John Killick, The North, No. 37, Nov 2005
Anna Adams has never bothered to climb on any of the bandwagons that were going. Consequently she has been largely ignored by the poetry establishment. So far as I am aware none of her poems have won major prizes and she has never received any awards. She has been missed out of most of the anthologies that matter. She has quietly gone on creating small but significant artefacts in a traditional style over a period of thirty years, building up a body of work that looks increasingly likely to last. She has, however, been quite lucky in terms of publishing history: eight full-length collections, five of which are from Peterloo Poets — Harry Chambers was quick to recognise her talent, and has stood by her since 1979.
The qualities that mark Adams’s work are easily enumerated: forthrightness, humour , close observation both of nature and human characteristics, above all clarity, and this extends to argument, diction and form. She has all the qualities that could make her widely popular.
Adams was from the first a ceramicist and artist, and also taught art for a while, which accounts for her highly developed visual imagination. Her verse autobiography A Reply to Intercepted Mail, which was her first published book, only tells readers what she wants them to know: she is not a confessional poet. So, though the poem tells us that it was a serious illness that started her writing, she nowhere states that it was cancer. This she revealed only in an article in Orbis in 1985. There is a very potent image in the poem, and one which recurs in her writings. She is lying in bed in hospital in 1960 when:
I dreamed that on my cottage window-sill
there crawled a captive Brimstone Butterfly
that battered at the room’s impervious eye
with frantic wings, to reach the sun outside,
while all the time the door stood open wide.
She interprets this to mean that her spirit demands release through the word, and determines that if she recovers she will devote the major part of her energies to exploring her response to the natural world through writing. Out of a destructive force comes a creative one.
Butterflies form the subject of one of Adams’s finest poems ‘Tortoiseshells Overwintering’:
In my bedroom ceiling’s shadiest corner
a dark encampment of inverted tents
is sitting out the tyranny of Winter.
Like Israelites that keep God’s covenants
in sober arks, or nomad Bedouins
who hide rich mats in fustian tenements,
they fold the magic carpets of their wings,
concealing hieroglyphics of the meadow
clapped between tatter-bordered coverings.
As dingy as the withered nettlebed,
as drab as marbled bibles, charred by fire,
Or chips of bark or stone, they could be dead
but hang by wiry legs, as fine as hair,
close-clustered near the plaster desert’s edge
like a proscribed religious sect at prayer.
This bivouac preserves the Summer’s page
during eclipse of dandelions and daisies;
it bears pressed sparks of sun through this dark age:
one night between oasis and oasis.
The first thing one notices here is the accuracy of observation which underpins the flights of fancy. The first two lines, coupled with the two lines that begin verse five, enable us to see the insects clearly. But, though it is possible to take these descriptions at face value, the words ‘encampment’, ‘tents’ and ‘desert’ take us into the world of metaphor.
The whole poem is in fact one extended metaphor for the butterflies’ lives. It is taken from Middle Eastern nomadic tribal existence, and is worked out in considerable detail and does not seem strained. Further similes occur for the appearance of the hibernating tortoiseshells — three in the space of verse four. The most telling figures are reserved for the wings. They are at the same time ‘rich mats’, ‘magic carpets’, ‘hieroglyphics of the meadow’, ‘the summer’s page’ and ‘pressed sparks of sun’. These are also summer images, and they are contrasted with winter ones of ‘withered nettlebed’ and ‘chips of bark or stone’. Probably the poem’s most daring construction is ‘drab as marbled bibles charred by fire’.
There is an unobtrusive technical skill at work. Three-line verses of pentameters with the outer lines rhyming plus a clinching rhyme in the solo line at the end provide an unobtrusive framework for the presentation of the poem’s content, whilst alliteration and assonance contribute to a word-music that is rich without being cloying. The language of the poem avoids obviousness whilst achieving memorability.
One could classify Adams’s preoccupations by subject-matter, and one of these would be creatures. There are pamphlets entitled Brother Fox and Other Relatives and Six Legs Good and a full-length collection A Paper Ark. Another would be plants, and there are many poems concerned with these scattered through her work (there is a parallel here with her watercolours). She also has an abiding interest in places, so there are the books Island Chapters (set on Scarp in the Outer Hebrides) and Trees in Sheep Country (set in North Yorkshire). But she does not only write about the countryside: there are groups of poems about Newcastle and London. And there are a good many poems about people: Nobodies collects some of these, and her latest book Flying Underwater has many more. A poem in which her botanical and human interests fuse is ‘A Meditation on Some Drawings of Dandelion Seed-Heads’:
Over ten years ago I made these marks—
brain-shadows of recurring shapes
that reappear each year, though light wind strips
scarred bases of the anchored rocket-ships
and carries seed far from the parent stalk
to settle on new sites and germinate.
They should have multiplied to numberless
brassyfaced weeds whose origin was here
in this ancestral spheroid’s fluffy hair.
This was the worn-out and abandoned world
ten generations, scattered far afield,
have quite forgotten that they left behind.
I made these marks in Summer, sixty-nine.
My mother stayed with us. Our living-room
contained my sons and the demanding screen
that barters shadows for our time, and her
transfixed by spacemen walking on the moon.
I turned my back, but Granny and the boys
gawped at expensive hardware and stuffed guys
while I made drawings of an earthbound weed
whose astronauts know annual success
probing the wastes. But did my mother guess
her own inevitable, commonplace
yet awful journey into space drew near?
The seventies, on which we close the door,
were not for her. My first quite parentless
orphaned decade has whitened my brown hair,
so I resemble, in more ways than one,
those dandelions. Blown about a world
or universe of universities
my two young shock-heads seek a rooting bed
while my head ripens possibilities
of potent, breathborne seed, from inner space
where time stands still, though nearer, by ten years,
are our own journeys to untrodden stars
and the obituaries we may not read.
Again this poem’s starting point is a minute aspect of the natural world, in this case dandelion-down, but the layers here are even more complex. This is a drawing in the author’s sketchbook, which suggests the subject of Time, which itself is explored through direct comparisons drawn from her life and a metaphorical strand using the concepts of space travel. The word ‘space’ is a potent one, indicating inner and outer aspects. The dandelion is imaged in terms of ‘scarred bases of the anchored rocket ships’. The down resembles the poet’s hair which is whitening with age. Like the dandelion-down, her children will be carried ‘far from the parent stalk/ to settle on new sites and germinate’. The poet’s mother sits watching the television ‘transfixed by spacemen walking on the moon’, but in the ten years that have elapsed since then ‘her own inevitable, commonplace, yet awful journey into space’ has occurred. Contemplating the changes in herself and her family that the past decade has wrought, the poet is forced to confront the inevitability of ‘our own journeys to untrodden stars’.
There are many subtleties within the poem: the description of the children as ‘shock-heads’, and that of their later life as involving ‘a universe of universities’, the play on the words ‘sites’ and ‘ripens’ for example. As befits a ruminative piece of writing, strict form is relaxed here: variations of the pentameter and rhyming pattern are permitted.
The poem is an elaborate conundrum in which time and space are turned inside out, outer reality become inner then outer again, and everything ends in unsolvable mystery. The message is sombre but the means by which it is conveyed — a mesh of apposite comparisons — evokes a sense of exhilaration in the reader.
A more recent poem than those so far quoted is ‘The Self Portrait’:
I thought to draw my living mask,
with lines, or light and dark,
so propped a glass up on my desk
and made a charcoal mark.
But in the ground below my room—
deep in the shadow-well—
a narrow desert longed to bloom
and so left my cell
and softly, down the spiral stair,
crept to a bolted door
and, stepping out into the air,
proceeded to explore.
Laurels intensified the shade;
I pruned and thinned, then found
green ferns, and planted more, I made
small areas of ground
by prising up the trodden stones
and digging deep; I fed
manure, dried blood and crumbled bones
into the barren bed
then sought out flowers to make bright
the semidarkness; most
were toxic as the aconite
or pallid as a ghost,
but all took root and grew. Pale fire
shone in the gloom; bile-green
proliferated; nightshade bore
black phials of atropine.
The belladonna that arrests
man’s heart, grew tall and thrived,
and henbane, on forbidden lists
of killers, I reprieved.
When I had climbed the secret stair
and sat again, and drew,
my smiling likeness hinted where
the true self-portrait grew.
Once more we have the fruitful conjoining of artist and poet in the one person. And once more we have an extended metaphor, which proliferates and illuminates. One can perhaps see the influence of Blake here, both in the idea and its execution, and be reminded that he too combined the two roles. The poem is so strikingly successful because it deals with the ungoverned and alarming in a manner which speaks of control and calm. Whatever the secret garden represents (the unconscious, evil, our baser impulses?) is left imprecise, but the garden itself is described comprehensively and precisely. We are left in no doubt what the implications are of the poet/artist’s journey down the stair: ‘toxic’, ‘pallid as a ghost’, ‘bile-green’, ‘black phials’, ‘forbidden’ are some of the words and phrases used. And what does Adams use in order to cultivate this garden? — ‘manure, dried blood and crumbled bones’. So this is the area an artist in whatever medium may choose to explore, indeed needs to explore if they are to attain a ‘true self-portrait’.
There is a parallel poem elsewhere in Adams’s output which is all sunniness and blessings: ‘Near Mas De La Dame’. Here the poet is walking in the countryside in the South of France, and comes upon a woman writing. The vision of this person is half an idealisation of the self and half muse. The style in which this outstanding piece is written is, by contrast to ‘The Self-Portrait’, loose, leisurely, unemphatic — that of someone quietly recounting a dream. In a letter to the author Adams states:
You may be the central intelligence in your own poem and write of everything you see, hear, touch, and what it seems to mean — but not write about yourself except allegorically. ‘Nature Poetry’ that is not allegory tends to be insipid; autobiography that is not disguised in imagery tends to be egocentric, self-pitying, mawkish, irritating and NOT POETRY. Emily Dickinson said that the truth should be told ‘slant’.
There is an important aspect of Adams’s work that I have so far omitted to illustrate, and that is her keen sense of humour. This does not manifest itself in jokes, rather it is found in acuity of observation or character portrayal. An example of the former would be this depiction of insects in a room on a hot summer night:
Our guests come dressed to kill
cloaked in minute invisibility,
or armoured like machines—
like airborne tanks or zeppelins—
to raid our undefended space...
An illustration of the latter could be taken from any of the poems she has written which are portraits of individuals, often quoting extensively their own words. Some of these (the five ‘Spoken Poems of Elizabeth Winifred Rose’ in Nobodies, and ‘Monologue of the Retired Fishing Bailiff’ in Flying Underwater for example) are entirely made up of quoted talk. There is a great interest in vocabulary shown here, not least in the two poems ‘Unrecorded Speech’. In the second of these Adams quotes her mother-in-law:
‘She’s gone off-song with me, but she’ll come round;
she is a funny bundle. Have a cuppa?’
Then she admits, as she fills up the kettle,
that she herself is feeling ‘a bit ‘umpty”,
and also that her feet are feeling ‘prinkly’.
Adams comments later:
Her one-off words are not true Malaprop,
but a destructive creativity.
She cuts the coat of language down to dusters
to make it fit her meanings.
In an article about her early life and how she came to poetry Adams says:
Poetry is not all about the self, but its practice can lead to a more and more dispersed self. One can cultivate a promiscuous empathy that enters the beings of stones or clouds or snails, or what you will. This not only rests the overworked ego, it gives a voice to all those voiceless beings that scarcely know they exist. But it is not honest to cut yourself right out of the equation, either, because you are there, and poets must tell the truth.
Throughout her work Anna Adams has been generous with her spirit in inhabiting and giving a voice to beings that inhabit the world. Her ‘promiscuous empathy’ has illuminated many obscure corners, but she has never been tempted to shows of egotism. Nevertheless, there are many clues to the contours of her own life, both inner and outer, scattered among her poems. It is a particular strength that when she does permit the personal to enter she reins it in by her exercise of formal exactitude. There are few more enjoyable, consistent and balanced (in every sense) poets writing today. We should be celebrating the unique contribution she has made to the art.
What to Read
Nobodies (1990, Peterloo)
Green Resistance: New and Selected Poems (1996, Enitharmon)
A Paper Ark (1996, Peterloo)
Flying Underwater (2004, Peterloo)
She has edited two anthologies for Enitharmon: Thames: An Anthology of River Poems (1999) and London in Poetry and Prose (2003)
She has written two prose books (with poems): Island Chapters (1991, Littlewood now Arc) and Life on Limestone: A Year in the Yorkshire Dales (1994, Dalesman Publishing Company), both illustrated by Norman Adams.
The articles referred to in the text are ‘Poet in Profile’ (Orbis 56, Spring 1985) and ‘Having Changed Horses in Midstream’ (The Rialto 54, November 2003). There is an Interview in The North 21 (1997).
An Accessible Nature
Simon Darragh, London Magazine, Oct 2005
Flying Underwater Anna Adams Peterloo 68pp £7.95
People who are suspicious of contemporary poetry (such difficult stuff) often have definite ideas on what poetry should be about — nature, preferably — and like — it should rhyme, scan, and make sense, as Auberon Waugh said. Trouble is, making sense is a subjective notion. As for scansion, Waugh clearly had a tum-ti-tum syllable-counting approach. Rhyme? Well, he once complained he couldn’t understand the ‘complicated rhyme pattern’ of a winner in the Literary Review’s monthly competition. It was in fact in straightforward terza rima. Having one’s poetry approved by Auberon Waugh — it happened to me once — was a back-handed compliment, like having one’s foreign policy approved by Genghis Khan. But let’s not be beastly to Auberon; his monthly competition paid more to poets than most outlets, and he’s no longer here to delight and infuriate us with his outrageous opinions, nor to defend them, as he did so robustly. My point is that he would have approved of Anna Adams: many of the pieces in this volume are nature poems — nature, of course, includes building-sites and corners of car-parks as well as trees and rivers — and she uses rhyme and regular lines. It is what is called ‘accessible’.
I hope that doesn’t sound like a put-down. Poetry is in the business of finding new ways to use language, but we can’t all be J.H. Prynne or Geoffrey Hill, boldly going where no man or woman has gone before, or poetry would lose nearly all its readership. There must be those who follow, making the crooked straight and the rough places plain. It is an honorable job: the philosopher John Locke, now regarded as a founding father of the western empirical and analytic tradition, said he was content to be an under-labourer, clearing away the weeds and stones that impeded the ways of philosophy. Poetry needs Anna Adams just as much as it needs J.H. Prynne .
The first three poems in this collection are set on the Thames as it passes through London. They are a touch whimsical, lacking in depth and intensity, perhaps because she is away from her rural home ground, but next we have a formal sonnet in rhymed iambic pentameters, complete with a definite ‘turn’ in the final couplet. This is the title poem; a magnificent description of cormorants diving, and bears comparison with Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’.
Finding ‘The Song of the Beggar’s Child’ in four-line rhymed stanzas — I at once faxed a copy to my sister, who runs a Sunday School in the stockbroker belt and had been looking for a non-sentimental poem for Mother’s Day. It should give pause for thought to the well-fed children and their mothers, coming to church in their Volvos. [The poem was first published in The London Magazine October/November 2002.]
‘Jizz’, as Adams explains in the poem of that name, is a bird-watcher’s term for the quality by which they recognize a species of bird without picking out any one feature — something like Gestalt, or indeed Hopkins’ ‘inscape’. It actually derives from the USAF term ‘GISS’ — ‘General Identification, Shape and Size’ used (with varying success) in training to avoid shooting down one’s own planes. Slightly arcane knowledge delights the reader in several other poems in this highly readable collection, notably ‘October Leafsong’, ‘Hölderlin’s Last Night’, and ‘Thomas de Quincey, Down and Out in London’.
‘Stolen Moon Fragments’ is fun, and technically interesting, being a set of six haiku. We normally think of haiku as being unique and independent, but here they are linked, each being a verse in a developing poem. Each one stands up on its own, except, disappointingly, the fifth. ‘View of Waterloo Bridge’ uses a clever variation on the Italian sonnet form, while ‘Crossing Hungerford Bridge’ uses the Shakespearean form. Several poems — ‘Orion in September’ is a fine example — are in verses whose final lines are a foot shorter than the others, giving a dark, elegiac flavour. Throughout, Adams uses traditional forms accurately and well, but she never allows them to restrict her lyricism. These are well-crafted poems, often intense but never distressing, sometimes slight but never trite.
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