomes a form of self-examination, has long threaded itself into the poetry. "The Voyage Out", from The Scenic Route (1974), described the arduous journey of her great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand in 1874. In Looking Back (1997) Adcock shook off the dust of the Records Office to create a vivid almanac of ancestors. The collection is part of the poet's wider enquiry into geographical and cultural displacement. Born in New Zealand in 1934, Fleur and her sister came to England in 1939. Growing up in Britain during the war inculcated a sense of Englishness, and the family's return to New Zealand in 1947 was resisted by the fledgling poet. Adcock's unwillingness is shown in this collection in "Signature", in which she drags her feet through the heavy snow of that mythological winter: "I was thirteen, and sensible only / intermittently" and "I didn't want to leave." She returned to London definitively in 1963, a week after the suicide of Sylvia Plath.
Her first volume since Looking Back, Dragon Talk reveals that Adcock's curtain call at the end of the millennium was actually the beginning of a long sabbatical. The dissonances and symmetries of her migratory history continue to be the source of her poetry. The title poem shows the poet grappling with the vagaries of voice recognition software (Dragon is a brand), and the intransigence of technology affords various gags:
I wait for you to lash your tail
each time I swear at you.
But no: you listen meekly,
and print "fucking moron".
If earlier poems acknowledge forbears who took on the challenges of emigration, the dedication here is to the poet's mother, who died in 2001. The wider narrative of family history is pulled into intimate space as the poet retraces her autobiography, including the relationship with her mother – "We'll learn to be good friends for forty years, / most of them spent apart, vocal with letters." "My First Twenty Years", which sits at the heart of the collection, rehearses the early journeys and transitions – pre-literate years in New Zealand, the move to England on the eve of war ("September 1939"), the post-war return to a New Zealand of cream sponges, where, notwithstanding the aunts' best efforts to fatten her up, the teenager holds on, as a matter of principle, to English austerity ("Unrationed"):
Cream, butter, cheese:
New Zealand's dairy industry set to –
and failed. Fat legs were not my destiny.
In "Kuaotunu" the infant child draws a face "which looks more like the world", and this exercise in cartography prefigures poetry that has typically looked across the globe ("No one can be in two places at once"). Place names and dates make a bid for permanence as the poet carefully stitches these new poems to earlier pieces. "Sidcup, 1950", "Tunbridge Wells Girls' Grammar" and "Sidcup Again" push against poems from The Incident Book; (1986) poems about her mother make us go back to "The Chiffonier", which anticipated her mother's death. "August 1945" takes us to Dublin, where the landlady advises against wearing red, white and blue:
Even so, when we went to the pictures –
The Commandos Strike at Dawn – and the camp guards
hoisted the swastika, we still couldn't quite
believe our ears when the audience cheered.
In response to "The Video" (1997), in which an older sibling watches the birth of her sister and then makes her "go back in", "Fast Forward" shows the poet looking at photographs of her great-grandmother and great-granddaughter and feeling an inter-generational rush of wings.
These beautifully crafted poems are full of laconic punchlines. "At least we hadn't had that problem" ends "Precautions", after telling us about an unmarried friend who trekked from doctor to doctor in search of contraceptives "until she found one / who slashed her hymen with surgical scissors". Dragon Talk affirms the fact that poetry is memory and the painful irony of this is revealed in the poems about her mother. Method is replaced by forgetfulness in "Summer Pudding", while "Lost" shows an elderly woman "prowling around the flat" looking for her children: "Where can they be?" Basil Bunting claimed it was "easier to die than to remember"; Adcock scores the sand to defy the waves.
Julian Stannard's next collection will be published by Salmon Poetry.