Book Review: In Defence of Adultery

Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone

Julia Copus, In Defence of Adultery (Bloodaxe, 2003)

ISBN: 1-85224-607-3

The American poet Jennifer Grotz once said that ‘Poetry is philosophy’s twin sister. The one that wears make-up.’ More generously, it’s possible to imagine poetry as a trendier older sister to science –leaning and loafing at her ease with a cigarette and a glass of Merlot while etiolated science stays inside and pores over the physics homework. And yet, as poets from Miroslav Holub to Ruth Padel would be quick to point out[1], poetry is a science too: precise, patterned, always questing, sometimes beautiful.

Julia Copus’ interest in the scientific side of poetry is apparent from both content[2] and form: In Defence of Adultery is written with a precision that suggests multiple drafts, although there’s nothing to match the intricacy of Raymond, at 60, the ‘specular poem’[3] included in Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade. Precision is not necessarily an enviable quality in a poetry collection: the precise poem risks becoming the controlled poem, evoking unwanted images of an anxious ‘helicopter poet’ hovering over each line, afraid to lose her hold on the language.

Fortunately, Copus is good enough to relinquish control when necessary. The best writers[4] are able to vary formal, classically-eloquent lines with snatches of the colloquial, as Copus does in these lines from ‘Loch’:

‘a loch had approached us, overlapped

with noctilucent cloud and stopped

just short, at the edge of us. What’s all that

white stuff? I asked –and it was swans

drifting out from under a mountain.’

The endearing clumsiness of ‘What’s all the white stuff?’, with its suggestion of the inarticulacy all of us are prone to suffering while trying to describe the spectacular, prevents the ‘noctilucent cloud’ and the ‘swans drifting out’ from seeming overly grandiloquent.

At the heart of the collection lies, naturally enough, the title poem, in which Copus describes how

‘We don’t fall in love: it rises through us

the way that certain music does. . .’


Or do we? Keats noted that ‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us’, and Copus’ ‘defence’ never risks sounding didactic. After a strident declaration in the eighth line (‘Yes, love’s like that’) the poem sinks back into ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’[5], ending on a meeker note:

‘And whatever

damage might result we’re not

to blame for it: love is an autocrat

and won’t be disobeyed.

Sometimes we manage

to convince ourselves of that.’

Poetry can sometimes seem like a balancing act on the fine line between pomposity and reticence, but Copus’ sense of balance is close to perfect. ‘An Easy Passage’, published last year, won her the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Expect that award to be the first of many.


Jacob Silkstone serves as both Poetry Editor and Book Critic for TMS. He blogs about books and the publishing industry at Alone in Babel.


[1] Holub would be even quicker if he hadn’t died 13 years ago.

[2] See, for example, the ‘list of demonstrations used in physics lectures’ in the partially-found poem ‘Home Physics, the account of her father inventing ‘the world’s first electronic antibiotic’, and the ‘fission and fusion’ which holds In Defence of Adultery’s first section together.

[3] Essentially a mirrored poem in which the last line replicates the first, the penultimate line replicates the second, and so on. Googling ‘Raymond, at 60’ is strongly recommended.

[4] Shakespeare being a particularly good example.

[5] More Keats, but still not enough.