Fleur Adcock

Several years ago we took our boys and their mates to Wanaka for a holiday. The owners of our rental house had left a library card out for us. I was quick to take advantage of their generosity, called in to the Wanaka Library and stocked up from their great selection of poetry books. I distinctly remember sitting in the window seat reading Flight with Mountains from Fleur’s Selected Poems and being stunned. The poem was about, and dedicated to, my Uncle Dave. I’d never known Dave, he had been killed in an avalanche when I was young, but I’d grown up with tales of his adventures – he was my forever hero. With my grandmother and mother both dead I was keen to find out how Fleur knew my uncle so I wrote to her publisher who kindly passed on my message, and so we’ve corresponded………. Fleur knew Dave from his Dunedin days, when the university campus was so very much smaller. Fleur won a Listener competition with that poem and she said the prize was quite significant for that time. A few years ago I wrote a poem about a childhood climbing game we played, and how after the avalanche the game came to an end. That poem won first place in a competition and was later published in the Listener. As I sit here now writing on my laptop Dave’s photo on the wall behind me is reflecting on my screen. Life and its twists, turns and configurations………….

Fleur has loaned us two of her poems for our poetry cards over the last five years and both have been selected by artists for our exhibition. When I sent Fleur my request for a poem or two for her blog page, some background maybe to a poem………………..she replied

JUVENILIA

The first poem I ever wrote, or ‘made up’, as I used to say in those days, came to me at the age of six and went like this:

‘Hurry up and go to bed.
All through the night you cuddle Ted.’

This little couplet was a lie: I didn’t own a teddy bear, and what I in fact took to bed with me at night was a fluffy dog called Bobby, but Bobby wouldn’t have rhymed.
During the next two or three years I filled a little notebook with poems, often about fairies or the wild flowers that grew in the woods near where I lived in the south of England. Enid Blyton was a strong influence.

Later I came under the influence of some of the poetry we read at school. The following embarrassing piece of kitsch, written when I was about 11 or 12, if I remember rightly, seems to have been influenced by ballads or perhaps popular songs; it had its own tune, also of my own composition, which has stuck in my head:

SONG

I was a little gypsy girl,
wild, happy and free;
my bed was the softest, greenest grass,
and my house was the greenwood tree.
My roof was the starry sky by night,
by day the summer blue –
until I met my sweetheart,
and fell in love with you.

But then you married a princess,
and lived in a palace of gold.
I cried and cried and cried and cried
till my heart no more would hold.
And then I went to the greenwood tree,
under the starry sky;
I lay on my bed of softest grass
and so, dear, did I die.

(Chorus):
My darling, my sweetheart, so did we part;
and only a robin lived to tell how I died of a broken heart.

[NB: She probably died of pneumonia, after sleeping on that damp grass; she’d have done better on hay.]

In due course I moved on to the usual teenage poems, full of extravagant emotion, and eventually to more adult work; but everyone has to start somewhere.

And here’s another poem.  It was commissioned for an anthology called Jubilee Lines, edited by the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, to celebrate the Queen’s 60th anniversary. Sixty poets were each given a particular year to write about, and it was a happy accident that I was allotted 1953, when the Queen visited New Zealand and at the same time I happened to be pregnant.

THE ROYAL VISIT

I took my baby to see the Queen.
He was not yet born, but she wouldn’t wait.
She was wearing an evening gown
of silver brocade, although it was lunchtime;
but then she was opening Parliament.

I had on a maternity smock –
it wasn’t the thing to parade your bulge,
even for a respectable woman
like me, married more than a year.
Pregnancy was a little bit rude.

It took five minutes from my house,
facing the bulk of Tinakori Hill,
to Parliament and the sunshiny crowds.
I didn’t wave, but the baby inside me
waggled his limbs in a loyal kick.

S.S. Gothic was chugging south
around the coastline to scoop up the Queen
from Bluff on a date long preordained.
Meanwhile biology and hormones
were organising my own rendezvous.

Two months later, when I’d turned twenty
and given birth, I’d find myself chanting
‘I’ve got a B.A. and a B.A.B.Y.’
I could almost believe my life would glide on
with the smoothly oiled timing of a royal tour.

Fleur Adcock

The poem will appear in my new collection, Glass Wings, to be published by Victoria University Press in May and by Bloodaxe in England the following month.

We’ll talk to Fleur again before the exhibition is over. It will be interesting to see how the two artists treat her poems. And no, unless they know the poems already, I haven’t told them who the poet is.

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