The Operating System

3rd ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30:: DAY 4 :: LAURA HENRIKSEN on HELEN ADAM (1909-1993)

[Editor’s note: I’ve loved Helen Adam ever since I heard an excerpt of the above, her “Cheerless Junkie’s Song,” podcast back in 2007. I was happy to find this rare video footage of her singing the song on the Alan Ginsberg Project blog, where you’ll find some other great links and an interview as well. So grateful to Laura for choosing Adam and, hopefully, introducing this rara avis to a whole new audience. – Lynne DeSilva-Johnson]

I read this thing in Rolling Stone a while ago about how Stevie Nicks’s wrote her recent single, “Moonlight: A Vampire’s Dream,” after watching one of the Twilight movies. She was inspired by the relationship between Bella and Edward, maybe because it reminded her of Lindsey and herself, or maybe just because who isn’t inspired by Kristen Stewart, there’s no way we can know. And I was super pissed, because the writer of this piece affected this tone like, “check out this irrelevant old weirdo, she doesn’t even know appropriate places to find inspiration,” and it’s just, doesn’t this person understand that Stevie Nicks can do whatever she wants? The first two songs she wrote for Fleetwood Mac were “Landslide” and “Rhiannon,” rocked so hard she’s down to one nostril, and she’s still touring. The point being, it’s all true, the magic of Stevie Nicks is real — perhaps you if you tease her for her scarves or predilection for supernatural soap operas, it has more to do with you than anything else.

I wonder how often people laughed Helen Adam off as an eccentric old weirdo, this balladeer with rhyme schemes while the field was opening, this strange old playwright cursing Village Voice critics and wearing massive amounts of costume jewelry. I wonder how often people missed that her magic was all real. Fortunately, plenty saw it. After first meeting Adam, Robert Duncan went home to Jess and remarked, “there’s an old Scotch witch in the workshop.” Clearly.

From “The Fair Young Wife
This is a tale for a night of snow.
It was lived in the north land long ago.
An old man, nearing the end of life,
Took to his arms a fair young wife.

A wife to keep his house in the woods.
His house of echoes and solitudes,
‘Mid forests gloomy and unexplored,
Hunting ground of the wolves abhorred.

Through the miles of forest the wolves ran light.
She heard them running at dead night.
She heard them running, though far away,
And her heart leapt up like a beast of prey.

“Lie still, my lady, lie still and sleep.
Though the north wind blows and the snow drifts deep.
My timid love, in our curtained bed,
The whine of the wolves you need not dread.”

She dreamt she walked in the forest shade,
Alone, and naked, and unafraid.
The bonds of being dissolved and broke.
Her body she dropped like a cast off cloak.

Her shackled soul to its kindreds sped.
In devouring lust with the wolves she fled.
But woke at dawn in a curtained bed.
By an old, grey man, in an airless bed.

She dreamt she walked where the wolf eyes gleam,
And soon she walked, and it was no dream,
She fell on fours from the world of man,
And howled her bliss when the rank beasts ran.

The morning life, and the mid-night life.
The sun and moon on the fair young wife.
The moon in the north land rules the sky.
She prays to it as it rises high.

And then, in the end, her husband turns to her in bed and “in her eyes… he sees a red spark,” and she throws him down and kills him. Spoiler alert. So when I say real magic, I’m not talking like unicorns (although at least one does appear in Adam’s work, but it promptly gets stabbed in the heart), and I’m not talking about the joy in a young girl’s heart at the start of spring. I’m talking about how these poems are working to give you the grue, like Leadbelly singing “my husband was a railroad man/ killed a mile and a half from here/ his head was found in a driver’s wheel/ but his body never was found.” I mean wrap your scarf a little tighter and walk a little faster past long shadows and windy corners on your way home tonight, because you never know. It could happen to anybody.

What ballads do is they connect average people and predictable or even inevitable tragedies to a tradition and power far beyond themselves, making them part of a never-ending struggle against forces too dark to reckon and love too strong to exist. What poetry does is it reaches the irreducible center of expression and acts a lot like ballads and epics, working to timelessness, to shared experience, to mystery. What Adam does is sets out to make you shiver, make you feel a little more vulnerable, a little closer to or less clear about that line that separates fantasy from reality, normalcy from the nuts, your own sentient experience from the whole of sentience. It’s so much more interesting, or significant. As she explained to Susan Howe and Charles Ruas in a 1977 interview:

Well I believe in magic, I think you have to believe it, or at least feel that it works before you can write about it. And I not only believe in it, but I think it’s more important than the awful world of offices for instance. All the times I’ve had to work in offices, which is about most of my life really, I’ve always felt so alien to them that it is positively, absolutely devastating to me to have to sit there from nine till five among people who are so conventional, or are almost always, there are exceptions of course. I don’t mean actual magic like working black magic, although I’m sure that works too…

I picture her reading in her tiny New York apartment, swinging around with huge glasses and white hair and limited sense of key or rhythm, and all the dinner guests suddenly feeling a little cold, like maybe they heard something in the hallway. It didn’t matter whether or not you believed; she had powers.

Folk ballads and magic and conjuring the grue in people – these don’t belong to anybody, their voice is a community of ghosts and the living and the still to come. In the same interview referenced above, Adam describes how, “of course ballads in the old days were almost a community thing. The whole audience, usually outdoors, if they could think of a good verse, they just added a verse to the ballad.” This is how I want to think about poetry, with poets doing their own thing, building worlds whether or not anyone would come, just adding on and adding on until it’s new and ancient at once.

From “Anaid si taerg
And there shall be no more moonlight
And there shall be no more moonlight
And there shall be no more opposites
Over all the earth

Laura Henriksen’s work has previously appeared in or is forthcoming from No, Dear, Clock, Big Bell, and The Brooklyn Rail. She lives in Brooklyn.

#GRATITUDE: Thanks to 30/30/30 2013 contributor, Matt Longabucco, for tagging Laura for this year’s series! Here’s his terrific piece on René Ricard. (RIP!)

2 Comments

  1. […] Laura Henriksen on Helen Adam […]

  2. […] so to speak, by Laura Henriksen, who (much to our delight) chose to pay tribute to Helen Adams in this terrific piece for our 2014 […]

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