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  • Helen Adam's Occult Reworkings
  • Cindy McMann (bio)

Within the San Francisco community in which Helen Adam wrote and performed her poetry, her reputation as "a good witch" preceded her (Davidson 1989, 187); it was a reputation that stemmed not only from the supernatural tales she spun in her poems but also from her seeming embodiment of occult forces. Her skills in tarot readings were widely acknowledged, but it was her darker tendencies that really arrested attention. Her ability to curse frightened one critic into retracting his negative review of her play San Francisco's Burning (Prevallet 2007, 49-50), and at performances of her work, "dark shadows seem[ed] to gather menacingly" (McNeil 1958) and mist was said to rise from the ground.

Adam's poetry assumes the ability of active nonhuman worlds (both material and transcendent) to intervene in the world of human relations in ways that exceed rational understanding, offering a dialogic model of human interaction with the universe that anticipates more current debates on the efficacy of rationalism in dealing with ecological/social crises in our world. In Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, feminist ecocritic Val Plumwood lays the responsibility for contemporary problems of environmental degradation squarely on the rationalist assumptions that have governed our relationships with the environment. She argues that Western culture's historical privileging of "hegemonic forms of reason" over material entities is itself a failure of reason because "they misunderstand their own enabling conditions—the body, ecology and non-human nature" (2002, 17). To overcome the ethical limitations of our current system of thought, Plumwood suggests what she calls a "materialist [End Page 251] spirituality of place" (218), where the spiritual is conceived of as a kind of organization. Investing the material with a reconceived sense of the spiritual is promising to Plumwood because it undermines our current perception of matter as chaotic and thus lacking in the qualities that determine whether we find an entity worthy of ethical treatment.

Plumwood's "materialist spirituality" (223) takes extended form in Jane Bennett's concept of "vital materiality" (2010, 6). In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Bennett wonders how our ethical engagement with the world might alter if we thought of ourselves as "also nonhuman" and the physical world around us as "vital players in the world" (4). Instead of anthropomorphizing the world around us, Bennett advocates an awareness of what she calls "Thing-Power: the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle" (6). This ability differs significantly from human powers of action and animation in that things are ontologically independent from subjectivity (3). Nonetheless, Bennett, like Plumwood, challenges us to consider material as "lively and self-organizing, rather than as passive or mechanical means under the direction of something nonmaterial, that is, an active soul or mind" (10). For Bennett, considering the material world as "lively" on its own terms and not as a function of humanity's imaginative intervention will allow us a greater awareness of our own status as common participants in, not masters of, the larger ecology in which we live. A poetics that presupposes the "vital materiality" of the nonhuman world can be found through Helen Adam's creative reworkings of the Western magical tradition.

Part of the importance of Helen Adam's work within the San Francisco poetry community of the 1950s and early 1960s was its evocation of a darkly mystical universe that existed alongside the claustrophobic materialism of mainstream American culture. Critic Michael Davidson says of the group of poets and artists gathered around the Bay Area after World War II that they "sought a 'sorcery' in poetry that might transport each" to a higher self-awareness fostered by an insular community (1989, 59). Working mainly with the ballad form, and largely setting her poetry in worlds peopled by witches, fairies, and immanent god/desses, Helen Adam stands out as an adherent of a poetics that privileged the imagination and the connection between poet and audience. Kristin Prevallet argues that in a community committed to recovering a vital impulse in poetry after the academic constrictions of New Criticism that had come to define American...


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