A ‘bardic matriarch’ to the San Francisco Beats and, in her narrative voice, ‘a sorceress with distinct powers over and within [that] community’, Helen Adam’s early life as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister in the north-east of Scotland appears to offer little indication of what was to come. Having moved to America in the 1930s, she settled some years later in a community in which formal experimentation was often the poetic mode-du-jour. Adam’s reputation, however, rested on her retention and mastery of the ballad forms of her native land. Her importance was crystallised in her inclusion in Donald Allen’s seminal collection The New American Poetry 1945-1960, and she was to extend her artistic vision into experimental filmmaking and collage production, as well as the writing of a successful opera. Personal circumstances hindered her endeavours in later years, precipitating a slide into obscurity. Indeed, it is only since her death that Adam has begun to receive once more the recognition her work merits.
In as much as her early domestic background was unremarkable, Adam was something of a child prodigy, composing poetry ‘almost as soon as [she] could talk’. Some of the fruits of this labour, were compiled and published in The Elfin Pedlar and Tales Told by Pixie Pool when she was 14 years old. This collection of mannerly fairy ballads and spectral nature poetry was well received in Scotland and beyond, enjoying an orchestral adaptation by the renowned Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, as well as the production of an American edition by publishers Putnam and Sons. In adulthood, Adam was to dismiss these early works as ‘doggerel’. While their genteel treatment of the uncanny is more indicative of polite Victorian interest in Celtic mysticism than of the sanguinary songs on which she would build her later reputation, they show a germinal fascination with a darker world – particularly in the long ballad ‘The Witch’s Daughter’ – that was to become a permanent fixture of Adam’s life.
Adam emigrated to America in 1939 with her mother, Isabella, and sister Pat, somewhat by accident after what had begun as a family visit was rendered permanent by the outbreak of the Second World War. It is tempting to read Adam’s emigration to America as a literal crossing between worlds that was to rekindle her interest in the preternatural motifs of the ballad form, after embarrassment over her early poetry had stopped her writing until after she had turned thirty. The three women stayed briefly in Connecticut before settling in New York for nine years, during which time Adam commenced work on a fantasy novel entitled ‘Branch of Tamarisk’. While the novel was never published – Adam later described herself as having always been ill-at-ease with writing in prose – a number of ballads were retained for future performance and publication.
After moving west in search of a climate more hospitable to Isabella’s failing health, the Adam family eventually settled in California in 1949, and it was in San Francisco that Adam’s reputation as a poet developed. This was at a time of great cultural and artistic ferment in the city, with cross currents between conscientious objectors, performers, poets, drifters and transient workers combining to create what has since been termed the ‘San Francisco Renaissance’. A key figure in this milieu was the poet Robert Duncan, whose open workshops in the early 1950s offered Adam the opportunity to introduce her adult work to an audience for the first time. In stark contrast to the tasteful pieces of her childhood, these ballads introduced a world of eros and thanatos unbound, and a dark sort of liberation in which the unbinding of desire is accompanied by a literal devouring of the flesh:
The bonds of being dissolved and broke.
Her body she dropped like a cast off cloak.
Her shackled soul to its kindred sped.
In devouring lust with the wolves she fled.
‘The Fair Young Wife’
This dichotomy of angelic veneer and monstrous reality is the key to many of Adam’s ballads. Female figures routinely appear as predators, ensnaring and ravaging their male prey, often in lust but sometimes as retribution, such as in ‘Apartment at Twin Peaks’. Here, images of a respectable house party and a coven of witches intertwine over the serving up of the proud husband as food. Adam’s female protagonists share a sublime savagery which never suffers punishment, with the poems themselves indicative of a shadow world in which it is Zeus, rather than Prometheus, who is chained to the rock and devoured.
Such echoes of Romanticism, particularly of Shelley and Blake, are key to understanding Adam and her work. The vision of the outcast as paladin of a forbidden knowledge, free from society’s shackles, finds its greatest expression in her oeuvre in the verse opera, San Francisco’s Burning, and its central character The Worm Queen. Partly alter-ego, but also a composite of the murderous loreleis of her poetry, this unearthly figure acts as both metaphorical and literal puppet master, draining male victims of their fleshly power until the corpse is split from the spirit and possessed:
Young maids may be faithful while the flesh it is fair.
But the Worm Queen will love till the bones are stripped bare.
Orchestrating destruction of the city through tarot magic, the Worm Queen can be understood as Adam’s own way to be wicked, an intertextual aligning of self with protagonists which exists in gleeful contrast to Duncan’s characterisation of her as being a ‘nurse of enchantment’ to her fellow poets. Curiously, though, the absolute destruction is never fully realised, and in a derailment of her poetry’s Romantic sensibilities, Adam allows the Worm Queen to be jostled aside by the grande dame of the San Francisco bourgeoisie, Miss Mackie Rhodus, in a stroke of comic deflation:
Troublesome fire and earthquake,
But we know that whatever comes,
We’ll still have Grace Cathedral
And crumpets and cream at Blum’s.
The opera was a success, with a lengthy run igniting interest – eventually fulfilled – off-Broadway, though it represented something of a failure for Adam as she was unable to maintain control over the composition of the music. In preparing to take the opera to the East Coast, Adam and her sister moved to New York in 1965. She remained there for the rest of her life, dividing her time between theatrical endeavours and poetry readings, in addition to collaborating on two films with the German filmmaker Rosa Von Praunheim.
Following the death of her sister in 1986, Adam became depressed and withdrawn, bereft of the energy which had been so great a part of both her life and performances, and died in 1993. This fading from view was accompanied by a relegation of Adam to the role of a minor curio of the American literary canon, in some part due to her preferred motifs fitting poorly with those of her contemporaries, but perhaps owing also to many of these contemporaries figuring her as muse rather than equal. Indeed, it is a cruel irony that Adam, whose poetry is so loaded with images of untamed female power, might have been painted into a quiet corner in such a manner.
A small number of scholars and biographers, particularly Kristin Prevallet, have been instrumental in championing Helen Adam and her work in recent years, and Edwin Morgan’s important lecture ‘Scotland and the World’ (1999) offered a fresh introduction to Adam’s work to many in her native land. Adam always recognised the influence of Scotland and the bloody hue of many of its ballads. While she was never a writer ‘ in exile’, moving to America acted as a ‘jolt’ for Adam, in Morgan’s view; a catalyst ‘to bring to the surface what was subterraneanly there’. These divisions – between Scotland and America, surface and subterranea – offer some channels through which to engage with Adam’s poetry, which was forever, and consciously, in-between worlds:
Twa worlds o’life and death,
Sae near, sae far apart.
In between the twa worlds
The crying of the heart.
‘San Francisco’s Burning’