Fisherrow, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by James Roderick Burns, Jehane Markham and D A Prince
James Roderick Burns:
This nicely-produced chapbook—perfect bound, in plain white, with an exquisite chalk self-portrait on the cover—comes with more far information than the average pamphlet. It contains a list of previous publications spanning more than forty years and a two-page introduction by the publisher, John Killick, laying out his personal connections with the poet as both friend and longtime publisher. Killick sets her work in context and bemoans the relative lack of exposure she has enjoyed for “a body of work which is consistent, approachable, observant, humane, humorous and highly crafted”. I would second all of this, with the exception of “consistent”.
At least on the evidence of Time-Pockets, Anna Adams is on far stronger ground with her poetry of nature, and its interaction with humanity, than she is on humanity alone. Those poems dealing with people, roughly forty percent of the volume, are competent but rather uninspiring, tending occasionally to the pedestrian or collapsing in underused detail. The conclusion of ‘Our Fritz’, for instance, a ballad-like description of a German stranded in the Dales decades after the war, builds towards bathos rather than revelation:
.......Meanwhile out Fritz has reached the Lion Inn
.......to find the bar tricked out for some sort of party.
.......He turns to go; he’s come for a domino-game
.......but is hailed by shouts, sees banners and hears his name,
.......gets kisses, cake and free beer. Today he is eighty.
Or the settled domesticity of the central character in ‘A Portrait’ – a woman who has found “a pride in ordinariness” – which is evoked in clean and efficient traditional verse, but with a distinct detachment:
.......She shuns disgrace
.......and pays her rent and spins her money out,
.......and cleans and decorates her dwelling place,
.......unhampered by excessive thought or doubt.
If these poems represented the whole of the collection, Killick’s assessment would amount to hyperbole. But when Adams leaves aside human beings in their ordinary settings and plunges full force into nature, the work takes off dramatically. The second stanza of ‘River Scene’, for example, describes a gathering of birds:
.......A gravel mound, till recently an island,
.......becomes a Golgotha of cormorants.
.......First one goes cruciform, hangs out her pinions
.......in slanting sunshine, then two more breeze in
.......to take their stations either side of her.
There is no sense of forcing the human, or indeed divine, into this scene; each image arises naturally, fusing the two worlds with their differing concerns into a single, if mutually uncomprehending, whole: “Our world is marginal to theirs/and meaningless, and could well be dispensed with/from any common cormorant’s eye view.” It is a deft fusion repeated effortlessly through the nature poems. In ‘It’, the poet captures our place in the liquid flow of life perfectly, “we’re all … like salmon swimming up a waterfall,/shawled by our dwelling place”. Or depicting the disease-ravaged body as a bestiary, a crooked ecosystem of monkeys and butterflies, she achieves a magnificent soaring conclusion which lifts us beyond the realms of everything physical, yet retains all its sad meanings:
.......Then, high above the orchestra in the pit,
.......the fluting voice of a child who sings of the future
.......over the sonorous woodwinds full of shadows.
.......Above the dark forest a skylark is praising the light.
It is, overall, a strange volume. Achieved in many places, flawed in others, with the flaws marked always by an interest in men and women abstracted from the natural world, and the achievement singing high and pure as the skylark. Beyond the poems, there is perhaps a message in this for everyone.
A very sensitive and beguiling crayon self-portrait adorns the cover of this book.
Landscapes and the evocations of natural happenings such as cormorant birds gathering by the river in ‘River Scene’, or moths settling upon the “pale yellow basins” of evening primroses in ‘The Gigolo Moths’, are an important part of this writer’s work. She has a tendency to anthropomorphise her creatures while allowing for a dark humour to run through her imagery, as in the following description of a wasp landing on a dead cricket:
.......so wasp arrived and severed his green head.
.......And then, with mandibles used scissor-wise,
.......chewed off green drumstick thighs.
..............(‘The Nature of Nature’)
Or in the chillingly simple:
.......Who killed Cock Robin?
..... ..Murder is good;
.......Mother is sobbing
....... Deep in the wood . . .
..............(‘Bunker Nursery Rhyme: May 1st 1945’)
Conflicting and unresolved thoughts sometimes make uncomfortable reading in Anna Adams work and belie her gentle exploration of old age, the physical and mental degeneration of her life-time’s partner, and his death. Beneath a deadpan surface the artist’s submerged desire to be free of the burden of love and domesticity can be felt in oddly bumpy verse:
.......I am no longer his donkey. I straighten up
.......and look about me, thinking uncensored thoughts.
I would have preferred the introduction to be placed as an after word as I do not like to feel a poet is ‘worthy’ before I read her or that she should be pitied. Nor do I think that is it as good idea to ‘abjure the personal statement’ in poetry, as if it is not personal it may end up being dull.
I believe the poems that worked the best were those where Anna Adams lets her natural inclination to rhyme come to the fore. ‘At the Dentist’ has a charming light touch, mixing pastoral metaphors and dental mechanics with imagination.
My favourite poem was the first one in the book, which had a wonderful rhyme scheme and integrated love and humour and language in a playful synthesis.
.......Man-at-ease. . . .
..............(‘Loving Insults for a Baby’)
D A Prince:
Anna Adams is a widely-published poet constantly searching for continuities and looking for ways to connect experiences. Her poems present the joined-up, not the disjointed, and this collection, edited and introduced by John Killick, reveals how well she matches her technique to her philosophy.
The title poem consists of two sonnets drawn together under the one title. In the first, ‘At the dentist’, the buzz of the dentist’s drill suggests the sound of bees, then foxglove-throats and the hum of summer, until the dentist’s words tip her back to the present. In the second (‘At the supermarket’) she pauses under strip lights and the oppressive roof to choose olive oil, and her mind slips back to remembered olive groves, hillsides, a vision of Giotto’s paintings. Explained in prose it can sound trite—but it isn’t: these are the connections Adams feels, and works on. She is at ease with rhyme and half-rhyme, with an attractive way of letting a line run over from one stanza to the next—another way of suggesting connection.
‘Spring tide’, a poem in quatrains, starts with descriptions of the cherry blossom in Japan but then imagines this transferred to Britain—
.......If England were Japan, the BBC
....... would tell us that the foaming tide of May,
....... now north of Watford, crossed the Trent today,
.......and sea-bent hawthorn bloomed in Enderby.
Spring races north, mapped and reported on, and reaches Hadrian’s wall—at which point Adams realises “I am too old to chase it there.” She uses the perspective that age and loss give her, as here, on the difficulties of married life with a demanding husband (‘Grief’)—
.......I should have left him on somebody-else’s doorstep
.......and ridden away on the shoulders of a toy-boy.
.......But I was restrained by that painful thing called love.
In ‘The forgetting school’—an old people’s home she names “the Wintergarden Adult Kindergarten”—she treats the unlearning of “every kind of thought” with a tender humour; it is her world, too, although she can still shape her surroundings into fluid sonnets.
Adams trained as an artist, and the cover bears a pencil self-portrait of 1944 —a warm, generous, observant face. It suits her poems: they reach out, showing the reader what the eye of the artist sees by transmuting it into a play of rhyme and easy rhythm. She wears her skills with assurance and a love of humanity and the natural world.