Ants on the Melon (Magill Book Reviews)
Virginia Hamilton Adair’s first published collection of poetry has emerged when the author, at age eighty-three and blind, succumbed to the urgings of her longtime friend, poet Robert Mezey, and consented to a winnowing of a lifetime of poetry writing, arranged the poems in six sections. The first section, “Ants on the Melon,” while in no way “sentimental” (Adair is far too strong a thinker to fall into that mode) is, as is the entire volume, full of sentiment. (Adair has far too strong a heart to eschew feeling, passion, pain.)
Partly because of Adair’s having lived a long and intense life, and partly because of her strong sense of craft and the requirements of form, individual poems and the volume as a whole always reveal the shadow as well as the sunlight, the frost as well as the warmth, usually in the last three or four lines of the poem. One finds the incredible pain, passion, and bafflement that is our lot as human beings rendered with a powerful command of form—rhyme, meter, stanza—of language, image, and metaphor, a bulwark to the unbearable. The final section, “Make Light of Darkness,” celebrates the gifts of memory, of poetry, of friends, and certainly of courage as she continues a lifelong daily habit writing poems on an old Olympic portable, making sense out of all of life’s character, nothing denied except, remarkably, self-pity.
In this exquisite volume, one finds then a superior craftsperson, keen in her sense of words and sounds and structures, powerful in her control of form, as she listens to a whispering of the soul, a sound, as she puts it in the last two lines of “Strange Frequency”: that even we Gods find strange,/ Like a tear distilled from the deep eternal cold.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCII, April 15, 1996, p. 1410.
Houston Chronicle. June 9, 1996, p. Z10.
The Kenyon Review. XVIII, Summer, 1996, p. 186.
Library Journal. CXXI, April 1, 1996, p. 83.
Los Angeles Times. March 29, 1996, p. E1.
The New York Review of Books. XLIII, May 23, 1996, p. 4.
The New York Times. August 7, 1996, p. C11.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, June 23, 1996, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 26, 1996, p. 103.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. July 14, 1996, p. C5.
Time. CXLVII, May 27, 1996, p. 80.
Ants on the Melon (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Virginia Hamilton Adair’s first published collection of poetry, has emerged when the author, at age eighty-three and blind, succumbed to the urgings of her longtime friend, poet, and neighbor in Claremont, California, Robert Mezey, and consented to participate in the winnowing of a lifetime of poetry writing. Mezey provides a graceful and illuminating afterword to this volume, outlining the principal biographical facts and locating the germ of his idea that she should “think about a book” in a reading she did at Pomona College in 1982. Adair, whose sight was failing at the time and who was still teaching at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, a few miles to the west, was not to be hurried into such a project. After all, she had always read, written, and loved poetry; she had published poems in the 1930’s and 1940’s in such magazines as The Saturday Review of Literature, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Republic and was always ready with a witty and clever poem on the occasion of a colleague’s birthday or retirement from Cal Poly. Yet she was also quite busy raising a family of three children and running a household in Williamsburg, Virginia, and later, when her husband, distinguished historian Douglass Adair, accepted an appointment at the Claremont Graduate School, in Claremont, California. She taught at several local colleges, achieving the rank of full professor at Cal Poly, Pomona, where she enjoyed a solid reputation as an exciting, exacting, and charming teacher. She continued to write more poems and took care of her father, who lived to be ninety-four and who had been, Mezey points out, “both her chief audience and a continuous example of how poetry can sustain a life.” After her husband’s shocking and inexplicable suicide in 1968, such solace and sustaining as she could find was to be found in the lifelong and life-sustaining craft and practice of poetry. It is in the intensely personal nature of an acutely observed life rendered in technically masterful forms characterized by short lines, short stanzas, intricately rhymed, and carefully controlled meter that the grace she finds in poetry for her life is evident. Crowned with passion and garlanded with wit, these poems reward the reader with accessible experience and interpretation devoid of posturing and irritating mannerisms.
Arranged in six sections, the poems are linked thematically and somewhat chro-nologically. The first section, “Ants on the Melon,” while in no way “sentimental” (Adair is far too strong a thinker to fall into that mode) is, as is the entire volume, full of sentiment (Adair has far too strong a heart to eschew feeling, passion, pain). This section plays in interesting ways with perception, the first perceptions of childhood, the perceptions bittersweet of adulthood. All is movement, all is change. The title poem, “Ants on the Melon,” embodies these qualities, narrating a slight incident:
Once when our blacktop city
was still a topsoil town
we carried to Formicopolis
a cantaloupe rind to share
and stooped to plop it down
in their populous Times Square
at the subway of the ants
and saw that hemisphere
blacken and rise and dance
with antmen out of hand
wild for their melon toddies
just like our world next year
no place to step or stand
except on bodies.
What begins as a account of putting a delicacy on an ant den to watch the ants attack it, turns into a witty and finally sardonic observation on life, population growth, urban congestion, and an acute consciousness of mortality. Thus, it is a fitting end to the first section and a fitting title poem for the entire collection. Partly because of Adair’s having lived a long and intense life, and partly because of her strong sense of craft and the requirements of form, individual poems and the volume as a whole always reveal the shadow as well as the sunlight, the frost as well as the warmth, usually in the last three or four lines of the poem. For instance, “The Shell” renders the poet’s seeing in the border between sea and land a “wan shell. . . ./ Torn from the sea into the air./ Some other may lift it from the sand;/ I dare not. Never has my hot hand/ Held any substance so desolate and so rare.” Or, in “Ashbury Park, 1915,” a poem structured on memories of two experiences at age two and a half; one of seeing a cannon set amidst red cannas, an image preserved “on the picture-postcard of my mind,/ cannons and red flowers/ are forever one”; the other of her mother dragging the irrepressible Mary Virginia out of the Atlantic Ocean’s surf, her father capturing the “rescue” on “sepia film./ For almost eighty years/ we have stood there on the sand,/ safe from the sea, in a black album.” The second section, “By Old Maps,” and the third, “Driving Westward,” locate special and particular moments in her life as a woman busy with the details of travel, family, work, life.
The fourth section,...
(The entire section is 2098 words.)