Review of Kelli Anne Noftle's Adam Cannot Be Adam (Omnidawn, 2017)

Solving for Adam

by Sarah Ann Winn


To read Kelli Anne Noftle’s Adam Cannot Be Adam is to hold a doubled image in your mind’s eye for the length of the book. One Adam/part of identity is constantly in contrast/comparison to the other. “Remembering is repetition,” one line claims. It’s a broken Eden, with each shard casting a similar image, one of which is a version of Adam, and the next, a completely different Adam. In the end, the figure which emerges is the speaker, not the object. The Eve-ish speaker of the book spends the entire work in a sort of beautiful metacognition, showing us the ways she has tried to untangle the inexplicable—why we love how we love. She complains “[t]he love of naming must be lost on Adam.”

Because the speaker is so transparent in her methods, at first, Adam Cannot Be Adam made me long to do this sort of logical work with her. I tried sorting each person in this box into categories of images, boxes of Xs and stars, so I could know for sure the qualities of each Adam. Which was which? What exactly was (the one I called) Adam 1 like? Adam 2? The longer I listed possibilities for the categories, the more slippery the logic became of “solving” this puzzle. Why did I want to solve it? I grew less and less interested in coming away from the logic puzzle with answers, eventually abandoning it in favor of pinning down where the speaker and I stood in relation to the people we love in the world. Are our memories “muddy in [their] container and turned as paint turns on its own, without portraying?”

Above is an example of a logic puzzle from Wikimedia commons, which shows Simon is 15 and that Jane does not like the color green. By Salix Alba.

Above is an example of a logic puzzle from Wikimedia commons, which shows Simon is 15 and that Jane does not like the color green. By Salix Alba.

In diagrams, the speaker/Eve-reflection considers how the world fits together logically. She compares apples to oranges to lace to a paper bag. Noftle angles each metaphor’s object into camera view, into subjects of paintings, into discussions and reflections of items left on a table. This methodical examination and reexamination mirrors her unflinching examination of her relationship with the two Adams, complicated, layered—sometimes with parallels, sometimes with paradoxes. Who hasn’t loved someone against their better judgement? Who hasn’t found the same qualities in one person obnoxious, and in another, charming?

Noftle knows this common experience, and nudges us toward the reminder that there is no explaining love, or identity. We are either the daffodils in the jar, twinned, or a jar of water kept. There isn’t any logic to it. I surface from my reading remembering every love I’ve known, each a mysterious gift. In this new light, “start[ing] from the middle and work[ing] towards the beginning.” Adam Cannot Be Adam invites us into the garden, instructs us in the ways we can piece together meaning out of memories which defy reason, so that we can ultimately join Noftle in a place where there is only love and acceptance of ourselves and our loves, not because we understand, but in spite of the fact that we do not, could not explain them.

Sarah Ann Winn is the author of Alma Almanac, which won the 2016 Barrow Street Book Prize. Her chapbooks include Field Guide to Alma Avenue and Frew Drive (Essay Press, 2016), Haunting the Last House on Holland Island, Fallen into the Bay(Porkbelly Press, 2016) and Portage (Sundress Publications, 2015). Her poems, prose, and hybrid works have appeared in Five Points, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Massachusetts Review, Passages North,and Quarterly West, among others.