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Fleur Adcock: Collected Poems

The 'proof of a life bound to language' over sixty years of poetry.

By February 16, 2024April 9th, 2024No Comments

It feels a bit ridiculous to describe a 600-page book as ‘spare’, particularly when that book has barely any blank space, crammed as it is with poems, often two or three of them to a page. But Fleur Adcock’s new Collected Poems does feel spare: it’s unfussy, unornamented. There’s no acclamatory introductory essay like those you might find in other poets’ collected editions, no statement from the author explaining her intentions or reflecting on her career, no effervescent note of thanks. It’s just the poems, and here and there, a note attributing a line or image to its source.

This no-nonsense attitude spills into – or, perhaps more accurately, spills over from – the poems themselves. That isn’t to say they’re joyless, or to accuse them of never having fun. There’s plenty of fun. There’s gentle whimsy, as in ‘The Pangolin’, in which the bombastic proper noun of ‘Small Mammal House’ inflates the identity of this ‘vegetable animal’ beyond proportion:

                        Yes, he would fit
more aptly into a dream than into his cage
in the Small Mammal House; so I invite him
to be dreamt about, if he would care for it.

And there’s play in the language of every poem. Half-rhymes like ‘darlings’ and ‘landings’ lilt and charm. ‘Yew’, a six-line poem, demonstrates Adcock’s skill in tone shifting. Transplanting a sapling becomes a glorified moment through her rampant, though tongue-in-cheek, self-assuredness.

Some bird shat out a seed in the alley.
I dug up a stalk of green feathers
and set it in a lighter place to grow.

Summer by summer it flattens and fluffs out –
slow, but wiser than me.
I’m going to let it live for a thousand years.

But the fun has to stop somewhere. There’s almost always a kind of abruptness to each poem’s ending. And though this edition collects poems whose publication dates span sixty years – from 1964 to 2024 – what remains from one decade to the next to the next is a tendency towards solid structure. By that, I mean an Adcock poem is usually inclined to hold something together rather than let it sprawl. If a poem asks a question, it also tries to answer it; we aren’t allowed to keep meandering, wondering, forever.

For instance, ‘For a Five-Year-Old’ begins with the premise of the speaker’s child watching a snail climbing into their bedroom ‘after a night of rain’. The speaker explains ‘that it would be unkind to leave it there’, so the child carries it outside, and the speaker reflects:

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

Adcock plays a trick here. Though the poem might seem completely zipped up, its final lines are aware of their own irony, of the impossibility of continuing this gentleness into all parts of life. These lines don’t summarise, even though that’s what the tone and rhythm suggest; they instead grow the poem larger, ballooning as they are with the threat of ‘how things are’ not being how they always will be. Someday, as soon as the child begins to see through their mother’s language, life will be less safe, less kind.

In a 2017 interview for the Academy of New Zealand Literature, Emma Neale asked if the ‘question of belonging’ still ‘haunt[ed]’ Adcock. Adcock replied, ‘I don’t think there’s a lot more I want to say about this subject, after all the years of agonising over it.’ Yet it’s a subject you can’t ignore when it comes to the Collected Poems. It’s less of a question of whether the poet felt as though she belonged more in New Zealand, the place where she was born and where she spent her young adult life, or in England, where she spent eight years of her childhood and most of her adult life. Adcock seems to have known for most of her life that England is home.

The problem for Adcock, then, is not deciding which country she belongs in. The problem is saying so, because saying so feels almost cruel. It creates distance between the poet and her family, and it causes pain. ‘To and Fro’, a section of The Inner Harbour (1979), deals specifically with this complication, as in its poem ‘Instead of an Interview’:

Home, as I explained to a weeping niece,
home is London; and England, Ireland, Europe.
I have come home with a suitcase full of stones –
of shells and pebbles, pottery, pieces of bark:
here they lie around the floor of my study
as I telephone a cable ‘Safely home’

and moments later, thinking of my dears,
wish the over-resonant word cancelled:
‘Arrived safely’ would have been clear enough,
neutral, kinder.

The poet’s instinct, though, is not to use the neutral, kind word: it is to carve out a sure space for herself with language. She has decided, perhaps even without fully realising at first, that this – London – is home, and that – New Zealand – is not. New Zealand disassembles itself into little pieces when she leaves it.

The latest poems in this edition, those in the last section – not published in any previous book, but new poems for this collection – are a series of reminiscences that flirt with, and sometimes surrender to, nostalgia. Several of these poems begin with phrases that seem like they might each begin their own drifting reflection on something barely remembered: ‘In the days of our bohemian youth’ and ‘Today I reminded Monica’ and ‘Let’s go back in time, Jacky’ and ‘Do you remember’ and ‘Auckland’s the place for reunions’.

At times, this inclination in the later poems towards recounting – assembling people and instances of the past without really bringing them into an immediate, present moment – makes the poems in this section feel like poems that have been written after the fact, after the poetry has finished. But a survey of Adcock’s whole poetic career, such as this book provides, proves she’s always been drawn to writing in patterns, following a similar strand until she has completely finished with it. This recent tendency towards dredging up memory, then, seems like just one more of those fixations.

Remembering is the new question, taking the spotlight from the subjects of restless home-finding or motherhood or the end of a relationship. Remembering – and also chronicling old age, the years of being 89, then 90, of having friends die, of seeing younger writers filling in the gaps, and of being constantly aware that your death could be the next one your friends find out about, as explored in ‘Letting Them Know’:

We need to find a way of telling them,
those of us addicted to living alone;

if we lose the power of speech, and all the rest,
we need a non-vocal way to make it known:

not to call for help – it’s too late for that –
but simply to inform them that the bird has flown.

In the same interview in which she pushed aside the question of belonging, Adcock spoke to Neale about her fascination with family history. Despite the huge amount of time she spent on research, she seems to have resisted letting it take over her poetry. ‘Finding out is the fun part,’ she told Neale. ‘No one much wants to read the results.’ Still, some of the results did filter into Adcock’s verse, particularly in her 2014 collection The Land Ballot, which follows the narrative of her grandparents immigrating to New Zealand during the First World War and attempting to turn a piece of native bush into a dairy farm.

It makes sense, then, that some of these later poems feel a bit like a family history, too—not one of ancestral lineage, but one that brings together this poet’s cohort of fellow writers and friends. This is particularly true of ‘Being Ninety’, which Adcock wrote ‘for Karl Stead, Kevin Ireland and Peter Bland’, all New Zealand poets born in the early thirties (though Bland was born and grew up in England). The poem is more of a catalogue than a lyric, chronicling each poet’s identity (including Adcock’s) before stepping up to consider what might be next for each of them:

Now we’ve reached a level of stasis,
but there are thresholds yet to be crossed,
and I’m too cowardly to examine
what lurks ahead for any of us.

So even though much of Adcock’s work teases out questions of distance and unbelonging, she also uses poetry to form and strengthen and analyse connections, writing to fellow poets, to lovers, to friends alive and friends gone.

Collected Poems is a successful edition in a very basic way. It brings together most of Adcock’s published poetry, and nothing else: it’s a helpful, solid reference material. But it’s also successful because of how rewarding it is to consider all this poetry at once, the odes and critiques, the pastoral, the epistolary, the then and the now. It’s an affirming and hugely worthwhile project, bringing all this together: the proof of a life bound to language, and to the people language has allowed this poet to reach.

Fleur Adcock: Collected Poems 

(expanded edition)

Te Herenga Waka University Press

ISBN: 9781776921362

Published: February 2024

Format: Paperback, 624 pages

Sophie van Waardenberg

Sophie van Waardenberg is a poet from Tāmaki Makaurau. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in upstate New York, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of Salt Hill Journal. Her debut chapbook, does a potato have a heart?, was published in AUP New Poets 5. She lives in New York City.