Fleur Adcock, The Mermaid’s Purse – review

Fleur Adcock, The Mermaid’s Purse, 80pp, £10.99, Bloodaxe Books Ltd

Fleur Adcock published her first collection in 1964 and has been honing her skills ever since. Her style has always been conversational but the voice of her poems has become ever suppler, more charged and agile. The poems of The Mermaid’s Purse combine radiantly evocative description with the relaxed rhythms of natural speech, changing tone and perspective rapidly to give the impression of a quick-minded person thinking as she speaks. The first stanza of ‘Island Bay’ is one example:

Bright specks of neverlastingness
float at me out of the blue air,
perhaps constructed by my retina[1]

The four page poem ‘The Teacher’s Wife’ is a complex tissue of anecdote and reflection woven around different accounts of New Zealand women confronting the sea or drowning themselves in it. One – the teacher’s wife – is based on Adcock’s mother. The poem involves moving and subtle retrospective exploration of threads in her mother’s experience as well as wider meditations on what attraction to the sea might mean. It’s beautifully constructed to combine overall shapeliness with associative freedom. The opening and closing sections, in three line stanzas, tell different parts of Adcock’s mother’s story; sections between, divided by asterisks and mainly in two line stanzas, tell other stories and introduce other voices, developing in a fragmentary, tangential way that gets the mind moving in many directions. This can’t be briefly illustrated. What can be is the way the language effortlessly modulates between tones and registers: the graphic bluntness of the description of a ferry’s arrival – ‘It will thrash about offshore for a bit, / hurl a few packages at the beach, / and chug away without taking on passengers’; the ironically inflated metaphors of ‘we are the sea for men to drown in, / the ravening tide’ swiftly deflated by ‘No wonder we scare them’; the inspired oddity of seeing the swimming pool on a ship as ‘an upside-down marquee full of water’. But of course quoting these snippets misses their real point – within each, in context, there’s a shimmering of overtones and perspectives that reflect Adcock’s empathy with her characters and the mobile alertness of her intelligence.

Adcock has also honed her abilities as mimic. There’s a good deal of humour but the funniest poem is ‘Amazing Grace’, celebrating and parodying ‘John Newton, the hymn writer, / reformed slave trader, famous convert’. Here the poet’s voice slips fluently in and out of others – that of Newton confidently bellowing, that of Newton unctuously humble-bragging in his self-composed epitaph, that of an ingenuous bystander – without our ever losing sight of the amused impressionist behind the impressions. Pain in the neck, natural force (‘not the kind of man you can shut up’), ludicrous, admirable and overwhelming, Adcock’s Newton made me laugh with delight but left me thinking too.

Genial as the laughter in such a poem is, it depends on the way Adcock’s warm humanity is braced by scepticism and detachment. In a book of many deaths and memories of the dead, there’s a good deal of what one might call darkness, but which is really an unblinking, unembittered acceptance of life on the terms on which it’s offered, with its good and bad and its inevitable limitation.

[1] On its own the word ‘neverlastingness’ is enough to make the first line arrestingly strange and thought-provoking, triggering a range of conflicting feelings about the transitoriness of all things. Many will also recognize it as a challenging revision of lines from Henry Vaughan’s ‘The Retreat’ describing how as an innocent child he ‘felt through all this fleshly dress / Bright shoots of everlastingness’. The relevance to Adcock’s revisiting of a childhood haunt is obvious. For those who want to let Vaughan’s and Adcock’s poems resonate against each other in their minds, here’s a link to the Poetry Foundation website posting of ‘The Retreat’.


I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Fleur Adcock, Tishani Doshi, Annie Freud and Michael Vince in issue 66 of The North.

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