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Summer arrives on Saturday, so say the calendar keepers. (Although the idea of a season having an official “opening day” seems rather absurd, doesn’t it?) I’m not waiting, I’m ready to celebrate the sensuousness of this warm swing through the solar system NOW.

This stanza is from another beguiling Fleur Adcock poem called Prelude, and the image is from my trip to Tasmania last year. Both bring me into a radiant celebration of the body, the earth, the comingling of life. Roll into it.

Is it the long dry grass that is so erotic,
waving about us with hair-fine fronds of straw,
with feathery flourishes of seed, inviting us
to cling together, fall, roll into it
blind and gasping, smothered by stalks and hair,
pollen and each other’s tongues on our hot faces?
Then imagine if the summer rain were to come,
heavy drops hissing through the warm air,
a sluice on our wet bodies, plastering us
with strands of delicious grass; a hum in our ears.

In my studio yesterday, I felt some of the old familiar feelings of “flow”, a sense of things that invariably calls up an unforgettable line from Mary Oliver: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” It’s a quiet place, that soft animal of my body right now. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it will result in a trove of brilliant paintings. The soft animal of the body is just the beginning of a long, long process.

Meanwhile the city of Boston is aflutter with Celtics pride, a gaggle of green shirted fans clogging the streets while duckboats full of extremely tall men bring on paroxysms of cheers. This morning the Boston Globe ran a piece called “Winner Takes All the Envy” countering the city’s euphoria with an article about how hated Boston fans have become. One New Yorker was quoted saying, “You used to think about lovable losers. Now they’re all out. They want to show off.” Probably true. After years of suffering, Boston sports fans are, well, a bit over the top. (I include myself in this.)

With so much euphoria so evident everywhere here, this is probably the perfect day to offer up a counterposition that comes at life from the other end. This poem by Fleur Adcock is more in the vein of the via negativa than most of her work, but its dark power is one I know.

Things

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
and worse.

Like me, many readers were moved by Fleur Adcock’s extraordinary poem, A Surprise in the Peninsula, which I posted here on May 30. At that time I mentioned another favorite Adcock poem that just didn’t belong in a reading of that visceral, primal poem.

So here is Weathering, probably Fleur Adcock’s most famous poem. I first heard read 15 years ago by David Whyte, bard and poet, and I fell in love with it immediately. Whyte claims that Adcock wrote this while she was spending some time in the Lake District in England (he’s an Englishman after all, and could be considered a bit partial!) Adcock is from New Zealand so she could just have easily been writing about her native country. Whatever the case, that beautiful part of England comes to mind whenever I reread this poem. It is a place where I have spent so many wonderful days of my life, “where simply to look out my window/at the high pass/makes me indifferent to mirrors.” That is a feeling I know and treasure.

Weathering

Literally thin-skinned, I suppose, my face
catches the wind off the snow-line and flushes
with a flush that will never wholly settle. Well:
that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young for ever, to pass.

I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
nor anything but pretty enough to satisfy
men who need to be seen with passable women.
But now that I am in love with a place
which doesn’t care how I look, or if I’m happy,

happy is how I look, and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake, my waist thicken,
and the years work all their usual changes.
If my face is to be weather-beaten as well

that’s little enough lost, a fair bargain
for a year among the lakes and fells, when simply
to look out of my window at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors and to what
my soul may wear over its new complexion.

–Fleur Adcock

[Note: The accurate version of this poem was reposted here in September 2012]

Emergency Kit

When I find myself among a laughing tribe,
I know they hide something from me;
I conjure up a laughter box whose button I press
to outlaugh them all. As long as they hear their music,
they leave me free; I don’t want to surrender all I have.
I am a moving stump in the forest of men
and if I stray into a towering company, those
more than a kilometre from the undergrowth,
I release stilts from my soles; I don’t want to be
looked down upon by the very top ones.
I collapse the long legs when I step into where
giants are the required offerings of the gods of the race.
I have a lifesaver installed in my body
just in case I am knocked into some deep river;
unless I come out alive, I will be declared evil—
who ever wants his adversary to have the last word on him?
So when a hunter stalks me to fill his bag,
I call on my snake from nowhere to bite him.
Folks, let’s drink ourselves to death in the party
as long as we wear sponges in the tongue;
let’s stay awake in our unending dream so that nobody
will take us for gone and cheat us out of our lives.

–Tanure Ojaide

Another poem discovered in England, Emergency Kit is written by a Nigerian poet and scholar. Like Fleur Adcock’s A Surprise in the Peninsula, I have read this over and over again. While Adcock’s poem plummets down my deep inner path to mystery and metaphor, this one heads straight to my center of rugged, bare bones resourcefulness, where survival is core.

A Surprise in the Peninsula

When I came in that night I found
the skin of a dog stretched flat and
nailed upon my wall between the
two windows. It seemed freshly killed –
there was blood at the edges. Not
my dog: I have never owned one,
I rather dislike them. (Perhaps
whoever did it knew that.) It
was a light brown dog, with smooth hair;
no head, but the tail still remained.
On the flat surface of the pelt
was branded the outline of the
peninsula, singed in thick black
strokes into the fur: a coarse map.
The position of the town was
marked by a bullet-hole, it went
right through the wall. I placed my eye
to it, and could see the dark trees
outside the house, flecked with moonlight.
I locked the door then, and sat up
all night, drinking small cups of the
bitter local coffee. A dog
would have been useful, I thought, for
protection. But perhaps the one
I had been given performed that
function; for no one came that night,
not for three more. On the fourth day
it was time to leave. The dog-skin
still hung on the wall, stiff and dry
by now, the flies and the smell gone.
Could it, I wondered, have been meant
not as a warning, but a gift?
And, scarcely shuddering, I drew
the nails out and took it with me
.

–Fleur Adcock

I found this poem while I was in England, and since then I’ve read it at least 30 times. It feels so personally primal, delivered with a harsh viscerality that burns right through me.

The primary image is haunting, a stripped and earthy rawness that is tinged with ambient, unformed fear. The themes speak to a deep place in me: Protection coming from where you least expect it; life outside being viewed through a hole shot through the wall; a willingness to sit with slow and odorous putrefaction; the instinct that will claim this ghoulish remnant as a talisman. The visionary quality of this poem has cast an unshakable spell on me.

Fleur Adcock has been one of my favorite poets ever since I was introduced to her haunting “Weathering” by David Whyte 20 years ago. A gentle and comforting acknowledgement of being a woman and how one can age with grace, that poem does not belong on the same page as this one—a poem that reads more like an open wound. Of course with time, we get around to encountering all the difficult passages that happen in living a life, ageing and open wounds being just two.

A note about the image: This is a portion of a large scale drawing by Chuck Holtzman hanging in the MFA in Boston, with the faint reflection of me in the glass. This drawing has become a kind of personal talisman for my art making self these last few months as I have sat in the silence.