“She has arrived in our world like a comet,” said poet Galway Kinnell after seeing Virginia Hamilton Adair’s work for the first time, a quote that has since appeared in several places, not least in poetry editor Alice Quinn’s profile of Adair for the Dec. 25, 1995, edition of the New Yorker. And sure enough, comet-like, the corners of East Coast, silk-stocking publishing were suddenly illuminated by her work: The New Yorker will run 15 poems, the New York Review of Books ran one, and the New York Times published a short profile and a poem from her new Random House collection, “Ants on the Melon.”
They can borrow her, but they can’t have her, for Adair, 82, considers herself a Californian and has lived in Claremont for the last 41 years. She has beautiful skin, white hair and facial expressions so responsive and articulate that one easily forgets (reminded only by a slight fogginess in one eye) in conversation that she cannot see.
Her writing is unmistakably informed by the crackling dry heat of the desert, by the strange mixture of brashness and refinement that characterizes California writers of her generation (M.F.K. Fisher, Harriet Doerr), and most of all by the breathtakingly vivid, minute desert-flower-like detail of her images: for example, a rock that is ". . . mooncold,/noonhot, windburnished,/its underside melon dusk/of a wintersunset.”
Since her 20s, Adair has published poems in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic and the Saturday Review, but this is her first published collection. Born in New York in 1913, Adair was lauded for her poetry while an undergraduate at Mt. Holyoke College and then as a graduate student at Harvard, where she met her husband, historian Douglass Adair Jr. They moved to Claremont in 1955, where he taught until his suicide in 1968. The couple had three children, and Virginia, now a great-grandmother, went on to teach at the California Polytechnic University for 22 years.
She now lives and continues to write poetry (most recently sonnets and rhyming poems) in a small but full and comfortable room, which she refers to as her “orbit,” dominated by a tragic, rich, rust- and red-hued painting and a manual Olympia typewriter that she dances with for some period each day.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I type way off the ends of the paper; others, I’m told, I’ve typed a line of fractions.”
The poems in “Ants on the Melon” are beautifully (but not chronologically) organized to show the translucent layers of meaning and ways of seeing that were added to the steadfast, dead-on voice of Adair’s poetry with each new life experience, each move and each new place. The first poems in the sections titled “Ants on the Melon” and “By Old Maps” reveal her Dante-like view of history-as-inferno--"On streets of soot and stain/the first brushes of rain/daub jewels and holocausts/through violet exhausts"--and her Blake-like view of urban society and urban injustice--"Over the suicidal approaches/Where guns have human eyes/And even the ozone stoops to murder/I will speed you to the heart/the heart of the great city.”
The next section, “Driving Westward,” is a breath of fresh air, wherein the author discovers the West, the desert, the sea and Zen (Adair helped found the Zen monastery on Mt. Baldy). “The Genesis Strain” is the section that describes her life as a mother and wife (“Life in its awkward arc”).
The last sections, “Exit Amor” and “Make Life of Darkness,” describe, in fullest detail, Douglass Adair’s suicide and Virginia’s life after: “I have never understood,” she writes in her plain English, “I will never understand.” The latest poems seem to revisit images of snow and coffins and time passing (including son Dover’s death) with here and there a flash of red cailia, or hummingbirds, or “yellow and snow-colored flowers.”
Adair has always been reticent to publish, despite a lifelong commitment to writing and literature. She can no longer read but says that much of the inspiration for her daily writing comes from radio, books on audiotape, people she talks to and, perhaps most of all, memory.
“One day, when I was 3 years old,” she recalls, “my father said, ‘This child is old enough to read!’ My mother said, ‘Robert, she’s too young,’ but he insisted and gave me a primer with a picture on the cover of a little girl with a hoop. Under the picture were the words ‘Come, come away, come away with me and play.’ When my father came home that night, he asked if I could read yet, and when I said no, he held the book in front of me, pointed to the word ‘come’ and said, ‘See this, this is a picture of “come.” ’ Then it was easy to read.”
“Why am I telling you all this?” Virginia demands in the last line of one poem that is part metaphor and part recounting of simple daily life. Why indeed? Thank you.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Age, grief, perversities
of lovers and investments
vanish in the exhalation
of our speed or, hydrocarbon
ghosts, hover beyond tinted glass.
Points of departure and destination
are folded away in paper maps
when we enter the 4-lane fairyland
swinging like bells
for some nameless jubilee.
Who has not known as driver
before the bright controls
this hubris of the freeway
this rapture of the horizontal
plunge into receding sanity?
Here at our slightest touch
musicians hanging in the wind
spend, spend their sweetness
into our cells of chrome and foam
our lives their opera.
The slow God shepherding
his clouds across blue pastures
dissolves before our eyes
the land unrolls like doomsday
and all our coffins fly into the sun.
--Virginia Hamilton Adair, from “Ants on the Melon”