Critical material about Adcock # 1


Some Happy Moments, Some Very Tall Language

By STEPHEN DOBYNS; Steven Dobyns’s most recent book of poems is ”Cemetery Nights.” His new novel, ”A Boat Off the Coast,” will be published next month.
Published: October 18, 1987

”The Incident Book” by Fleur Adcock is also a first book to appear after a ”Selected Poems,” but, unlike Mr. Simic’s book, hers is a disappointment. A New Zealander who has lived for many years in England, Ms. Adcock has the gift of elegant clarity, sometimes reminiscent of Philip Larkin. Her poems mostly deal with the world around her; there are poems on schools she attended, romantic and antiromantic poems, humorous poems. Their weakness is that they rarely amount to more than the sum of their parts, indeed, sometimes to less. Most don’t seem driven into existence by any compelling need. Often they are more like remarks than poems. Here is ”Tunbridge Wells,” one of the stronger pieces from a section entitled ”Schools”: My turn for Audrey Pomegranate, all-purpose friend for newcomers; the rest had had enough of her – her too-much hair, her too-much flesh, her moles, her sideways-gliding mouth, her smirking knowledge about rabbits. Better a gluey friend than none, and who was I to pick and choose? She nearly stuck; but just in time I met a girl called Mary Button, a neat Dutch doll as clean as soap, and Audrey P. was back on offer.

One doesn’t take much away from this. It is like someone pointing out the home of his dentist. There’s not a lot to be said. The strongest poems here are those written for friends and relatives, as well as a few romantic ones and some mildly political poems in a section called ”Thatcherland.” Others appear to go off the track and end inconclusively. Too many just stop rather than end. One closes with the line, ”Art’s whatever you choose to frame,” and I found myself wondering if this weren’t the esthetic governing many of these poems. I hope it wasn’t, because it seems a silly idea. It trivializes communication between writer and reader and reduces art to uninspired remarks, although in some instances, as in ”Accidents,” the remarks have a certain strength: The accidents are never happening: they are too imaginable to be true. The driver knows his car is still on the road, heading for Durham in the rain. The mother knows her baby is just asleep, curled up with his cuddly blanket, waiting to be lifted and fed: there’s no such thing as cot-death. The rescue party digging all night in the dunes can’t believe the tunnel has really collapsed: the children have somehow gone to their Auntie’s house; she has lent them their cousins’ pyjamas, they are sitting giggling together in the big spare room, pretending to try and spill each other’s cocoa.

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