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Image: Tina Tiller
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BooksFebruary 25, 2024

How to read a poem: For a Five-Year-Old by Fleur Adcock

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The latest in a semi-regular series that breaks down a poem to analyse what it’s really trying to tell us.

Fleur Adcock’s Collected Poems is as big as a bible. It arrived, plumply, in my letterbox last week with a promise of a poem a day for a very long time. Adcock was born in 1934 in Papakura and lived, from childhood, between Aotearoa and the UK (where she lives currently). Her first collection of poetry, The Eye of the Hurricane, was published in 1964, and from there followed 19 further collections over 60 years, and a clutch of awards such as the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry for Poems 1960–2000, an Honorary Doctor of Literature from Victoria University of Wellington, the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature, and an Honorary Doctor of Literature from Goldsmiths, University of London.

Adcock’s poetry pins down the fleeting twists that exist in every day life. Her poems seem simple at first, but they hardly ever leave you with a simple feeling. Somewhere in her lines, in the way the images are framed and hung together, there’s a turn, or an “off camera” voice that unrests you as the reader. Like the poem ‘House-talk’: at first it’s about a parent listening to their teenagers sneak back into the house after a night out, trying to be quiet. But by the end you realise you’re in intimate company with the narrator who is tucked up in bed in a house that’s been lived in for 90 years. It’s a haunted and haunting poem: both a relief (the teenagers are safely returned) and unsettling (what has that house overheard in all that time?).

Working through Adcock’s Collected Poems is to follow a poet’s life through the poet’s own eyes: the places she’s lived, the various states of parenthood, clusters of focus and observation. Adcock’s poems often feels assertive and factual, but they don’t resonate in straight lines. Adcock’s poetry gets under your skin because she strips the ordinary back and exposes the truth underneath which is often funny, and often stark. I find them surprisingly emotional: they sneak into you.

I first read For a Five-Year-Old when I was still in primary school. The central image of the poem a snail being carried to safety by a child sank into me so thoroughly that the voice of Adcock’s poem comes to me every single time I see a snail meandering hopelessly into harm’s way. Reading it again some 30 years later, now a mother of a five-year-old myself, I am floored by this poem of two halves. It is darker, funnier, more harshly truthful than I ever realised.

For a Five-Year-Old by Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

Reading notes: The language is plain, so deliberate. The voice is measured; and by the fourth line we know that the narrator is addressing a child: “you call me into see, and I explain”. I love that line because it rings so true of a child’s demands: wanting a grown up to help them witness what is, to them with their fresh eyes, strange and wondrous, like an insect appearing somewhere where it shouldn’t be, like on a window.

If we linger on that idea of small wonder it starts to expand. The marvel of the way a snail can travel vertically up the side of a house and appear at a window, where, you could say, it is seeking to come in. The snail’s adventurousness becomes fascinating if we see it through the eyes of the child who is eager for their parent to bear witness to it, and ‘explain’ it. How much of the natural world is explicable? How many of us are equipped to go as far as nature requires when it comes to sharing these minute, every day wonders to our kids? What is that snail doing? Why is the windowsill its destination?

By the end of this verse there’s a clear sense of rhyme and rhythm. There are internal rhymes: Rain / explain; there / care; understand / hand; and then we end with “daffodil” which rhymes with “window-sill” in a sound that cradles this entire scene. These sounds are made subtle by way of line breaks and punctuation. If you read the poem according to its sentences the rhyme is there but you don’t land heavily on them. This is not a waltz or a ballad, it’s an intimate gesture. I think of it as a muted nursery rhyme: a creation ‘for a five-year-old’ but only to be read when that five-year-old is much, much older. Because here is where the poem splits: a sudden bolt of understanding divides the poem, and the narrator, directly in half.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails;
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

Here we have a turn; an abrupt change in tone. The narrator is witnessing, in real time, the effect of her power as a parent. On instruction, the five-year-old carries the snail to safety (“to eat a daffodil” which I always assume is the child’s idea of what the snail might love. They are so yellow and delicious looking after all), and the entire poem changes because of this small act of obedience and mercy.

The narrator is suddenly struck by the hypocrisy of the situation. That a parent can preach kindness while also being a person that’s done opposite: in this case “trapped mice and shot wild birds”. It’s a gunshot! The image cracks its way into what was a pretty zen scene. The poet has created a violent contrast with the gentle hands of the child and the slow, soft-bodied insect.

A mouse trap, though, even a gun, is not unfamiliar. Adults reading this poem won’t be so shocked. It’s what follows that takes us into the noir for a few lines this simple poem turns into gothic drama: “from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed / your closest relatives, and who purveyed the harshest kind of truth to many another.” These lines slash right to the blunt heart of a parent: as people we’ve done brutal things but as parents we embody a second self, one that might say “do as I say, not as I act”.

There is a wonder in this verse, too. The poem is a bit of a confession. There’s an ongoing shock of being in charge of a small person’s developing values while you’re still working on your own. The wonder of a child’s innocent faith; their logic and sweetness in what we know is a harder, more violent world, even within the world of the mind and bodies of their closest protectors, their parents.

The final two lines pull us out of the spiralling raw with a return to instruction and resolve: “But that is how things are: I am your mother, / and we are kind to snails.” It’s not an apology, it’s just the truth. We are all hypocritical beings. The line “I am your mother” echoes the argument that might come later for this pair when the child loses that faith and starts to question it: “but why?” “because I am your mother and I say so” (as if that is every a satisfying answer). Only, in this poem, it is also poignant and moving. It is a statement of responsibility: an acknowledgement that despite the violences we’ve done, we teach our kids the ideal way forward, so they’re better.

The final line, “We are kind to snails” brings the narrator and the child back together again. It repeats the “kindness” of the first verse but in its more definite form: we are kind.

It’s short, but it’s a rollercoaster. It’s a sharp shock and one that I think parents will recognise. Hopefully you’ll hear this voice next time you sidestep to avoid stepping on a snail (or the next time you deliberately squash one like my garden-loving mother does).

Fleur Adcock: Collected Poems (Expanded Edition) (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $50) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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