The Reluctant Pixie PooleNOTES:
(A Recovery of Helen Adam's San Francisco Years)
by Kristin Prevallet
In October of 1923, the Dundee Advertiser published an article called "Scot's Prodigy" which announced: "Scotland has given birth to many infant prodigies, but surely none has given more promise of future greatness than little Helen Douglas Adam gives."1 And indeed, the child's future would be great, not as Scotland's heir to Tennyson, but as America's godmother of the San Francisco Renaissance. She perplexed the beats with her persistence of writing nothing but ballads, and embodied for the San Francisco scene the spirit of Romanticism.
It is not difficult to find the sources for the ballad tradition that became ingrained in her and that fueled her energy and creative passion during her entire 83 years of writing. She grew up in Dundee with her younger sister Pat, daughters of a country minister, in a thatched house surrounded by the fairy pools and haunted woodlands of old Scotland, and a library filled with the great Victorian eccentrics like Andrew Lang, George MacDonald, and Arthur Rackham. Her Grandfather on her mother's side, William Douglas Dunn, was a famous Evangelist for the United Free Church of Scotland, who developed a unique conversion technique involving not just preaching, but picking up a hoe and digging, or taking a rod and casting, thereby winning the confidence of even the most stubborn fishermen and gardeners. Then, he would discuss his teachings using their own imagery. "Before ingrafting. . .cut the vine and then cut the little scion or branch; bring the two bleeding or wounded parts together. . .and tonight, the life of Christ is flowing through this little scion or branch to you."2
In 1924 her uncle, Theodore Douglas Dunn, a scholar of the "Orient's Influence on Shakespeare," was appointed to the prestegious position of Minister of Education in Bengal, India. That same year in February, he was crossing the Hoogley river and had a seizure which threw him over the edge of his boat. He drowned and his body was never found. A monument was erected at that spot to mark his passing, and there can be no doubt that the event had a profound effect on the 13 year old Helen. Images of drowned sailors and creatures lost at sea continued to haunt her writing and art for the rest of her life.
By the time that she was 20, Helen had published three books of poetry with a major English press, Hodder and Stoughton: The Elfin Pedlar and Tales Told by Pixie Pool (1923), Charms and Dreams from the Elfin Pedlar's Pack (1924), and Shadow of the Moon (1929). Her first book, The Elfin Peldar, was published when she was 14 years old, and includes 120 ballads composed from the time that she was two, at which time, according to the book's forward, the child "talked to her dolls in rhyme. She would tell them stories of fairies and flowers all clothed in beautiful language and in faultless rhythm."3 The 35 odd columns from different newspapers throughout Scotland and England that reviewed the book loved recounting certain anecdotes about the child's precocious mannerisms: "Sometimes, her mother, overhearing this casual flow of dainty rhymes would say 'Helen, can you repeat that? To which the child would answer, Oh No Mummy; but I shall say some more."4 The book was met with enthusiasm, and Helen was hailed as having "an extraordinary sense and handling of rhythm and rhyme."5 with a "perfect ear and a delicate imagination"6 and "a mind elect"7 which was "entirely free from self-consciousness or any thought of posing."8 Indeed, for whatever reasons that a country needs its prodigies, whether for the pride of Nationalism or for the moral support that comes from a strong youthful spirit that re-embodies the rhythms of its history, Helen Adam became the pride of Scotland. The Elfin Pedlar was graced even by a note of praise from the Queen of Scotland herself.
Her younger sister, Isabella Theodosia Patrick, later known as Pat, was a remarkable illustrator, and also known as a prodigy. In 1932, at the age of 20, Pat wrote and illustrated a book called Letters to Teg,9 which tells the story of a young woman's search for sophistication and ladylike manners, in spite of her fascination with playing tricks and games on the people she meets, who are all dumbfounded by her audacity. This book also was met with favorable reviews, one remarking: "the book is a splendid tonic for anyone who has become a victim of our modern depression."10
In 1934, the year after their father, the Reverend William Adam, was tragically hit in the head by a golf ball and died (karmic retribution, according to Helen, who despised her father for being more interested in golf than in writing his sermons and preaching),11 the sisters along with their mother, Isabella Douglas Dunn, packed their bags and moved to London where Helen and Pat became successful journalists. They collaborated on a correspondence column for the Weekly Scotsman called "Jottings from London" which informed everyone back home of all the news from the big city: the latest film scandals (like the censorship of Snow White based on its potential to frighten children); the whereabouts of flower shops, gown sales and boat races; and reports of the Royalty's various outings. In one article they remarked, without any irony of course, that "both the King and Queen love a country life, if only in contrast to their crowded and hardworking days in town. . . ."12
In 1939, for reasons that still remain unclear, the Helen, Pat and their mother, left Europe for Hartford, CT to be bridesmaids in a cousin's wedding. Because of the war, they never returned to live in Scotland. They settled in New York, and had some luck finding work: Helen as a governess, Pat as a publicist for Variety Shows, and Isabella for Cheeney's Silk Mills, which had converted its operations into making wool for the wings of fighter planes. Seven years later, after they tired of life in New York, they all packed their bags and headed West, finally settling down in San Francisco.
* * *
Another story of Helen Adam begins here, one that is entirely severed from her past, if only because she was embarrassed about all the fuss that was made over her as a child.11 But her strong ties to the magical folklore of Scotland were never lost. And for Helen Adam, San Francisco in the 1950s could not have been a more perfect place to settle down. There, poetic majesty and the mastery of form were combined with the breaking free of social expectations and rebellion against the mundane. She was among the oldest of the poets living there and may have been the "team godmother,"13 but the magic and knowledge she brought to San Francisco startled the young wild sages of its Renaissance with a special kind of madness. "Dear Helen: This letter is more to exclaim. That we found you all-the Adam family such a special revelation. It is the kinship one feels with those however and wherever that live in an enchantment of the imagination-antiques, we are, of the 19th century?" Robert Duncan.14
The kinship that Duncan, Jess and Helen formed was one of creative inspiration and mutual support, and the Adam sisters were frequent guests at the Jess/Duncan household. Duncan claimed that it was her 1954 reciting of Blake's "Song's of Innocence and Experience" at a poetry reading that changed the direction of his entire sense of poetics. Helen claimed his play Atlantis as the major inspiration for her play San Francisco's Burning. And when Duncan would write to her of critics that were harsh on his writing, she would threaten to put curses on them, saying of one "if I ever meet this character I am going to put a spell on it to rot its bones. Daring to condescend to Duncan, the cheap, trashy, brainless rat."15 And judging by her reputation as an expert tarot card reader, her seriousness can hardly be doubted.
Her circle of friends and confidants extended throughout many different groups of artists and writers in San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s. She was very fond of Jack Spicer and was a participant in his Magic Workshop, and yet judging from the notes she took in it, was sometimes skeptical at his claims to understand magic, just as he perhaps was of her theatricality. She wrote a short play called "Initiation to the Magic Workshop" in which most of the participants, including Spicer himself, had a part. In it, Spicer is usurped by his students from his status as mage because he is a demon from hell, and is then cooked to a crisp: "Before the circle can spit complete / My burning babe you must cook and eat. / Will it taste nicer / than roasted Spicer?" Upon thus exorcising him, Duncan is hailed as the true magician. And when Spicer comes back to haunt his mutinied ship with the intention to command it, once again he is met with resistance. "Some things magic does not dare to mock. / It's time for Duncan to stop the clock. And call up Kore with his earth-quake shock." 16
She also collaborated on experimental films, one in particular called Daydream of Darkness with William McNeill. The film was thought lost until Ernie Edwards, friend of McNeill, resurrected it from his closet. The Poetry Collection is now working on its restoration. It is a grand menagerie of dream images, such as statues of mythological animals from Golden Gate Park, a candle-lit deer's head, and the trademark "moon-maiden" head. Helen plays the seer/witch who is beckoning the viewer to follow. It is a silent film, and the script was spoken by Helen live, while the movie was being projected. The debut for this performance was Nov. 22, 1962, at the Peacock Gallery, the very day that Kennedy was assassinated. It was performed in spite of the audience's complaining that it should have been canceled to observe the tragedy.17
The "moon-maiden head," mentioned above, was the symbol of the Maidens, a group that formed spontaneously on January 6, 1957 and included Jess, Madeline Gleason, Duncan, Eve Triem, Helen, James Broughton. Robin Blaser would occasionally attend as an honorary guest. This was a group that met sporadically for elaborate dinners and evenings filled with discussions and readings, with the intention of creating a vibrant, childlike and imaginative communal space in which the ideals of poetry could be made manifest. Blaser wrote a poem about the group called "Harp Trees": "the cast-iron moon on the wall / vibrates a kind of speech / at the edge of thought / in the dark."18
All the various friends she made in San Francisco, from poets to actors, sustained her passion for folklore, ritual, and the ways of the "old religion" (witchcraft), which constitutes the theme of so much of her work. Indeed, the pixies and warlocks of Old Scotland, the fairy stories from Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, and the complete set of George MacDonald novels that she had partially memorized and often read out loud-all of these she brought with her to San Francisco where she found a community that incorporated the significance of ancient folklore, primitivism, and magic into an approach to poetry that was radical in its attempt to, as Michael Davidson wrote, "use language to go beyond language" by creating poetry that "'performs' what it describes."19
In spite of this seeming ideal poetic flurry of energy, the San Francisco Renaissance was plagued by the quest for authenticity. It was as if there were a need to distinguish the real magician and the true dictator of the voices of the muses, in order to separate pure inspiration from charlatan fakery. Helen Adam, who was adored by everybody, was unfortunately caught in the middle of all this. Although there were many conflicts in San Francisco at this time, the one that most involved Helen was the tension between Duncan and Broughton. Primarily, their rivalary was based on aesthetic differences involving Duncan's intolerance for Broughton's theater space, The Playhouse, featuring Kermit Sheets as the main director. Helen was extremely close with James Broughton, was the godmother of his child, and was very active with his theater, especially since it was where her play, San Francisco's Burning, premiered. Broughton helped Helen and Pat revise the play, gradually turning it into a musical, which Duncan detested. He made very clear his outrage of Broughton's revisions to the play, claiming that they altered the purity of the original. In a letter to Helen, Duncan wrote: "Gail [Chubb, one of the main actors], Broughton, Sheets and that 'composer' [Warner Jepson] are gnenues of the porne imagination that stood against song, in ignorance-but also, struck out, altered, 'improved' the authentic."20 This cross-fire in which Helen was forced to prove her loyalty to both Broughton and Duncan simultaneously could not have been easy. This period of her life was further complicated by her getting fired from the filing job she had held for ten years, as well as the torment she endured from the failure of the "composer" of San Francisco's Burning to create the music that perfectly corresponded to her vision. Partly as a consequence of this stress, in January of 1962, at the age of 53, she was hospitalized for several months where she received four shock treatments to heal her of thoughts of suicide. Three months later, in March, San Francisco's Burning premiered at the Playhouse, and this was an event which must be regarded as a one of the most significant productions to come out of San Francisco during this time.
This is a play in which the dialogue is written entirely in ballads. Later, taking Broughton's suggestions, it became a musical in which Helen played the Worm Queen, a mysterious presence who lured men into its cove, gave them the best love they ever had, and then let them die. "I am the Fair Forgetfulness/Whom men seek only in pain./Who sleeps in the bed of the Worm Queen/He never will weep again."21 It is a story centered around the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and loosely portrays a mythical rendition of the contemporary scene. As Michael Davidson wrote, the play "is a play not only "about" the mythical city of San Francisco but about the historical community in which that myth was played out."22 It would not be easy to match the various characters with their contemporary counterparts, for the play has a unique cast of characters, among them, Spangler Jack, the gambling man who breaks the ladies' hearts; Neil Narcissus, the dilettante, who will never love anything but his reflection; and Susan Pettigrew, who falls in love with the ghost of the drowned Scotch sailor whom she met while sleepwalking. The play was a glorious success, ran for 12 weeks, and sold out every night. The euphoria of this, along with Broughton's urgings and a much needed grant which Duncan helped secure from the Merrill foundation, would push Helen and her sister to leave San Francisco for New York in 1964. The desire to see the play break Broadway would obsess them for the next 20 years.
The fate of the two sisters, who never parted or married for their entire lives, is one of both tragedy and admiration, of Scottish determination and mad complexity. When they left for New York in 1964, they had only $4,000 from the Merrill grant, and being in their late 50's, had hard times finding work. Helen at one time had a job at a jewelry carving store, sorting on her hands and knees the gold and diamond flecks out of dust and cockroach shells, while Pat was signed up with a secretary's temporary agency. In a letter to Duncan Pat wrote, "I sometimes brood very darkly on the thought that if it hadn't been for San Francisco's Burning, we wouldn't be here."23 San Francisco's Burning was finally staged in an off-Broadway production, where it was received enthusiastically in spite of the Village Voice critic, Michael Smith, who bashed the play. However, contrary to the sister's wishes, the play was never picked up by a major composer who had contacts to Broadway. Even with this disappointment, Helen did go on to achieve some success in New York. She met the filmmaker Rosa Von Pronehim who featured her in several of his films, became close friends with many artists and writers, including Samuel Delany, who based the main character of his now famous story "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones"24 on her. Helen also acted in many other small theater venues, and published many books, notably Stone Cold Gothic, published by Lita Hornick. And of course, she put a curse on the Voice critic, writing to Duncan "I hear from several sources that he is badly frightened, and it serves him right. Let him watch out, for I have never before been in such a splendid position to curse."25
She was known among her friends for her delight in "giving you the grue"26 (a spine-tingling shudder) and it was this that she attempted to conjure up in her ballads, short stories, plays, and collages. If there was one theme that runs through much of her work, it is that the body is only a vehicle for all sorts of magical transformations and rites of possession that serve the purpose of liberating their victim from worldly and social limitations. Her ballads, which remained for her entire life her primary passion, may be rigid in their form, and yet their subject is always the breaking free from worldly constraints, casting aside mortality, and accepting the unknown: "She dreamt she walked in the forest shade, / Alone, and naked, and unafraid. / The bonds of being dissolved an broke. / Her body she dropped like a cast off cloak."7 From its roots in pagan festivals, the form of the ballad is a gradual building of rhythm, that pushes the narrative into frenzy, ecstasy and chaos.28 We should not assume that this form is any less radical than the more experimental ones being written in her day. For in her determination to perpetuate the ballad tradition, she became the master of her form, passing its magic to others not only in her dynamic performances, but through her entire persona. This assertion influenced many others in the community to write ballads, which became an inevitable affirmation of some of the political ideals that poetry was to take in the 1950s and 60s. Helen Adam was the passer-on of the knowledge and tradition of forms, that, like the tales of transformation in so many of her ballads, adjusts its significance from antiquity into a contemporary usefulness. Helen Adam was not an "aside" of the San Francisco Renaissance-she was a vital and central figure who had a unique influence on poetry and the way it was performed during that time. As Norman Finkelstein so eloquently stated, "it is not only the poet's intense devotion to the visionary experience that makes her work so vital; it answers a historical necessity, completes and extends a poetic need that has arisen within the tradition. . . .One is almost tempted to claim that had Helen Adam not existed, Romanticism itself would have had to invent her."29
Hers may be an existence marked by desire and residing within the imagination, but luckily her mark has been left, not only with her ballads, but with her scrapbooks and collages as well. The collages mostly depict images of women undergoing various processes of transformation, always to the complete surprise or utter ignorance of their male counterparts. "In the world of the imagination," Finkelstein wrote, speaking of Helen's ballads, "desire, when it cannot achieve its object, will transform itself into a terrifying supernatural power."30 In the case of the collages, the imagination, no matter what its motives, is made manifest in images that tell tales, either actual or imagined, of inhabitation by weird or disgusting creatures such as preying mantises, spiders, snakes, and bats. All are captioned, some with fragments from the multiple poems that she had entirely memorized, others with strange proclamations, as seen in the examples. The collages are erotic while at the same time hilarious-terrifying as well as compositionally stunning.
To read them psychologically, which is exceedingly tempting, it becomes apparent that the women who are in the contact with these creatures are not afraid of them in the least,31 and have reconciled them as an intimate part of themselves. Many of the images come from fashion magazines but unlike the original pictures, the women in Helen's collages are not looking for male approval or fulfillment. Rather, their desire is fulfilled through the power that comes from their ability to control and accept their own fears. The collages may be humorous in the way in which they deal with larger social issues for women in the 1950s, and yet they do reveal a personal side of Helen that was serious. Namely, that she had the sense that tangible love with a mortal man was impossible for her, because she, being both mortal and a creature of the other side, could only love a being who was also a visitor of both realms. The impossibility of this may have been her madness, and yet, she created, genuinely and without presumption, a realm of living and writing, of eroticism and passion, that was all her own."The sharp stars swing around
I get a slip beyond
The wind & there I am
I'm odd and full of love."32
1 The Dundee Advertiser. October, 1923.
2 "Gods Husbandry" Church Leaflet. c. 1920?
3 Adam, Helen.The Elfin Pedlar and Tales Told by Pixie Pool. Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., London. 1921. pg. 2.
4 Glasgow Evening News. October 11, 1923.
5 Manchester Guardian. December 5, 1923.
6 Glasgow Evening News. October 11, 1923.
7 London Chronicle. October 5, 1923.
8 Glasgow Record. October 5, 1923.
9 Adam, Patrick. Letters to Teg. Hodder and Stoughton, 1932.
10 "The Weekly Scotsman," December 14, 1922.
11 Interview, June 1995, Ida Hodes.
12 The Weekly Scotsman. December, 1934.
13 Robert Duncan as quoted in The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century by Michael Davidson. Cambridge UP, 1989. pp. 176.
14 Letter from Robert Duncan to Helen Adam, April 8, 1955.
15 Letter to Robert Duncan from Helen Adam. Saturday, 1956.
16 "Initiation to the Magic Workshop." Unpublished. c. 1956.
17 From the research of Kevin Killian.
18 Blaser, Robin: The Holy Forest. Coach House Press, 1993. pp. 155.
19 Davidson, pp. 21.
20 Letter from Robert Duncan to Helen Adam, May 22, 1962.
22 Adam, Helen and Pat. San Francisco's Burning. Oannes Press: San Francisco, 1963.
23 Davidson, 184.
24 Letter from Pat Adam to Robert Duncan.
25 From the research of Kevin Killian.
26 Letter from Helen Adam to Duncan and Jess, January 19, 1968.
27"The Fair Young Wife" in Turn Again To Me. The Kulchur Foundation: New York, 1977. pp. 13
28 Interview with Jess, June 1995.
29 Graves, Robert, English and Scottish Ballads. Heinemann: London, 1957.
30 "Helen Adam and Romantic Desire" by Norman Finkelstein. "Credences," Fall 1985. pp. 130, 137.
31 ibid, 127.
32 Conversation with Maureen Owen.
33 Unpublished fragment, c. 1960.
Acknoweldgement: All photographs and quoted letters used by permission of The Poetry/Rare Books Collection, SUNY Buffalo, where the Helen Adam Archive is located. My thanks to Robert Bertholf for graciously supporting my research.
© 1995 Kristin Prevallet