London Grip Poetry Review – Fleur Adcock

Poetry review – COLLECTED POEMS: Edmund Prestwich is grateful for this full and eminently readable record of Fleur Adcock’s poetic creativity


Collected Poems
Fleur Adcock
Bloodaxe Books
ISBN 9781780376837
624pp    £25

Fleur Adcock’s Collected Poems is a vast treasure chest of vivid, memorable poetry. Opening it at almost any page I find strikingly original turns of phrase and thought or sophisticated plays on register. This is true of the very first piece, “Note on Propertius”, which begins ‘Among the Roman love-poets, possession / is a rare theme.’ Already in those words there’s sophisticated humour in the discord between the speaker’s loftily detached, academic tone and her passionate subject matter. Through the whole poem, deft handling of metre and virtuoso rhyming assert her control as she whirls us through constantly shifting perspectives on the situation, the behaviour, and the feelings of her subject – the Roman poet Propertius as he appears in his poems. Moments of brilliant, almost cartoon-like comedy, of wry poignancy and of dry satire succeed each other. Look at the swerves of tone in the last lines, ending in a satirical stab at male fantasy:

Here the conventions reassert their power:
the apples fall and bruise, the roses wither, 
touched by a sallowed moon. But there were other
luminous nights – (even the cactus flower
glows briefly golden, fed by spiny flesh) –
and once, as he acknowledged, all was singing:
the moonlight musical, the darkness clinging, 
and she compliant to his every wish.

One of the points of a collected edition, of course, is to recover early poetry that’s otherwise out of print, and Adcock’s earliest collections are full of such riches. Another point is to allow the reader to follow the whole arc of a writer’s career. Fine as the early poems are, glittering with an intelligence that overlaps multiple suggestions in both their details and their overall thrust, I feel that with the years Adcock’s work has become more and more effortless-seeming in this glinting interplay of suggestions, more and more possessed of a sheer quiet awareness of the infinite gradations of perspective from which anything in life can be seen. This is a broad overall impression, and I’m talking about a difference of degree rather than kind but in that sense, I think the 1979 volume The Inner Harbour marks a turning point.

Later work also shows what you might call a gain in epitomizing power. Her poems still largely offer themselves as immediate responses to particular experiences and encounters, written in a relaxed, conversational style. This creates an impression of immediate mind-to-mind contact. That and the poems’ alertness to the oddities and peculiarity of individual lives, charms our attention. At the same time, they engage it on a deeper level by seeming to epitomise fundamental, general principles. So a poem like “Robert Harington, 1558” strikes home with a brilliantly two-pronged attack. It intrigues us by the singularity of details from a long-dead minor aristocrat’s will; and it resonates profoundly by the way it touches such universal themes as mortality, cultural ephemerality, and what from one point of view may seem the petty vanity of human aspirations in face of death, from another the touching vulnerability and ultimate meaninglessness of the things we build our lives around.

The richness of the work expresses itself in Adcock’s ability to deploy very different writing styles with equal poise and precision. Her language can be lush, exuberantly fanciful, sparely evocative, or even downright prosaic according to occasion, often shifting between such different poles within a poem, a line or a phrase. Driving this linguistic virtuosity, giving it purpose, there are complementary intellectual and imaginative strengths. On the one hand there’s exuberant fantasy; on the other, there’s an extreme grounded literalness. In one of a series of poems affectionately addressed to Roy Fisher after his death Adcock writes ‘I haven’t a very original mind’. Absurd as this comment seems in some ways – she clearly does have a very original one by any ordinary reckoning – it can be seen as pointing to a real truth. Lovingly though she plays with fancies and fantasies, she doesn’t let herself be carried away by them. Perhaps her vivid apprehension of the actual prevents her. Perhaps the alert mobility of her intelligence makes her instinctively see things in many perspectives. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that one of the great pleasures of her poetry is its presenting things in a way that reminds us that they transcend any particular response to them, including her own. Finely crafted as her poems are, they follow the cadences of natural speech and give a strong sense of an individual voice. So she herself is a spirited presence in them, but they don’t seem to be essentially about her. She doesn’t colour or absorb what she describes in a way that turns it into an expression of her feelings and attitudes; she presents it as something outside herself that she happens to have encountered and with which she’s interacting. The sense that many of these encounters come by chance is important: it adds to the impression of the solid, independent existence of the external world.

Because it’s so directly fed by her encounters with the world, Adcock’s poetry reflects her biography as well as her intellectual interests. Many of the poems are about her friends and her family, whether close relatives with whom she’s shared life and experiences or more remote ones whose lives she’s researched. As historical or biographical scholar she’s brilliant at breathing life into facts while scrupulously respecting the limits of available information, whether writing about her own ancestors or a figure like the late medieval warrior knight Sir Henry Percy. Many poems naturally explore her and her family’s times in New Zealand, where she spent part of her childhood and part of her young adulthood. Others – including some of the most enchanting – engage in an unsentimentally tender way with birds or small animals that happen to come into her life. Through all these encounters and explorations we have a very strong sense of the poet’s active, even restless curiosity about the life outside her.

One late poem I can’t resist quoting is “Island Bay”, from The Mermaid’s Purse:

Bright specks of neverlastingness
float at me out of the blue air,
perhaps constructed by my retina

which these days constructs so much else,
or by the air itself, the limpid sky,
the sea drenched in its turquoise liquors

like the paua shells we used to pick up
seventy years ago, two bays
along from here, under the whale’s great jaw.

The wry reflection in lines three and four seems to me to strengthen the radiant lyricism of the lines around it. It’s characteristic that the lyricism doesn’t communicate itself as an expression of self or of personal emotion but as a statement about something outside the poet, an opening of herself to the world. I think I’d have felt the astonishing quiet power of its acceptance of decline and mortality simply in the poem’s own words. However, they’re enhanced by recognition of the allusion to Henry Vaughan’s “The Retreat”. That poem presents this life as separating us from the timeless brilliance of an otherworldly eternity, celebrating ‘angel infancy’ as a time when we’re closer to God and heaven than we are when more corrupted by the world. In infancy, he says, he felt ‘Bright shoots of everlastingness’ piercing the ‘fleshly dress’ of mortal life. Changing ‘shoots’ to ‘specks’ and ‘everlastingness’ to ‘neverlastingness’, Adcock accepts the ephemerality of this life but finds beauty and radiance within it. Heaven, she seems to me to say, is here, at least intermittently.

There’s a great deal of humour in all of Adcock’s collections, sometimes taking the form of dry, rueful or tart wit, sometimes an exuberant revelling in absurdity. I’m sorry not to have given space to it because it’s one of the recurrent pleasures of reading her. However, I want to finish with a very serious poem. Beautiful in its grace of form and lightness of touch, it’s profoundly moving both as a personal tribute to her first husband and as an example of a way of seeing the world.

Elegy for Alistair
(i.m. Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, 1925 – 2009)

Now he is dead, who wrote
‘Now he is dead, who talked
of wild places and skies
inhabited by the hawk’ –

thereby captivating
readers and composers,
envious fellow-poets,
multiple admirers

of his romantic looks,
and silly girls like me,
foolish enough to marry
what I wanted to be

before I knew who I was
but wise enough to have chosen
a kind and dedicated 
father for our children

who happened as well to have
an exquisite ear and eye
for a rhythm or a phrase.
Beautiful poet, goodbye.

The simplicity and restraint of the phrasing and the clear-sightedness with which Adcock recognises her own fallibility give force to her praise: it comes across as a tender, heartfelt but measured judgement, not a mere subjective reaction. There’s a deep selflessness to the way what she says about their marriage is made wholly subordinate to her praise of him. Fittingly, the poem shows her own exquisite ear and eye for rhythm and phrase. The way that first stanza evokes and tacitly accepts the commonness and inevitability of death is as fine an example as you could find anywhere of how much can be implied by the simple ordering of words: it suggests a successive passing on of the baton of art and seems to find a special value in the art of praise. And the simplicity of that final three word sentence is overwhelming after the long judicious unwinding of the sentence that precedes it. ‘Happened’ at the beginning of the final stanza is extraordinarily effective too. So much could be said about how it contributes to the emotional balance of the poem. It reaches beyond the individual poem to suggest a whole sense of life as involving the acceptance of what happens to be, again independently of the poet’s own feelings and wishes.

Collected Poems is designed to work both for reference purposes – it has indices of titles and first lines – and as a straightforward reading text. Physically, the production values are very high. The problems often associated with reading a collected edition simply don’t arise because solid, good quality paper, clear print and spacing and a flexible spine mean that individual poems can be read and savoured as comfortably as in any slim volume. I felt the advantage of this particularly in connection with Adcock’s earlier poems, which I only have in the 1983 Selected Poems from the OUP, which presents them in a far less reader-friendly way.