It was typically graceless of the Sunday Star-Times to describe Fleur Adcock as an “intermittently Kiwi poet”; typically mischievous of Bill Manhire to quote it in her introduction; and perfectly Adcockian for the woman herself to mention she just happened to have got her first New Zealand passport in 50 years.
But after getting that silliness out of the way, a gratifyingly large part of the session was occupied by Adcock reading her own poems, mostly from her new collection, Glass Wings. I could fill a post with as many quotes as your patience, and copyright legislation would allow, but where’s the fun in that?
She brings the same precise eye and sure voice to meditations on insects, a magnificent sequence of poems based on the wills of ancestors (one of which she read) and a downright bouncy Novelty celebrating the birth of her first great-grandson. (Although as she conducts another skirmish with a disobliging pair of reading glasses, she notes, “I have a poem about macular degeneration. Which I won’t read.”)
The title of the session would be more convincing if Adcock had ever gone away. She has lived in Britain since 1963 – arriving a week after Sylvia Plath’s death – but the great pleasure, and challenge, of Adcock’s work is that her presence is full of apparent inconsistencies she keeps on magnificently playing each off the other. She says, “Perhaps relationships work more powerfully when there is absence and tension and a lot of heartache. I can’t live with people.” Yet her work is full of poems about family, friends and relationships that a committed misanthrope simply couldn’t write, let alone as well as she does.
But as Adcock says, introducing a poem: “All poets, all writers, are terrible parasites. We use people and experiences.” But poets are also wonderful con artists, and where better place to hide than in plain sight? After the publication of her handsome Poems 1960-2000, she didn’t publish another book until 2010’s Dragon Talk. “I stopped writing poetry when I stopped smoking” is a wonderful line, but as she also admitted, “It was more complicated than that.”
Adcock didn’t volunteer how complicated, but in an age of “too much information” that has its own value. After the session, I was talking to a friend who wished Adcock had been “more revealing”; but like Elizabeth Smither, whose latest collection, The Blue Coat, was released last month, Adcock – in her talk as well as her poems – understands what you don’t say, and how you don’t say it, is writing too. Reticence may be an unfashionable virtue, but it’s a virtue nonetheless.