This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 242
The Mermaid’s Purse by Fleur Adcock (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2021), 80pp, $25
The arrival of a new collection from Fleur Adcock (her nineteenth) is a red-letter day. Here are fifty-one fresh opportunities to encounter that very distinctive voice: ironic, reflective, sometimes affectionate, sometimes teasing, still mulling over life’s absurdities and their capacity to intrigue and appal. Adcock, as she puts it in ‘Magnolia Seed Pods’, is still ‘carry[ing] on as I’ve always done: / picking things up and looking at them’, and continuing to fix our attention with her findings.
Inevitably, perhaps, for somebody in their late eighties, one of the things she looks at most consistently here is death (although this is of course no new subject for her). ‘A Small Correction’ offers a wry, unsolemn elegy for the fellow-expatriate New Zealand poet Mike Doyle (1928–2016):
Gentle, apologetic, vaguely awkward,
good-looking enough to pose in a full-page ad
for a tailoring firm.
‘Poems for Roy’—the final item—is a brilliant twelve-poem elegiac sequence for the English poet Roy Fisher (1930–2017). All the trademark Adcock qualities are on show. There is the apparently playful, increasingly disconcerting detail: death in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ is referred to successively as ‘mouldy old Death’, Skeletonguts, Boneface and Gogglesockets. There is the sudden, flicking exactitude of phrase: a sunset is described as ‘rosy-pink with pollution’, a blizzard as bringing ‘hypnotic light’. There is the abrupt switch to utter directness:
His last word, I’m proud to report, was “Fuck”.
There is the quiet gratitude mixed with self-ironising:
you were always tolerant of me,
with my role-play and my little dramas
There are the almost-but-not-quite symbolic moments. In one poem, Fisher is (or is he?) likened to his old Pyrex saucepan:
quaint with survival from an earlier age … But oh, the glow!
There is everywhere palpable but understated feeling:
When I allow myself to plunge
into my file of your letters
I’ve kept this red rubber band;
it’s the one I took off
the flowers from my garden … before I laid them down
on your wicker coffin
I needn’t think that just because you’re dead
I’m absolved from my annual duty
of writing a poem for your birthday’.
The more you read the sequence, the more moving it becomes and the more Adcockian it seems.
Other familiar preoccupations press their claims: children, family, friends, relationships, wildlife (a panegyric to bats: ‘the dipped-wing fly-past’), wordplay, the mot juste, the act of writing and not forgetting a lifetime spent shuttling, literally and imaginatively, between the UK and Aotearoa New Zealand. ‘Island Bay’ and ‘The Teacher’s Wife’ are the latest instalments in a gulf stream of poems that equivocally explore these divided loyalties. ‘Bright specks of neverlastingness / float at me out of the blue air’ opens the former, hovering on the edge of a nostalgia which the third and fourth lines inevitably check—‘perhaps constructed by my retina // which these days constructs so much else’—before, for once, lyrical celebration is allowed to return:
or by the air itself, the limpid sky,
the sea drenched in its turquoise liquors
‘The Teacher’s Wife’ more intricately interweaves various semi-fictionalised long-ago reminiscences about Grahams Beach with, as the helpful note tells us, ‘a wider meditation on ways in which New Zealand women, including Iris Wilkinson (the poet and novelist Robin Hyde) have been drawn to the sea or to drowning’.
The gone but not forgotten of the London literary world—and the forgotten but not gone—are wittily, if anonymously, replayed in ‘The Annual Party’:
They have wheeled in the famous novelist,
the sacred monster; we thought he was dead, after that biography …
Party naughtinesses of yesteryear are insouciantly reprised in ‘The Other Christmas Poem’:
By the time Alex tiptoed upstairs
for more wine from the stash in his study
(the children, thank God, were sleeping soundly)
he was the only adult in the house
wearing so much as his underpants.
More sombrely, ‘Berries’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ (placed next to each other) engage—subtly, persistently—with inhumanities, present and past. Behind the litany of fruit in ‘Berries’ we glimpse starving children in an Indonesian prison camp, ‘squatting by the roadside / … picking maggots out of a thing they’ve found’. ‘Amazing Grace’ ironically evokes the story and legacy of John Newton, the hymn’s ‘reformed slave trader, famous convert’ author. The poem is set in St Mary Woolnoth—beneath which Newton’s remains once lay before being ‘translated’ back to ‘his old parish of Olney, Bucks’—and from the vault of St Mary someone is now ‘bawling’ the hymn. The concluding couplets are withering:
His mission is to strike the shackles
from the ankles of the City traders
and other worshippers of Mammon—
slaves to flummery, slaves to pelf.
More slaves here than in Olney;
even within earshot, slaves galore.
Adcock has always been wonderfully adept with form and prosody. (Her 1974 elegy ‘In Memoriam: James K. Baxter’ uses the relatively unusual Venus and Adonis stanza; in ‘Stewart Island’  and other poems of that time, she experiments with syllabics.) Here there are games with various adumbrated sonnet shapes. ‘Sparrowhawk’, a terrific poem about ‘a witch from the woodlands’ that ‘hunch[ed] on the wind-wobbled buddleia’ and terrified all the small garden birds, mimics (without rhyme) the Petrarchan sonnet’s quatrain, quatrain, sestet format. By contrast, ‘Novice Flyer’ (about a dead young robin found ‘beside the antirrhinums’, ‘surprisingly heavy, surprisingly warm— / just getting the knack of being dead’) reverses the Petrarchan arrangement (sestet, quatrain, quatrain) with just a hint of off-rhyme. ‘Letting Them Know’ (about how those who live alone ‘want to be found before we rot’) is more elaborate. While its rhyme pattern gestures towards a reversal of the Petrarchan form, it is in couplets that simultaneously gesture towards the local Baxterian variant. The unrhymed ‘Anadyomene’ describes how a sometime lodger had on the spare bedroom wall ‘copied studiously’ the Botticelli Venus, but later ‘rollered [it] over’. The poem is set out as quatrain, sestet, quatrain, the buried sonnet-traces very faintly mirroring the ‘microscopic flecks / of golden paint’ you might find if you were to peel off ‘the layers / of emulsion’.
It might seem that detecting and admiring such ‘sonnet-ghosts’ is merely to point to the technical pleasures of these poems; that would be to underestimate the unobtrusive poetic craft that underwrites and is intrinsic to all Adcock’s work, and which helps to make it cohere. She remains one of those poets from whom one can always learn something new, whether of organisation, tone, subject matter or treatment. She is also a poet who makes the act of writing poems seem at least possible rather than something remote and unattainable, the product of some rarefied realm to which the rest of us could never hope to aspire.
I have left till last the remarkable title poem, ‘The Mermaid’s Purse’, which opens the volume. This is partly because, together with the sequence of elegies for Fisher, it is the star of the show. Partly, too, because I hoped I would have a clearer idea of what to say about this enigmatic item if I wrote the rest of this review first.
I am not sure I have reached that point of clarity; however, here goes. The three six-line stanzas of ‘The Mermaid’s Purse’, while containing plenty of Adcock wit, offer a kind of metaphor for the collection as a whole. The first stanza establishes the literalness of the mermaid’s purse: ‘full of squirmy sea-larvae’. (Thanks to Google, I now know that in oceanic terms mermaid’s purses really exist and are ‘a tough leathery pouch that protects a developing shark or skate embryo’.) But Adcock neatly complicates those literal connotations by thinking of purses in human terms: ‘she doesn’t carry actual money, / but then she’s not an actual mermaid’.
The second stanza implicitly presents Adcock herself as a kind of mermaid:
Three times I crossed the equator—by water … The coloured surface is camouflage;
underneath is black; black and heaving.
The third stanza starts with the question: ‘So where do we go from here?’, the answer being ‘Down, down, / where the eels go.’ Which seems (a half-echo of Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’?) to affirm that poet and reader are about to undertake some shared inner exploration of the self, of the past (and, on another level, a submersion towards death?). And yet, this joint venture is seemingly immediately severed:
Don’t wait for me—
I’ll be along later. Down, down—
think of me supping at mermaid’s milk
as you shrink into your philosophy.
The mermaid’s child will be a dogfish.
I think this means (something like) that the reader will go on ahead through the collection (‘shrinking into [our] philosophy’, trying, like me, to make sense of it) while the mermaid (now a kind of maternal muse figure) is replenishing Adcock.
But even if some of that is off the mark, the mermaid herself does seem to be a sort of poetic alter ego, the purse a metaphor for imagination and memory which help to gestate life’s raw materials into poems. This more allegorical, phantasmagorical mode is rare in Adcock’s work, though occasionally hinted at in the margins. To find it here upfront, framing this compelling new collection, is a further jolt, and delight.
HARRY RICKETTS teaches English literature and creative writing at Te Herenga Waka. His Selected Poems recently appeared from Te Herenga Waka University Press.