No 161 - 2000
Poems 1960-2000, Fleur Adcock, Bloodaxe. £10.95
Difficult to believe ‘Against Coupling’ was thirty years ago! - (‘Coupling’ is shorter but in its way just as good) - but this retrospective allows us to measure the real stature of Fleur Adcock.
Her style has always had a prose backbone, with no flummery: it announces she means what she says, but it never looks like anything but poetry. She can be steely. To a “discarded lover” it’s “go away until your bones are clean.” She can be brilliantly outspoken, but she knows when to understate, when to stop, when to withhold answers. She’s a mistress of strategies and the almost invisible rhyme. In ‘Country Station’, for instance, everything’s focused on a little girl entertaining herself - making a garden with moss-cushions and just enough ice-lolly sticks for a fence, putting out biscuit crumbs for the ants, planning to climb on a shed when no one’s looking. It’s the last stanza that shows what the poem’s about:
Her mother is making
another telephone call (she
isn’t crying any more).
Perhaps they will stay here all day.
We know more than the poem says, can enlarge the situation and the characters for ourselves. Her art, that looks so spontaneous, is intricate. Her dreams and surrealism make perfect sense.
All the witty black comedy masterpieces are here - ‘Future Work’, ‘Smokers for Celibacy’, ‘Things’, ‘The Prize-winning Poem’ - every rhyme looking as if it could only be there, every word choosing itself. But there are the more sombre pieces. Some of the more overtly so come early, in the sixties. Her writing is accomplished from the start, but her intelligence leads her more and more to the oblique, the witty, the light of touch, though not only there. Her unsentimentality has something unspoken but powerful behind it. ‘Miss Hamilton in London’:
...drew the curtains, switched on the electric fire,
washed her hair and read until it was dry,
then went to bed; where, for the hours of darkness,
she lay pierced by thirty black spears
and felt her limbs numb, her eyes burning,
and dark rust carried along her blood.
But she can be sensible as in ‘A Hymn to Friendship’, and she can slip in the big questions when you’re not looking. A poem begins innocently enough with “I am the dotted lines on the map: / footpaths exist only when they are walked on...” but ends:
Here on the brow of the world I stop,
set my stone face to the wind, and turn
to each wide quarter. I am that I am.
Family life looms large with all its worry, humour, grief, the undesirability and oddness of blood-relations, the impossibility of marriage. “Will I die?” a child asks and doesn’t get a straight answer, though it’s yes. What was the creepiest thing about Peter Pan? “The little pearls of his never-shed milk teeth.” She has the ruthlessness of women, but her poems are all the more powerful and surprising for the sardonically witty poems that surround them. Not only the young, but the middle-aged are still kissing “in the backs of taxis on the way/ to airports and stations”.
Their mouths and tongues
are soft and powerful and as moist as ever.
Their hands are not inside each other’s clothes
(because of the driver) but locked so tightly
together that it hurts: it may leave marks
on their not of course youthful skin, which they won’t
notice. They too may have futures.
To a lover she says:
is what I am trying to achieve for us.
A nothingness, a non-relatedness, this
unknowing into which we are sliding now
together: this will have to be our kingdom...
She can write about the old subjects, toads, buttercups, wrens, because the empathy comes from pain.
It was the summer of my father’s death.
I saw his spirit in every visiting creature,
in every small thing in risk of harm:
bird, moth, butterfly, beetle,
the black rabbit lolloping along the concrete,
lost in suburbia, and our toad...
The wounds we all suffer from, inflicted by this phase of history, the eternal vicissitudes, and ourselves, are bravely borne and, when they can be, turned into jokes.
One could go on. This is a big, handsome, entertaining, deep, shallow, enjoyable book, incredibly good value, a joy to have, and an indestructible achievement, something to be proud of.
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- Journal, The
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- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
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- Paper, The
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- Poetry Salzburg Review
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