Helen Adam & Her Circle

In Chicago Review 60:2 (2016)


Left to Right: Pat Adam, Robert Duncan, Jess Collins, Helen Adam, 1954. Courtesy of the Helen Adam Collection, the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, the State University of New York.

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Alison Fraser


“I want to ask the Tarot from what world the mystic writing comes, ” Helen Adam wrote Jess Collins in 1954, “but I think you would have to be present. ” Jess had recently begun an abstract crayon series called Mystic Writings, and Adam, the author of “mystic ” ballads, likely wished to ask the tarot not just about Jess’ s series but also about “mystic writing ” broadly writ. In their correspondence, Adam and Jess frequently discussed the relationship among art, literature, and the occult. Indeed, questioning the boundaries of “phantasy ” and “the real ” remained for both of them a lifelong preoccupation, as Robert Duncan reveals in the introductions he wrote for their books. “For Jess, ” Duncan writes in his introduction to Translations, Jess’ s multi-decade series of paintings, “phantasy and the humors of creative play beyond the boundaries of our sense…carry important intuitions of the Real. ” [1]  Similarly, in his preface to Adam’ s Ballads, included in this feature, Duncan explains that though “her ballads take place in an other place and time in an other time…these sorceries of desire, are as near to the real as they ever were. ” [2] Close collaborators and confidantes, Adam and Jess enjoyed five decades of friendship, inspiration, and the search for the “world [from which] the mystic writing comes. ”

Adam and Jess met in 1954 after Adam attended Duncan’ s poetry workshop at the San Francisco State Poetry Center, where she had awed the avant-garde crowd with her powerful incantation of William Blake’ s “Introduction to the Songs of Experience, ” conjuring (as legend has it) a sudden thunderstorm. As Kristin Prevallet has observed, “Duncan instantly understood that in Adam he had found what he was looking for: a connection to the radical Romantic poets, especially William Blake. ” [3] And in Duncan, Adam had found her Blake. In a poem on their friendship, “The Nurse Speaks for R. D., ” published here for the first time, she wonders: “Am I Blake’ s nurse calling in cold twilight? ”

The connection Adam and Jess forged with one another was no less immediate. Jess was a former chemist who had worked on the Manhattan Project before changing his name (from Burgess Collins to Jess) and enrolling in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute); in 1949 he met Duncan, his lifelong partner, at a poetry reading. Adam, a Scottish balladeer and child prodigy, published her first book, The Elfin Pedlar and Tales from Pixie Pool (1923), when she was fifteen years old; it included poems written when she was four. In 1939 she moved to the US with her mother and sister, with whom she lived her entire life. Despite their disparate backgrounds, and although Adam was forty-five and Jess thirty-one when they met, they shared a common interest in scrapbooking, fantasy novels, and mysticism that created an immediate bond; soon Adam and her sister Pat were among Jess’ s closest friends.  [4] Together with Duncan, Ida Hodes (secretary of the Poetry Center), and poets James Broughton, Madeline Gleason, and Eve Triem, Adam and Jess formed the Maidens, an informal coterie that provided a counterpoint to the North Beach bar scene headed by Jack Spicer. They met at each other’ s houses for elaborate costumed dinner parties, reciting poetry and performing plays created for the group.

It was during this period in the mid-1950s that Adam and Jess entered important phases of their work. Jess expanded from paintings to collages (which he called “paste-ups ”) and assemblages (which he called “Salvages ”). In 1959, he began his Translations series, piling layer upon layer of paint over found black-and-white images. Adam returned to writing poetry—she had taken a thirty-year hiatus following her youthful publications—completing Queen o’ Crow Castle (1958), which she dedicated to Jess, and the ballad-opera San Francisco’ s Burning (1963), which she wrote in collaboration with her sister. Adam and Jess also each experimented with the other’ s medium: Adam extended her scrapbooking to standalone collages, again with Pat, while Jess wrote poems, including the playful “Sparrowspring, ” which he sent to Adam adorned with a collage. These projects had a significant effect on Jess’s work, which, as Ingrid Schaffner suggests, is “most delightfully read by focusing on its bookish aspects. ” [5] And to fully understand Adam’ s poetry, it is necessary to consider her collage projects, which translated many of the themes of her poetry into visual art.  [6]

Adam and Jess’ s relationship was a collaborative one. Adam occasionally provided materials for Jess’ s work: she took a photograph that became Ida, Duncan & I: Translation #18 (1957) and sent him magazine clippings for paste-ups. Adam also scouted out materials for Jess’ s “Salvages ” series, including a human skull that she offered first with a caveat (its “eye sockets did not look benign ”) and later, after Jess did not respond, with an entirely different description (it had, she wrote, “beautiful and mysterious eye sockets ”). In this case, Jess gracefully declined. But he did become one of Adam’ s favorite photography subjects. She scheduled photo shoots with him at the de Young Museum’ s sphinx sculptures and elsewhere in San Francisco, and featured several of the photographs as photo-collages in her exhibit at the Buzz Gallery’ s Poets Show in 1964. (Pages from a scrapbook Adam made of these photos are included in this section.) The two also produced several collaborative books, with Jess providing the drawings for Queen o’ Crow Castle, San Francisco’ s Burning, and Ballads (1964). To Adam, these drawings “have become so utterly a part of the poems for me that I can’ t imagine them separate. ”

Although there are no extant letters between Adam and Jess about the project after Jess suggested it, publishing Ballads did not go smoothly. Virginia Admiral offered to publish the book with Acadia Press in New York, but insisted on selecting which of Adam’ s poems Jess would illustrate, even though he was already at work on a companion volume to Queen o’ Crow Castle. When this issue was solved, another arose: two years after they had sent their manuscript to Admiral, she still had not produced the book and would not return their letters. In 1962 Duncan appealed to Denise Levertov, who lived in New York, on Jess’ s behalf, asking if she could “intercede with Virginia Admiral and return the drawings and script of Helen Adam’ s ballads, ” fearing that “they might be lost or destroyd. ” Levertov reported that Admiral “has every intention of actually starting on the printing or whatever next week, ” though this did not happen. Nearly a year later, Duncan complained again, wishing “we could have withdrawn the book entirely, ” since Admiral refused to agree to a contract, a position that would leave “Helen [with] absolutely no guarantee of any income on this publication, no guarantee of advanced copies, even. ” But at last—“At the point of a gun! ” according to Duncan—the book was released in late summer 1964. [7]

During this first decade of friendship, Adam and Jess’ s correspondence benefited from the distance first between San Francisco and Mallorca, Spain, where Jess and Duncan lived in 1955–1956, and then between San Francisco and Stinson Beach, where Duncan and Jess kept a cottage upon their return. [8] In late 1964, it was Adam who left San Francisco, moving to New York with her sister to produce San Francisco’ s Burning on Broadway.

The saga of San Francisco’ s Burning occupies much of their correspondence. At first the play seemed to propel Adam’ s career forward; the first production of it, at Borregaard’ s Museum back in San Francisco on Halloween 1960, was a tremendous success, even though Helen and Pat were the only performers. Jess sent an exuberant note to congratulate them on their hit, writing “your stage was sheer as Shakespeare! ” A local theatre, the Playhouse, produced the play the following year, and though it sold out every night of its six-month run, it also helped to unravel the social fabric of the San Francisco scene. Adam, depressed that she had allowed several changes to be made to the play—including the removal of Puss and Anubis, characters she deemed not only essential to its production but also very real—became suicidal and committed herself to the Langley Psychiatric Institute. Duncan, meanwhile, was convinced that she had forfeited her artistic integrity in allowing these changes and wrote a letter that perhaps hindered rather than aided her recovery, raging that “Gail [Chugg, the star], [James] Broughton, [Kermit] Sheets [owners of the Playhouse] and that ‘composer’ [Warner Jepson] are enemies of the poetic imagination. ” [9] When Jess visited her at the hospital, Adam did not turn him away as she had others, but later begged him not to return to witness the “nightmare ” she had become. Despite all this, Adam reprised her role as the Worm Queen—a bald specter crowned with black veils who preys on young men—and the sisters decided to take the play to the east coast.

This move proved to be a somewhat disastrous decision, and Adam came to believe that Puss and Anubis were “playing pat ball with us, ” explaining to Jess that “[o]ne can’ t offend such powers, & leave them out of a play, & expect them to forget & forgive. ” The late-1960s letters detail the sisters’ endless struggle to find a suitable director and composer for their play, a depressing situation that coincided with Jess’ s increasing career successes, including group and solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art. Jess also had a show at Macy’ s department store, a contrast to his formal exhibitions that pleased him greatly, since “it’ s like making a face at the know-it-alls of the museum tribe. ” Although Jess had many exhibitions in New York, he never attended them, deeming the city a “horrid hell. ” Instead, he relied on reports from Adam to tell him “how the exhibit is laid out ” and “what its drawbacks are and the like. ” Dutifully carrying out his request, Adam would visit each exhibition multiple times, reconnecting with the San Francisco she missed so much. Though the sisters were often miserable, and though Jess begged them to return—“Lassies, come home! ”—they never went back to live in San Francisco.

However, after a successful production of San Francisco’ s Burning  at Judson Poets’ Theatre in 1967, Adam became something of a cult figure, renowned in New York circles for her eccentric Victorian aesthetics. The play’ s popular success was not matched by critical success; it was unfavorably reviewed by a Village Voice critic—whom Adam attempted to curse—causing a potential financial backer to back out and ending the play’ s future. Meanwhile, Jess seemed to move from success to success, now enjoying exhibitions of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and elsewhere. Duncan, too, was in high demand, and frequently traveled for poetry readings and lectureships around the US and abroad. Jess rarely joined these travels, preferring his “anchorite-at-home-ism, ” slowly working in his studio.

As the 1980s progressed, health problems plagued both the Duncan/Jess household and Adam’ s “awful little warren ” in New York. In 1984, Duncan suffered from kidney failure, prompting Jess to cease all artistic production to become his full-time caregiver. Meanwhile Pat, suffering from a painful bone marrow disease, entered a Bronx nursing home. Adam, increasingly convinced that the end of the world was imminent, slowly loosened her grip on reality, a process that became complete in 1987 when Pat passed away. Adam refused all callers, afraid to open her apartment door because she believed spirits haunted the hallway, and eventually died in 1993, a ward of the state of New York. Duncan passed away in 1988, devastating Jess. He kept their home in San Francisco, living there until his death in 2004. On an assembly table in his studio, he still kept a small portrait of Adam. [10]

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1/ Jess, Translations (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1971), ii.

2/ Helen Adam, Ballads (New York: Acadia Press, 1964).

3/ Kristin Prevallet, A Helen Adam Reader (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 2007), 18–19.

4/ Lisa Jarnot, “Jess and His Literary Milieu, ” in Ingrid Schaffner, Jess: To and From the Printed Page (New York: Independent Curators International, 2007), 82.

5/ Schaffner, 18.

6/ A selection of this work is forthcoming in The Collages of Helen Adam (Fort Collins, CO and Victoria, TX: Further Other Book Works and Cuneiform Press).

7/ See The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, edited by Robert Bertholf and Albert Gelpi (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 371, 376, 417, and 496.

8/ The 1955–1956 portion of Adam and Duncan’s correspondence has been published by Kristin Prevallet in A Helen Adam Reader.

9/ Robert Duncan to Helen Adam, 22 May 1962, Helen Adam Collection, The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

10/ See the inside cover of An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle, edited by Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff (Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate Communications, 2013).

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A Note on the Selected Letters

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Although there is an abundance of letters from Adam to Duncan and Jess, there are far fewer extant letters from Jess to Adam, particularly in the later years of their correspondence. Nevertheless, this selection provides an extensive look into the length and depth of their friendship. I have chosen to maintain idiosyncrasies of spelling and abbreviation where they seemed intentional, and have silently corrected unintentional spelling mistakes. Incidental irregularities or errors concerning acronyms, punctuation, titles, etc. have been regularized. Ellipses without brackets appear in the originals. The letters have been formatted for consistency with previously published selections of Adam’ s correspondence.

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For permission to use all published and unpublished text and images by Helen Adam, the editors gratefully acknowledge the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, the State University of New York. All images published here are of items from the Poetry Collection. For permission to use all published and unpublished text and images by Jess Collins and Robert Duncan, the editors gratefully acknowledge the Jess Collins Trust.




Helen Adam and Jess Collins, c. late 1950s. Courtesy of the Helen Adam Collection, the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, the State University of New York.



Selected Letters of Helen Adam & Jess Collins, 1956-1984

A Preview


Sunday [November 1962]

My dear Robert & Jess,

Thank you for an enchanting Thanksgiving. The feast was fabulous, and when to that is added Jess’ s extraordinary collages, and Robert’ s beautiful new H. D. book, and the always delightful pleasure of your company, that is riches indeed.

Ida and I went hunting again on Saturday, in Oakland. Some dealer told Ida about a big barn of a place full of fabulous bargains out on 14th St. and 35th Avenue in East Oakland, so we set out to explore it. However nothing resembling his description was to be found at that address, but on the dreary wastes of east 14th St., we did find a row of junk dumps, several of them huge barns, between 20th & 30th Avenues.

In the biggest & weirdest, I found a frail, fantastic, human skull, a real one, for three dollars. It had lost part of its jaw, but its eye sockets were superb, with little bits of cartilage, like spider webs, deep inside them. I hovered and hovered over whether or not to buy it for Jess, but then I thought [,] suppose it was the skull of someone really evil, who practiced black magic, or worse, & you had it in your lovely, happy house, and then all sorts of weird, uncanny things started to happen, you would say it’ s that awful skull Helen gave to Jess, wanting Christian burial, or something. Of course it might have been the skull of someone noble & good, but those eye sockets did not look benign. So I thought one should never give a skull to a cherished friend, unless one knows for sure whose it was, and also what it died of, in case it was something infectious. A skull is something one just has to acquire for oneself, if one feels the need for one.

Pat didn’ t come with us because she had a bad cold, but when I told her about it at night, she said she couldn’ t have stood me giving a skull to Jess ever, but especially not around Xmas time. She was shocked that I had even thought of it. However I find it haunts me, so if you are interested, and feel like going [on] a pilgrimage into the wilds of East Oakland, its address is Volunteers of America 2300 E. 14th St. and 35th Avenue, & it is in a glass case against the wall, just behind the cash register, but I disclaim all responsibility.

In a dark corner of the same lair we found a pile of old photograph albums. They were five dollars each, but none of them were nice, and as Ida had found a fabulous one for 35 cents at the Goodwill earlier, we did not feel inspired to buy one. But in one of them was an absolutely extraordinary old photo of an ancient woman. Really witch like, and so fantastically old, neither of us had ever seen anything like it. It shrieked to be immortalized in a Collins collage. I felt like snatching it from the album and stealing it on the spot, & so did Ida, but some remnants of law-abiding forbade us. Pat said that of course we shouldn’ t have contemplated stealing it, but should have taken it out of the album, and said we had found it on the floor, and probably got it for ten cents. I can’ t think why we didn’ t. It just didn’ t occur to us. Anyway she is there with the skull, but not near it. She is over in the book department. […]

I would love a copy of that new poem of Robert’ s with the magical little Bubastis, sometime when you have time. Mary Butts is just sumptuous. I have been half promising her to Mr. Kilty. Much love from us all,

As ever, Helen


February 5, 1963

Dear Helen—Thanks much for thinking of my old wish, but I’ ll go on waiting for the ancestrally right one: I really do trust Pat fully in her animadversions of this order. I conceive perhaps its sockets cup a mysterious shadow we’ ll not care to have spill around the door-shadows—shadows can breed shadows. And should it be an Indian, woe’ s us for the spells that missing lower jaw might call up! I’ ve just been reading some mighty shifty tricky scary stories of Idaho & Montana tribes this last week: one gorgeous giant ghost that eats himself up & then must start forth on his brothers, their wives, etc. etc. until at last the tribe (not too believably) gets the better of him.

I hope you & Pat are out of the flu season, it has been such a long dreary one. We’ ll get together soon. & again, thanks for the chance.



[. . .]

April 1, 1965

My dears,

Many many thanks for your letters. It is lovely to hear, & wonderful to know that Jess has finished Robert’ s portrait with the Zohar. How we would adore to see it. I am sure it is a masterpiece. “Mountains with Paint ” sounds magnificent. The snapshot still seems to me the very best ever taken of Robert by anyone & it is appropriate that it should touch off a great painting.

We will wait with breathless delight to see Jess’ s Scientific American translations at Macy’ s. I agree a great store is a far more living place to show than any museum. Of course we will write you all details. Those magical pictures should galvanize the shoppers.

We are furiously indignant about the creature Slavitt, and his so called review of Roots and Branches. We get the Times & not the Tribune & so had missed this insolent & low attack. Never in my life now will I buy a copy of the Tribune. It will get no cent of mine. Dear, dear Robert, do not listen to this wicked man. Do not let a single one of his detestable words remain in your memory. Stamp it out like a maggot. There may be some exceptions, but on the whole, critics are an evil race. Without talent of their own, trying only, at all costs, to draw attention to themselves.

You are secure in the truth that you are great, & the great always attract the fury of jealous maggots, & screaming meanies of either sex. Carol Bergé, for instance, is exactly that. I had the “un-pleasure ” of meeting her at a party a few months ago, & she was simply running round in circles screaming for attention all evening.

I don’ t have to be a critic to tell you that Roots and Branches is one of the towering books of the 20th century. Young poets will be reading it with joy and reverence hundreds of years from now.

Think of Keats & his reviewers, remembered only because they attacked him. If this loathsome Slavitt is ever remembered it will be because he put his sleazy claws into Roots and Branches.

When I think of the magnificent pride, and power, & beauty of the poems in that book! I swear a critic of the breed of Slavitt would pick flaws in the morning stars singing together. The shout of the sons of god would be discord to his horrible ears. The only way such a creature can harm you, dear Robert, is if you let yourself remember his lying words, & so let them get in the way of the mighty power that uses you, that wakes you in the night, as it did with the falcon poem, & pours through your inspired mind such music as the world has not heard since Blake. (And how right Blake was in his utter scorn of all critics except arch-angels.) Among those beings you may indeed have rivals, who would have a right to criticize because they could out sing you in some fiery sphere. But no one now on Earth, let them prove, at least, that they understand what poetry is before they presume to speak.

I am delighted to hear that Medea will be done properly exactly as you both planned it. I am sure Graham will do a beautiful job.

We were fascinated by your graphic accounts of poor Alan Marlowe’ s daft going on. He has not yet approached us with the Martian bit. But I would not be surprised if he suddenly announced that he would produce Faust Foutu & San Francisco’ s Burning on Mars.

I adored Jess saying that “a little privacy ” was the magic gift he would ask from the Martian millionaires, & I certainly would love to see Robert with a great green Martian diamond blazing on his forehead. I am surprised he did not offer Ebbe a Viking’ s galley to sail on the canals of Mars.

Meanwhile Alan’ s struggles to run an Earthly theatre continue. He tried to knock down Jim Waring (the gentle little director of Side Show, the principal piece in the present program) & this so enraged Jim, & his friend John [Herbert] McDowell the composer, that they withdrew Side Show on the spot, thereby sparing me from torturing audiences (if any) & myself with “Miss Lulu Belle ” for another three weeks.  I am still stuck with The Black Trunk   however, & last Sunday night got involved in what they called a “Happening, ” which consisted of my holding a lighted candle & reciting “The Fair Young Wife, ”  while Alan in medeaval costume, Diane [di Prima] & another girl in slacks, & the Elephant Boy, the one remaining actor from Side Show, scurried about the stage waving flash lights & every now & then falling flat on their faces. I didn’ t dare look too closely at what they were doing, or I would have laughed, & that would have made it even madder. There were only four people in the audience who had drifted there morosely from the icy streets of the East Village. The moment I finished, Diane launched into a long translation from The Book of the Dead accompanied by the same scurrying & falling down, then she handed Alan a script to read. He was kneeling in the blaze of the footlights & instead of attempting to read he simply knelt there staring into the darkness while tears streamed down his face.

It was as if all his lovely Martian fantasies, & dreams of golden international syndicates & so on had faded away, & he was confronted with the truth of the empty theatre. Heaven knows what the four unfortunate paying customers made of this, but to me it was suddenly tragic, & beautiful, probably the only true thing that has yet happened on that stage. It made me feel very mean for not letting him have San Francisco’ s Burning to play with. But of course I can’t, for he would kill it.

Jerry Benjamin, who did one of Mike McClure’ s plays & something of Ginsberg’ s, is still clamouring to direct & produce it. I saw one of his recent things, Diane’ s Poet’ s Vaudeville & it was surprisingly good, eerie, & imaginative, but Pat still wants to try a few more professional places (though probably nothing will come of them). Jerry of course is pennyless & I doubt if he has the capacity to raise the money for a proper off-Broadway production, but he could get it done at the Café La MaMa, or somewhere similar, & John would do the music & at least it would be a showing. I don’ t want to leave New York without having achieved anything at all.

Bill [McNeill] tells me Joanne Kyger & Ernie Edwards had very good recent readings, & I am sure Tom [Field]’ s show at Buzz is lovely & alive. It is such a shame that they all have to move because those charming old houses are being pulled down.

Your book finds sound wonderful. I don’ t know the Etidorhpa, but read the Dion Fortune. Mel Abbett recently sent me a copy of a strange Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, with some curious dream scenes, and a very pleasing villainess, “Miss Gwilt. ” & I found a wonderfully illustrated book on Egyptian mythology, with a superb plate of the Lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, goddess of vengeance & punisher of the damned in the underworld (& she looks it too). I have written Slavitt’ s name on a piece of tissue paper & put it permanently in the book next to her picture, & we shall see what we shall see.

Our dearest love to you both as always.




Jess Collins to Helen Adam, date unknown. Courtesy of the Helen Adam Collection, the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo, the State University of New York.



To read Helen Adam & Her Circle in its entirety, including Adam’s previously unpublished poem for Robert Duncan, “The Nurse Speaks for R. D.,” purchase a copy of the print issue here.