Still flying, Harry Ricketts

Glass Wings
Fleur Adcock
Victoria University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9780864738875

Glass Wings is Fleur Adcock’s 13th collection. For close on 50 years, her poems have been praised for their sharp wit, classical clarity and conversational ease. Those qualities are again fully on show. Anyone who fears Adcock might have lost her bite will be reassured by “Charon” (“Where is Dr Shipman when we need him/to ferry us across the fatal stream/and land us gently in Elysium?”) and “Having Sex with the Dead” (“How can it be reprehensible?/The looks on their dead faces, as they plunge/into you ….”). But other poems show a kindlier side: for instance, the unsentimentalised sympathy for a dementia-stricken neighbour (“Mrs Baldwin”) and for a former doting teacher of Greek (“Ingeburg”).

The collection is in four sections. The first, made up of occasional poems (such as those mentioned above), also includes poems of amused frustration at the debilitations of age: “Nominal Aphasia”, “Walking Stick” and “Macular Degeneration”. The last of these, with a nod to Yeats’s swans and perhaps Curnow’s herons, records with self-mocking exasperation the failure to identify birds on a pond:

Now they’re off again, wheeling and swooping,
waterskiing. If only they would
kindly stop all this buggering about
and proceed calmly in my direction.

 

The comedy, self-mockery, mixture of registers, tonal switches are vintage Adcock, also the underlying melancholy. There are also a couple of commissioned pieces in celebration of friends and fellow-poets Michael Longley and Roy Fisher. As the poem to the 80-year-old Fisher acknowledges (“you know how tricky such commissions are”), poems of this kind require very considerable literary as well as human tact, and both are models of their kind.

The second, and most engrossing, section “Testators” mines the wills of Adcock’s ancestors for snippets and shards of long-lost lives. One of Adcock’s forebears, Robert Harington, was a courtier (“Get you, with your almain rivets (latest/fad from Germany)”); William Clayton was a carpenter, William Mackley a “ ‘fence’ ”. The poems blend “found” material from wills with historical research and imaginative speculation, teasing out clues, hints of story. Luke Sharpe of Langham’s will of 1704 contains “a growl from the beyond”: his daughters Elizabeth and Mary are to receive “a hundred pounds apiece” unless Elizabeth marries Mr Kempe of Oakham and Mary marries Thomas Bodell in which case they are to receive a shilling each.

Robert Tighe, a “lad from a dull yeoman family”, was among the posse of scholars who worked on the King James Bible of 1611. His poem, “The Translator”, is the most ambitious of the sequence, placing Tighe in historical context and imagining how he “sift[ed] through flakes and flecks/of Hebrew, winnowing out/seeds of meaning”, much as these resonant poems do. Ironically, Tighe’s own will was “declared invalid and lost” and “no identifiable word of his” survives. Bluntest and most moving of these “Testator” poems is “Intestate”, speaking for all the women unable to leave a will:

What was she supposed to use for ink –
blood? Breast milk? Amniotic fluid?

Too late for those. Too late altogether.
Some things are impossible to write.

 

The third and slimmest section, “Campbells”, opens with an elegy for Adcock’s first husband, the poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, and closes with a welcome to their great-grandson, Seth. Inbetween are poems about the couple’s marriage, drip-fed with evocative details of 1950s New Zealand, particularly Wellington: the lavatory outside in the wash-house, the Queen’s royal visit in 1953-4, owning a fridge, “Bohemian role models/calling in on the way home from the pub”.

The fourth and last section, “My Life with Arthropods”, offers slivers of autobiography via encounters with bugs. (Arthropods, as I didn’t know till I looked the word up, are invertebrate animals with jointed limbs, segmented bodies, and exoskeletons made of chitin – which includes everything from praying mantises and crab lice to spiders, fleas, ladybirds and wasps.) So “Dung Beetle” recounts how reading about “the ‘sacred beetle’ ” fed Adcock’s nine-year-old imagination, her “underground/larder”. “Ella’s Crane-flies” puts in a plea for not hoovering up “the daddy-long-legs population” but putting them out of the window “to take their chance”. “Crayfish”, at first playfully, recalls a lunch-break at school when Adcock and her friends “bought a prickly hulk/to have our way with”. Then more sombre reflections of “the blood-orange-pink smashed shards” of “the handsome creature …. Archaic, slow to mature” intrude:

                             Moult by moult,
given time, it can grow to the bulk
of a dog. Cilla McQueen said it can walk
all the way across the bed of the Tasman
to Australia, feeler to feeler with its kin.

 

If insect life is cherished and celebrated for its beauty, oddity and otherness, sex and men – always a richly gratifying (or disconcerting) vein in Adcock’s work – continue to tug the rug. A stag beetle is pictured as “(a small black Spitfire, whirring/through the dusk to clash in armoured battle/over its mate)”. Going on holiday, the young Adcock unwisely left her caterpillars with twelve-year-old Derek, leading to the long-shot reflection: “How could I/have entrusted my helpless infants –/… to a boy, even if he promised?/A boy, no matter which one? A boy.” In “Stick Insects”, the poet describes herself sweeping up “a pair of stick insects/locked in complicated sexual congress” and deciding to carry them outside, “respectfully on the dustpan,/still in their embrace, to a matching tree.” Finishing this one, I shan’t be the only reader to recall the early, tough-rueful poem “For a Five-Year-Old” in which shared kindness to an intruding snail is contrasted with harsher memories of trapping mice, drowning kittens, sexual betrayal.

Glass Wings, like much of Adcock’s poetry, has an apparent effortlessness, seems easy. But the poems are everywhere underwritten by a rigorous, undemonstrative technique, by what in a recent conversation Adcock has called “secret form”. Sensing this “secret form” at work is one of the subtler pleasures of this new collection.

 

Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books and his latest collection of poems, Just Then, came out last year.

 

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