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A Nurse of Enchantment | The Nation

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A Nurse of Enchantment

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Some might detect a whiff of misogyny in the approbation of these overwhelmingly homosocial and -sexual poets for a balladeer who portrayed woman's power as unremittingly monstrous. And while it's true that her acceptance into the inner circles gave her pleasure and encouragement, it also came with a price. Michael Davidson's groundbreaking history The San Francisco Renaissance relates a famous episode to which Adam was a witness: In 1957 poet Denise Levertov traveled to the Bay Area for the first time and was fêted at a party thrown by Robert Duncan, with whom she had been in close correspondence for several years. There were readings from local poets, including Jack Spicer, who read from a new series called Admonitions. "People who don't like the smell of faggot vomit/Will never understand why men don't like women," he began. "The female genital organ is hideous." Spicer had ambushed the celebrated poet.

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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That night, Davidson writes, Adam had a dream. In Duncan's retelling of it, "she was delivering messages--she was [actually] a messenger in the financial district--and she'd go knock at each office door and they'd open it, and she'd hand them an envelope and she'd say, 'I'm sorry, but I'm a woman,' all night long at different offices." Davidson observes that Adam occupied a privileged space precisely because "she was neither poetic innovator nor sexual threat." Adam was a free spirit, a nonpareil--but would anyone term her a genius, like Duncan? A hero, like Spicer?

The moment of ferment ran its course. Friendships disintegrated, Spicer died, financial problems set in. Adam moved to New York in 1965. There, she became known for her riveting performances, opening for Patti Smith and singing at the Poetry Project New Year's Day Marathons. And she threw memorable dinner parties, where she read the Tarot for her guests.

What Duncan's and Spicer's enthusiasm had in common was the belief that Helen Adam was the real thing--a link to an authentic past and authentic power. For two Modernists who sought to "make it new," this seems like a contradiction. That is, until one remembers that the avatars of the Romantic movement, Wordsworth and Coleridge, wanted to start a revolution with Lyrical Ballads. Poetic innovation and ballad revivals were made for each other: the one tending toward all the bad traits we associate with the avant-garde--obscurity, theory, solipsism--and the other pulling it from the brink with its emphasis on dialogue, reportage and violation. When ballads, like horror movie monsters, return from the cultural grave, we know something uncanny is afoot. If zombies lack individuality in their relentless march upon the living, ballads likewise seem to extinguish the lyrical "voice" (a poetry workshop term gone stale) and run on regular centipede feet. In an interview, Adam admitted, "One critic called me a pre-Christian poet, which I think is nice...most of my poems are about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

So how, exactly, did the primal terror of Adam's vision square with the utopian hopes of a "heavenly city," the pacifism and humanism at the root of the San Francisco Renaissance? Was this antihumanism the real crux of her appeal across different sensibilities? Why? As Prevallet notes, Duncan linked the grue "with the demotic urge of poets, like dictators, to 'touch upon terror.'" It is in Duncan's essay "Man's Fulfillment in Order and Strife" that we get a clue as to the real function of the grue as it pertains to both poets and dictators. Recalling Hitler in Triumph of the Will, Duncan wrote, "This entity, the feeling into which we can be swept out of our individual realities into belonging to the demos, is the creation of an enthralling speech." The avant-garde needed Adam not only because she was Romantic, authentic and transgressive. They needed her example to unite their own fractured poetics, their own wounded demos. Despite herself, Helen Adam showed them how to be one again; she exerted authority, and they recognized it. From "Counting Out Rhyme":

Then cam' the unicorn, brichter than the mune,
Prancing frae the wave wi' his braw crystal croon.

Up the crisp and shelly strand he trotted unafraid.
Agin' the lanesome lassie's knee his comely head he laid.

Upon the youngest sister's lap he leaned his royal head.
She stabbed him tae the hert, and Oh! how eagerly he bled!

Now we can read Adam's poems for ourselves and judge whether Duncan was right that "what was important was not the accomplishment of the poem but the wonder of the world of the poem itself." She may not have invented a new form, but she did create a world.

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