by Allison Adair
Milkweed Editions, 2020
The opening title poem of Allison Adair’s collection The Clearing transforms a recognizable fairy tale into a grim story of a man who may be a “prince or woodcutter or brother, now musty with beard,” all familiar tropes of the genre, and who collects teeth that the girl in the story has dropped instead of breadcrumbs. Adair’s collection is metaphorically set in the space that re-imagines horrors told and retold, covered and uncovered, a space so recognizable as the setting for danger, “a clearing we’ve never seen // but know is ours.” It’s the story Adair revisits again and again in this collection of profoundly dark, revealing, and far-reaching poems.
In Transformations, Anne Sexton readers are also presented with a poem of introduction, “The Gold Key,” that focuses on the necessity of finding answers which turn out to be the stories of the Brothers Grimm, but altered, “as if an enlarged paper clip / could be a piece of sculpture. / (And it could.)” Much like Sexton, Adair’s poems are set in new stone, a new poetic language for fear, danger, and escape, all of the thematic essentials of fairy tales as well as what comprises the life of Adair’s speaker in the poems, written with an intent not “to dress the wounds, no, to peck her sockets clean.” Adair, similar to Sexton, knows that transformation comes from reexamination and reinvention, and she empowers her readers by not only changing the story but reclaiming its protagonists.
Adair dives right into story with “After the Police have been Called,” presenting an all-too-familiar scenario of domestic violence. In measured couplets with stark and original imagery, Adair gives the speaker the necessary metaphors to tell her story, beginning with the speaker’s belief that “joy was everyone’s destiny,” significantly in the past tense. In the seventh couplet of the poem, after the revelations about love, the speaker says,
When you begin to hate a man, his stunt fingers
swell with fat. His red face sweats strawberry rot.
Like a stuck pig, the door, if locked, brays and grunts
at his boot-strike, shoulder-strike. The town is small,
but it’s his.
In the midst of terror, the speaker leaves herself, watching from a different angle, talking to another universal “you” that must include the reader:
You dial, wanting someone to marvel
with you, to witness that cheap bolt as it holds.
We are with the speaker, as witnesses, in a cathartic experience much like the terrifying tales of the Brothers Grimm and so many other ubiquitous fairy tales. The violence against women in so much of literature is no coincidence and Adair knows this. We have been witnesses all along.
Throughout Section I of Adair’s collection, small uncovered truths emerge from the lines of different poems in the voice of a consistent speaker:
I didn’t know how to save things
We depend on things to fall
Dangers were everywhere
There are things to fear
We do it because we’re told to
These disclosures combine with searing metaphors and similes to change the story, the American dream of a nuclear happy family into one of survival, terror, and a search for a way out.
As it’s always been in fairy tales, comparisons and symbols are paramount to meaning which is why so much of fairy tale symbolism has become iconic. Apples, deer, hunters, gold, and beating hearts are all expected signposts. Sometimes the way things have always been isn’t good enough, though, and there is a need for new language to relate perpetual and historic dread arising from lives lived in fear of violence. Adair is in command of numerous figurative tools that she uses to expose difficult stories about living in different places, living with different people, fleeing, or remembering things that have happened that alter the characters in numerous ways. Instead of what might be expected, like the changes of the seasons, readers get questions and comparisons that are not always neat or pretty. In “Fable” Adair describes honeysuckle in spring “undressing raw / to the fruit—profligate, easy with perfume, collagen / accreting in stalks like the slow-boiled gel of a bone broth.” This type of juxtaposition is jarring and warranted in keeping with poems that follow and delve into the experience of losing a child in miscarriage and that expose all of the emotional bedlam that ensues.
The minute detail in all of the poems is enhanced through Adair’s skillful use of metaphor and imagery that requires readers to think small and large simultaneously and to view things from vastly different perspectives. In “Ways to Describe a Death Inside your own Living Body,” the imagery comes from inside wavy glass “where black minerals burn // to a shine like pissed-off soot suns.” The images in this poem emanate from a surreal place where “inside the glass we see death clearly,” an image reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, and in all their confessional ways, Adair, Sexton, and Plath pull no punches with language or emotion. The last lines of the poem edge up close in their imagery while the lines pull away from one another:
You wait for a soft mouse above to spill out
of its hole, for the bats under your ribs
to flap toward some smaller pulse,
for the sun to give in, as it does,
so that the last headlamp can
finally click off and head
back into the night
Plath and Sexton would recognize this voice and this language. In “Memento Mori: Bell Jar with Suspended Child,” Adair rises again toward the confessional with language and imagery in this opus of a poem which seems to be a search for the dead, imagining death. Imagining that the lost child will never be found, the speaker tells herself, “Listen / to the nothing. To your blood doing its stupid work.” Later, “a hundred years later—three hundred—. . . I’m listening here, for your paw-sized voice. / I ache for it. Me. . . . Me.”
In the final section, perspective widens and the poems contemplate through a panoramic lens. Imagery and metaphor are still in charge; still carry the story to an inevitable denouement of wonder where “We’ve stopped worrying so much / about worrying.” And in “Whale Fall,” considering “what they might have become, had they / developed a taste for our dry air—or / had they not turned back.” The extended metaphor, whale and speaker, one and the same, evolving, and finally “Breathing, any way / they can, as if real sleep might arrive / with the next wave.” The language in this final section has shifted, transformed into myth, something so large that it can’t be ignored even when things are uncertain. Attention to sleep and the tides, the moon and glass, all mesh into legend and an eerie acceptance. Adair reinvents the story that began in the clearing, examines bones, finds “so much gold, everywhere, gold—” and asks herself, “how // did I not see it?” Finally we realize that the keys, or teeth, or breadcrumbs were always there to guide us along with the speaker in these poems wrought from time spent in towns, in cornfields, in Gettysburg, in Silverton, in any place where memories linger, and any ambiguity we thought we might have sensed falls away when we read this:
The new moon sometimes lets dark be
what it means to be.
Adair’s collection lets the dark be dark, lets all of the memories show up, with all of the ugliness: “sallow flypaper crusting in porch sun, / bootlines across shit-caked denim,” and we are able to believe the speaker is ready to leave it, to “relax the finger’s pulley, coil this film, / stack it in a glossy gray tin,” and let it pass into story.