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