Ants on the Melon
by Virginia Hamilton Adair
Random House, 158 pp., $21.00
When Jean Rhys was told that her novel Wide Sargasso Sea had won both of what were then Britain’s most prestigious literary awards—the W.H. Smith prize and that of the Royal Society of Literature—her bleak reaction to the good news was that it had come too late. That was in 1966, when Rhys was seventy-six years old, and Wide Sargasso Sea was her first published work in more than a quarter of a century. But she had had five books in print before she disappeared from sight at the beginning of World War II, and that makes her positively precocious by Virginia Hamilton Adair’s standards. Adair is now eighty-three and Ants on the Melon is her first collection of poems. Yet even if her book wins all the prizes it deserves she is unlikely to complain that recognition has come too late because public recognition has never been what she was after. She has written poetry all her life—she began when she was six—but only for the purest of reasons: to please herself and to make sense of her life, and also because she loves the possibilities and discipline of the art.
Ants is not a big book; it contains a mere eighty-seven poems. But those eighty-seven have been selected from literally the thousands Adair has written, and this gives the collection an extraordinary authority. In part, it is the authority that comes with age: because Adair has waited so long to bring her poems together, there are no hesitations, no uncertainties; her voice is clear, assured, varied, and utterly her own.
Age also brings with it another kind of authority: it allows even a slight form to carry a great weight of experience.
Hearing the footsteps of thieves
in the dark downstairs:
what are you looking for?
It has already been stolen
over and over
I listen to my breath stumbling
in the dark rooms of my lungs:
What does it hope to find?
take it and welcome
while I sleep
That is called “Break In” and it is hard to know which came first, the event or the metaphor. Was it real thieves who frightened Adair in the night or the sound of her uncertain breath? The power of the poem is in the way one becomes the other without any noticeable change of gears, and a bewildering range of emotions—first a flicker of fear, then disdain, then weariness—is registered in ten quiet lines.
Poetry, especially the kind of lyric poetry Adair writes best, is usually a young person’s gift. That is not because the young are necessarily more available to their feelings than the old, but because they are more convinced by them, less savvy, less bemused by all the qualifications that come with experience and seem natural to old age. Part of Adair’s achievement is that she has not withdrawn into some turtle shell of indifference. Her poems “read” young—intellectually alert; open to feeling …