The Razor Blade in the Peach

On the cover of Fleur Adcock’s Poems 1960 – 2000, there’s a brilliant quote from Carol Ann Duffy on Adcock:

“Adcock has a deceptively laid-back tone, through which the sharper edge of her talent is encountered like a razor blade in a peach.”

This quote has really lingered. When it comes to expressing thoughts or feelings, it’s emphasised the need for delivering a punch in writing. It doesn’t have to be an emotional punch, it doesn’t have to be a ‘twist’, but it does have to deliver some form of substance, and this quote summarises it perfectly. Of course, the roles can be reversed. There’s poetry riddled with sharp blades upon reading but underneath it all lies a soft, sweet kiwi (the fruit – not the bird!). Ultimately, poetry has to give you something new, something you’ve not read before, for it to stick. It must surprise in some way.

This might just be me – there’s this feeling you get when a poem clicks with you. I’m not sure it’s entirely describable but it makes you feel like this: ‘Woah.’ For some it might be different. It might leave you in silence, it might leave your mouth hanging, it might leave you screaming and jumping up and down. Nonetheless, if you know what I mean, it’s amazing how poetry can do that. Here are some examples of where this happened, for me anyway: Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney, On A Wedding Anniversary by Dylan Thomas and, appropriately, For Meg by Fleur Adock.

(If you’re interested in the reverse, the kiwi in the ball of blades idea, I’d recommend Vultures by Chinua Achebe, even though it’s quite morbid!).

The first Nesbit and Gibley book of poetry (the title still being kept a secret – for now!) is currently in the beta-reading stage. Quite a few people have their hands on copies and (hopefully!) enjoying them as we speak. This is very much necessary, as anyone who has written in silence for so long will know what it’s like to have ‘blinker vision’ – writing breathes with the fresh perspective. So, if you’re still interested, the book is very much on its way!

I think Duffy describes how exciting poetry can be in such a simple manner, and that aspect of writing has really stuck with me when putting the book together. There’s a lot of great advice out there but this has definitely stuck with me the longest – like a razor-blade, it’s left my gums still sore and scarred months after eating.

Nesbit Likes: For a Five-Year-Old by Fleur Adcock

Throughout life, as children, as adults, we make decisions that change who we are. Some of these will be good, some might be bad, a few may be worse. We carry our histories with us, in scars, in behaviour, in personality. Adcock, in my favourite poem of hers, explores this with a dark sense of humour and simple observation.

It is a straightforward first stanza. ‘A snail’ has ‘climbed’ into the child’s room. The narrator, the mother, provides guidance on what to do. ‘I explain,’ she says, ‘it would be unkind to leave it there.’ It is to be ‘carr[ied] outside, with careful hand’ so that ‘no one squashes it.’ It is even fed a daffodil. The language is simplistic, innocent, directional, as one would talk to a young child.

In the second stanza, the mother reflects that this child has had their ‘gentleness… moulded by [her] words’. What she says builds the child and their morals. The thing is, her actions have been very, very different in the past. She has ‘trapped mice’, ‘shot wild birds’, ‘drowned… kittens’ and ‘purveyed the harshest kind of truth to many another’. She has acted the complete opposite to which she instructs her child.

Perhaps this starts to ring bells for us. When our parents said ‘because I said so’, Adcock writes ‘But that is how things are’. Our parents set the rules.

We all have our ‘grey area.’ None of us are all good, none of us are all bad, and it’s that fluctuation between kind and nasty behaviour which is a morally fascinating occurrence. The poem explores this. Yes, the mother has done awful things to other animals, to other people in her history, but right now, the rule is this: ‘we are kind to snails.’

I absolutely love the juxtaposition presented. The mother gives sweet guidance, careful instruction, to look after another living thing. But this is also the same mother who has done terrible things, performed actions beyond a child’s understanding, for better or for worse. This is reflected, too, in the rhyme scheme. It is the same in both stanzas (with the end of the first and last lines rhyming, couplets in between) and it represents the consistency of her person. She is the same, both when looking after the snail and when capturing and harming others, but it is her words that change. It seems as if even she can’t comprehend it, repeating ‘from me’ in disbelief.

Why does Nesbit like this poem so much? Because it explores our dark histories, our intentions to protect loved ones. Parenting isn’t an easy thing, and both mothers and fathers will understand. But parenting is also a strange thing, often of inconsistency and contradiction. Children have faith in us, trust, to teach them the ways of the world, even when we didn’t get it right the first time.

I do not own the rights to publish this poem but if you’re looking for somewhere to read it, here’s a quick Google search for you!

Looking for more poetry analysis?

Nesbit Likes: Digging by Seamus Heaney
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Nesbit Likes: Visiting Hour by Steward Conn
You broke the ice with a hammer.
I watched the goldfish appear,
blunt-nosed and delicately clear.

Nesbit Likes: The Sightseers by Paul Muldoon
They held a pistol so hard against his forehead
there was still the mark of an O when he got home.

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