Kareen Fleur Adcock was born in Papakura, New Zealand; her father, Cyril Adcock, was a professor of psychology; her mother, Irene Robinson, was a writer. In 1939, the family relocated to England, staying there until the end of WWII, at which time they returned to New Zealand. Adcock took her BA and MA in classics from Victoria University, Wellington (1954 and 1956, respectively). In 1956, her poem “The Lover” was published in Landfall.
Married and divorced twice and the mother of two children, Adcock moved with her younger son to London in 1963. There she worked as a librarian for the Foreign and Commonwealth office and continued with her writing. In 1971, she published Tigers, a collection of new poems combined with poems that previously appeared in The Eye of the Hurricane (1964), which was published in New Zealand. It was soon followed by a series of collections, including High Tide in the Garden (1971), The Scenic Route (1974), and The Inner Harbour (1979), a book that received especial acclaim.
Through the support of university fellowships, Adcock was able to write full time, starting in 1979. Besides her own poetry, Adcock has also edited poetry anthologies and written translations from Latin. She also collaborated with the New Zealand composer Gillian Whitehead on song cycles and Eleanor of Aquitaine (1982), a monodrama for mezzo-soprano. Adcock’s work is characterized by its restrained and simple style and diction; vivid imagery; attention to the value of the commonplace and natural; and postcolonial themes of divided identity, place, and acculturation. She has received various recognitions, including the New Zealand National Book Award (1984) and an Order of the British Empire (1996). A collected edition of her poetry, Poems 1960-2000, appeared in 2000.
3.13.1: “The Man Who X-Rayed an Orange”
Viewed from the top, he said, it was like a wheel,
the paper-thin spokes raying out from the hub
to the half-transparent circumference of rind,
with small dark ellipses suspended between.
He could see the wood of the table-top through it.
Then he knelt, and with his eye at orange-level
saw it as the globe, its pithy core
upright from pole to flattened pole. Next,
its levitation: sustained (or so he told us)
by a week's diet of nothing but rice-water
he had developed powers, drawing upon which
he raised it to a height of about two feet
above the table, with never a finger near it.
That was all. It descended, gradually opaque,
to rest; while he sat giddy and shivering.
(He shivered telling it.) But surely, we asked,
(and still none of us mentioned self-hypnosis
or hallucinations caused by lack of food) ,
surely triumphant too? Not quite, he said,
with his little crooked smile. It was not enough:
he should have been able to summon up,
created out of what he had newly learnt,
a perfectly imaginary orange, complete
in every detail; whereupon the real orange
would have vanished. Then came explanations
and his talk of mysticism, occult physics,
alchemy, the Qabalah - all his hobby-horses.
If there was failure, it was only here
in the talking. For surely he had lacked nothing,
neither power nor insight nor imagination,
when he knelt alone in his room, seeing before him
suspended in the air that golden globe,
visible and transparent, light-filled:
his only fruit from the Tree of Life.
3.13.2: “Robert Harington 1558”
Get you, with your almain rivetts (latest
fad from Germany), and your corselet,
and your two coats of plate! How much harness
does a man need? None, when he’s in his grave.
Your sons may have it, together with your
damask and satin gowns to show off in;
while you go to lie down in Witham church,
and the most armour I’ve seen in a will
rusts or turns ridiculous in this world.
3.13.3: “At the Crossing”
The tall guy in a green T-shirt,
vanishing past me as I cross
in the opposite direction,
has fairy wings on his shoulders:
toy ones, children’s fancy-dress wings,
cartoonish butterfly cut-outs.
Do they say gay? No time for that.
He flickers past the traffic lights –
whoosh! gone! – outside categories.
Do they say foreign? They say young.
They say London. Grab it, they say.
Kiss the winged joy as it flies.
Traffic swings around the corner;
gusts of drizzle sweep us along
the Strand in the glittering dark,
threading to and fro among skeins
of never-quite-colliding blurs.
All this whirling’s why we came out.
Those fragile flaps could lift no one.
Perhaps they were ironic wings,
tongue-in-cheek look-at-me tokens
to make it clear he had no need
of hydraulics, being himself
Wings, though; definite wings.
3.13.4: “Bat Soup”
But it’s diluted with sky, not water,
the aerial plankton on which they sup.
Our solitary pipistrelle flickers
over her chosen suburban quarter,
echo-locating, to siphon it up.
It nourishes birds as well as bats –
high-flyers that feed on the wing,
swifts, house-martins – this floating gruel
of hymenoptera, midges and gnats,
thunderbugs, beetles, aphids, flies,
moths, mosquitoes, and flying dots
almost too small to be worth naming.
Some of it swirls at a lower level –
a broth of midges over a pool
at dusk or a simultaneous hatch
of mayflies boiling up from Lough Neagh:
swallow-fodder, and also a splotch
to plaster on any passing windscreen,
though even at speed there’s never so much
as of yore; bad news for the food-chain,
but somehow ‘où sont les neiges d’antan’
sounds too noble a note of dole
for a sullying mash of blood and chitin.
(And we can’t hear what the bats are screaming.)
3.13.5: Reading and Review Questions
- How, if at all, do Adcock’s poems consider the ways in which the position/ perspective of the observer creates what’s observed?
- How skeptical, if at all, is Adcock of the ability of words to communicate shared meaning, and why? How do we know?
- How artfully, if at all, does Adcock use poetic imagery, and to what effect? Consider metonymic images in “Robert Harington 1558” and “At the Crossing.”
- How, if at all, does Adcock express a divided self, and to what effect? Consider “Immigrant.”