Shell for Adair

Virginia Hamilton Adair wrote poetry all her life, and published in a few journals early in her career, but did not publish again until her first book of poetry at the age of eighty-three, called Ants on the Melon.

“The Shell” epitomizes Adair’s writing style like few of her poems do. Adair enjoyed rhyme schemes, but refused to stick to them for the sole purpose of the rhyme’s formality; however, she also refused to drift too far off from the scheme in question.

The end words in “The Shell” are as follows:
stanza one: land, sea, sand, moss
stanza two: toss, swell, gloss, shell
stanza three: fault, dispair, salt, sea
stanza four: air, hand, sand, rare

As you can see, and if you take each stanza separately, the rhyme schemes are:
stanza one: abax
stanza two: abab
stanza three: abax
stanza four: abba

One can see where Adair employed a general rhyme, but there is no pattern. The first and third stanzas are alike, but the second and fourth are not. One expects the same rhyme pattern in each quatrain of a poem, or alternating patterns at best. Neither is true here, but she refuses to give up on the rhyme; it helps control the poem.

If you look at the rhyme scheme in the poem as a whole however, it becomes far more textured and interesting, unpatterned and yet very connected:

One reads the poem with such familiarity of sounds the broken scheme is completely lost; indeed, the pattern as a whole is so rich and powerful the poem both demands its attention and never calls attention to it.

However, Adair isn’t done. She uses internal rhymes, word repitition, and other techniques within the lines themselves, it makes the reader think Adair was drunk with sounds. I count twenty words in the poem that drip with an “l” sound, not all alliteration.
But the alliteration in the first stanza alone must be brought to attention — living, land, land, lying, littered, [c]lotted.

Stanza One:

On the desolate border between the living land
and the land entombed under the sea
the littered and soaking sand
strewn with wrecked wood and clotted moss

She alliterates throughout her poem (eg. “strangely spiraled” in stanza two) but there are other nuggets, such as her word repetition of toss/toss that begins stanza two:

which the waves continually toss,
toss, and then regather into the foam and swell

Notice we have gone a full stanza and a half without knowing fully what she is referring to. One sentence spans two stanzas, and the subject and verb of the sentence does not come until line three of the third stanza, the direct object comes at the end of the stanza:

I saw, shapely and thin, with delicate gloss
and strangely spiraled, a wan shell.

It reminds me of some languages where the sentence structure is something other than subject–>verb–>direct object, such as Hindi, and yet, the poem is not awkward to the English-speaking ear, it is suspenseful.
And so now that we know what the poet is speaking about, it is time to zero in on the subject with vivid description in stanza three:

A shell delicate and turned without fault [notice the shell//a shell word repetition!]
pale, icy, thin as dispair
washed in the dead bitterness of salt

and here comes an internal rhyme, just like the second “toss” adds another internal rhyme to “gloss” in the previous stanza, and ties the stanza with stanza four:

It was born in the sea//torn from the sea into the air

The wan shell is not a dull subject, either. It is not only “strangely spiraled”, not only “delicate and turned without fault/pale, icy, thin as dispair”, but the final three lines of the poem ends with the epiphany that it is a superior object:

Some other may lift it from the sand;
I do not dare. Never have these hot hands
held a substance so desolate and so rare.

So, with all this going on, you may want to watch — or listen — to me recite this poem. The audio is off by a second or so, so you may prefer to close your eyes and listen. I don’t do anything dramatic with my facial expressions anyway. There is a reason why I don’t read my poetry at poetry readings!

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