Dragon Talk, by Fleur Adcock
Julian Stannard admires beautiful crafting and laconic punchlines
Poems 1960-2000 gathered Fleur Adcock’s many discrete volumes into a hamper. There was a calendrial neatness to the project. Adcock had made her name in the 20th century and the 20th century was over. The final poem in the book, coming out of a sequence generated by a residency in Kensington Gardens, was called “Goodbye”. The summer was over, the residency had come to its end – “Goodbye, summer.Poetry goes to bed” – and the valedictory nature of the piece hinted at longer silences: “What wanted to be said is said.” When I interviewed Adcock for the poetry journal Thumbscrew, she took up the idea: “I’ve just got less interested in writing poetry but you’re not allowed to say this; people are terribly shocked. What really grips me – what I continue to compose – is the narrative of my family history.”
Adcock can wear these two hats at the same time. Family history, which becomes a form of self-examination, has long threaded itself into the poetry. “The Voyage Out”, from The Scenic Route (1974), described the arduous journey of her great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand in 1874. In Looking Back (1997) Adcock shook off the dust of the Records Office to create a vivid almanac of ancestors. The collection is part of the poet’s wider enquiry into geographical and cultural displacement. Born in New Zealand in 1934, Fleur and her sister came to England in 1939. Growing up in Britain during the war inculcated a sense of Englishness, and the family’s return to New Zealand in 1947 was resisted by the fledgling poet. Adcock’s unwillingness is shown in this collection in “Signature”, in which she drags her feet through the heavy snow of that mythological winter: “I was thirteen, and sensible only / intermittently” and “I didn’t want to leave.” She returned to London definitively in 1963, a week after the suicide of Sylvia Plath.
Her first volume since Looking Back, Dragon Talk reveals that Adcock’s curtain call at the end of the millennium was actually the beginning of a long sabbatical. The dissonances and symmetries of her migratory history continue to be the source of her poetry. The title poem shows the poet grappling with the vagaries of voice recognition software (Dragon is a brand), and the intransigence of technology affords various gags:
I wait for you to lash your tail
each time I swear at you.
But no: you listen meekly,
and print “fucking moron”.
If earlier poems acknowledge forbears who took on the challenges of emigration, the dedication here is to the poet’s mother, who died in 2001. The wider narrative of family history is pulled into intimate space as the poet retraces her autobiography, including the relationship with her mother – “We’ll learn to be good friends for forty years, / most of them spent apart, vocal with letters.” “My First Twenty Years”, which sits at the heart of the collection, rehearses the early journeys and transitions – pre-literate years in New Zealand, the move to England on the eve of war (“September 1939”), the post-war return to a New Zealand of cream sponges, where, notwithstanding the aunts’ best efforts to fatten her up, the teenager holds on, as a matter of principle, to English austerity (“Unrationed”):
Cream, butter, cheese:
New Zealand’s dairy industry set to –
and failed. Fat legs were not my destiny.
In “Kuaotunu” the infant child draws a face “which looks more like the world”, and this exercise in cartography prefigures poetry that has typically looked across the globe (“No one can be in two places at once”). Place names and dates make a bid for permanence as the poet carefully stitches these new poems to earlier pieces. “Sidcup, 1950”, “Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar” and “Sidcup Again” push against poems from The Incident Book; (1986) poems about her mother make us go back to “The Chiffonier”, which anticipated her mother’s death. “August 1945” takes us to Dublin, where the landlady advises against wearing red, white and blue:
Even so, when we went to the pictures –
The Commandos Strike at Dawn – and the camp guards
hoisted the swastika, we still couldn’t quite
believe our ears when the audience cheered.
In response to “The Video” (1997), in which an older sibling watches the birth of her sister and then makes her “go back in”, “Fast Forward” shows the poet looking at photographs of her great-grandmother and great-granddaughter and feeling an inter-generational rush of wings.
These beautifully crafted poems are full of laconic punchlines. “At least we hadn’t had that problem” ends “Precautions”, after telling us about an unmarried friend who trekked from doctor to doctor in search of contraceptives “until she found one / who slashed her hymen with surgical scissors”. Dragon Talk affirms the fact that poetry is memory and the painful irony of this is revealed in the poems about her mother. Method is replaced by forgetfulness in “Summer Pudding”, while “Lost” shows an elderly woman “prowling around the flat” looking for her children: “Where can they be?” Basil Bunting claimed it was “easier to die than to remember”; Adcock scores the sand to defy the waves.