by Terry Ann Thaxton
I entered the world of Virginia Hamilton Adair’s poetry in the same way I stumbled upon the old British anthology my mother had hidden in the stairway closet of my childhood home. I read Adair’s books, all three, one right after the next and felt as if I was opening a door into a world that was at once familiar, yet strange and new. Though I’d stumbled upon that British poetry anthology as a young girl, I didn’t awaken to poetry until the mid- to late- 1990s, when Adair, a woman 42 years my senior, was about to publish her first collection. I was 30 years old when I walked into a college classroom for the first time, which was when I was introduced to Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Lowell. Poetry quickly became, for me, something intensely personal.
For Adair, too, poetry was highly personal—so much so that, as she told Elizabeth Farnsworth in a 1996 PBS NewsHour interview, it was “a way of life.” Adair’s first book, Ants on the Melon (Random House 1996)—published after she was 83 and already blind from glaucoma—was well received, even appearing on the New York Times Best Seller list. Two other collections followed: Beliefs & Blasphemies (1998) and Living on Fire (2000). This is not to say that Adair began to write good poetry only late in life. On the contrary, Adair, who was born in 1913, started writing poetry at the age of 5 or 6—she couldn’t remember exactly. For Adair, it seems, poetry preceded memory.
Adair’s father read The Iliad to her when she was only three, through her crib slats. In an interview with Anna Van Lenton, Adair said that her father “gave directions to my mother” that her daughter should write poetry. “I was three after all.” Her father also recited heroic couplets to young Adair, leaving out the last word of the second line, waiting for her to fill in the last word. Adair told Elizabeth Farnsworth that the reason she liked poetry so much was “the sound and the rhythm and the playing with words.” In her work, the rhymes provide a breezeway into her poems about serious subjects: her husband’s suicide, her own eventual blindness, religion, motherhood, and impending death. The rhymes also provide playfulness in the case of other subjects: descriptions of the landscape, the beach, her childhood, friendship, and budding sexuality. Adair’s wry wit and enchanting rhyme are two of the greatest strengths of her work. In her 20s and 30s, as a graduate at Radcliffe, Adair published individual poems in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The Saturday Evening Review. Although she took 50 years off from publishing, she wrote continually through all those years and until her death in 2004 at the age of 91.
The first poem in Ants on the Melon, “Key Ring,” introduces us to the musicality of Adair’s voice.This poem “unlocks” a door into the poetry and spirit of Adair.
When my grandfather was very old
to one small room confined
he gave me his big bunch of keys to hold.
I asked, “Do they unlock every door there is?
And what would I find inside.”
He answers, “Mysteries and more mysteries.
You can’t tell till you’ve tried.”
Then as I swung the heavy ring around
The keys made a chuckling sound.,
It’s a poem that, no matter one’s age or time, is a reminder of how good poetry shatters the generational divide. Though the poem is not in strict meter, it makes use of anapestic and iambic feet, with the final couplet in perfect iambic pentameter.
While an undergraduate in the mid-1930s at Mt. Holyoke, Adair won the college’s Glascock Prize two years in a row (the prize was awarded each year to the most promising student poet and was selected by poets of the stature of Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, the Benéts, Wallace Stevens, and others). In graduate school at Radcliffe, Adair and a friend attended a Harvard dance, where she met Douglass Adair, who would go on to become a revered historian. They married in 1937, and Adair focused her life on raising their three children, teaching at colleges, and writing poetry when she could find time.
We would not have Adair’s poems if it were not for poet and translator Robert Mezey who, in 1995, sent a batch of Adair’s poems to Alice Quinn at The New Yorker. Quinn subsequently published a delightful profile of Adair, along with several of her poems. Shortly after the poems appeared in The New Yorker, Random House published Ants on the Melon.
One advantage to waiting until she was in her 80s to compile and publish the poems is that Adair was able to be very selective about which poems went in each collection, and also where to place the poems. Each collection is perfectly pitched, the voice shifting from sadness to exuberance, the subjects following one another as beautifully as a symphony. At times, I wish the poems were dated, but as Quinn points out in her New Yorker profile, “the poems are the product of reflection on events that took place years and years earlier.” In other words, this reflection, this perception, exposes a depth and clarity that might have lacked in earlier drafts. Even the poems about Adair’s childhood have a sense of mature understanding and reflection. In “An Hour to Dance,” for example, the speaker acknowledges both the celebration of life and the suffering:
For a while we whirled
over the meadow of music
our sadness put away in purses
The greatest tragedy of Adair’s life happened in 1968 when, after 31 years of marriage, her husband Douglass committed suicide. The raw heartbreak greatly influenced the mood and tone of Adair’s poems that followed. Many readers have noted that the poems which speak to Douglass’s suicide are the most gripping, and for good reason. Adair said, “We had so much, I couldn’t understand how he could leave us.” These are harrowing, heartbreaking poems. “I, too, have been gutted alive,” the poet says.
Although poetry may not have saved Adair’s life, it certainly preserved it. Poetry was her safe haven, where she could hear her own voice. It gave her a place to go when happiness, joy, exuberance, despair, sadness, or tragedy came to her. She told Farnsworth, “I think my poetry is a journal that I never kept.” In the earlier years of their marriage, Douglass would often shoo her three children out of the room, so that their mother could write poetry.
The Adairs traveled extensively. Trips abroad and around the U.S. provided Adair with endless flora and fauna, a range of characters, and knowledge of historical figures and events to include in her poems. The family lived in Claremont, California, where both Adairs taught. They spent time at the beach and at their house in the Mojave Desert. Adair is not a “nature” poet, but she certainly reveals her internal emotional landscape through her observations of the natural world. In “The Shell,” a poem that appears in the first collection, the speaker finds “a wan shell” that is “delicate and turned without fault,” “thin as despair, / Washed in the dead bitterness of salt,” and finally, “Torn from the sea into the air.”
Ants on the Melon provides a sweeping snapshot of Adair’s life experiences, from childhood, young adulthood, and motherhood to the loss of Douglass and the determination to move forward. Adair’s second collection, Beliefs & Blasphemies, focuses on a central theme: religion and spirituality. Adair’s questioning stance resonates with me personally: I grew up restricted from anything that might educate me beyond the church’s dogma, and while parts of the Bible certainly include poetry, the stories and poems in the Bible, presented as absolute truth, seemed far from my own life experiences.
Adair’s wit is evident in the first collection, but in Beliefs & Blasphemies, the wryness and sassiness of that wit take center stage. Adair jokes with and about God. She questions Christianity, as well as her own beliefs. The subjects in Beliefs & Blasphemies ask who created the world, give nods to goddesses, ask God if he’s a “she,” and address the contradictions Adair found in Christian dogma. In “Downsize,” the speaker tries to give God a break: “Poor Mr. God is out of work” because the speaker sees that God is no longer feeding his children. Then she ends the poem with a swift slap:
These shocking thoughts we should not tell
In case there really is a hell.
In “The Hooker at the Church Picnic,” Adair retells, with word play, the story of the adulteress whom Jesus forgave. Here, the hooker, the central character of the poem, leans “her back against a young tree,” and then,
The man in the priest’s collar came over to her,
smiled a welcome and asked, “Are you OK?”
Without thinking, she took his hand and held it to her cheek.
“I’ve been stoned for six days,” she said.
Adair was going blind in 1992 from glaucoma, and by the time Mezey convinced her to put her poems together as books, in 1995, she no longer had any sight at all. Publishing, and therefore recognition, had not been a priority: “I was quite competitive,” she said in her interview with Farnsworth. “And I either wanted to be very good at it, or just to let it alone.” When Mezey sent Quinn the first batch of Adair’s poems and Quinn asked how many more poems there were, Mezey told her, “At least a couple of thousand.”
Just as her literary life bloomed late, so did Adair’s spiritual life. When Quinn visited Adair in 1995, they drove together to a Zen center that Adair had helped to found. Meditation and Buddhism became fundamental to the poet’s life, but poetry remained her mainstay. After she went blind, Adair continued to write poetry, dictating to friends and neighbors or using her manual typewriter. She told Farnsworth her writing routine became to “get up about five in the morning and have a cup of coffee and mediate for a while, and then usually I’m impelled to write.”
Living on Fire, Adair’s third, and final, collection, opens with discovery of new worlds: these poems take us to the Lewis and Clark expedition, the discovery of the Mississippi River, “the days before RV’s,” porches in America abandoned for the thrill of adventure. In the poems, Adair alludes to Lucifer, jets, the moon, and numerous cities and countries. This is particularly interesting because even at age 87, Adair was seeking the thrill of adventure, the excitement of the next poem, waiting for a poem to come to life. She told Farnsworth, “I don’t think often I know what a poem means until I’ve lived with it for quite a while.”
The final poem of the final book, “Some Night,” reveals, again, Adair’s poetic strength of describing an observation that seems at once immediate and retrospective. But what’s more fascinating about “Some Night,” like so many of her poems, is that it also acknowledges the future:
Some night the ocean will take my hand,
and lead me to his garden in the sand;
no fruit to gather, no sweet flower to smell,
only a gull’s feather and a broken shell.
In her first book, she compares herself to “a wan shell,” a shell “born in the sea,” a shell “torn from the sea into the air.” And in this final poem—the poem Adair leaves us with—we return to the shell. But by now, at the end of reading three volumes of her poetry, we have seen the poet turn the shell, looking at it from all directions, all perspectives.
Terry Ann Thaxton is the author of two poetry collections, Getaway Girl and The Terrible Wife, as well as Creative Writing in the Community: A Guide. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Connecticut Review, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Defunct, Flyway, Hayden’s Ferry, the Missouri Review, and other journals. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida, where she also directs the MFA Program.