Adcock did some translations in her career so I believe she has an audience of readers in Romania. This page is a translation of a Romanian site. Lidia Vianu seems to have this theory of ‘desperadoes’ poets and she puts Adcock in that category. Even though you don’t know some of the poems she references, do you think her perspectives can be applied to some of the poems that you have read?
The Desperado Age
British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium
FLEUR ADCOCK (b. 1934, New Zealand) is a woman poet who is not afraid of her biography or her womanhood. She confesses that she uses her own life as a story, she describes her own emotions openly, without needing to hide her identity. Considering that Desperadoes usually – and more so recently – hide behind stories, protect their private lives jealously, we must view Fleur Adcock as a paradox: she is harsh on herself (and the reader) but she is also generous, she gives the reader hulks of her life. We actually get to know her from her work. Know and admire the human quality, once her words have taken effect upon us. Her lines are secretive, though. Her poetry works with hidden rhymes, disguised musicality and, mainly, rhythm, the rhythm of speech combined with a staccato of drama, a suspense of feeling until it turns out that the feeling was all wrong. A tough sensibility in tough words, this is how Fleur Adcock could aptly be described.
Love is and is not real. Incident imagines a ‘you’ and an ‘I’ lying in the warm sand. She falls asleep and – typically Desperado – has a ‘dream of falling’. She converses in her waking memory of sleep – ironically and Desperado, again – with ‘all the cave myths’, ‘all/ the myths of tunnel or tower or well’, with the intimation and fear of death. And when she wakes up, death is an inch away: the tide is on the point of swallowing her, while he watches, lights a cigarette and waits for her end. Cruel thought in lines cruelly exact, apt to the last drop of blood:
When you were lying on the white sand,
a rock under your head, and smiling,
(circled by dead shells), I came to you
and you said, reaching to take my hand,
‘Lie down.’ So for a time we lay
warm on the sand, talking and smoking,
easy; while the grovelling sea behind
sucked at the rocks and measured the day.
Lightly I fell asleep then, and fell
into a cavernous dream of falling.
It was all the cave-myths, it was all
the myths of tunnel or tower or well —
Alice’s rabbit-hole into the ground,
or the path of Orpheus: a spiral staircase
to hell, furnished with danger and doubt.
Stumbling, I suddenly woke; and found
water about me. My hair was wet,
and you were lying on the grey sand
waiting for the lapping tide to take me:
watching, and lighting a cigarette.
Death happens to children as well as grown ups, though. For Andrew gazes at a child who asks innocently ‘Will I die?’ and the poet answers ruthlessly, ‘Yes’. She knows the child expects to ‘live for ever’, shares his ‘childish optimism’, but will not hide the truth from him, even though he may be her own son. She feels obliged to tell him the whole truth:
‘Will I die?’ you ask. And so I enter on
the dutiful exposition of that which you
would rather not know, and I rather not tell you.
To soften my ‘Yes’ I offer compensations —
age and fulfillment (‘It’s so far away;
you will have children and grandchildren by then’)
and indifference (‘By then you will not care’).
No need: you cannot believe me, convinced
that if you always eat plenty of vegetables
and are careful crossing the street you will live for ever.
The language of these poems is as sharp as prose and as breathless as the last words of a novel, which solve an unbearable suspense. Fleur Adcock is never game for happy endings, but her poems do cultivate a sense of ending, which sometimes – as in this case – softens the snarling lines.
Adcock is proud of her sharpness. Advice to a Discarded Lover describes a ‘dead affair’ in terms of rotten body and wriggling worms. ‘In you/ I see maggots close to the surface,’ the ex-lover is told, and the poet admits that in comparing the dead love to a dead bird, ‘full of maggots’, she has chosen a ‘rather gruesome –/ too unpleasant a comparison’. Gruesome and unpleasant are favourite Desperado attitudes. It is more a matter of language than attitude, actually. They are as sentimental as any poet ever, but they choose words previously rejected, which happens whenever poetry revolts against the previous convention. Desperado poetry has by now created its own convention, of blankness and stiffness and impersonality, which is slower to die than previous fashions probably because Desperadoes are nimble poets, who are always ready to contradict themselves. This self-contradiction they must have learned from T.S. Eliot, who cherished his changes of mind and of mood. So, once more, modernist Eliot opened the way for what is known as postmodernism. Usually a new literary movement eats the previous one, trying to be different: Desperadoes are different in that respect, because they rewrite, redigest the whole of literature with fresh appetite all the time (which makes the movement so various, paradoxical and hard to pinpoint).
Afterwards talks about the ‘kingdom’ of two lovers as being ‘A nothingness, a non-relatedness’, ‘silence’ and ‘unknowing’. Solitude is the main Desperado banner. Once the reader agrees to share the unloveliness of the poet, the poem is rescued from silence. Here is how Adcock apologizes for her own bristliness:
She was indeed my grandmother. She did not choose
to be dead and rotten. My blood too (Group A,
Rhesus negative, derived exactly from hers)
will suffer that deterioration; my much
modified version of her nose will fall away,
my longer bones collapse like hers. So let me now
apologise to my sons and their possible
children for the gruesomeness: we do not mean it. (Grandma)
She feels displaced all the time. There is first her departure from New Zealand, probably, as in Stewart Island:
‘But look at all this beauty,’
said the hotel manager’s wife
when asked how she could bear to
live there. True: there was a fine bay,
all hills and atmosphere; white
sand, and bush down to the sea’s edge;
oyster-boats, too, and Maori
fishermen with Scottish names (she
ran off with one that autumn).
As for me, I walked on the beach;
it was too cold to swim. My
seven-year-old collected shells
and was bitten by sandflies;
my four-year-old paddled, until
a mad seagull jetted down
to jab its claws and beak into
his head. I had already
decided to leave the country.
Fleur Adcock never feels at home. In her lover’s house she is unhappy. On the beach with him, she feels she is on the verge of death, dreams of falling and wakes up to find herself almost immersed in the sea, where, as Eliot once put it, ‘human voices wake us and we drown’ (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock). Her own children are on their way to death, love is a dead bird, and, finally, her poetry apologises for the ‘gruesomeness’. Is it true that she does not ‘mean’ it? When this question becomes too uneasy and threatens to reveal Fleur Adcock’s real feelings, she leaves and becomes displaced – displacement being a major Desperado feature and source of delight, whether in prose or poetry.
Another face of displacement is separation, and Adcock is very good at giving up:
Half an hour before my flight was called
he walked across the airport bar towards me
carrying what was left of our future
together: two drinks on a tray. (Send-off)
She builds renunciation into courage and her consequently lonely and displaced self professes to cherish dignity more than attachment. Poem Ended by Death calls it ‘my laconic style.’ It is in fact a Desperado determination to do away with conventional romance.
The Soho Hospital for Women is an Audenesque view of cancer, a battle with death which the poet wins, for once. She is ‘giddy with freedom’, after she has witnessed radium-treatment, tests, doctors and students, the ‘practised smile’, courage and cowardice. God has allowed her more years on earth and Adcock’s poetry becomes almost human in tone. The Chiffonier is even more than human, it is tender and soft. The sound is sweetened with incredible rhymes:
How many more times can I hope to come
to Wellington and find you still at home?
We’ve talked about it, as one has to, trying
to see the lighter aspects of your dying:
‘You’ve got another twenty years or more,’
I said, ‘but when you think you’re at death’s door
just let me know. I’ll come and hang about
for however long it takes to see you out.’
‘I don’t think it’ll be like that,’ you said:
‘I’ll pop off suddenly one night in bed.’
How secretive! How satisfying! You’ll
sneak off, a kid running away from school –
well, that at least’s the only way I find
I can bring myself to see it in my mind.
But now I see you in your Indian skirt
and casual cornflower-blue linen shirt
in the garden, under your feijoa tree,
looking about as old or young as me.
Dear little Mother! Naturally I’m glad
you found a piece of furniture that had
happy associations with your youth;
and yes, I do admire it – that’s the truth:
its polished wood and touch of Art Nouveau
appeal to me. But surely you must know
I value this or any other treasure
of yours chiefly because it gives you pleasure.
I have to write this now, while you’re still here:
I want my mother, not her chiffonier.
The distonance between pleasing and displeasing verse is strong. Fleur Adcock is a grumpy poet, who will not admit her voice can be sweet. She scolds the reader and writes each line as if it were the last – which means, bracing herself for the last poem, banning superficiality by means of sharp intentness.
The Keepsake somehow reminds of Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady, with its final line, ‘And should I have the right to smile?’ Adcock forgets about the grin, and she confesses she ‘can’t stop crying.’ The poem is also an escape from Eliot’s haunting musicality. There is rhyme (a-e, b-d, c-f), but the words upon which the rhyme falls are deliberately common, ironically insignificant. One word is separated from its ‘s (genitive) in order to rhyme well, other rhymes merely approximate suitability, and, on the whole, rhyme is deconstructed while it is being used. Here is the example of inventivity with the split genitive:
‘ ‘Colonel, what mean these stains upon your dress?’ ‘
We howled. And then there was Lord Ravenstone
faced with Augusta’s dutiful rejection
in anguished prose; or, for a change of tone,
a touch of Gothic: Madame la Comtesse
‘s walled-up lover. An inspired collection…
Eliot revolted against rhyme, mocked at it, but built it in his own way. Adcock merely scorns it, while showing that it is no big deal, anyone can do it. This technical mockery does not at all rhyme well with the idea of the poem – a dear friend dies (death again) – but Adcock loves shocking her reader, giving him precisely what he never expects.
Fleur Adcock rejects sympathy, either hers for her heroes or the reader’s for her text. She wants deep communion, but that is a different matter. She gets it by very devious ways, while deconstructing rhyme, feeling, tenderness, expectations. The Telephone Call is a very good description of the poet’s role, in Adcock’s opinion. The poem is a lottery which offers not the million pounds but the experience of getting it. This is not the first time that the poet seems to whisper we are better off with the hope of the poem than with the mortal joy of a common life, that reading is better than living:
They asked me ‘Are you sitting down?
Right? This is Universal Lotteries,’
they said. ‘You’ve won the top prize,
the Ultra-super Global Special.
What would you do with a million pounds?
Or, actually, with more than a million –
not that it makes a lot of difference
once you’re a millionaire.’ And they laughed.
‘Are you OK?’ they asked – ‘Still there?
Come on, now, tell us, how does it feel?’
I said ‘I just …I can’t believe it!’
They said ‘That’s what they all say.
What else? Go on, tell us about it.’
I said ‘I feel the top of my head
has floated off, out through the window,
revolving like a flying saucer.’
‘That’s unusual,’ they said. ‘Go on.’
I said ‘I’m finding it hard to talk.
My throat’s gone dry, my nose is tingling.
I think I’m going to sneeze – or cry.’
‘That’s right,’ they said, ‘don’t be ashamed
of giving way to your emotions.
It isn’t every day you hear
you’re going to get a million pounds.
Relax, now, have a little cry;
we’ll give you a moment…’ ‘Hang on!’ I said.
‘I haven’t bought a lottery ticket
for years and years. And what did you say
the company’s called?’ They laughed again.
‘Not to worry about a ticket.
We’re Universal. We operate
a Retrospective Chances Module.
Nearly everyone’s bought a ticket
in some lottery or another,
once at least. We buy up the files,
feed the names into our computer,
and see who the lucky person is.’
‘Well, that’s incredible,’ I said.
‘It’s marvellous. I still can’t quite…
I’ll believe it when I see the cheque.’
‘Oh,’ they said, ‘there’s no cheque.’
‘But the money?’ ‘We don’t deal in money.
Experiences are what we deal in.
You’ve had a great experience, right?
Exciting? Something you’ll remember?
That’s your prize. So congratulations
from all of us at Universal.
Have a nice day!’ And the line went dead.
There is in this kind of Desperado poetry – the witty poems – a distance between the language of poetry and the language of conversation which the poet deviously claims to gap. In this poem in particular, Fleur Adcock uses only conversational clich�s. The poetic part is the structuring of these clich�s on a poetic axis of growing intensity of experience. The emotion builds up and is contradicted. The suspense is the interval while emotion builds up. The end of the poem is the moment when the reader’s expectation is burst like a bubble: ‘Experiences are what we deal in.’ In Eliot’s words, ‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’ (Gerontion). The hero of the poem – and the reader for her – expected a fortune and a lifetime of whims and luxury. What she gets instead, in the last line, is a ‘nice day. And the line went dead.’ The poet falls silent. We may share the hero’s frustration (actually it is more like pain, pain for all the missed opportunities in life), but the poet refuses to commiserate. If we do – and she fervently wishes us to – we take a risk. Adcock’s poems are all such lonely risks or rather solitary feats of courage.
More and more Desperado novels deal with middle age, relying for plot on growing old rather than on falling in love and expecting happiness ever after. It is a Desperado sign in poetry, too, to redeem age and make it sound good, to tell the moment, Stay, you are so beautiful. It could be called the Faustus complex of Desperado poetry, and with Fleur Adcock it becomes obvious in a poem such as Kissing:
The young are walking on the riverbank,
arms around each other’s waists and shoulders,
pretending to be looking at the waterlilies
and what might be a nest of some kind, over
there, which two who are clamped together
mouth to mouth have forgotten about.
The others, making courteous detours
around them, talk, stop talking, kiss.
They can see no one older than themselves.
It’s their river. They’ve got all day.
Seeing’s not everything. At this very
moment the middle-aged are kissing
in the backs of taxis, on the way
to airports and stations. Their mouths and tongues
are soft and powerful and as moist as ever.
Their hands are not inside each other’s clothes
(because of the driver) but locked so tightly
together that it hurts: it may leave marks
on their not of course youthful skin, which they won’t
notice. They too may have futures.
Maternity – in fact both being a mother and a grandmother – is a great theme with Fleur Adcock. She always tries to be matter-of-fact about it, to divest it of its sentimentality, to behave as if nothing could melt her, but the truth is, if anything, children do make her feel. In Counting she remembers giving birth. The words are blatantly flat, even humorous. The drier the tone, the funnier the description of the new born baby, the more endearing this poem becomes, and Adcock must have been aware of this deviousness: claiming to be detached when in fact her language all but caresses. She uses a flat present tense, she carefully avoids poetry in its traditional sense of intensity, she ends with two ridiculously common short sentences: ‘He grows up. He has beautiful children.’ And the feeling comes full circle. The doting mother becomes a grandmother, the child a father in his turn. Counting is a spiteful poem about a woman who cannot help loving her new-born boy, in spite of the fact that she knows this is just a repetition of innumerable experiences, of a whole history – human and animal. It is a poem by a poet who looks at herself and disapproves yet triumphs at the same time:
You count the fingers first: it’s traditional.
(You assume the doctor counted them too,
when he lifted up the slimy surprise
with its long dark pointed head and its father’s nose
at 2.13 a.m. – ‘Look at the clock!’
said Sister: ‘Remember the time: 2.13.’)
Next day the head’s turned pink and round;
the nose is a blob. You fumble under the gown
your mother embroidered with a sprig of daisies,
as she embroidered your own Viyella gowns
when you were a baby. You fish out
curly triangular feet. You count the toes.
‘There’s just one little thing,’ says Sister:
‘His ears – they don’t quite match. One
has an extra whorl in it. No one will notice.’
You notice like mad. You keep on noticing.
Then you hear a rumour: a woman in the next ward
has had a stillbirth. Or was it something worse?
You lie there, bleeding gratefully.
You’ve won the Nobel Prize, and the VC,
and the State Lottery, and gone to heaven.
Feed-time comes. They bring your bundle —
the right one: it’s him all right.
You count his eyelashes: the ideal number.
You take him home. He learns to walk.
From time to time you eye him,
nonchalantly, from each side.
He has an admirable nose.
No one ever notices his ears. No one
ever stands on both sides of him at once.
He grows up. He has beautiful children.
Some poems have a story and the language is more matter-of-fact, as if it were a novel, as if intensity did not matter, we could relax for a few pages and then pick up where we left. Other poems concentrate more meanings in fewer words and dispense with the narrative. From the Demolition Zone is a poem with such a thesis. It compares literature to a doctor performing all the routine acts, dressing wounds, diagnosing, holding the stethoscope ‘to our hearts’, scanning us, taking our pulse, in short being ‘the skilful presence checking our symptoms.’ This doctor must help us. This is how:
You know what we’re afraid of saying
in case they hear us. Say it for us.
The fear comes from the wound. Witty Desperado poems end in witty closing lines. This poem has its meaningful lines almost at the beginning, where we least expect them:
We’re injured, but we mustn’t say so;
it hurts, but we mustn’t tell you where.
Literature, then, is about pain. This poem must have escaped the censoring eye of the poet. It should never have been written because it betrays her too totally.
Smokers for Celibacy is a rhymed poem. Its rhymes are noisy (kill-ill, NSU-two, wrecks-sex, upset-get, five-arrive, fact-tract, insist-list, gonorrhoea-idea, pox-cocks, brain-Insane, stands-hands, shape-rape, packs-relax, threats-cigarettes, life-wife, clean-machine, drag-fag). The rhyming words are in fact a good summary of the poem. The language is bold. It is full of irony and the desire to shock. The message is cigarettes are less life-threatening than sex. It is an obvious message, no one needs interpretation to get it. The whole poem is an exercise in rhyme (Alan Brownjohn did the same in his long poem 2001). Desperadoes like to recuperate rhyme and debunk it at the same time. In this poem, Fleur Adcock uses it to make a plain, shocking, shameless statement. She defies the reader to say it is not poetry. It rhymes, does it not? It is ironical, which is so much in fashion these days. It uses all the trivial or merely common words a doctor could think of in relation to sexual diseases. Desperado poetry is very much about daring. But this poem may have gone a bit too far for poetry to survive.
It’s Done This! is an ideal combination of irony and earnestness, of poetry and prose, of emotion and idea. The image of the computer as the huge trouble maker – which it is for beginners – and also as the incredible enhancement of the old pen and paper brings about ‘the end of an age’, as the poet puts it, and it announces, the poem ends, ‘the great roll-over.’ The advent of the computer has made some poets change from paper to screen, while others stubbornly reject virtual letters and cannot force their brains to give up the old connection of words to the right hand in handwriting. T.S. Eliot typed most of his lines and felt it made his poetry better. Alan Brownjohn types but refuses the computer. A new reflex has to be born and it will be a totally different situation for those who were born in a computer-tamed house. Contemporary Desperadoes are still the poets who have grown into computers later in life, so they feel safer with paper and stable signs. Fleur Adcock describes this need for peace and safety very clearly:
Help! It’s hidden my document,
and when I try to get it back,
tells me it’s already in use.
It keeps changing the names of my files.
Why won’t the Edit Menu appear?
It takes no notice of me. Help!
‘You have made changes which alter
the global template, Normal. Do you
want to save them?’ Oh, please, no –
what have I altered? The ozone layer?
Help! But Help refuses to help;
the message goes on glaring at me.
There are some things you can’t cancel –
or, if you have, you wish you hadn’t.
‘This may damage your computer.’
What may? ‘Windows is closing down.’
But Windows isn’t. Who can I ring
to rescue me, at nearly midnight?
Somehow, between us, we survive,
even though I’ve lost page 4
and all the margins have gone crazy.
What if I’ve bought the wrong scanner?
What if my printer’s rather slow?
I’m getting rather slow myself.
It’s nearly midnight once again,
and Windows isn’t closing down —
nor do I want it to, just yet.
We’re in it together. So be it.
I’ll sit here, at the end of an age,
and wait for the great roll-over.
As the volume of Poems 1960-2000 draws to an end, the tone becomes more acid, the emotion dries and tenderness (the image of the poet as a grandmother, mostly) is rarer and rarer. A Goodbye announces that ‘Poetry goes to bed’:
Goodbye summer. Poetry goes to bed.
The scruffy blue tits by the Long Water are fed
for the last time from my palm – with cheese, not bread
(more sustaining). The chestnut blossoms are dead.
The gates close early. What wanted to be said is said.
Fleur Adcock seems to have had enough of emotion in rhyme or without it. She is probably ready to try something else, because her gift is definitely still there. Stopping deliberately is not a Desperado act. Most Desperadoes are tenacious writers, for whom one life is not enough to rewrite all the techniques, tricks and words ever used. In spite of the fact that she has all the features that characterize a true Desperado, in this last poem so far, Adcock may easily have escaped the label.