Vivid Encounters with Insects in Glass Wings
“It takes just four lines for [Fleur Adcock’s] ‘Alumnae Notes’ to transport us first to the schoolgirl in 40s New Zealand and then to her literary exile in London: ‘Beautiful Ataneta Swainson is dead. / I had a crush on her when she was a prefect / (hers is the face that swims into my head / when Katherine Mansfield’s Maata is mentioned)’” British poet Fiona Sampson observes, in a review of Adcock’s latest collection Glass Wings, for The Guardian. “That parenthesis is a clever way of establishing a pedigree. Like her fellow New Zealander, Adcock is a literary writer in her limpid, apparently artless style and the precise emotional intelligence of her observations. It’s a technique whose ambition is revealed, as was Mansfield’s, in its modernising effect. Informality and immediacy are vivid ways to remake a world; and Adcock’s style has not dated in the half-century since her debut. Girlishness is a recurring note in Adcock’s work. She has the sharp, exile’s memory of a lost world of childhood. The poems in ‘My Life With Arthropods’, the final section of Glass Wings, are gleamingly vivid encounters with insects, largely ones that ‘came as a part of the portfolio / handed from child to child’. But her range and diction – that characteristic mixture of playfulness, deprecation, questioning and close focus – are also strangely, and affectingly, girlish. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, while British literature is full of fascinating accounts of boyhood, some of the best portrayals of the childhood experiences of girls also reach us from New Zealand. Among them are surely An Angel at my Table, the first volume of Janet Frame’s autobiography, and the early scenes of director Jane Campion’s The Piano. Maybe, in other words, Adcock has remained a truly New Zealand poet. Yet she is also a serious presence in British literature, where as well as publishing more than a dozen collections she has edited the Faber Book of 20th Century Women’s Poetry and received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.” Adcock was born Kareen Adcock in Auckland, in 1934.