This latest collection from the engaging and accessible Fleur Adcock is an accessible and engaging collection of poems which her followers will recognise as being in her distinctively personal and colourful style. The best starting point for people new to Adcock’s work is her collected Poems 1960-2000, also published by Bloodaxe, but this book serves as a good introduction to her work. The collection is divided into distinct sections, in the first of which she deals with the onrush of age and decrepitude, in herself and others, with her characteristic lightness of touch and language in poems such as “Nominal Aphasia” and “Walking Stick” at odds with the lengthening darkness of their subjects. In the former poem, her puzzlement at being unable to recall the word ‘mirage’ finds smart resolution in the final stanza;
the word skipped briskly into my head,
impatient at having been kept waiting.
This section also contains several of what she terms “public-private poems”, birthday cards for Les Murray and Michael Longley, as well as several that look around at neighbours and family members, including the intriguing “The Belly Dancer”, of whom she writes that
and the stealthy ballooning of your outline,
kilo by kilo, abducted you.
These are, as she states in her poem to Roy Fisher, poems to think with in that they leave the reader with ample opportunity to fill in the spaces between the spare touches of detail, and also lead the reader into self-examination, as good poems do. Here, Adcock is characterised by quiet defiance. In places she takes risks with taste – her invocation to Dr Harold Shipman to carry her ‘across the final moat’ might, in other hands, be unwise. Adcock, however, keeps the murderous doctor in restraint and focuses more on the welcome end to a life that “went on too long”.
The subsequent section “Testators” is less engaging, dealing with the contents of personal wills dating back to the 16th century. It is in the final poem of this sequence “Intestate” that the defiant voice rises again over a sparse but insightful four line codicil to the less focused poems that precede it.
The third section “Campbells” reveals more personal, family-oriented poems rooted in her native New Zealand, but it is in the fourth and final section “My Life With Arthropods” that the collection comes alive as Adcock describes a life of encounters with bees, mosquitoes, dragonflies and dung beetles. The domestic horror of “Blowflies” wherein she encounters “white nests moistly seething in a dead pigeon” (and worse) is particularly vivid, and “Unmentionable” where she describes experiences with crab lice in commendably frank terms;
although I could tell a tale or two
about the man who gave them to me.
This closing section is alive with colour and image, a menagerie of lively and affectionate poems concerned with subjects about which it is often difficult for the reader to be affectionate. I particularly enjoyed ‘Dung Beetle’ in which she observes that
it burrowed into my nine-year-old mind,
head down, walking backwards, hind legs
rolling a great ball of shit and instinct
There are glimpses of small poetic truths throughout the book – her references to stick insects spending their lives “devoted to being something else” and her observation in the poem to Michael Longley that a conman is a suitable forebear for a poet, both professions plying what Adcock describes as a “risky trickster trade”. I think this is what Adcock does best – luxurious accessibility augmented by flashes of skewed observations on nature, both human and animal. In among this are glimpses of bone-dry wit which remind us that she is a human first, a poet second.
Despite the plea to Harold Shipman, it’s not time for you go, yet, Fleur, as this collection proves.