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A Nurse of Enchantment | The Nation

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A Nurse of Enchantment

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One of those poets was Robert Duncan. Thirty-five years old, he was already on his way to being one of the most complex poets of his time: native Californian/midcentury Modernist; alumnus of the maverick Black Mountain College in North Carolina; writer of one of the first homosexual liberation manifestoes ("The Homosexual in Society," 1944); a mystic with an encyclopedic mind, absorbing everything from Homer to Marx into what he would term the "grand collage" of his poetry. When Helen Adam landed in his class at the Poetry Center in 1954, the effect was literally electrifying--classmates recalled a thunderstorm erupting at the moment Adam chanted William Blake's "Introduction to the Songs of Experience" from memory for him.

About the Author

Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko is poetry editor of The Nation. The recipient of the Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism from the...

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Prevallet is eloquent on the seeming contradictions embodied by the Duncan-Adam alliance:

It was, after all, by freeing poetry from the shackles of traditional forms that this generation of writers hoped to help create a world where individual freedom would take precedence over allegiance to tradition, country, and literary merit. By sticking to predictable meters and rarely varying her rhythmic structure or rhyming quatrains, Adam seemed to be writing against her time. Within a milieu of artistic innovation and rebellion, where could the ballad tradition possibly fit in?

Duncan was surprised by the force of her influence: "What was important was not the accomplishment of the poem but the wonder of the world of the poem itself, breaking the husk of my modernist pride and shame, my conviction that what mattered was the literary or artistic achievement."

"The husk of my modernist pride and shame"--extraordinary words coming from this disciple of Stein and Pound and H.D. A Helen Adam Reader is chockablock with marvels, but none are more marvelous than the publication of the correspondence between Duncan and Adam in 1955, when he had left for a sojourn in Mallorca. They exchanged poems, news and encouragement; it was during this time that Duncan wrote his visionary masterpiece, "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," which opens his breakthrough volume The Opening of the Field. He sent a draft of it to Adam, who recognized its genius: "It is flawless, one of the very loveliest things you have ever done." Encountering this privileged moment gives the reader a different sort of shiver, not of grue but of whatever its counterpart among the angels is.

Adam also cast a spell over austere, uncompromising Jack Spicer. This conjunction was even stranger, on the surface: Spicer worshiped virile boys, Billy the Kid, Federico García Lorca. But his interest in folklore and ballads preceded their acquaintance (he had even assisted Harry Smith in compiling what would become the Anthology of American Folk Music, which would occasion yet another ballad revival, in the '60s, courtesy of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, among others). Spicer was struck by Adam's rejection of the folky and fey, her chthonic appeal to the grue. No hippie she, in these lines from "I Love My Love":

There was a man who married a maid. She laughed as he led her home.
The living fleece of her long bright hair she combed with a golden comb.
He led her home through his barley fields where the saffron poppies grew.
She combed, and whispered, "I love my love." Her voice like a plaintive coo.
Ha! Ha!
Her voice like a plaintive coo.

How different the ballad's "Ha! Ha!" from the Romantic odist's "O!" (Think of Shelley: "O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being.") The note of mockery imbedded in the nuptial scene is but a foreshadowing of horror: in the climactic stanza "The hair rushed in.... It swarmed upon him, it swaddled him fast, it muffled his every groan":

Like a golden monster it seized his flesh, and then it sought the bone,
Ha! Ha!
And then it sought the bone.

Like "the living fleece" of her protagonist's golden hair, Helen Adam's grue is animated by primordial femaleness. Even when monstrous acts are committed by the men in her verses, they are driven by and against the femme fatale's generative power. The collages she made (some of which are reproduced in the Reader and the DVD) show coiffed models from advertising pages juxtaposed with insects and rodents--the teeming life of the earth.

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