Rachel Adams lives in Washington, DC, where she serves as the editor at an advocacy nonprofit and of the quarterly literary journal Lines + Stars. Her poetry has appeared in such publications as Memoir, Arsenic Lobster, Town Creek Poetry, Four and Twenty, Crack the Spine, Urbanite Baltimore, Melusine, The Conium Review, The Wayfarer, Free State Review, and elsewhere; her piece "What You Bring Along" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2013. She received her BA in English from the Catholic University of America and her MA in writing from the Johns Hopkins University.
Much like the “…record book hanging on a nail, brittle and teaming with little histories,” Rachel Adams uses her poems to document and examine the past that lives among us. Natural and personal histories populate the pages, as well as the way the two often collide in both memory and lived experience. Hers is a landscape awash in the generous gifts awaiting those who live life with their eyes and ears wide open, and her quiet attention to detail brings the chapbook to life in a way that “we feel the centrifugal spin of history” and the beauty of the eastern mountains as she guides us between the covers.
Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom for Melusine
Rachel Adams' brief but remarkable debut chapbook is a study in mindful observation — impartial but not detached. Each of the 13 poems in "What Is Heard" is a clean, polished jewel of close attention to a given landscape, whether it be interior (generally in the literal sense, although occasionally in the figurative) or exterior. The poems might have originated in a journal of field notes subjected to the fine crafting of a seasoned editor.
Adams has a genius for description and a keenly trained eye for selecting what best bears describing. Some subjects are less obvious candidates, as in the interior landscape of "Sedimentary," which describes how
The newspaper, folded, became
a ridged expanse of ash-black mountains.
Crumpled in the lamp's rhombus
of light, its edges sifted into
imperfect trail-lines, well-beaten
and overgrown, distorted where
one newsprint photograph
had folded over the other.
"There are stories in the ground,/" she goes on to contend, "in the low layers."
In "Cooper River, Midwinter," Adams' narrator and traveling companion feel, while "Walking the pier," "the centrifugal spin of history," and imagine "the press of woolen uniforms against skin, anachronistic/ in the summer heat; skirt-spheres hovering/ along the slanted floor of a pastel-hued keep; cellars soaked with the scent of drying fish and meat..."
These details from the imagined past impress themselves on us with the same sensory authenticity as those closer to home.
In "Kinetic," which again relies on a progression of delicately realized observations to carry it forward, Adams begins with "The sounds of the hospital swell and fade/ like the lung-pulses of a mechanized accordion," detailing scenes from the constrained view of a plastic hospital bed, "sanitized alcohol-pungent," where "the days and evenings conflate/ into noise —" and ends with "the swipe of wet leaves against the window,/ the sweeping rattle of wind on concrete,/ the scattering of golden headlights/ over the wall."
At the center of the poem, though, the opening line of the second and final stanza, is a simple value judgment, the more notable for its singular nature within the structure of the poem: "What a thing it is to be incapacitated."
There are other moments of quiet declaration embedded in this collection distinguished by an almost Zen-like spareness. In "Northerly," one takes the form of a nod to Yeats, "I had a thought for no one's but your ears —"
Despite a focus here on the more intellectual shades of human feeling, Adams is never hesitant to invite the reader, without fanfare, into the intimate world of her poems, as a silent co-observer of the subtle epiphanies they reveal.
In "The Movement," we find ourselves privy to a dynamic between two hikers whose shared experience of their day together recedes toward an undelineated moment of inevitable separation as they each observe "... the slow approach/ of the dark between us,/ a stifling that is subtle,/ still mixed-through with calmness,/ like a sound mixes with the air."
The moment as described smacks of a lived truth that renders it familiar, and yet it remains, to at least some extent, mysterious, if only because the distance between human beings remains a standing mystery.
But the most mysterious of the poems in this collection has to be the final one, describing a dream in which a fallen deer's grieving herd emerges from the depths of the forest to present his body to the narrator, performing, with the aid of sympathetic birds, a funeral rite for their lost brother.
The poem begins, "They drew themselves out from the black/ edge of the forest, one by one,/ scattered, not following one another, moving/ peripherally — rain-lines on glass/ staggering and jolting slowly together."
It's in lines like these that Adams' powers of description demonstrate an ease that is casually flawless, hitting just the right notes, without evidence of strain. She is a natural, although her attention to craft is too consistent to be accidental. She knows exactly where to break a line, for instance, and that's where she breaks it each time.
The poems that comprise "What Is Heard" make quiet statements, drawing most of their power from their ability to ground and immerse the reader in very particular points in space and time, but the statements they do make are made deftly, with sure footing, and never fail to ring true.