Helen Adam Sampler
selected by Charles Bernstein

from A Helen Adam Reader, ed. Kristin Prevallet
(Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 2007

Used with the permission of  The Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo. With thanks to Kristin Prevallet and Michel Basknski.
© Estate of Helen Adam, 2009.

Helen Adam at EPC
Helen Adam at PennSound

The Fair Young Wife

The House o’ the Mirror

A Tale Best Forgotten

Counting Out Rhyme

Song for a Sea Tower

Miss Laura

The Chestnut Tree

Cheerless Junkie’s Song

The Fair Young Wife

This is a tale for a night of snow. 
It was lived in the north land long ago. 
And old man, nearing the end of life, 
Took to his arms a fair young wife.

A wife to keep his house in the woods. 
His house of echoes and solitudes, 
’Mid forests gloomy and unexplored, 
Hunting ground of the wolves abhored.

Through miles of forest the wolves ran light. 
She heard them running at dead of night. 
She heard them running, though far away, 
And her heart leapt up like a beast of prey.

“Lie still, my lady, lie still and sleep. 
Though the north wind blows and the snow drifts deep. 
My timid love, in our curtained bed, 
The whine of the wolves you need not dread.”

Hunger, when the north wind blows. 
Starving wolves on the winter snows. 
When old age sags in a sleep profound, 
The rush of the wolves is the only sound.

She dreamt she walked in the forest shade, 
Alone, and naked, and unafraid. 
The bonds of being dissolved and broke. 
Her body she dropped like a cast off cloak.

Her shackled soul to its kindred sped. 
In devouring lust with the wolves she fled. 
But woke at dawn in a curtained bed. 
By an old, grey man, in an airless bed.

She dreamt she walked where the wolf eyes gleam. 
And soon she walked, and it was no dream. 
She fell on fours from the world of man, 
And howled her bliss when the rank beasts ran.

The morning life, and the mid-night life. 
The sun and moon of the fair young wife. 
The moon in the north land rules the sky. 
She prays to it as it rises high.

“Moon in glory, shining so cold. 
Oh! moon at my window big and bold. 
On fields near the forest the snow lies white, 
Will it show our tracks when we run tonight?

For fifty leagues on the frozen snow, 
I’ll feel through my fur the north wind blow, 
As I run to drink of a bounding flood, 
With the mighty pack on its quest for blood.

Strong, free, furious, swift to slay, 
But back to his bed by the break of day! 
Can I lie down at a husband’s will, 
When wild love runs, and my heart cries, Kill!”

“Wife, are you ready to come to bed?” 
Her husband calls from the room overhead. 
“The lights are out in the distant town. 
And I can’t sleep until you lie down.”

Softly panting, she climbs the stair. 
The moon lights the bed with a livid glare. 
“I’ll draw the curtains, and hug you near. 
And we’ll lie hid from the moon, my dear.”

Curtains drawn in the deep of night. 
Through smothering velvet no glimmer of light. 
He turns to his love, lying warm in the dark. 
In her eyes, shining near him, he sees a red spark.

A spark as bright as the break of day. 
She tosses him down in ravenous play. 
To the edge of the forest ring his cries. 
“A beast! A beast! on my body lies!”

The wolf pack howls in the waste of snow. 
She howls to answer them long and low. 
But she will not run with the wolves tonight 
Though the full moon shines with a blinding light.

Behind the curtains her jaws drip red. 
She has found her prey in her own dark bed; 
The man, who nearing the end of life, 
Took to his arms a fair young wife.


The House o’ the Mirror

Upon the hill my lover stands.
A burning branch is in his hands.
He stamps impatient on the stane,
And calls and claims me for his ain.

I bolt my door. I hood my light.
I rin tae slam the shutters tight.
I tug my curtains claise and thick.
I stop the clock lest it should tick.

My house is dark. My house is still.
He shines and thunders on the hill.
I pace the rooms, and as I pass
I see myself within the glass.

The glass is tall, and like a gate.
My image watches while I wait
For him tae loup the hill o’ night
And raze my house wi’ heavenly light.

At his approach I’m like tae dee
Sae hard my hert belabours me.
This house o’ stane is frail as straw,
For at a clap its wa’s doun fa’.

But wae’s my hert for well I ken
He seeks a love ne’er found by men.
Foredoomed, and damned, he seeks the lass
Wha haunts the darkness o’ the glass.

The ghaist that in the mirror gleams,
Floating aloof, like one who dreams;
For her he rages, mad and blind,
And plunders a’ my flesh tae find.

He dives in flame, and whirls me low
As if tae seize on drifting snow.
He shrieks because he canna clutch
What lies beyond the grief o’ touch.

Aye! though we strauchle breast tae breast,
And kiss sae hard we cry for rest,
And daur a’ pleasures till they cloy,
We find nae peace, and little joy.

For still between us stirs the shade
That ne’er will lie beneath his plaid.
A’ but my ghaist tae him I give.
My ghaist nae man may touch and live.

Oh! mirror like the midnight sky.
Sae high and dark, sae dark and high!
There bides my phantom far frae men,
In warlds nae earthly lovers ken.

My flesh is starvit morn and night
For a’ love’s horror and delight.
My ghaist apart frae passion stands;
It is my ghaist that love demands.

While blood dunts loud agin’ my ear,
And banes grow weak wi’ blissful fear,
Upon the hill my lover manes
For what has neither blood nor banes.

A Tale Best Forgotten

Hail! Most Holy ANUBIS.

In a house by a river that lamented as it ran,
Lived a father, and his daughter, and the dog-headed man.
A father, and his daughter, and the dog-headed man!
It’s a tale best forgotten, but before the tale began
From the house to the river limped the dog-headed man.
Blood swelled the river before the tale began.

In the garden, in the garden, while the river slowly ran,
Walked the daughter, and her lover, and the dog-headed man.
The daughter, and her lover, and the dog-headed man!
It’s a tale best forgotten, but before the tale began
His daughter, by the river that reflected as it ran,
Fed the bones of her lover to the dog-headed man.

Dog Head he was fed before the tale began.

Counting Out Rhyme

Seven bonnie sisters on an isle in the west:
The youngest was the fairest, and she was loved the best.

Seven wistful sisters hankering tae wed:
On the beach the mocking waves cast up a sailor dead.

The eldest, as she lugged him from the waves whaur they ran,
Said, “A drooned man is better than nae living man.

For a reel i’ the munelicht his banes will be braw;
We’ll dance hot taegither while his flesh rots awa.”

Six sisters racing, till a boat it was sunk:
The waves cast up a boozing man, reeking, roudy drunk.

Five sisters hustled back, the sixth chose tae bide.
“A brawl, and a buffet, a black eye for a bride!
But a boozing man is better than nae man at my side.”

Five siren sisters vividly aflame:
The surges brought a greedy man, he gobbled as he came;
His tusks fast crunching on a muckle fish-tail.
The fifth sister grumbled, “He’s as huge as a whale!

He gorges wi’ a gusto that is daunting indeed,
But a greedy man is better than nae man tae feed.”

Rough waves sprachaling, a man plunging through:
He gripped the fourth sister, and beat her black and blue.

The fourth sobbed, “A cruel man clouts me tae my knees,
But a cruel man is better than nae man tae please.”

Three hopeful sisters turning towards the foam:
There came a dull man floating in, as if he floated home.

The third sighed, “A dull man will haver and prate.
He’ll harp and carp and din my ear, early and late.
But a dull man is better than nae man tae hate.”

Twa bonnie sisters naked in the night,
The cauld waves breaking, the mune shining bright.

The cauld waves breaking, the surf drenching doun:
It rolled in a mucky man on sands like the mune.

He was crusted thick wi’ barnacles, tarry from the sea.
He scarted, and he scratched, and he girned in a gree.

“He’s mucky as a tousled tyke!” the second sister said.
“But a mucky man is better than nae man in my bed.”

The youngest and the fairest, she was alone,
The first star flickering, the seagulls flown.

“A dull man, a dirty man, a drunk man,” she said,
“A cruel man, a greedy man, or a drooned man in my bed?

The sea waves may dunk them deep, for I’d refuse them a’.
I’ll live alane, and happily, and love nae man at a’.”

The cats o’ the kirk-yard drifted tae her side.
The hither and thither cats cam’ wi’ her tae bide.

Wi’ cats hurra-purrying and fish swimming slaw
She lived as light-hearted as the sea-breezes blaw.

The waves broke around her wi’ a rush and a roar.
They shone in the munelicht but cast nae man ashore.
By sunlicht, and munelicht, they cast nae man ashore.

One sister walking neath a weird sickle mune:
The waves phosphorescent, the night clear as noon.

A long wave lifting, it birreled as it broke.
The spray frae its flying brow went up like altar smoke.

Then cam’ the unicorn, brichter than the mune,
Prancing frae the wave wi’ his braw crystal croon.

Up the crisp and shelly strand he trotted unafraid.
Agin’ the lanesome lassie’s knee his comely head he laid.

Upon the youngest sister’s lap he leaned his royal head.
She stabbed him tae the hert, and Oh! how eagerly he bled!

He died triumphant and content, his horn agin’ her knee.
The crescent mune fled doun tae meet the phosphorescent sea.
“Seven!” yowled the kirk-yard cats. “Seven!” thrummed the breeze.
“Seven!” sang the fish o’ yon seraphic seas.

“Seven doomed sisters on an isle in the west:
The youngest was the fairest, and she was loved the best.”

Song for a Sea Tower

There lived four sisters in a tower by the sea,
Between the blue waters and the lily lea.

One sister was a wolf, one a gentle sheep,
One a swan, and one a fish, from the fabled deep.

Four sisters loved a man, beautiful was he.
He swam in blue waters beside the lily lea.

The sheep gave him fleecy wool to warm his lonely bed.
The swan gave him feathers to crown his curly head.

The fish gave him gaudy rings from wrecks of vanity.
The wolf ran all alone around the lily lea.

The wolf ran all alone where lilies proudly rise.
She gave the man nothing but a glance from her eyes.

A glance from her savage eyes beside the summer sea.
He left the wave and followed her along the lily lea.

Three enchanted sisters in a tower by the tide.
Where their hearts awakened, there they must abide.

Three spell-bound sisters, a sheep, a fish, a swan.
Floods beat against their tower. Time goes on and on.

“If we wait with patience, no matter what the pain,
From the green waters the God will come again.”

Three ancient sisters, faithfully they wait
For the young and loving man that the wolf ate.


Miss Laura

“Black, black, black, is the colour of my true love’s hair.”
– Traditional song

“Black is the colour of my true love’s skin.
White girl, black man, where is the sin?”

Sweet talk murmured by Miss Laura’s mouth.
Lynch fires howling up and down the South!

Up the avenue gentlemen ride.
Want Miss Laura for their golden bride.

Ladies so pretty don’t grow on trees.
Rich men, poor men, down on their knees.

Rich men, poor men, every man white.
Miss Laura, lovely as the morning light,

Who will you choose to take to your bed?
“The black boy standing at my horse’s head.”

Ancient avenues, and haunts of gloom.
Miss Laura’s riding with her darky groom,

Riding slowly under shrouds of moss
To the brimming river that the dusk blows across.

They walk their horses in the sundown glow,
Beside Savannah where it ripples slow.

Hear what she whispers in her muted voice,
And tell me truly if that man had a choice?
Oh! tell me truly if that man had a choice?

 “Look, my Honey, on Savannah’s wave,
Still be flowing when we lie in the grave.

Lovers walking in the future’s light,
Will care no longer if they’re black or white.
Oh! care no longer if they’re black or white.

Love me Honey, where Savannah flows.
Love me naked. Throw away my clothes.
My body’s open, and I want you in.
Black is the colour of my true love’s skin.”

Early morning when the white men came,
Running in packs, and carrying flame.

She heard them running, then she shrieked, and said,
“Black boy forced me to his savage bed!
Forced Miss Laura to his jungle bed!”

They lit the faggots, and the flame licked high.
He cried “Miss Laura!” with his last loud cry.

For her was the last wild glance of his eyes.
’Ere the blare of his burning shook the sun from the skies!
Black man burning shook the sun from the skies!

Miss Laura’s talking, and she can’t keep still.
From her pretty lips the love words spill.

Talking, talking, with a tongue of fire
That must speak passion and can never tire.

Folk who wander by that river’s brink,
Just when the red sun’s aiming to sink,

Under the branches where the moss moves slow,
Hear Miss Laura speaking hoarse and low.

“Love me, Honey, where Savannah flows.
Love me naked. Throw away my clothes.

My body’s open, and I want you in.
Black, black, black, black is the colour
Of my true love’s skin!”

The Chestnut Tree

I caged my love in the early spring.
He beat his cage with a broken wing.
He beat his cage with a broken wing
Through the languid nights of summer.
Beside my window a chestnut grows,
A chestnut tree with its towering snows,
Where a breeze from Paradise gently blows,
And joy is the next new comer.

I’ll hang his cage in the chestnut tree,
In the chestnut tree, in the chestnut tree,
Among the haunts of the drunken bee,
’Mid a fragrance overpowering.
Those bees are drunk with the honey wine,
With honey wine and the hot sunshine.
They’re raving drunk with the honey wine
In the chestnut flowering, flowering.

Oh! then, perhaps he may sing to me,
In the chestnut tree, in the chestnut tree;
May sing as loud as a drunken bee
Down the green and golden gloaming.
When royally drunk with the honey wine,
With honey wine, and the hot sunshine,
He’ll sing, and swear he is mine, mine, mine,
While the bees are roaming, roaming.

The body caged, but the heart gone free.
I want his wild heart singing for me
In the chestnut tree, in the chestnut tree,
With a music fierce yet tender.
I want his song while the sunlight flows
Through the chestnut tree with its towering snows,
While a breeze from Paradise softly blows
And sighs for the heart’s surrender.

Hush, hush, the chant of the roaming bee.
I know he never will sing for me,
Though I hang his cage in the chestnut tree
Where joy is the next new comer.
For my sweet sake he never will sing.
He beats his cage with a broken wing.
He beats his cage with a broken wing
In the bee-hive house of summer.

Cheerless Junkie’s Song

Seeking love upon a day,
A day of summer’s pride,
I left Long Island’s suburbs
For the Lower East Side.
The train it roared and thundered,
And I sang above its scream,
There’s a cockroach coming towards me
But it cannot spoil my dream.
Love! Love! and l.s.d.
It shall not spoil my dream.

Blue moonlight over Tompkins Square.
“Drop out, tune in, turn on.”
The village all around me,
And Long Island’s suburbs gone.
In a pad far down on Fourth Street Soon
I welcomed the approach
Of the rat that loves the twilight,
And the nimble footed roach.
Love! Love! at eventide,
The grey rat and the roach.

I’m always where the action is.
I blow my mind all day.
While on Long Island’s tennis courts
The bland suburbans play.
And I was born suburban!
Who would ever credit that?
No chick who saw me frugging
With the cockroach and the rat.

It’s Ho! for Horse, or methedrine
To spark the swinging mood.
While rats run up my trouser leg
Roaches share my food.

Rats and roaches nuzzle me
When it’s dark and hot.
Love! Love! It’s all the same
Mixing Speed and Pot.
First a rat, and then a roach,
Or both as like as not.
If I can’t find a fix tonight
My marrow bones will rot.

Goodbye transcendent Tompkins Square
I haven’t long to stay.
A double jolt of heroin and I’ll be on my way.
Let rats and roaches bury me.
They’ll bury me in state,
As they march from Verrazano Bridge
Down to the Golden Gate,
Clear across the continent.
Yonder let me lie,
In the gutters of Haight Ashbury,
To freak the passers by,
Till all the tourists gape, and say,
“Brother! He died high!”
Let rat tails write my epitaph.
Brother! He died high!