The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues
APR 2018 Issue
Art Books

The Collages of Helen Adam

ed. Alison Fraser
The Collages of Helen Adam
(Further Other Book Works/Cuneiform Press, 2017)

Prepare to be astonished. How on earth, you wonder, can a Scot woman poet and collagist possessed of an overcomingly remarkable imagination, combined with an intense involvement in Scottish history, Dante, the Victorian Romance novel and art, and in really weird animals in various beings and doings, fit so perfectly, no matter how oddly, into the San Francisco Renaissance? Prepare to meet Helen Adam.

Kristen Prevallet presented A Helen Adam Reader in 2007 (how could we have missed this?) and subsequently there was an exhibition in 2014 entitled An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle. The archive of Helen Adam exists mostly in the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries at the University of Buffalo, donated by Helen in 1985. To me now, it feels as if that generosity of spirit we know with Charles Bernstein and his work with such poetry archives as at Buffalo and at Penn, were to be still, with these collages and this poetry, gloriously alive in all these beautifully rendered pages. Look! Here nothing seems to have been left out or undervalued, by some miracle of production.

We are witness to the range of feeling and emotion in Helen Adam’s poems, such as those in Turn Again to Me, and Other Poems (New York, Kulchur Press, 1977), and her late ballad-collage In Harpy Land (1976–77). Looking along and at length at these collages and the poetry attached, I find myself more engaged again in my memories of the very grand Canadian Emily Carr and her intertwining of her magnificent animal and natural kingdoms. It came to seem more about the lyric nature of the imagination than about the black magic of Adam's Queen Harpy and the sacrificial cat, this “coal black beauty.” The insuperable beauty of past and then present allusion radiating out from the apparently simplest texts she knows, chooses, and celebrates, is enormous.

One of the richest in reference and feeling is found in Helen and her sister Pat's collage Where are the Snows? where a page from Vogue pairs with this Dante Gabriel Rossetti translation of François Villon's celebrated “Ballade des dames du temps jadis,” that “Ballad of Dead Ladies” always deserving of quotation:

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,—
She whose beauty was more than human?...
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Helen and Pat Adam, Where Are the Snows, 1950s-1964. © the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York and used with permission. Photograph by James A. Ulrich.

My total enthusiasm for these collage forms and this poetic surrealist westcoast feeling might be attributed, perhaps to some extent, to my own Scottish heritage: the MacDonalds of the Isle of Skye, harking to a while back. As we were told in the familiar personal story, the fishing gave out one day three hundred years ago, and one had to—we had to—move on to other waters, in fact, had to become the MacDonalds of Western North Carolina, where my family spent every summer. History tells the big story: Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that. Everything mingles here: violence and doom, exile, melancholy and nostalgia and wistfulness. Yet fairy tales and magic feel very present to me, in this extraordinary publication gleaming in all its brilliant fantasy.

Here we are in New York, the very place where Helen and Pat, who had their own alternative community with themselves, moved in 1964 to hope their play San Francisco's Burning would be produced off-Broadway. They badly missed San Francisco, and how not? The materials from Robert Duncan and Jess's basement in San Francisco, and what was eventually found in Helen and Pat’s apartment in New York, arrived, through various incidents and accidents, at the archive, where they abound.

So much: letters from so many poets, films, scripts of that play, and of Adam's Daydream of Darkness, and on and on. These collages, many with their poems, bring again to us Max Ernst and Jess, Robert Duncan and Gustave Doré all at once, in a magical community of poetry and art and persons and animals.

A Glaswegian by birth, and a child prodigy, Helen cared about Scottish folklore as well as Egyptian gods, the Romantics and the Modernists, the intensity of writing from Dante and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, from Thomas Nashe to James Thomson and Roland Barthes, the personalities of Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser as well as countless other ramifications of past, present, and future concepts both visual and verbal—all of them poetic, all of them gracing the worlds of the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance, and now—glory be!—our own.


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2018

All Issues