Life and death in poetry

LIVE WIRE: Poet Fleur Adcock has written a curious tribute to serial killer Harold Shipman.
LIVE WIRE: Poet Fleur Adcock has written a curious tribute to serial killer Harold Shipman.

"Do you know? There's a praying mantis here out on the back steps, and I haven't seen one since 1947! Do you want to come and have a look?"

On the stairs of her son's cottage in a central Auckland suburb, Fleur Adcock, the intermittently Kiwi poet, admires the leek-green insect.

"It's not doing its little praying act, but it's there. I feel honoured to have a praying mantis."

OF LICE AND MEN: Fleur Adcock's latest collection of poems covers a lot of ground.
OF LICE AND MEN: Fleur Adcock's latest collection of poems covers a lot of ground.

Adcock is 79 but looks much younger. She's New Zealand-born, but since the 1960s she's lived in the UK, where you don't get mantises. Both countries lay claim to her. There, she won the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006, putting her in the company of WH Auden, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. Here, she was made a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit in 2008.

She's back to visit family, appear at a book festival and launch a new collection of poetry, Glass Wings. She suddenly remembered the insect on the back steps because she was flicking through the proofs and got to the section "My Life with Arthropods" which contains 22 poems about insects, including that 1947 encounter.

You can cover a lot of ground with insects. Childhood grudges. An account of the poet's experience of pubic lice. Ruminations on mortality.

The collection isn't just critters. There is a sequence of wry commentaries on wills of Adcock's ancestors dating back to the 16th century - fragments borrowed from a personal research project. Another section contains autobiography from mid-century New Zealand - the time of her marriage to poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, with whom she had two sons (there was a brief and disastrous second marriage, to the author and wife-beater Barry Crump).

Adcock can't quite make her mind up about whether she wants to talk about this stuff. So much intimate detail is there in the poems: snapshots from the marriage to Campbell, and an apology to her son Gregory for leaving him with Campbell while she took their younger son Andrew after the split. Even a poem about raising caterpillars could be read as a plaint about the unreliability of men.

Yet early in the interview she announces she won't talk about old relationships. "I have had a life since then, since 1963. A lot more water has flowed … No more Alistair. No Barry Crump at all."

Later, though, with little prompting, she talks about Crump quite a bit. Mostly things that's been said before: that he was an awful drunk and a sadist and not much fun to be married to, yet so "highly coloured you couldn't go wrong". There was the time he and his friend climbed a steeple and tied Crump's bush singlet to the bell at the top of, "just for the heck of it. Grown-up people don't behave like that."

It was an absurd match, the famous writer of popular bush yarns and the brilliant young academic with her degrees and foreign languages and poems.

"We did it to annoy people, I think. We didn't spend much time together. We were only together for five months and half the time he was off in the Land Rover. He couldn't stand domesticity. He couldn't stand being predictable. Or nice."

It was only later that she learnt about the astounding violence that has been meted out to Crump when he was a child, when his father would "beat him until he couldn't stand up". Crump "was never going to be a normal human".

Adcock is more guarded about life with Campbell, but the poems, regretful yet warm, say a fair bit. An elegy upon his death in 2009 recalls the "multiple admirers / of his romantic looks, / and silly girls like me, / foolish enough to marry / what I wanted to be", and gives thanks to "a kind and dedicated / father for our children".

She wrote quite a few after his death, "but a lot of them are not for publication. I don't want to upset anyone in the family."

Glass Wings is a relatively quick successor to 2010's Dragon Talk, which itself broke a 10-year drought. It's hugely readable and frequently very funny, all sly punchlines and sucker punches. The facts and anecdotes seem precise. Are these all true stories?

"Well …," says Adcock, as she picks up the proof, "most of its truth."

She squints. Wrong glasses. She swaps them and leafs though.

The one about the London neighbour, a former belly-dancer who was found dead in her flat? True. "She had become a recluse, because she had put on weight, as dancers do."

Adcock is slim, with wavy white hair. She's wearing black jeans and a cardigan. Her accent sounds mainly English, but British listeners say they can still hear the Kiwi.

The pages turn.

"This one's a dream. You have to put in a dream here and there."

(Actually, Adcock should know to approach dreams with caution. In 1995, she wrote a poem about a slightly rude dream in which she kissed the UK Labour Party's burly new deputy leader John Prescott. On a slow news day, the Times wrote a humorous front-page article about it, sparking a minor media frenzy. Prescott's hitherto unnoticed sex appeal was sniggeringly investigated by all the UK papers. Conservative deputy PM Michael Heseltine read the poem in Parliament to annoy Prescott. To Adcock's great relief she was in New Zealand at the time and escaped much of the fuss.)

The poem about seeing the Queen in New Zealand in the 1950s? "I did go down in my maternity smock and looked at her majesty in her ball gown." She laughs and keeps flicking.

The answer, in short, is yes, the poems are mostly true.

What about the poem Unmentionable, which goes: "Crab lice, author's experience of' / is an index entry you won't find/ in my not-to-be-written memoirs / although I could tell a tale or two / about the man who gave them to me /(he left them out of his own such books)."

Go on, tell a tale or two. Who's the man?

"I don't think I should say. He's dead. If I tell you you'll write it down. He was a New Zealand writer who is now dead. He was very embarrassed when he found out."

The poem also recalls a "far too curious GP" who took her predicament as a "personal invitation".

"He must have thought, she's obviously a loose woman, " says Adcock. "I don't know what he thought he was going to do in a surgery." She giggles. "I just saw that look in his eye and I didn't fancy him."

After the horrors of Crump, Adcock had fled him and the country in 1963, one son in tow, to England, which felt more like home than New Zealand anyway. She had lived there between the ages of 5 and 13, when the family - her younger sister is the novelist Marilyn Duckworth - moved to London, following her academic father's studies.

She found a job as a librarian, raised her son, and wrote poems when she could. In the late 1970s she packed in the job to became a full-time poet, editor and translator. Poetry collections, praise and awards followed.

She didn't remarry. Relationships, says Adcock, are fine, as long as you don't cohabit. "Don't move in with them. Keep them out of the house."

So there were other relationships?

"Of course! Hundreds. Well, not hundreds maybe."

Some were long-term, "but I'm not going to talk about them".

Adcock gets a little weary of being asked if she regrets having left New Zealand? If she'd regretted the decision she would have reversed it. The larger literary scene afforded her a career she couldn't have had here. She feels rather exposed in New Zealand.

"It's a small society. I need to be private and vanish into a much larger population.

"I'm not sure if I'm on any syllabuses now. But I have had the experience of going to a Post Office to post a parcel and they've said ‘oh, Fleur Adcock - I did you for school certificate or something".

Surely it's just the same in the UK? She was once touted as a potential new poet laureate. She won the country's top poetry prize. She's famous, isn't she?

"Only in literary circles. When I got the gold medal that was on the radio news, but you can walk down the street."

It's 18 years since the fuss over her Prescott dream, but in Glass Wings there's another poem that might easily excite the tabloids again.

Charon is a curious salute to Harold Shipman, the doctor who killed more than 250 patients, mainly elderly women.

Arguably, a woman of 79 with fading eyesight, who may have had cause to reflect on the value of euthanasia, voluntary or otherwise, can get away with this. But really? A poem in praise of serial killer Shipman?

"I thought, what's the big deal," says Adcock. "I'm not particularly against death. I'm like Woody Allen. I don't mind dying, but I don't want to be there when it happens.

"I thought, if you're sitting in your living room and you're a rather ill, disabled person in your later years, and the doctor comes in and says ‘I can fix your arthritis, I'll just give you this little injection', what could be nicer? Otherwise you're going to go on and on and on.

"The things that happened to my mother. She broke her shoulder, then she broke her hip and then she got all sorts of ghastly final complications. How much nicer to have a little needle in your arm - ah, that's just Dr Shipman."

Adcock's not looking for her own euthanasist just yet.

"It's just a joke. I haven't got any fatal conditions. I'm pretty fit. My memory's not what it was. Lots of bits of me aren't what they were, but I'm functioning fine."

The poem's a pun. Charon was the boatman who ferried souls of the newly dead across the river Styx to the underworld. "It's the coincidence of names. I thought Shipman and the boatman . . ."

If it came to it though, Adcock would prefer "to get out fast than slowly". Both her parents got Alzheimers in their 80s. Each time she leaves the kettle on, or loses her keys or the bread knife, she worries about her braincells. She's been writing more than ever in the last couple of years, and suspects "that may be times winged chariot. We've got to get it all done."

The other day she was making arrangements for a session with the photographer Jane Ussher, who's a couple of decades younger than her, and they remembered meeting for another shoot, years ago.

"I said, ‘well you're still at it', and she said ‘yes, and so are you'. And we congratulated ourselves on being still at it. Just keep on going. Keep at your work."

■ Glass Wings, by Fleur Adcock (Bloodaxe/VUP). Booklaunch tomorrow, [may 6] Adam Art Gallery, Wellington. Adcock appears at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, May 17.

Sunday Star Times