The publication of A Helen Adam Reader is of historical interest, feminist interest–and poetic interest. Adam belonged to the avant-garde, but she was not a formal innovator. Unlike Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, she never issued edicts about making it new or there being no ideas but in things. And while she did lead an unconventional life, she was too eccentric to be valorized as a “role model.” Born in Peeblesshire, Scotland, in 1909, Adam was a teenage poet whose Victorian fairy ballads captivated the British public and earned the praise of the Queen of England. Reviewers lauded her “perfect ear” and “delicate imagination.” The composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who had collaborated with Tennyson, adapted Adam’s first book, The Elfin Pedlar, to music, and performed it with orchestras all over Europe. But this fame, and Adam’s posh Victorian girlhood, vanished into the past in 1939 when Adam, who lived with her mother and sister until their deaths, immigrated to the United States virtually by accident. The three women had traveled from London to Hartford, Connecticut, for a wedding; two months later World War II broke out, and relatives warned them against returning to a city of blackouts and rations.
The watershed moment of Adam’s creative life came in the late 1940s, when her mother’s health problems prompted a move west, first to Reno and then to San Francisco. In the Bay Area, Adam quickly found herself a member–some said godmother, witch or Nurse of Enchantment–of the interlocking Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer poetry circles, which, with the Beats, formed the avant-garde San Francisco Renaissance. After several years, she decided to move to New York to adapt her apocalyptic play San Francisco’s Burning for Broadway. It was a bust. Adam spent her later years playing, in the words of her biographer Kristin Prevallet, the “eccentric Grand Dame to the New York art and poetry scene,” gradually succumbing to a paranoia that she had run afoul of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead. After her sister Pat died, Adam became a recluse. She faded away, dying in a Brooklyn nursing home in 1993.
Adam was included in the landmark anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 but was dropped by its editor, Donald Allen, when the volume was reissued as The Postmoderns in 1982. Adam’s previous collections were only partial and have been out of print for decades. Her possessions were lost when she died a ward of the state, and by the merest of chances they were acquired in a warehouse sale by a used bookstore owner whose manager recognized the cache of poetry and papers. As her things arrived piecemeal to their archival home at SUNY, Buffalo, Prevallet used them to reconstruct Adam’s equally fragmented, enigmatic life and work. Helen Adam may not have been a Modernist giant, but Prevallet’s Reader makes the case that she must be taken on her own terms: as a balladeer, playwright, collagist and necromancer.
Adam wrote to raise gooseflesh. Her brand of ballad derived from the northern regions of Scotland, where minstrels evoked the grue (whence our “gruesome”). The grue manifests itself physiologically in the audience’s shiver: the authenticity of a bodily response is the outward sign of the performer’s otherworldly power. Helen Adam had, as they say, “it,” as in these lines from “Kiltory”:
“Come hither, my lady, lie doun wi’ your dear.
A rival sae braw I ha’ reason tae fear.
Come lie wi’ your true love for ten starry nights.
I’ll grudge ye nae hour o’ your stolen delights.”
Tae the dead man he flung her. He nailed up the door.
“Kiltory, I wish ye the joy o’ your whore!”
Awa in the woodlands the wild throstles cried,
And the waters ran red on the brant mountain-side.
Adam combined the narrative economy of ballads–where each line is a discrete unit of information–with the lush sonic tapestry we associate with older Anglo-Saxon and Celtic strains of British verse. It’s not just in the way she wields the Lallans dialect (those wi’s and ha’s, sae’s and braw’s), trimming consonants to highlight the more musical vowels. Nor does her art boil down to the exotic word choice–“throstle” (with its associations of “thistle,” “jostle” and “throttle”) over the more English “thrush,” for example. She could turn a phrase like “Kiltory rides hunting though love bids him stay”–a nutshell description of the huntsman–or deploy a descriptive prowess verging on the ornamental. On the page, Adam’s intricate soundscapes compare with anything by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas. But to see her sing her ballads–she chants “Kiltory” on the Reader‘s accompanying DVD–is to appreciate how the language, trilling and seething by turns, possessed its acolyte. Adam gets so lost in it, she dances a jig to her own bloodthirsty tale.