Geologic Time (Bomb): Helen Adam’s Superstitious Activism I recently bought some items that once belonged to Helen Adam from a San Francisco bookseller—photos from her time in Nevada in the late 1940’s, and her copy of a childhood reader called The Greenwood Tree. At some point, young Helen drew scenes of children and fairies throughout the margins of that book. Published in Scotland in 1903, the book collects mostly canonical nature poems and stories, and Adam’s marginal sketches are of much the same kind as those published alongside her juvenilia in her early books. One page of Adam’s copy of The Greenwood Tree interests me in particular: to either side of Longfellow’s poem “The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz” (57), Adam has drawn a forest encounter between two young girls (to the left of the poem) and four woodland fairies (to the right). The youngest girl points across the text to the fairies, and the eldest holds a finger to her lip in consideration. A sun sets behind a stand of trees and casts shadows toward the children. Two fairies stare back across the page at the girls, and the other two gesture off beyond the margin. ... It’s by far the most heavily annotated page of the book, and I begin here in part because the premise of Longfellow’s poem could so easily be mistaken for Adam’s own storytelling. In his poem a young boy (the Swiss geologist, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz) is coaxed away from his mother by nature itself (that other mother): “Come, wander with me,” she said, “Into regions yet untrod ;
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And read what is still unread In the manuscripts of God.” In thrall, the boy follows and never returns. The enchantment narrative resembles the situation in many of Adam’s own ballads, and I think it makes at least psychic sense that, even as a child, she’d have lit on this page long enough to illuminate it. The other thing that strikes me here is that Adam’s drawings model a gesture she would come to make frequently, grippingly, in the ballads: the drawings cross out or sign someone else’s work. To Longfellow’s enchanted boy, Adam counters with wandering sisters. To his nursemaid nature, she summons woodland fairies. By the 1930’s, Adam’s poems would arrive at a similarly somatic relationship to inter-texts, where so often writing is the evidence left behind from the bodily or spectral visitation of reading. I want to look at a couple of instances of this residua in her ballads. The technique resembles graffiti or versioning, but I want to position it as something closer to a spell or even a sigil: a kind of travel or projection whereby the poet marks a literary or historical site in such a way as to effect an outcome. So, I mean to discuss something beyond annotation, and to explore what strategies her work suggests for mark making not only as cohabitation but maybe even as a kind of superstitious activism. Behind this is Jonathan Skinner’s oft-cited definition of ecopoetics as “a housemaking,” so in part I want to examine just what kind of housemaking
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Helen Adam does, and specifically, what ground she locates for traversing superstition and geology—how it is that she manages to inhabit that particular fissure. My sense is that Adam’s work recuperates both anachronism and superstition as ecopoetic sites. I also want to contrast Adam’s own marks with the marks (various) made by the bomb, which haunts much of Adam’s work. Helen, her sister Pat, and their mother Isabella left Scotland for the US just a few years before the US launched its domestic atmospheric nuclear testing program. Their path from NY (where they lived in the ‘40’s) to San Francisco (where they lived in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s) included a year in Nevada (around 1948-49). The Trinity Shot in ’45 spread radioactive debris across the country, and atmospheric tests would begin at the Nevada Test Site in 1951, shortly after the Adams settled in San Francisco. Which is to say, the move from the east coast to the west was a path through fault, through fissure, and through fallout—as would be the move back to New York in the ‘60’s (atmospheric nuclear tests ceased in ’62; underground tests continued until 1992). Much good work has been done (by Kristin Prevallet and others) to contextualize her as an important part of a nexus of writers, but in the prevailing narratives of twentieth-century U.S. poetry, Helen Adam still stands out among her contemporaries as particularly anachronistic. Her reputation as “an old Scotch witch” (Duncan’s phrase) is something that needs troubling if her work is to be reframed for a discussion of ecopoetics,
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because in many ballads, she writes the supernatural as a traversal of the political, rather than a turn from it. The bomb appears throughout her poems and collages, even though she isn’t often remembered as having articulated a sustained consideration of the wars or the nuclear arms race. In relation to Bay Area poetics, it may even seem that she rigorously courted anachronism. She accepted gleefully Duncan’s implication that she somehow stepped from the pages of MacBeth and into the Magic Workshop, and she even liked to describe herself as a “pre-Christian poet” (HAR 336). Though immersed in a very present-tense investigation of poetics, she frequently didn’t share the vocabulary. She stood in and out of the discourse. In the same way that Christ himself can be said to be pre-Christian, I’d offer that Adam’s ecopoetics is somehow pre-poetics. It might help to distinguish between the performed anachronism of her persona and what I understand as her poetics of anachronism. The house she makes, the fissure she inhabits, is anachronism itself: at the proving ground of the San Francisco Rennaissance, Helen Adam practiced a near-illegible spectral activism. Her understanding of time permitted her to see the ground she walked on as constantly slipping between present, past, and apocalyptic future. As Duncan writes in his preface to her Ballads, “her poems take place in another place and time in another time” (HAR 33)—but this must be understood as a strategy for intervening in a present place and time. Describing William Blake’s visions, Adam says, “...Blake of course simply lived in the real world. I think it’s such arrogance, all the pithy little people who say that Blake was
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mad—he wasn’t mad, he simply was living in the real world in which he saw into the astral world” (HAR 337). Taken as a defense of anachronism as practice, this reads as a condensed statement of her own poetics. Adam felt from an early age that she walked in multiple realms at once. After going into stunning detail about the terrain of her childhood in an undated interview, she writes to Ida Hodes that the 17-year-old conducting the interview made a fortuitous transcription error: “He came out with the glorious phrase that in my childhood I had lived near the ‘blasted teeth’ of MacBeth. Of course I had said ‘the Blasted Heath’” (n. HAR 482). Here MacBeth’s heath is historical, but it’s also Adam’s personal landscape, and then it’s suddenly (gloriously) apocalyptic. Elsewhere in the interview, she describes a hike she took as a young girl while vacationing in Skye (HAR 335). Though she told her family she would climb one hill, when she left she decided she’d climb a different one. In this anecdote, the precarity of her hike is key. Here’s Adam: It was brilliant moonlight, fortunately, because I had underestimated the time it would take, so I was out all night, and it was most weird because the stones move under your feet all the time, and I was only wearing canvas gym shoes, and the great stones rolled under and over my feet. If I had sprained an ankle, nobody would have known what mountain I was on [...]. (HAR 335) Her description of “the great stones [rolling] under and over [her] feet”
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strikes me as evocative of her sense of time, her willed anachronism: alternately on the ground and in it, she sets out to inhabit past and present and to inhabit the change. It’s with these simultaneously vital and spectral steps that she tends house. Before I turn to the poems, I’d like to describe the fissure that, it seems to me, was Adam’s stomping ground: Agassiz was a successful naturalist in his time, but his own sense of what’s natural eventually ran counter to many of his contemporaries, Longfellow included, partly because he eschewed Darwin’s theories and partly because he refused to accept a common ancestry with Africans. So on one side of the fissure is the ideologically torqued conception of naturalism as the reading of, in Longfellow’s words, “the manuscripts of God.” (Remembered as a scientific racist, Agassiz was also a lousy textual scholar.) Let Robert Duncan’s notion of the bomb as writing be the other side of this fissure: for example, in “Passages 26” he decries “the bloody verse America writes over Asia” (BtB 113) and in “After Passage,” he notes shadows “indelibly imprinted” (GWII 70) on the wall by the bomb itself. Even at its least destructive, the carelessness of U.S. nuclear testing paired geologic revision with rhetorical flourish: Project Faultless, for example, was the name given to a 1968 underground calibration test in the Nevada desert. Designed to determine whether the terrain was suitable for subsequent underground detonations, Project Faultless resulted in, among other things, “two parallel
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faults nearly a mile apart” and a trench 4000 feet long and in some places as deep as 23 feet (Straka and Wynn 5). So in this fissure where Adam roams, the bomb-as-writing glosses god’s manuscript. And between God’s ‘natural’ and our nuclear writing, Helen Adam spells a negation. “Counting Out Rhyme” & The Rime of the Ancient Mariner I want to claim she’s a poet of superstition, but I want to pry her personal superstitions from her poetics of superstition, in order to establish a relation between anachronism and superstition as politically responsive modes. First, the standard definition of the term: Helen Adam believed that her father’s death (“hit on the head by a golf ball”) was “Karmic retribution [...] for being more devoted to his golf than to his ministry” (“Enchantment” 118). I love that. But it’s another sense of the term that I’d like to foreground here (from the OED): “Classical Latin superstes was used with reference to a soldier standing over the prostrate body of a defeated enemy, and [...] from this use, superstitio had the sense of ‘superiority,’ and hence developed the senses ‘prophecy’ and ‘sorcery’” (“Superstition”). Adjectivally speaking, the parentes superstites are the “parents who have survived their child” (“Superstite”). With this definition in mind, I’ll turn to the poems. In the ballad, “Counting Out Rhyme,” as in the childhood gloss on the
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Longfellow poem, Adam overprints a masculine narrative with a tale of sisters. This time it’s Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner that Adam crosses out, a work she credits as one of her earliest introductions to real violence. In her essay, “A Few Notes on the Uncanny in Narrative Verse,” she describes the shock of encountering the Mariner’s “wanton cruelty” and claims that “the dark atomic dangers we now face, which may eventually destroy our world, are caused by a karmic residue from such cruelties” (HAR 366). Particularly useful in her description is that she rejects or at least elides the reading of the albatross as a Christ symbol, preferring instead to see Coleridge’s poem as a site of real violence against an actual bird. For Adam there’s a direct link between the Mariner’s bored malice and our “dark atomic dangers,” and though Norman Finkelstein says that to connect the two is a “resolutely ahistorical position” (Finkelstein 133), if read as a theory of violence, Adam’s claim suggests that real violence is itself superstitial—it outlives, it stands over (the bomb only literalizes this). The narrative frame in “Counting Out Rhyme,” as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is both maritime and marital: seven sisters watch from shore as men wash in from sea. Each sister selects a husband from the wreckage of men (drunk, violent, greedy, dirty, dull—even dead) except the youngest, who chooses a life with “the cats o’ the kirk-yard” (85). After she elects to “love nae man at a’,” (85), the sea offers up to the youngest sister a “unicorn, brichter than the mune” (86)—phallic, christlike—which she promptly kills. The turn happens quickly, across a line, as in Coleridge, and
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operates via negation: Adam rends the dogma from the violence itself and paints an equally horrific verso to the groom’s side of the nuptials. In this spell, the youngest sister stands over the christ-symbol—she survives it—and I probably don’t need to note that to posit this kind of post-Christian horizon makes sense in the context of the nuclear arms race. In her screenplay for The Slow Blue Labyrinth: A Celebration of Agates, Adam adapts many of her ballads for the screen with stones playing most of the human characters, since, as she notes in the synopsis, “They have existed long before humanity, and will continue to exist (barring accidents) for centuries after the human swarm has vanished” (HAR 267). Harry Truman himself imagined a similar exit. On July 16, 1945, the day of the first nuclear detonation, he penned the following in his journal: “I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries, and when morals catch up perhaps there’ll be no reason for any of it. ... [We] are only termites on a planet, and maybe when we bore too deeply into the planet there’ll [be] a reckoning— who knows?” (qtd. in Gaddis 85). But in Helen Adam’s vision, the potential for a reconfigured relation to the planet opens in the wake of the death of a symbology. “The Limbo Gate” & Kipling’s “Helen All Alone”: Unsplitting the Atom/Adam Perhaps Adam’s most direct expression of her desire to get “pre-Christian” is the apocalyptic nuclear ballad, “Limbo Gate.” Kristin Prevallet cites Rudyard
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Kipling’s “Helen All Alone” as a source text for this poem: Adam takes her title directly from Kipling, and she joins her work to his in ways that might make it more appropriate to speak of a cohabitation, rather than to elaborate the distinctions. Here’s Prevallet: Daring to go where Kipling feared to tread, Adam imagines the animal and human souls all convening in Limbo. She makes a symbiotic connection between the biblical Adam and the “Adam” bomb, as if humanity will continue its path towards self-destruction, even in Limbo. The play on her own name (the Helen in “Helen, all alone” sliding into the Adam in “Limbo Gate”) is almost certainly intentional… (HAR 469) That, as Prevallet has it, gender slides in “Limbo Gate” would suggest that the poem has prepared test conditions for an ultimate negation by literally entering limbo, by enacting liminality itself, and since the Helen of Kipling’s poem ultimately escapes limbo, Helen Adam’s ballad is ostensibly a return. The cast of characters in “Limbo Gate” is fluid: in addition to biblical Adam, Napoleon, Jesus, Saul, St. Francis, Blake, Alexander, and King David all make an appearance (i.e. “All the awful swarms of man / That trod on Earth since time began;” 117). In addition, “All poor beasts that felt his hate / And shared in Man’s disastrous fate” are present. The crux of the ballad is that biblical Adam (as representative of the “swarms of man”) enacts a final (nuclear) negation as a result of his meddling with “Raging powers” beyond his comprehension (118):
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Adam on his nuclear bed, Venus blazing at his head. Woman once, now star to shed Light along his clay. Adam sprawls in Limbo shade By a blazing star betrayed. Raging powers with which he played Toss his world away.
Towers of atoms fall and rise Where gigantic Adam lies. Adam lies in Limbo Gate Dwarfing night and day. Eden’s lark beside him sings. No tomorrow lifts her wings. Silence takes all living things. Green waves, and golden spray. (118)
If the parent superstite is the one who outlives the child, the destruction of the “swarms of man” in “Limbo Gate” would result in a superstite god. Helen Adam’s trek between God’s manuscript and ours points up that superstition was part and parcel of the nuclear arms race, and that, in the fear of total destruction, there’s a superstitious threat: that we’ll have put down our pen before our maker does. And yet despite the annihilation it figures, I don’t think “Limbo Gate” is
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nihilistic. In this twining of the two Adams around the atom bomb, the poem operates as a spell to unsplit the atom by positing a superstitial relation to (at least Biblical) culture. I understand this as an argument for a postanthropic engagement with the world—where the poet takes up anachronism as vocation, refusing the paradigm of making it new in favor of negating the very idea of progress in making. Helen Adam attempts to survive the new. That she visits such a negation on canonical works of Romanticism, as Norman Finkelstein has so thoroughly tracked, is apropos of a conference on ecopoetics. That is, the question of the efficacy of the work of imagination in a post-anthropic world is a fundamentally ecopoetic inquiry.
Works Cited Adam, Helen, and Kristin Prevallet. A Helen Adam Reader. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 2007. Web. Duncan, Robert, Robert J. Bertholf, and James Maynard. Ground Work: Before the War, in the Dark. 1030 Vol. New York, NY: New Directions Book, 2006. New Directions Paperbook Web. Duncan, Robert. Bending the Bow. New York: New Directions, 1968. A New Directions Paperback ; NDP255.Web.
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Finkelstein, Norman M. "Helen Adam and Romantic Desire." Credences: A Journal of Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics 3.3 (1985): 125-37. Web. Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1997. Web. Straka, Thomas J., and Robert H. Wynn. "The Soreness of the Land." Journal of the West 49.1 (2010): 5-10. Web.