A Nurse of Enchantment

A Nurse of Enchantment

Helen Adam wrote to raise gooseflesh. A new collection of her work takes her on her own terms.


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.

When Adam settled in San Francisco, she found herself among various avant-gardes dedicated not only to overthrowing the shackles of the East Coast literary establishment but also to founding a new social order. In true anarchist fashion, San Francisco would merely be a landscape for a plethora of interlocking “magic kingdom” households, co-ops and communities. Several of the older generation of poets and artists–Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson–had met at Waldport, Oregon, the detention camp for conscientious objectors during World War II. (Morris Graves and William Stafford were fellow detainees. Rexroth wrote about the experience in this magazine, in 1957.) After the war, the artists who had met and theorized in a government camp influenced a younger, restless, Romantic generation that, amid the general prosperity, sought to imagine a society and a poetry in which humanity could flourish and be free.

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.

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.

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.

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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