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The Tale of the Thumb


San Francisco's Burning is not only a ballad opera for the stage, it is also a piece of historical fiction. Set in San Francisco in the days prior to the earthquake of 1906, it chronicles the interactions of a cast of characters whose lives intersect through murder, sex and urban planning reform. The musical, written by the Beat bardess Helen Adam and her sister Pat in the late 1950s, premiered at the Playhouse Theatre in San Francisco in 1961. In 1967 a new score was arranged by Al Carmines, the homosexual reverend and visionary avant-garde composer of the Judson Poets Theater, which was responsible for such works as What Happened (a musical setting for the writings of Gertrude Stein), Sing Ho for a Bear (in which Carmines also acted the part of Winnie the Pooh) and the 1973 off-Broadway sensation The Faggot. In 1977, San Francisco's Burning was broadcast on the independent New York City radio station WBAI with a cast that included Helen and Pat themselves. This recording can be accessed on Helen Adam’s page in the PennSound archive, along with audio recordings of her various interviews and performances.1

Helen Adam reads the role of the formidable Mrs Mackie Rhodus, dowager-tyrant of a changing turn-of-the-century San Francisco who is intent on marrying off the beautiful, parasomniac debutante Susan Pettigrew to Mr Neal Narcissus, a man whose name speaks for itself. There are other young women populating the play: Miss Dunn-Drummond, monosyllabic ward of the Countess of Barth Malone; Mrs Laura Valentine with her string of poisoned and murdered ex-husbands; Ma Bronson’s Babes, a chorus of sex workers frequenting the taverns along the wharf; and the beleaguered Loving Lily Babe, ‘The Golden Hearted Whore’ of the waterfront who adores miserable, hopeless men. The libretto for San Francisco's Burning, published by Hanging Loose Press in 1985, features detailed stage directions regarding the operation of two large automatons — Anubis and Puss in Boots — intended to be played by live actors but that ‘must give the impression of being ‘mechanical marvels of the period’. In the tradition of operas, there is a chaotic balance of the garish, silly and tragic.

For me, the most compelling characters in San Francisco's Burning are Mrs Mackie Rhodus and the Worm Queen. Mrs Mackie Rhodus presides over the play with a similar autocratic severity to that of The Importance of Being Earnest’s Aunt Agatha. Her opinions are given, unasked for, in that astonishing way that only wealthy, ennobled characters in satirical theatre can deliver them. She chastises her secretary, Mr McCann, thusly:

BE QUIET. A talking woman likes a silent man. Mackie Rhodus was speechless. I never permitted him to open his mouth in public, and very seldom in private. It made for an excellent marriage. 

She is animated by Helen Adam’s vocal stylings. The delivery of the above line takes forever. The first syllables in ‘talking’, ‘silent’ and ‘speechless’ last two beats each. ‘I ne-e-ever permitted him to open his ma-owth in public’. This is Helen Adam’s signature delivery: long vowels, deliberate annunciation, speech that is measured in accordance with the meter demanded by form. When reading her verse on the page, whether San Francisco's Burning or other, shorter works, one sometimes misses the meter, or notices an off-beat inclusion. But in recital, Adam’s cadence shapes the sounds to fit the song. 

Adam’s lifelong interest in the ballad lends her an almost intuitive command of the form. Born in Glasgow in 1909, she reportedly composed poetry as soon as she could talk, babbling in rhyme as a child and became entranced by the popular ballads of Scotland and England. These are folk tales written, oratorised or performed between roughly the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, and comprise a large chunk of the folk literary tradition in English.

Collected by scholar Francis James Child throughout the latter half of the seventeenth century and published in five volumes between 1882–1889, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads comprises the most comprehensive collection of folk ballads currently available and is perhaps the most important contributor to the field of study concerning popular folk song in the English language.2 The collection organises the ballads by similarity — by tale if not by shared title — and references written accounts of ballads delivered by bards in local dialects across the centuries, some manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages. Inclusions such as ‘A True Tale of Robin Hood’ have become more well-known, while some ballads survived only in the oral tradition and were transcribed by Child himself. Others still are fragmented and ‘highly corrupted’. They don’t all sound the same when read aloud.

At age fourteen, Helen Adam published a book of original ballads titled The Elfin Pedlar under the moniker Pixie Pool. The book was standard Victorian fare in the tradition of popular ballads, concerned with faeries, nature and the pastoral. She was reportedly quite embarrassed by this early literary work and the critical acclaim it received, and later called these works ‘doggerel’. In her later work, as a kind of ‘bardic matriarch’3 of the San Francisco Renaissance, she bent her considerable mastery of the form to the Beat Generation. She reportedly ran circles around Ginsberg in arguments relating to the facilitation of rhyme in verse — her work always rhymed, as poetry should, and she wouldn’t hear arguments to the contrary. 

I noticed a preoccupation in Adam’s works with the devouring of bodies and spirits of others. The Worm Queen (also spoken by Adam in the WBAI radio play) quite literally ingests the decomposing bodies of unfortunate sailors after luring them to their untimely deaths. She’s like a horrendous underworld figure to rival Mrs Mackie Rhodus — if the latter rules turn-of-the-century San Francisco society, the Worm Queen doesn’t care. Once they’ve crossed the border between the two worlds, all bodies come to be hers in the end.

‘Apartment at Twin Peaks’ is a gothic Beat tale told from the perspective of an uncompromising vampiric wife who nibbles and chews her acquiescent, vacant-eyed husband to death. The tale narrates a hysterical domestic nightmare in which the speaker harangues her husband with demands to provide for the household — ‘Don’t you want to be the gracious host / In a lovely home of which you’re proud to boast?’ — until it does away with metaphor altogether: 

My girlfriends worried him close to the bone
And of course, I’d been nibbling for years alone
With a little nip here and a sharp snap there 
He never cried out, he didn’t dare. 4

With a kind of Brechtian ghastliness imbued with Rocky Horror camp, the speaker and her gal pals destroy and eat her husband: ‘We chased his skull across the Twin Peaks stones / Maud’s pet chihuahuas ate the rest of his bones’. Here too, Adam knows where to slow a word down to make two syllables out of one, where to elongate a sound, punctuate with an exaggerated alveolar stop for a triumphant finish: ‘For the apartment his blood was spent / and now I have the apartment to rent!’ The recital has an incantatory quality. It is easy to see how thrilled audiences would have been, particularly with her marked departure from free verse and rejection of the formalism of her contemporaries. Indeed, on New Year’s Day in 1975 at the Poetry Marathon in St Marks Church in New York’s Lower East Side we hear Adam imploring the caterwauling, delighted audience — ‘it isn’t finished!’ — midway through the recital of her poem ‘Cheerless Junkie’s Song’.5 It’s almost impossible for her to reign them in and drag them through the rhythmic tale of a suburban suit turned down-and-out beatnik plagued with drug-sickness, cockroaches and rats, singing, ‘goodbye transcendent Tompkins Square, I haven’t long to stay!’ But she does. Patti Smith was there too that day, also John Cage, Charles Stein and John Giorno. What a line up. This speaker too is nibbled, nipped at, chewed and gnawed on, with Adam’s rolled Rs lending the whole thing a bizarre Gothic pomp: ‘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’.  

The preoccupation is possibly mine. John Ransom’s poem ‘Captain Carpenter’, for example, a tale of a pistol-toting soldier who rides about getting into fights with undesirables, sticks in my head despite not being my usual thing (war poems, heavy with pathos, written after 1755).6 It’s of a lamenting flavour with twist of misogyny — the speaker speaks of women as at once diminutive and violently irrepressible, and the ‘sleek upstart’ who eventually bests the Captain by spearing his heart on the end of a dainty rapier reeks of queer villain. Though a possible cautionary tale about the hubris of bringing a solely combative approach to social association, the figure who has me reciting it from memory is the wife of Satan, who divests the captain of his arms during a Mortal Kombat-style clash: 

Captain Carpenter rode many a time
From male and female took he sundry harms
He met the wife of Satan crying ‘I'm
The she-wolf bids you shall bear no more arms.’

Their strokes and counters whistled in the wind
I wish he had delivered half his blows
But where she should have made off like a hind
The bitch bit off his arms at the elbows.

Are any of us, who learn to be disagreeable while also wondering how to gain the adoration we so desire, much different from Captain Carpenter? I’m more interested in the wife of Satan, who severs his arms at the elbows with her teeth. Her statement, too, is linguistically fascinating: ‘I’m the she-wolf bids you shall bear no more arms’. Each word is only one syllable, the repetition of the fricative ‘sh’ and plosive ‘b’ as in ‘bids’ and ‘bear’ requires that the reader reshape their mouth to speak the words. It sounds like someone tapping their palm to punctuate a discursive point. The size of the figures then becomes a problem. Did she have to gnaw him close to the bone like the speaker’s girlfriends in Adam’s ‘Apartment at Twin Peaks’ or did she snap her teeth on his two arms like a crocodile, a guillotine, the eponymous dog of the final line, while he brandished his pistols? Did she swell in size or shrink him down or, being imbued as one might assume she is with demonic magic, did she simply transform into a Little Shop of Horrors-type body and chomp his arms off with cartoonish ease?

At this point it should be noted that I have a body-devouring concern of my own. I have spent many years worrying the skin from my thumbs. I chew, pick and scratch it, pull the skin from the pad and the cuticles, rip it as far as the knuckle. It’s always bleeding. I had a friend years ago, a certain Michelle, who once said to me, ‘Every time you chew your thumb you give your brain an electric shock, because your body is eating itself.’ Okay, Michelle. She also said, in reference to transitioning, ‘Stop all this silliness, and be the beautiful woman you are.’ 

How to stop all the silliness when silliness is protective? I was a silly child, and by the skin of my teeth, and without much skin of my thumb, I have managed not to die before becoming a silly man. I have kept up the habit of chewing and pulling the skin from my thumbs and have become progressively less beautiful in the years since Michelle’s theorising; the buzz buzz electric shocks to my brain have rendered me something, maybe something else. I don’t know. I’m almost atavistically wedded to the habit of devouring my thumb. I’m compelled to chew, to whittle it back to nothing, to smooth it, grind it down to a stump. It doesn’t work of course, chewing and tearing skin away makes wounds, which become callouses or scabs that irritate me when I catch them on my clothes or things I touch, meaning I chew them off again, trying to do the same thing again and again to make the thumb perfect. This is a mammalian tendency, by which I mean to say that I am not special. Mammals return to the familiar in order to regulate the nervous system when hyper-aroused. They tend to avoid novel situations and stimuli, and ‘perseverate in familiar behaviour regardless of the outcome’.7 I don’t particularly like to do it, but it’s less painful than the alternative: stopping myself from chewing my thumb.

From Michelle I made off like a hind, rather than biting off her arms at the elbows. But I stayed with the familiar encounter again and again, through interactions and relational experiences where I could expect the same outcome on a limbic level, seeking invalidation as though I was magnetised to the regularity of obliteration. It wasn’t my first time, either. Going back and forward to the same place, the wound, the crime, the thumb, over and over and over, trying to shake out the wrinkles, smooth the surface. Achieve mastery of the unpleasant, the painful, the disempowering through dogged pursuit alone. Remake it brand new.

The ballad is an archaic form full of archaic themes: love, vengeance, therianthropy and riddles abound. The players too are archetypal: The Clever Lass, who shows up across various languages and centuries, using her wits to solve riddles, evade impossible tasks, outsmart kings and save herself or her doltish father or brother from imprisonment or death; the Billie Blin, ‘a serviceable household demon’; the Elfin Knight; the Drowned Lovers; and The Two Brothers. I already mentioned Robin Hood.

In Child’s collection, we can read the same folktale over and over but the characters have different names, and the story seems to hinge on different elements. For example, in the case of the ballad referred to as ‘Lady Isobel and Elf-Knight’, there exist several copies taken from different manuscripts across the European continent, Asia and Scandinavia, in which a brave and clever maiden, sometimes referred to as May Colven, (or May Collean, Kirsten, Louise or Vindelraad) evades murder at the hand of a tricky knight, sometimes Roland (or Reimvord, Heer Halewijn, Oldemor or Herr Peder). The maiden, enticed by the knight to go out riding with him, is led to a green wood, or bower or a thicket of hazel trees, where it is planned that she will meet her fate. The knight bids her wade into a river, or climb up a gallows tree, to become his eighth, or ninth or twelfth victim, but at the last moment she cuts off his head using his own sword, or pushes him in the river or renders him unconscious by the singing of a spell, binds his hands and kills him. The story ends here. Or, in a dozen other versions, the knight’s severed head speaks, compelling her to blow a golden horn, or the maiden encounters his vengeful sister or mother or brother as she leaves the grove. Not even the spelling or choice of words is consistent:

‘Leave aff, leave aff your gey mantle’;
‘Cast off, cast off your silks so fine’;
‘Pull off, pull off thy Holland smock’; etc.

That’s English for you — inconsistent and mutable. Like memory. If the Tale of the Thumb was a ballad, what name would I have, and would I know it? In one version, Michelle calls me ugly instead of beautiful but it’s not her voice, it’s from earlier and I can’t decide who it belongs to. I’d rather not hear it, but there’s nothing I can do. In another, six grey doves perched on a branch coo down at me, imploring me to stop all the silliness. In another, I’m the Clever Lass who never feared death because she had her wits, and elsewhere I’m the Billie Blin:

All in all he is a serviceable household
demon; of a decidedly benignant
disposition in the first four, and though
a loathly fiend with seven heads in
the last, very obedient and useful when
thoroughly subdued. 

Can one master an experience that not only has already happened, but that keeps happening again and again, through sheer obdurate repetition? At what point do I diverge from my previous form and grow my fiendish seven heads? By what subduing force might I become obedient and useful, and to whom? Should I blow the golden horn?

I have listened to the same recordings of Helen Adam’s recitals hundreds of times, written them down. I recite them from memory aloud to myself. I like to listen to San Francisco's Burning while I fold washing, while I work out, practising the Valsalva manoeuvre while Adam rolls her Rs in my ears. Recitation of poetry from memory is soothing, it gives the brain a little reward and the body a pleasurable experience, a vibration. It’s pre-linguistic. We inherit that stuff, the desire or unwitting inclination to do the same thing over and over again.

The skin from my thumb and, when that runs out, the pads of my fingers do not exactly sustain me in a nutritional sense. But the lifelong ouroboros of chewing the skin, of doing the same thing repeatedly, hoping to tweak the outcome, change the feeling, smooth the surface, remember the story differently, move the players, move the subject, transmute the spelling and change the names — this is a project that, if not sustaining, does something. Makes something out of nothing. Like language. Like trying not to die. Or, whittling my thumb away makes nothing out of something. 

On 1 January 2020, not long before the arrival of the novel coronavirus instigated the particular apocalypse in which we currently find ourselves, I was in New York, where I made my own journey to St Mark's Church to attend the New Year’s Day Poetry Marathon. The ghost of the speaker of ‘Cheerless Junkie’s Song’ in my ears on the subway: ‘The train it roared and thundered and I sang above its scream / there's a cockroach coming t’wards me, but it cannot spoil my dream.’ Midway through the twelve-hour marathon, the poet Carol Mirakove read new poems. Nothing rhymed that day, but I didn’t mind. Mirakove said: ‘At least we get to live it’. I was there with my mother, both of us chewing our thumbs. 

Vincent Silk lives on unceded Wurundjeri land. He reads and writes fiction and essays, and memorises poetry.

1. Helen Adam, PennSound archive, writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Adam.php.

2. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume 1 (New York: Dover Publications, 1965), pp. 25–67. 

3. Kristen Prevallet, A Helen Adam Reader (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2007.

4. Helen Adam, ‘Apartment at Twin Peaks,’ youtube.com/watch?v=9BC9rsdSdlw.

5. Helen Adam, ‘Cheerless Junkie’s Song,’ ubu.com/media/sound/dial_a_poem_poets/corpse/Corpse_08_adam.mp3.

6. John Crowe Ransom, ‘Captain Carpenter’ in The Best Poems of the English Language (New York: Harold Bloom, Harper Collins, 2004), pp. 917–18.

7. Michael S. Levy, ‘A helpful way to conceptualise and understand re-enactments,’ Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 7(3) (1998 Summer): 227–35. 

Filed under Article Vincent Silk