A bird's eye view of ourselves, warts and all

Adcock Poems 1960 - 2000 (Bloodaxe Books, £10.95 paperback, £25 hardback)
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The Independent Culture

Strangers are good for us. They help us to see ourselves in unfamiliar ways; they take slightly different routes across our wearisomely footslogged home turf. The poet Fleur Adcock, born in New Zealand in 1934, has been living in the guise of a Londoner for several decades. London, she would be the first to tell us, is her home. And yet her life, and her career as a poet, began in Auckland; she married - and later divorced - another poet there when she was very young.

Strangers are good for us. They help us to see ourselves in unfamiliar ways; they take slightly different routes across our wearisomely footslogged home turf. The poet Fleur Adcock, born in New Zealand in 1934, has been living in the guise of a Londoner for several decades. London, she would be the first to tell us, is her home. And yet her life, and her career as a poet, began in Auckland; she married - and later divorced - another poet there when she was very young.

Her poetry is acute, intelligent, fastidious, sceptical, often disturbingly funny. It takes a kind of aerial view of mankind and his desperate foibles. It can be steely, almost unforgiving in its judgements. It can also be subversive - especially in her strange, skin-prickling narrative poems of the 1960s.

And yet Adcock has a remarkably tender side to her talent, too, when she turns her gaze away from the imbecilities of man. This can be seen in her many poems about birds, and especially in a delightful collection called The Virgin and the Nightingale, a sequence of lyrics written in celebration of such birds as the bejewelled oriole, the rackety nightingale and the sad swan. Her best-known poems are about sex and smoking - laughing, with an unfashionable harshness, at the ridiculous importance we attach to the first; and defiantly rejoicing in the freedom to do the second in preference to the first.

Unlike so many surrealists, she makes intelligent and focused use of dream material in many poems. And like many another displaced person, she has always had a profound interest in her roots. Looking Back, her last full-length book from Oxford University Press, is reprinted here in its entirety (she was one of many excellent poets who lost a publisher when OUP made that bone-headed decision to axe its poetry list).

That collection was entirely devoted to the pursuit and interrogation of ancestral voices, temporarily far and near. One of its poems, "A Haunting", demonstrates very well how Adcock has the capacity to make our flesh creep. A stunted young man hooks the narrator into a doorway, and questions her, harshly, menacingly, about her fascination with the idea of ancestry. The man, "pre-Victorian, pre-temperance, pre-gentility", all scorching gin breath and swinging vulgarity, questions the narrator about her motives. What did she hope to find in the past? Some misty-eyed consolation for the unpleasantnesses of the present? Tough luck, girlie. It's a harsh, abrupt, shocking and very Adcockian poem.

The value of a near-collected volume of poems (poets are sometimes reluctant to call a huge gathering such as this one "collected", because it might drive away the fickle muse) is that it shows us how various a writer's work has been, putting on this garment or that as the literary season changes. The most striking feature of this book from a formal point of view is how easily Adcock swings from relatively free to very tightly structured verse . An excellent example of the latter is the elegy she wrote for her fellow countryman and early teacher, James K Baxter.

There are poets who are born to perform their work, whose voice and manner seem to be an extension of the poetry read on the page. Adcock is not one of these people - nor, incidentally, was the late Elizabeth Bishop. What comes over in performance is a certain coolness and guardedness, a kind of crispness of delivery which makes the intent of the poetry clear, but fails to deliver much passion. For the best of Adcock, each reader needs to find her for him or herself in the privacy of this book. It is an acutely intelligent voice, as scrupulous as Marianne Moore's, and, at times, with similar oddities.

Both these poets chose, for example, to write poems about the pangolin, or scaly anteater, and both decided to describe that beast in rather similar terms. Adcock said that it "goes disguised as an artichoke". Moore said it was a "near-artichoke". The rest of what Adcock made of that creature can be found skulking behind bars in the Small Mammal House, elsewhere in this section.

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