Two decades of my youth, I lived on fire
trapped in a deep delirium of desire
I was the spirit’s wastrel and a fool,
and I have taken fifty years to cool.
This past summer, in Claremont, California, the spirited poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, age 89, agreed to meet with me in her room at a retirement home. Virginia issued her first collection, Ants on the Melon, at age 83. Throughout her life before this, she published poems in notable magazines, but was never interested in revving up the engine of self-promotion required to be a “professional poet.” She taught literature at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona for 22 years. About 11 years ago, she went blind from glaucoma.
Accompanying me to the meeting was Joanne Gonzalez—friend, neighbor and assistant. About a week before, Virginia had taken a spill and gashed her head (“like falling down a well”). When we entered her room, she was sitting on her bed Indian style, a table with a silent radio in front of her. On her left sat a bookcase, its shelves bursting with files, their spines labeled. These were the thousands of poems she has written over the years, what she occasionally refers to as her “friends.” A sheet of paper curled out of the Royal, the letters on it in seeming verse form—perhaps a primordial poem.
Anna Van Lenten: I’m so happy to meet you because I haven’t heard much about or from you lately.
Virginia Adair: Well, things of this kind tend to have a rush of interest. And then everything falls flat.
According to NYU’s literature database at the time of this writing, Virginia died in 2002. When Ants on the Melon came out, a big to-do was made over her—Time magazine called Virginia’s “a sensibility of genius.” Alice Quinn at the New Yorker championed her as a great treasure. Virginia put together another two books, Belief and Blasphemies: A Collection of Poems, in 1988, and in 2000, Living on Fire. For a few years she basked in the spotlight. Then the world’s attention died down to a quieter pitch.
AVL: What did you teach at Cal Poly?
VA: I taught both English and Art and had a wonderful time.
AVL: How did you handle losing your sight?
VA: Well I had lots of wonderful friends. And they undertook to do things that sometimes I said “Too much, too much.” Of course, other times it was “Fine, fine. Do your worst.” So anyway it’s worked out very kindly to my advantage.
AVL: Do you still write, or—dictate to Joanne?
VA: I would say that I had stopped creating prematurely because it was—there were just a lot of reasons why I stopped. And one of the reasons was that there were piles and piles and piles and piles of things that I had written and never done anything with it or about it. And a lot of them were—’Oh yes! I like that, that’d be OK.’ On the other hand, there were things that—’Oh that’s beautiful, that’s gorgeous, go on, finish it, write it.’ I guess the first one that started that was Connie.
Joanne Gonzalez: She helped us put things together.
VA: But there was one day when she simply delighted me with something that I thought she had written herself. But she assured me that no…and of course I know that the files are full of these things. It was an amusing chase because the first one was something that Connie had a lot of fun with. And I said, “Well that’s great; you can do a whole book with that.” But I still couldn’t realize then that it was mine. One or two I would recognize as old friends that I’d never done anything with.
AVL: I read that your father read you The Iliad through the crib bars.
VA: Well there’s something funny about that because my father was the one that insisted that I—after all, I was three years old. And it was at this time that I got down to work. [Laughs.] So he gave directions to my mother and the person who was with us at the time. Daddy was with the American Surety Company so he went off to work every morning.
Virginia’s father, Robert Browning Hamilton, wrote poetry as well as selling insurance alongside, at one point, Wallace Stevens.
AVL: Why do you think he was so insistent?
VA: He didn’t have to be, for one thing. Oh, it’s so far back. He had gotten some tremors. And my mother and whoever, I can’t remember, at the time….anyway, when Daddy came home, it was to three exhausted people. And I was surly. And my mother said, “Well but it’s ridiculous, the child is too young.” I can remember that, you know. The sort of pattern. And my father said “Nonsense, come here, Virginia.” And he called me over and I was sort of sniveling and depressed. My father pointed to a picture of a girl with a book. And he said that’s picture of “Come.”
VA: So I was sort of sniveling a bit. But I said “That’s a picture of ‘come’ and that’s ‘come’ and that’s ‘come.'” And my father said “But that’s all there is to it, you’ve learned to read.” And I took his word for it. And went through a whole series of primers. Went through them in quite a hurry and enjoyed the process.
AVL: Do you remember the first time you tried to write a poem or a story or whatever it was?
VA: I forget how far along in the mind I was at that point. I could be very surly. I remember one of the John Wanamaker contests. My parents said “Don’t you want to be in the contest?” And I wasn’t particularly interested. But I remember sitting in a chair that had rockers on it. I loved to sit on that chair and ‘carack, carack, carack.’ But I hated having anybody watch me. I can remember that very, very distinctly because what I did was to write a boy feeding ducks. And two or three of the little ducks on a very tiny pond. And they swam up to the boy—and it won a prize. And it’s around somewhere.
AVL: Any brothers or sisters?
VA: No, I was an only child. And they’re detestable little creatures.
AVL: They are the center of the universe. It’s hard the to be the center of the universe.
VA: Such a responsibility. Well anyway, that’s enough of me. An only child.
AVL: Somewhat precocious.
VA: The child likes what the father is already declaring. And I think it worked a lot better with my father than with my mother…she was a jack of all trades, she was wonderful. She was an athlete, earning a living at a tender age.
AVL: Doing what?
VA: It was Lexington, KY and don’t get me started on that.
AVL: You lived in the Bronx, right?
VA: Yes, are you a Bronxie?
AVL: I live in Brooklyn.
VA: Well that’s close enough. Don’t you love going back and forth on the ferryboat?
AVL: Well I never use it, but they’re talking about reinstating it. But I’d love to.
VA: Well we had moved across the water to New Jersey. Still I love to hear the cars go on the ferryboat. Makes a ‘cloppety cloppety’ sound. Well so much for that.
AVL: Have you ever lived outside of the United States?
VA: Oh my husband and I had sabbaticals at the same time and we went around the world. And once I had gotten the taste for going around the world, I couldn’t stop. Many an interesting trip…we just went where the boat took us…I really—there’s a limitation to this kind of thing and I’m grateful for the interest that you show, but I’m stalled.
Virginia’s husband, Douglass Adair, was a Professor of History and an Editor of the William & Mary Quarterly. Douglass was a revered scholar whose work on the American founding is considered fundamental to the field. In 1968 he inexplicably shot himself in their bedroom while Virginia was preparing dinner downstairs in the kitchen. She wrote many poems about this.
AVL: That’s fine… my other question was, were you taught other languages?
VA: When I was four, I was at a Montessori School that took boys up to a certain level. And I remember the day that the boys had been taught to bow and the girls to spread their skirts, which was pretty silly. But—let’s see, where was I?
JG: The languages, Virginia.
VA: Oh yes. They said “Oh all right…”—this was our teacher. She said, “Alright now, those of you that can write go down the corridor and start French. So we were four-year-olds and maybe a five-year-old or two, but mostly four. And when I went home that day at supper I told them that we had learned to speak French. And my father said, “Let’s hear it.” And I said “Un, deux, trois, girer dans le bois. Quatre, cinq, six—.” And I stopped, that was as far as I could go. And my father said kindly, “Un, deux, trois/ Quatre, cinq, six/ Send for the police.” My mother rebuked him for such….but anyway, that was the story. We had French teachers that spoke only French. Every now and then they would break down and speak English … I remember one day I saw a spider going across the floor. And I went [makes a stomping motion with her foot.] And the teacher said “Stop, that animal is my guest.” And I had to withdraw my foot. But I remember she was such a strange mademoiselle. Well this one was—I was no longer in New York, but mademoiselle used to come out from — I don’t know, the train, I guess—
JG: Well Virginia, I don’t know how many languages you learned—Latin, French—but I’ve read tons of poetry to her and often I don’t know how to pronounce the poet’s name or some of the words. She always knows. She always corrects me. And I’ve learned a lot.
VA: I remember much better those things than I do the present. On the other hand, I’m quite eager to see the old written friends [poems] emerging back, coming back. And — what’s the little….?
JG: The chapbook?
Virginia’s chapbook Magical Highways was issued in 2002. It holds two poems, one of which, “Dawn Blessing,” is about Shiloh, Virginia and Douglass’ house in the desert.
AVL: Which I have, and I was very happy to have it, because it’s the latest thing from you.
VA: Well that was another thing that didn’t belong to me, or maybe just corners of it belonged to me.
JG: Virginia kept trying to give me credit for “Sheltering Sands” and I said, ‘No, I did not write that.’
AVL: Did you always feel that way about what you wrote, that once it was out, it sort of was something else separate from you? I sometimes feel that when I write something, as if the person I am didn’t make this.
VA: Well I think you should do either an essay or a poem. Just plumb the depths of that. Are you filled with the joy of creating the latest one?
AVL: Yes, if I create something, afterwards I feel the most whole. Then there’s a lot of tinkering.
VA: Isn’t that such fun?
JG: I think that’s one of the hardest things, isn’t it Virginia? That you cannot go over what you write; somebody else has to do it. I think what she told me before was she’d write a poem and go over it a hundred times. And she can’t do that. It takes so much away.
VA: It’s devastating. It’s just got closer and closer and closer and closer to non-writing.
AVL: Virginia, how do you keep your spirits on even keel? Or don’t you?
VA: I don’t know, that’s a twister.
AVL: I’m looking at your typewriter here. ‘Do not remove reels,’ it says.
VA: I wonder who put that on. That’s another thing that goes black. Goes black and blind. I had never realized what a terrible typist I was.
JG: Well it doesn’t help that you can’t see what you’re typing, Virginia. There was a poem—I thought it was a poem—in the typewriter a couple of weeks ago. She had written something. I told her I thought it was a poem. She said ‘Well let me tell you what to do with it.’
VA: That little … book —
JG: The chapbook?
VA: Yeah … was really your invention.
JG: Well we had a wonderful time putting it together. Billy Collins sent her his beautiful little chapbook “Good Dog, Bad Dog.”
VA: Oh, yeah, he’s quite a charmer. He has a wonderful sense of humor.
AVL: How do you know each other?
JG: He came out to do a reading at the college long before he became the poet laureate. And he wanted—you went to hear him and he wanted to meet you. And he signed one of his books to you: “With wild admiration.” And he just likes to be kept…I send him a note now and then about how you’re doing and he sent you a wonderful poem he wrote about his parents. He just loves Virginia.
VA: “Three Blind Mice.” Anybody that could write a serious poem on the three blind mice … I just love it. That was the first sign.
AVL: Are there any other contemporary poets, Virginia, that are in touch with you?
JG: James Fenton. Annie Proulx.
AVL: When you met your husband, did you show him what you wrote?
VA: Oh … I don’t … it was yes and no …
AVL: What were the circumstances of the night you met?
VA: It was a line of morose young men. And I have always been somewhat nearsighted. Seriously. And I just walked down this line and looked them over.
AVL: Do you remember where you were?
VA: Yes. They were here and I was here. [Motions with her hands.] And of course I had come with a friend. We had been to a dinner that some people gave for us. We were in a house for the dinner but we both loosed away from it, for some reason. And I urged that what’s her name, I can’t even remember her name, I said, “Let’s look in on the Harvard dance.”And she said, “Oh I don’t want to do that.” And I said, “Come on, do it with me, I want to see what kind of people go to a Harvard dance.” So she stayed demurely at one side. And I just walked down this line. Which was good for my somewhat inadequate eyesight. And I came on back to Alice and said “Well some of them looked really nice.” And at that point, two or three broke loose and came over and asked us to dance, the music had started. So we both did. And the third dance the man, the young man that would become my husband, he broke loose and danced the rest of the evening and took me to my first speakeasy—one of the others had a car. And we went downtown. And did a little [makes a ‘click click click’ sound with her tongue on the roof of her mouth.]
AVL: A secret knock?
VA: Pretty much. We were so innocent at that time. Repeal came pretty close to that.
JG: The story I love, Virginia, is that Douglas saved the glass from the speakeasy forever. He was so taken with you.
VA: Oh I loved that little cup.
JG: How are you doing, Virginia, you holding up alright?
VA: Oh, I fade out, as you well know.
AVL: We all do.
VA: I find it quite exhausting to pick and choose places … it’s exhausting. And I forget the vocabulary completely.
AVL: Yes. Well we can stop.