Rumpelstiltskin Blues by John Adams.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa Ltd.
RRP: $24.99. Sc, 88pp.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
This poetry collection is John Adams’ second. Unlike the examination of language and form of his earlier poems, Rumpelstiltskin Blues is more personal and examines family, friends and feelings in its three sections. Many poems in the collection dip in and out of the story of Rumpelstiltskin: the miller who brags that his daughter can spin straw into gold; the daughter who does, but only thanks to Rumpelstiltskin (appearing unsummoned out of nowhere); then there is more and more gold until the woman’s first-born child must – as agreed, in exchange for the gold – be turned over to Rumpelstiltskin. Desperate, she finds the magic word that will get her out of the mess one way or another, and everyone but Rumpelstiltskin walks away happy (with the gold).
The title of the first section, ‘A poem is a crime scene’, is a bit of a red herring. Rather than giving us static scenes we can assess at our leisure, these poems are hugely active, restless, dancing as unceasingly as Rumpelstiltskin himself danced. People and things zip through space and time without much respite. In “May score” (p 34), ‘Spring riddles Cambridge: the twitch of bicycle/ clips grips our legs; slick punt-poles shag the Cam’. The judge’s robes give no peace:
it drapes me
but then it rucks
and that prick
of a stitch
needles my neck (“Getting the hang of justice”, p 30).
The monks of Chiang Mai ‘… bow in/ feigned tranquillity while/ the eternal struggle/ revolves again’ (p19). And revolving around a cosmic axis,
… all who bare their teeth at me
rattle round this spindle and draw
never closer to gold. (“Rumpelstiltskin reaches the Pole”, p 40).
In “Trial by poetry” even the straw is active:
Few readers consider what a trial
it must’ve been for the straw in the story,
cut down and thrown in the royal family
vault … (p 28).
The second section, ‘Here there be wyverns’, is settled, focused on immediate family. The poems are specific and tell stories based on an event or memory: ‘The third son,/ their brother, prevailed, as was only right’ (“Still fabulous”, p 45), and:
I cannot bury my father
not even these ashen handfuls
he pops buoyant out of the ground
smiling still his blue eyes
greet me in parting waves
the familiar cheerio. (“Cheerio”, p 49)
Embers die out one by one
two by four, too many by far.
The shopping lists says tea, means
milk; we puzzle over the
long oblong. … (“embrance”, p 59).
In the last section, Adams is having a fine old time: here are the promised blues, guitar echoing on the pages:
Cross the isthmus of my passing
with your festive lights of joy:
show love to my brown-skinned woman,
show love to my blue-eyed boy. (“Rumpelstiltskin states his will”, p 69)
There is political comment disguised as humour in “Locker room talk”:
I keep dirty things in my locker, …
I’d lock people out of my country, …
my country could become a locker room. (p 73).
And there is a splendidly goofy riff on the rhyme in “Ceilidh at the park”:
I never attend a ceilidh
widout me ukulele. …
I toss to one side my shillelagh
and saunter down the the park.
Oh waly, waly … (p 74).
Most of the blues poems set a mellow mood and tell a good story – as the blues should – though a couple were harder to untangle. “You want stars” (p 71) works on the refrain ‘I shall write an American poem/ I shall sing an American song’ but the buffalo, the eagles and the prairie don’t seem to be doing much. “For Anne Bradstreet” (p 79) doesn’t convince me that she was either humble or ‘pricking earnest at her membrane of rage.’
Rumpelstiltskin himself is worth tracking through the poems. He is sometimes the good guy who helps people fulfil their dreams or needs – he is sometimes the disruption racing through someone’s life – he is sometimes the person speaking the magic word and making things right … for everyone but himself, perhaps. That latter part doesn’t seem certain at this point. I guess the jury’s still out.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015 and Field Notes was published by Mākaro Press in 2017.