“Unlicked selves”, Hugh Roberts

Collected Poems
Fleur Adcock
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781776562091

“Fleur Adcock is a New Zealand poet, editor and translator who resides in Britain” – so says, blandly, the inside back flap of the dust-jacket of Victoria University Press’s imposing new Collected Poems. There’s a long, complicated history – one whose sometimes painful struggles are at times suppressed in and at others directly addressed by Adcock’s poetry – lying behind that apparently matter-of-fact description. In 1982, Adcock, editing an anthology of “Contemporary New Zealand Poetry” for Oxford, carefully defined a New Zealand poet as “one who was brought up (not necessarily born) here and has stayed”: a definition by whose terms she excluded her own work (and that of the self-professed “New Zealand poet” Kevin Ireland) from the collection. I can remember at the time that there was some grumbling in New Zealand literary circles: if Adcock wasn’t a “New Zealand poet”, then why was she being given the job of editing the anthology?

Born in New Zealand in 1934, Adcock was on a visit to England with her parents and her younger sister (the future novelist Marilyn Duckworth) when WWII was declared, trapping the family there for the duration. At five and just beginning school, Adcock was old enough to be aware of her “New Zealand” origins and accent as unwelcome markers of outsiderdom and young enough to quickly take on the accents and ways of her peers. Her family’s voyage “home” to New Zealand at age 13 – surely the worst age imaginable for such uprooting – came as an unwelcome surprise. Her permanent return to England in 1963 clearly felt to her like the end of an interregnum, social and psychological.

And yet, and yet. As Allen Curnow noted, to forget “This whimpering second unlicked self my country” is an easy dream, but a harder reality. Closely associated with the anti-Curnovian “Wellington Group”, a protégé of James K Baxter’s and married for five increasingly unhappy years to Alistair (not yet “Te Ariki”) Campbell, Adcock’s early poetry rigorously eschewed any conspicuously “national” references. Focused particularly on relationships (sexual and familial), profoundly engaged with formal traditions that can be traced back through the entirety of English literary history, it should have been easy for Adcock to blend seamlessly into the British literary world, picking up the broken thread of her “English” identity. Certainly she began triumphantly enough, entering the circle of British poets known as “The Group”, which met weekly at Edward Lucie-Smith’s Chelsea house and rapidly earning a reputation as a rising star in the British poetry world.

The Group, whose members included such figures as George Macbeth, Peter Porter and Martin Bell in addition to Lucie-Smith, was never exactly a “school”, but it shared a broadly Leavisite emphasis on the primacy of the literary object, a turning away from the more obscure and self-consciously “difficult” language of high modernist poetry, and a broadly autobiographical, though not particularly “confessional”, subject matter. This might sound like the ideal environment for a poet hoping to leave behind questions of “national identity” and focus on more intimate and “universal” aspects of human experience, but to read across Adcock’s collected poems is to see how the self-focused “autobiographical” turn keeps leading to second – and third – “unlicked selves” entangled with national identities.

Entangled with, yes, but also riven by: what stands out from the cumulative impact of these poems is Adcock’s uncomfortable alertness to the ways in which identity is at stake in the often aleatory flux of history. If the divided “selves” of her childhood had originally seemed to her a problem to be fixed, over time they offer to her a rich vein of poetic material and a crucial insight into the ways the accidents of history – at the largest and smallest scales – unsettle and destabilise our multiple identities.

This is, in some ways, an opening out – temporally – of a strain that was present in her poetry from the beginning: that unexpected eruption of violence into the domestic that marks many of her best, and most widely anthologised, early works. (Speaking of widely-anthologised early poems, the reader will look in vain for some of these, perhaps most notably “Wife To Husband”.) “For A Five-Year Old” remains, however, in which the first stanza’s sweetly sentimental scene of the poet teaching her son to carry a strayed snail from his bedroom back to the safety of the garden opens out, in the second stanza, to a much more troubling reflection on the violent possibilities that hedge this moment of grace:

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.

So, too, does “Against Coupling”, one of the relatively few paeans in praise of masturbation in English poetry, which can engage us initially with its wry wit, comparing, as it does, the author’s jaded sense of the predictability of “coupling” to

       the school drama mistress

producing A Midsummer Night’s

                              Dream

for the seventh year running, with

yet another cast from 5B.

Pyramus and Thisbe are dead, but

the hole in the wall can still be

                          troublesome

But, on rereading, we are more struck by the disquieting implication of an irreducible aggression inherent in any sexual encounter:

I write in praise of the solitary act:

of not feeling a trespassing tongue

forced into one’s mouth, one’s breath

smothered, nipples crushed against

                                       the

ribcage, and that metallic tingling

in the chin set off by a certain odd

nerve ….

We should also note the tight formal control here, the strongly enjambed lines conveying the mounting panic of the scene, the cumulative shocks of what is “forced” and what “smothered” by that force. The ironic wit and the carefully controlled language all serve to make the awareness of the thinly-veiled human potential for violence – and violation – all the more devastating, perhaps particularly so when we realise that the threat of that “trespassing tongue” forced into the poet’s mouth, the loss of her “breath” is a threat to her capacity for utterance at all, a threat to her identity as a poet.

In Adcock’s later poetry. the interest in violent threats to identity persists, but the camera pulls back from the purely interpersonal to include a larger geographical and temporal landscape, in which the autobiographical subject is seen as a contested site, vulnerable to many different kinds of disjunction or contradiction. In “Immigrant”, from the 1979 volume The Inner Harbour, for example, Adcock remembers her return to England in 1963; now it is her own tongue that threatens to become the alien presence in her mouth:

I clench cold fists in my Marks and

                        Spencer’s jacket

and secretly test my accent once

                                again:

St James’s Park; St James’s Park; St

                          James’s Park.

That recognition that her identity – whether as New Zealander or as Briton – is inevitably an “immigrant” one, shadowed by some “second unlicked self” is one of the central insights that underlies the terrain explored in the later poetry. Again and again, the subject that Adcock returns to is family history: genealogical researches, passed-down family stories, personal reminiscence. The cumulative effect of these histories, though, is not to restore to the divided “immigrant” consciousness a totalising narrative (an “inner harbour”) that will give safe anchorage to her identity but, rather, to make us understand the ways in which we are all “migrants” of one kind or another, our identities always subject to more or less violent ruptures.

The Inner Harbour contains another poem, “Settlers”, that adumbrates much of this later material. An account of a visit to the poet’s grandmother, an emigrant to New Zealand, near the end of her life, it refracts the dislocations of her migrant experience through those of an old woman’s fading memory:

When we lived on the mountain

she said But it was not

a mountain   nor they placed so

high

nor where they came from a

                                mountain

Manchester   and then the slow

                                      seas

hatches battened a typhoon

so that all in the end became

mountains

The repeated gaps that fragment these lines on the page mark the fragmenting force of history itself as lived experience: a landscape in which “all … became / mountains”, abrupt, isolated peaks whose relation to each other is obscured.

In the 1997 volume Looking Back, Adcock first delved deeply into the genealogical researches which would become a recurrent aspect of her “historicised” autobiography. These poems recognise the deep desire to restore the past, to speak with and assert our connection with the dead that animates such research:

I’ve brought her with me. As I stroke

                               the stone

with hands related to hers, I can feel

the charge transmitted through

                              eight steps

of generations. She’s at my fingertips.

                        (“Anne Welby”)

But the poems also constantly remind us of the fictionality of such reassuring claims of continuity. In “227 Peel Green Road”, for example, the poet triumphantly locates the Manchester house (the childhood house of the grandmother visited in “Settlers”) featured in an old family photograph. Everything matches, right down to the gatepost. But of course it is

not the original gatepost, but

                             positioned

in exactly the same relation to the

                                house ‒

just as the windows have been

                           modernised

but we can see their dimensions

                       are the same

Finally, she assures us and herself that it is “the very house”:

unless it’s not; unless that was a

                            stand-in,

one the photographer preferred

                            that day

and lined them up in front of,

                 because the sun

was shining on it; as it isn’t now.

Or again, in “A Haunting”, she imagines actually meeting one of the ancestors whose lives she has been researching so painstakingly: he’s gin-sodden, repellent, and sexually aggressive:

                    “You were so set

on digging us up. You thought it

                       was romantic,

like all that poetry they talk about

(not me – I can’t read). Well, I’m

                       what you dug.”

The most telling moment in the poem, though, is when she tries to get free of him by buying him off: but, of course, her coin is valueless to him. Adcock’s point is that all our values have been redefined by the passage of time; what common basis of exchange could there actually be between these “ancestors” and ourselves?

This is not something we only perceive on a large historical timescale, either. To live for any length of time is to become a “migrant” from the past in a world to which we don’t quite belong. It’s fitting, then, that these wonderfully rich and thought-provoking Collected Poems end with a suite of poems from 2017’s Hoard in which Adcock revisits a series of New Zealand towns and cities significant in her own and her family’s history, reflecting on the multiple erasures and revaluations that have taken place. “Miramar Revisited”, addressed to her sister Marilyn, nicely encapsulates the concerns to which Adcock has returned with ever-deepening insight across her remarkable career: the divided consciousness of the poet as “migrant” in time and space, the entropic assaults of time on our sense of identity, both individual and communal, and the persistent reassertion of the “autobiographical” quest to understand who we are and where we came from in the face of that entropic erasure:

Approaching it from the opposite

                              direction

transfers our house to the wrong

                    side of the road;

and it’s gone topsy-turvy – where’s

                  the front verandah?

Why has the garage moved to the

                     right-hand side?

God knows, my brain’s boggled

                         enough already

puzzling out directions with the sun

                           in the north.

Reason doesn’t seem to prevail on

                                a sense

lodged as deep as my pituitary gland.

But we’re not lost. We’ve made our

                             expedition.

Sunshine has technicoloured the flat

                                   streets;

this three-dimensional wind will

                           be excised

from our memories in a week or

                      two: you’ll see.

The experience of this kind of fractured, contested relationship to our identities is a universal one. We all carry various kinds of “second unlicked selves” around with us: family, religion, personal myths of various kinds – in addition to the “country” of which Curnow wrote. But there is something in the way Adcock’s personal history stubs its toes over the complexities of our national one(s) that makes her a particularly keen and clear-eyed observer of the phenomenon. It is only when we are able to follow the complete arc of her career in this Collected Poems, though, that we can understand the real scope of her lifelong project.

Hugh Roberts is a New Zealander who teaches at Irvine, University of California.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
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