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Ants on the Melon
Virginia Hamilton Adair

Ants on the Melon
Virginia Hamilton Adair
The Modern Library
New York 1999

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I read the 86 poems in Ants on the Melon three times seeking to reconcile my initial lukewarm reaction with the effusive praise from poets of the stature of Galway Kinnel, Sharon Olds, and Maxine Kumin. And while on each reading their qualities emerged more clearly — the effective rhyming, the unusual range of subjects, the assured images — many of the poems struck me as being transparently ‘worked for’ rather than ‘given,’ a distinction drawn from a Denise Levertov essay. By ‘worked for’ Levertov refers to the vast majority of poems where the poet struggles through countless drafts to translate an idea, feeling, memory, observation or other beginning point into an effective formulation. By contrast, the ‘given’ poems spring unbidden into the mind of the poet. A gift from the depths, these few and far between poems are products of ‘inspiration’ more than ‘perspiration’. This is the same point, I think, Czeslaw Milosz makes in Ars Poetica? : “as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,/under unbearable duress and only with the hope/that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.” Rilke expresses the equivalent idea in Letters to a Young Poet: “A work of art is good if it has risen out of necessity. This is the only way one can judge it.”

Only about one third of Ms. Adair’s poems spring from this imperative of necessity. Had they formed the corpus of Ants on the Melon, the collection would indeed be a striking achievement. For me, however, these gems tended to be obscured by the greater number of less compelling poems. Poems in which one can discern the writer sitting down to work an experience or thought into a competent poem, memories recollected in tranquility. To be fair, however, the intent of the compiler Robert Mezey, in what appears to have been a laudable labor of love, was to provide an overview of Ms. Adair’s poetry, at the age of 83, as he explains in an informative “Afterword” or biographical sketch. And it can be allowed that these less gripping poems afford a useful historical record: for example, a poem about Asbury Park, 1915 or observing immigrants in Fordham Road, 1917.

To accentuate the positive, Ms. Adair displays a wonderful knack for re-visioning biblical stories in a wry idiom. ‘The Genesis Strain’ is a superb imaginative achievement in its transposing of Adam and Eve into a modern suburban setting. While casting a new light on those legendary events in the primeval garden, it is also very funny. Consisting of 18 3-line stanzas, the first 3 stanzas convey the poem’s humorous and arresting tone:

Not sure how I got here
But a perfect location: smogless,
Free food & 4 unpolluted rivers.

The man I took to at once–
Our bare bodies made us forget
Our parents (if we ever had any)

Adam was given a desk job, naming
Species; I typed name tags,
Kept the files, fixed coffee, dusted,

‘Corona Fidei’ persuasively reconstructs Jesus as a difficult teenager, bedeviling his parents with the insistence that he is God. In God to the Serpent, our customary notion of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys is set on its ear as we learn why God should prefer the serpent to human kind. “You, Snake, not men, deserve my cosmic prize./ I’m glad you stayed in Eden when they left.”

There are also several poems lamenting the unexpected suicide of Ms. Adair’s husband after a long and apparently happy and productive life and marriage. These poems, notable for their complete lack of self-pity or recourse to easy pieties, are heart-felt expressions of anguish and courageous attempts to come to terms with the irreparable.

Among the other memorable (‘given?”) poems, Dover particularly gripped me with its poignant and touching vignettes of a close friend from the age of three to a wastrel’s death at thirty-five. Through a series of deft impressionistic touches Ms. Adair captures, over an extended period of time, an entire personality and relationship in all their complexity and nuance. Perhaps for the foregoing poems, among others, the collection deserves the accolades it has received. But I would still have preferred a selection based more on excellence than representativeness.

Reviewed by Jerry Bass


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