Received wisdom tends to indicate that poets should avoid adverbs whenever possible. This is patently absurd: we need every linguistic tool available. Of course, adverbs can provoke a calamitous fall, but they can also lift a poem when in the hands of an expert like Mel Pryor, as she demonstrates on several occasions in her first full collection, Small Nuclear Family (Eyewear Publishing, 2015).
One such example occurs in her poem “Hokusai”, which portrays a pocket of emotion, as in the following extract:
“Since he upped and left her and their son
for the printmaker in Tokyo,
I’ve noticed how she curves forward slightly
like a tall Japanese wave breaching
the moment between rise and fall…”
Mel Pryor takes her character and scene, and then homes in on a resonant detail, that afore-mentioned pocket of emotion. In this case, it’s the way her character curves forward slightly. Implicit restraint, via the adverb, is placed in juxtaposition to the latent power of the wave.
Here is a further instance of Pryor’s deft use of adverbs, from “Your girlfriend’s red leather jacket”:
“…my elbow pushing out the hollow shaped by hers,
and under the top left pocket with her lipstick in
the beat of my heart fitting precisely the beat of hers.”
The use of precisely once again lends an extra charge to the verb, while the final line’s gorgeous cadence mirrors that of a heartbeat, music married to sense.
And now for a third example, this time from “Housework”:
“…How glorious, to be held like that,
his little paunch in the small of her back,
her hands pulling his hands against the rolls of her belly,
the warmth of his cheek pressing through her hair,
and below them laid out messily
in the drawer, the knives, forks and spoons.”
Pryor celebrates physical imperfection before underlining her point with messily, revelling in the counterpoint of an unexpected partnership between verb and adverb. Via her skilled portrayal of this specific detail, the poem comes alive.
Mel Pryor’s Small Nuclear Family builds its emotional impact via an idiosyncratic, delightful blend of approaches that surprises the reader, poem after poem. I’ll be coming back to it for a long time to come.