Book Review: Collected Poems, by Fleur Adcock

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_collected_poems_adcockThe black and white photograph on the orange dust cover of this smartly bound hardback shows a woman in profile, the poet in 1970 at the peak of her activity.  The firm set to her jaw and forthright gaze seem to show the poet in active consideration; judging the actions, faults and merits of those around her, but not sparing herself.

Many of Adcock’s poems in this VUP edition similarly observe, passionately review and categorise people, places and memories- a fitting collection for a writing career spanning over 60 years.

Adcock was born in New Zealand in 1934, spent the war years in England and returned to live in NZ from the mid-1940s to 1960s. This was when Adcock entered into the literary world. She and her novelist sister Marilyn Duckworth both dated writer Maurice Shadbolt. Adcock married fellow poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and also, briefly, to an abusive Barry Crump. She and Campbell were friends of James K Baxter (‘I married, you might say, into the art’) and their group held literary shop-talk over gin at fabled parties with ‘home brew and hotlines to poetic truth’.

The collection covers her books published between 1974 and 2017. Adcock primarily uses free verse, but dabbles in some longform and rhyming couplets. Her language is typically accessible, but deeper reading identifies literary allusions throughout. Adcock frequently structures her poems in stanzas that invite recitation at a measured pace, letting the tongue and lips linger over sensual, sibilant phrases. There is deliberation and precision in her word selection, as befits a poet who is also an editor and translator.

A number of her poems finish a balanced reflection with a satisfying (or heartrending) conclusion or coda (as with poems Mornings After and Prelude). Readers with aging parents are warned to have a hanky nearby when reading poems The Chiffonier, The Butterfly and My Father.

Adcock’s poems frequently focus on personal experiences rendered universal. There is love and loss, of course, and the pain of rejection, as in the poem Advice to a Discarded Lover.  Adcock’s dry wit rakes over lovers past who failed to live up to vain hopes, let alone expectations.  She coolly plans an exquisitely personal revenge on a callous ex in Instructions to Vampires, and delivers a brisk summary of a failed relationship in Send-off.  The balance of power is swapped to and fro between Adcock and the poems’ subjects; she grieves but is unsentimental in Poem Ended By A Death.

When writing of family life, her observations often feature softer comments on children’s naive joy or solemn interactions with their environment in the poem For a Five-Year-Old and For Andrew. Adcock effectively uses a child’s viewpoint to delicately frame a devastating adult situation in the poem Country Station.

In the poem Leaving the Tate, Adcock declares the world outside the gallery the best place to view beauty in the everyday: ‘Art’s whatever you choose to frame’. Adcock clearly delights in the natural world, which acts as an easy palette in poems Paths and The Spirit of the Place. In Adcock’s pastoral works, you can see the poet inspecting insects and her garden plants, or striding about blustery English country hills, pondering nature and impermanence. It’s not all intellectual pomposity, however; in the poem Prelude, a stroll amongst ‘hair-fine fronds’ sparks a quick erotic fantasy of rolling around in the grass with a long-term acquaintance.

That inevitable couple, age and nostalgia, appear in Adcock’s later poems.  Funerals become more common, so elegies abound; body parts fail; people and places from childhood emerge from memory. The poems resulting from Adcock’s genealogical research, although technically adept, are unfortunately about as interesting to non-family members as someone reciting their family tree aloud.

While Adcock lives in the UK, much of her family is still in New Zealand, regularly drawing her observant eye back. Adcock is willing to concede that the country has developed a more cosmopolitan outlook. In the 2017 poem Blue Stars, however, Adcock the expatriate wryly notes that ‘to qualify as a New Zealander’, one must turn against the ubiquitous agapanthus.

It is most satisfying to read poems that concisely capture universal thoughts and feelings, such as in the poem Things (1979).

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

In producing this collection, VUP honours a master poet who is rightly regarded as a taonga of both New Zealand and the United Kingdom. May she continue to write and publish, casting her thoughtful gaze upon the world.

Review by Jane Turner

Collected Poems
by Fleur Adcock
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562091

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