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

Book Review: Hoard, by Fleur Adcock

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hoardFleur Adcock’s Hoard is a compilation of poems that weren’t included in Adcock’s last two poetry books, The Land Ballot and Glass Wings, because they didn’t suit the theme of these collections. The poems in Hoard instead reflect on Adcock’s own life through a variety of topics.

In Six Typewriters, Adcock uses six typewriters she owns as springboards to different moments in her life. She begins by talking about her ‘father’s reconditioned / German keyboard… with a spiky Gothic ‘o’’. Then she describes ‘Barry Crump’s portable / Empire Corona’, and how it has been slowly rusting away. She ends with a typewriter that her mother gave to her. Adcock claims that this typewriter was so efficient that she didn’t care for computers. Then, with what I would imagine would be a wry smile, Adcock ends the poem declaring that, of computers ‘I shall say nothing’.

This subtle wit is a large part of Adcock’s poetic voice and it carries on throughout the collection. Although Adcock has lived in Britain since 1963, she was born in New Zealand and makes regular visits to New Zealand as well. For this reason, New Zealand features heavily in Adcock’s poetry as a defining feature of her life.

In the poem Fowlds Park, Adcock speaks fondly about her time in this park. She talks about the memories attached to the area and how ‘Everything here matters to someone: / the swings, the coin-in-the-slot barbecue…’ However, Adcock chooses to talk about the bad as well as the good. She also states that the park’s beauty is something short-lived because ‘The bastards will get their hands on it… they will come with their development schemes’. Adcock’s fondness for the park does not mean she is blinded by the fact that it can be ruined, and that other precious green spaces in New Zealand have already been altered.

Adcock’s playful wit also comes to light in Raglan. At the start of the poem, Adcock asks, ‘What do you do in Raglan when it’s raining?’ Well, according to Adcock, you could sit outside the library and use the free Wi-Fi. You could go to the museum but, as Adcock states, ‘when you’ve seen it / you’ve seen it’, and you’ve probably already seen it if you live there. Through this good-humoured tone, Adcock highlights a specifically New Zealand condition: what it’s like to live in a small town like Raglan.

Adcock’s imagery is also particularly vivid, and this shows through her poem The Lipstick. In this piece, Adcock describes a shade of lipstick that is so ‘shudderingly wrong’. She imagines what it will be like when she throws it away and when it ends up in the landfill:

seeping and oozing, leaking fats
through its patiently corroding
armour, wailing invisibly
into the soil with its puce voice.

Fleur Adcock’s hoard of poems cover a wide array of topics, all reflecting on different moments in her life. Although there is no underlying theme, Adcock’s voice threads all these pieces together into a diary of memories.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

by Fleur Adcock
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561674


Book Review and win: The Land Ballot, by Fleur Adcock

cv_the_land_ballotAvailable in bookstores nationwide on October 3.
Be in to win a copy here: 

Fleur Adcock is a self-professed hitch-hiker, time-traveling to resurrect the lives of her forebears. The Land Ballot is a series of poems about relocation, where people are reborn or dislocated, contingent on their ability to coalesce with their surroundings. Adcock recounts the movement of her grandparents − from Manchester to Mount Pirongia, New Zealand. Here, characters tussle with the wilderness around them, breaking in the land, instating fences and turning native forest into workable pasture.

The settlement occupied by her grandparents is pitted against natural forces. Boundaries between gentrified country and bush-clad terrain shift and overlap. Ragwort trespasses into cattle land. Kea, the ‘demonic parrots’, attack sheep. Land is charted, divided, and land is cursed. Elemental forces are irrepressible and envelop the structures poised against them − ‘The school was a wooden box on a hill, surrounded by weather’.

This is a land of temperamental ‘fruit and honey’. The soil is ‘bush-sick’ and the fruit produced are ’empty, bladder-like plums’. However, it is conceded that ‘there are no tigers in this forest’, and that the land is perhaps less hostile, and more malleable, than ‘jungle’ elsewhere.

There is a certain charm about the community’s quaintness. Adcock’s concern is with the parochial, but her reach extends beyond the isolated farming community. This is about family, and the tenacity of individuals, and the realisation of dreams. Cyril, Adcock’s father, is lent a first-person voice in the narrative, and he grows into the story’s hero, who will ultimately put down ‘a deposit on eight acres in Drury for (his family’s) rescue’.

Adcock’s tone is conversational, and the memoir she hatches is unambiguous, perhaps frustratingly so for some readers. Adcock is a magpie of text. There are snippets from the Waipa Post, inventories of building materials, an excerpt from the School Journal of 1917. But Adcock’s voice is her own. There is a rare clarity, and a lightness of touch about this collection. Adcock’s new work is a wistful backwards glance, a nostalgia for a time that precedes her.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

The Land Ballot
by Fleur Adcock
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739711

Book review: Glass Wings by Fleur Adcock

cv_glass_wingsThis book is in bookshops from today.

I don’t think that Fleur Adcock really needs introduction to most of the poetry reading public. As such I’m going to refrain from telling you much about her. Glass Wings, the most recent in a long line of collections, is a mixed bag for me. I’ll admit that I’m probably not the audience for this work and although in general it seemed a collection of eulogies and wills in poem form there were moments and poems that still grabbed me.

The first section was the one I connected with the least. And this is most likely a failure on my part; other readers may enjoy it more. It is a collection of memories and eulogies. The parts I found most enjoyable were lines with more poetic than prosaic sounds ‘chocolate-box Chiddingstone’ and the more unusual images. Some of the lines about ageing and dying seemed particularly unkind to the subjects.

Whilst I don’t think that poets and writers have an obligation to be kind these images reflected common – and to my mind – uninteresting societal attitudes that pity the fat and infirm. At one point a woman’s growing fatness is described as ‘abducting’ her. And in another poem a 94 year old in ill health prompts the narrator to suggest that in their shoes they would rather be dead. The author at one point admits, I think, what are my reasons for being unable to connect with many of these poems:

‘They would certainly fly more gracefully
than my stumbling private-public poem
(you know how tricky such commissions are — ‘

These poems seem self conscious in their construction and in some places a little forced. Intimacy is explained through anecdotes where the reader doesn’t always have the understanding to get the jokes and connections. Often they feel like letters rather than poems, direct addresses that feel like the reader is eavesdropping or somehow interrupting.

The next section is a series of ancestor poems where wills and inheritance are the central themes. These poems were generally more interesting to me with lots of excellent familial detail going back hundreds of years. The final poem in this section, ‘Intestate’, references the whole collection and I think is one of the finer poems there both for its voice, its abstraction and its clarity.

The third section is brief and returns to the elegiac theme. This section deals with the author’s marriage to Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and the children they had together. Although brief this section is the one I enjoyed the most. The eulogy here is more successful, perhaps because it retains a feeling of intimacy that doesn’t have to be over-explained. The rest of the poems contain wonderful detail of another time. They include some lovely witty lines such as ‘Who says you can’t be ‘slightly pregnant’?’ at the end of ‘Port Charles’ and in ‘The Professor of Music’ a guest jokes that the couple may ‘be getting above ourselves?’ after the purchase of a fridge. The last two poems in this section return to the slightly more awkward territory trodden in the first section.

The final section, the only one really addressing the title of the collection, contains an excellent poem about a dung beetle. There are other successful jokes and good moments here. However, when the author writes about her ‘not-to-be-written memoirs’ I was a little surprised. Many of these poems are memoir. In fact the whole book could be memoir in poem form. I wondered what prompted that line and attitude.

If you’ve read and liked Fleur Adcock before I’m absolutely sure that you’ll find something to like, if not love, here. Even more curmudgeonly readers such as myself will probably find something worth dipping into. Adcock is after all an accomplished poet with a long history of awards and accolades.

Reviewed by Emma Barnes

Glass Wings
by Fleur Adcock
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864738875