AUGUST 5, 2020
ON THE ONE HAND, the image of a clearing suggests a respite from chaos, a glade of achieved beauty scoured of detritus. Allison Adair is capable of a lush lyricism whose beauty is impartial, lighting up the junk of a region, a culture, and a family, its toxic heritage of violence and violation, while haloing the uncluttered space that remains after the mess has been cleared away. To have cleared that space for and with language is no small feat. Maybe that’s why Adair’s poems sometimes suddenly swerve to bring in language, as if the poet takes justified pleasure or solace in reminding herself that yes, she has a pen in her hand and she can use it to record, if not to write her way out of, the mess.
Not that pleasure or solace necessarily attend upon the act of writing. In the collection’s title poem,
[i]t is written: the world’s fluids shall rush into a single birch
tree and there’s the girl, lying in a clearing we’ve never seen
but know is ours. Undergrowth rattles like the shank
of a loose pen. We’ll write this story again and again.
That “again and again”: persistence or hopelessness? In “As for the Glossy Green Tractor You Were,” the realm of writing is slyly parenthesized:
The world’s getting bigger — truth is hard
to see. Try shaking a firefly until he vomits
daylight. (Here’s wisdom they don’t print.)
The persistence of the urge to write against the odds is eloquent in “Local Music”:
Even as this pen scratches
the page there’s the furious cuff
of antlers against apple bark,
the old soundtrack of a country
one never really leaves.
But on the other hand, The Clearing lets plenty of chaos in. The clearing of the title poem, a poem which functions like a thematic overture, is not only a pristine space but also a place of sacrifice and desecration, so that we’re dealing with both a hard-won clarity and a shambles. The magical accomplishment of poetry is that it can use language both to clear a space and to depict, report on, recreate the mess.
Adair’s best poems are brave and fierce; they celebrate even as they deplore. At other times, her metaphors get out of hand and the poem loses its way in the lush undergrowth of figuration. Unfortunately, this happens in the title poem:
[H]ow her mouth blooms to its raw venous throat — that tunnel
of marbled wetness, beefy, muted, new, pillow for our star
sapphire, our sluggish prospecting — and how dark birds come
after, to dress the wounds, no, to peck her sockets clean.
This lavish hand with imagery, which sometimes recalls Sylvia Plath, feels like a by-product of Adair’s sense of mission: speaking against silence, putting language to work to uncover the ineffable. In some of the poems, a creepy lushness of atmosphere recalls other works, steeped in familiar story, in a mode that might be called neo-Gothic. Other works that come to mind include Neil Gaiman’s tales, or the poems of Emily Skaja or Emma Green, or films like Snow White and the Huntsman (2012).
If one of Adair’s poetic modes is fairy-tale scariness, there’s another side, too. Adair is a mother; and like other canny practitioners of the neo-Gothic, she’s aware that the world we actually inhabit is just as frightening as the tales the Grimm brothers concocted or recorded. How is a mother supposed to reassure a child? In “City Life” and “At the Park One Day, My Six-Year-Old Asks Me if Mermaids are Real,” Adair’s pondering of her own choices as a mother loops back to dead animals in “City Life,” an intruder at a school in “At the Park One Day.” The vision is searing, possibly in part because the language is relatively restrained:
For her, death
is the longest nap imaginable,
maybe four hours. But we always
wake at the end.
— “City Life”
“At the Park One Day” begins and ends with the child’s question whether mermaids are real, but the central portion of the poem tells of a terrifying and potentially lethal threat at the child’s elementary school. This nightmare reality is bracketed by the poem’s first line “Can you blame me for saying yes?” and its powerful final stanza:
She asks me if mermaids are real, squinting her
whole face as if she’s swallowed the sun, and I’m
so relieved I laugh of course, aren’t we overjoyed
that all he did this time was shit, all over the floor,
lonely, but alone. If you close your eyes, I say,
you can imagine it, right? For now, we’ll hide
in the abstract. The park sprinklers spin, shoot
a fizzy mist, opal droplets glinting like fish scales.
Kids running, swimming, holding their breath.
Some of the threats in Adair’s work come neither from fairy tales nor external violence. Miscarriage is an important theme, a trauma the poems approach in various ways. The eponymous “Miscarriage,” taut and elegant, invites readings on more than one level. Were it not for the title and the other poems on the same topic, we could read this as a poem about moths in a rug; but once we understand the poem’s real burden, there’s no going back. By contrast, “Memento Mori” and “Ways to Describe a Death Inside Your Own Living Body” inhabit a stylistic realm where the imagery all but swallows up its occasion and we flounder in a sea of metaphors. But a central toughness in Adair often pulls her back toward clarity. In “Morning Tea,” the poet as careful chooser of words reappears and the register changes: “You could say we tried it” suggests a number of attempted ways around or out of unbearable loss.
In some of Adair’s best poems, helpful titles anchor us in space and time, providing a focus and an occasion that make it easier to know how to respond to the scenario. Less is more. In “First Plow at Red Mountain Pass,” “Mother of 2 Stabbed to Death in Silverton,” and “Gettysburg,” we know where we are, but the poem is never simply scene-painting or narrative. Even as these titles matter-of-factly tell us where something happened, Adair’s signature ominousness conjures up hiatuses of stillness for our imaginations to fill:
11,018 feet below, the ravine does
its gaunt work, bringing matter
back to bone. The mountain sags
with the mass of endless storm
and you’re first up, riding into
the cut. The plow’s gears keen.
You shift, a question
more than a motion. Light
off the snow says morning.
— “First Plow at Red Mountain Pass”
That elemental bone makes a reappearance in “Gettysburg”:
Summer visitors regard the old farm from cars
without chrome, up on the hastily paved path —
if they look at all. There’s so much
else to see, burnished things, and battlefields
all look the same
and pasture erodes to bone.
Even as she describes a scene, Adair penetrates surfaces, suggesting levels below or beyond what meets the eye. In “Letter to My Niece, in Silverton, Colorado,” I kept coming back to, “Those days there weren’t so many metal railings. If your timing was right you could get close to things.” And to this wonderfully Delphic nostalgia: “It used to be that you got instructions. Then every ride began playing its own music.” Whether we want to apply this adage to adolescence, the culture at large, or more narrowly to art, particularly poetry, it’s radiant with truth.
“RD 8 Box 16A (Rural Route),” The Clearing’s penultimate poem, ought to end this collection. Too long to quote, “Rural Route” reads like a rich repository of much that was earlier removed from the cleared space, and that the poet now wants back. “I miss the ugly things”; accordingly, a miscellaneous and vivid and raunchy list follows. This gesture of loss and recovery could be bathetic or sentimental, but it’s neither. All the memories, however rank some of them are, are available, caught in Adair’s art:
So much gold, everywhere, gold — how
did I not see it? Gas lowered, the skillet still
spits. The pond, untroubled, swallows any
splash. This raccoon’s not thrashing, it’s just
a dance, his eyes’ yellow glare nothing more
than a reflection, of some old rising sun.
So much gold; one thinks of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” at the end of “The Fish” (1946), radiance born of struggle and endurance, as she lets the old fish go — except that it’s caught for us, always, in poetry. There’s a stubborn, candid, heartbroken loyalty to that spitting skillet, that rural route, in Allison Adair’s jagged but powerful poetic debut.
Rachel Hadas’s most recent books are Talking to the Dead (prose, Spuyten Duyvil, 2015), and Questions in the Vestibule (poems, Northwestern University Press, 2016). She is currently completing verse translations of Euripides’s two Iphigenia plays. Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University–Newark.