Review | Slantwise, by Betty Adcock
Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes. A woman walking in the woods realizes this. Especially if that woman is Betty Adcock, who reads the physical world laid out before her like a primer for the deeper lessons of history and human travail. The opening poem of Slantwise, Adcock’s newest collection, entitled “Little Text,” which carries the simple epigraph, “East Texas,” foregrounds this notion of landscape as lexicon. If a poet like Charles Wright surveys and catalogs the natural world for what it can reveal about our ideas of God and human participation in the eternal, for Betty Adcock the diorama of nature hands back something at once more personal and more fleeting. It informs her tales of family bonds and determines the drift of loves and losses that accumulate around her as she tracks, like a hunter, that most elusive of prey: herself. The countryside she roams speaks to her (and through her, to us) of this discovery.
For, at its root, Adcock’s is a poetry as unapologetic as Whitman’s in its celebration of the self. The narrator of “Little Text,” walking through the woods of home after a long absence, is alive to their tiniest details. Like the single needle of the longleaf pine that falls at random only to hitch a ride on “‘possum or ‘coon or wildcat” then continues its earthward trek by way of “briar or buttonbush,” ending up crushed beneath her boot, the ghost of its aroma leaving “on air a print / of the suddenly upstanding huge / guessed-at virgin tree.” But wait, this woman is the “wildcat” here—spiritual daughter of those wildcatters who braved the lush unknown of this place seeking their fortunes in oil. And, even as she takes in and shares with us the sights and sounds of this locale, its “gar-infested creeks” and the occasional armadillo with its “metal . . . unzipped” beneath “a stranded palmetto,” she recognizes the toll that human presences have exacted from this place:
The author has described her native region, her “South not even quite the South” as follows: “Deep East Texas, as it is called, is both the South and the West, having been part of the western frontier but with a history of subsistence farming, slavery, war, and ruin that is completely southern.” And, in poem after poem, Adcock chronicles the unique history and culture of her beloved “backwater” which, she claims, to this day “keeps an aura of raw strangeness.”
Her gorgeously descriptive poems, centered on observations and recollections of this region, often verge upon the metaphysical. But Adcock is usually far too busy with the scrupulous salvage work of memory to get bogged down in philosophy. If earlier works like “Topsail Island,” “Redlands,” “The Farm,” and “South Woods in October, with the Spiders of Memory” (all from Nettles) are built upon authentically confessional foundations, the poems of later collections like Beholdings and The Difficult Wheel take on wider scope, encompassing the communal stories and cultural riches of the poet’s native land and its peoples.
These arise from the myths of the vanished Ays Indian tribe, whose custom it was “to weep as a greeting to strangers;” from the history of Aus Hooks (in “Big Thicket Settler, 1840”) defeated by the very landscape he’d hoped to conquer, immense as it was and
Aus Hooks who abandoned his homesteader’s dreams, grabbed “Bible and tintype,” and hustled right back to Georgia “straight / as a pillar of salt;” from the glorious vistas catalogued in “East Texas Autumn as a Way to See Time,” half Audubon-inspired tour book, half cautionary tale, paying its tribute to “the old story of long lost / who never will come home.” From all of these the poet stitches an amazing quilt (an art form which her ample body of work also manages to chronicle). But, plainspoken to the point of bluntness, Adcock is careful to advise: “I care about people, our failings, our deaths and the real earth. I have no program for salvation,” and the South she claims is not the “idealized country as set up by some of the Fugitives, but a flesh-and-blood place, strange and funny and horrifying and beautifully mysterious.” These are her starting points.
In “Day Lilies,” another piece from Slantwise, we witness the confluence of the poet’s many strategies in composition as well as the modus operandi of her rigorous imagism. An archaeologist of the many vernaculars she has encountered on her life’s journey, Adcock delights to inform us that these common blossoms are also known as “ditchflowers,” and to sing of how they lift “from green sleep / the tiger’s orange, soft melon and peach, / cadmium yellow, carmine, coral pink.” But far be it from this poet to leave us here, savoring the rich music of her careful description, the highly assonant and alliterative surface of her text mimicking in its deft way the prolific and workaday loveliness of the flowers themselves. She nudges us on to consider the deeper history of what she has witnessed, how the progenitors of the humble blooms before her must be “at least as old as Egypt’s / tomb walls” and maps for us their kinship with the species referred to by Christ in his parable: “the lilies of the field / we’re asked to consider. Consider them: / first to come in from the wild.” Like living relics, Adcock’s ditchflowers embody and remind us of those originals, conceived here and refigured as “fists full of tomorrows, / knots of plumbless metaphor.”
Thus, Adcock seems to posit, our destinations (and our destinies?) are intimately, irrevocably connected to the points from which we set out. The paths we take may not be predetermined, but, inasmuch as they can be referred to as paths at all, they partake of something timeworn and habitual. The traveler in “Southbound” (also from Walking Out) discovers this fact. Her probing eye faithfully records the moments through which she travels, back to the places of her childhood—her translation from the antiseptic cabin of an airplane in flight to the shiny anonymity of a rental car—but, as these vehicles carry her forward in the space-time of her visit, memory impels her backward, along a very different trajectory. Speeding past “yards full of lapsed / appliances, tin cans, crockery, snapped wheels, / weedy, bottomless chairs“ the speaker reaches a point where the weight of the town she has brought with her, in recollection, stands in perfect equipoise to the actual place she travels through with its “courthouse and gathering of garrulous stores.” The stillness is palpable as the poet stands there at the edge of an all-too-familiar street. Still in the sense of not moving. Still as yet. Still as enduring. And, in that deep present, the poet considers her (our) options:
Such incantations demonstrate just how deeply the poet believes that her poems, that poetry itself, can help us figure out who (and where and when) we are. If, as Fred Chappell points out in his review of Beholdings for the Greensboro News and Record, Adcock’s poetry is, in many ways, a remarkable elegy for “tribal ways that disappear in durational time but live in history” the poet herself remains dubious of the specular half-light of human recollection and the many imperfections inherent to it. Indeed, memory and its limitations are a constant theme in Adcock’s work, and she often elegizes the simple fact that
This need to acknowledge the limitations of her own capacity to remember is almost a compulsion in Adcock, as if such a mea culpa might serve as anticipatory penance for the sin of so imperfectly preserving her primal memories. The white space of the stanza break itself here seems complicit in her reckoning, her struggle to account for the inevitable redactions experience undergoes. As if she could compensate somehow by arranging her thoughts, just so, across the open field of the page. Compensate for the very blankness of that tabula rasa and its tendency to enshrine as literal truth whatever material she, as poet, must choose to fill in next.
The title poem from Intervale: New and Selected Poems not only illustrates the poet’s ongoing engagement with the problematics of memory and her desire to break through its limitations to some truer, more complete discovery of her own deep stories, it also exemplifies her mastery of the lyric sequence. Adcock takes advantage of the sequence’s roomier structure and the narrative force that accrues from the careful arrangement and compartmentalization of its content to reinforce the fragile vessel of human recall as well as her own efforts to render, poetically, what really happened, what really mattered. With its extensive epigraph, ample borrowings from hymns in The Sacred Harp Songbook and verbatim quotations from interviews the poet conducted with her maternal aunts, uncles and other folk who knew the mother she lost at the age of six to a botched blood transfusion, “Intervale” becomes a meditation on loss and redemption that is both universal and hauntingly personal.
The biographical truth is that Adcock barely knew her mother or her mother’s people, lifted out of their sphere of influence as she was at a very young age by the event of her mother’s untimely death. Inevitably it was her father’s kin and the lives they led which shaped her. As the poet recalls: “Out of a southern myth or a southern reality—who can say which it was?—my father handed me a love of the natural world.” Her father taught her “how to see, how to look hard at what is present in the world.” She says, “I avoided, at least partly, the woman poet’s dilemma by choosing my father’s world as subject. His love for the place in which his family was so deeply rooted, his respect for the wild nature in that place.”
But, just as inevitably, Adcock felt the tug of her lost mother and has worked, through research and through the power of verse, to reconnect the “bits and pieces” of the maternal history she managed to carry “like moments cut out of a film” into adulthood. As Richard B. Sale points out in the essay he composed about the poet for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “It is in the dream-memory recollection of the family that Adcock has shown her most characteristic virtues throughout her writing career.”
Such recollections no doubt took on a new level of urgency when Adcock lost her beloved father to a hunting accident in 1974. Amid such tales of loss it is no wonder that the poet has been an inveterate peruser of her family album, and photographs often provide a luminous bridge for the poet to traverse on her way back to the past and forward into some of her most memorable poems: “Penumbra,” “Final Cut,” “Box-camera Snapshot.” If, in poems such as these, the reader is placed in the position of having to peer over the poet’s shoulder to share her gradual recognition that all portraiture is, to some extent, self-portraiture, in others the poet’s game face is more directly and more easily discerned. For instance, in “Sister, That Man Don’t Have the Sting of a Horsefly,” Adcock explicitly identifies with the brassy, chain-smoking broad who stands, stoically, “behind the ‘Eat Here’ counter in the bus station,” comprehending all too well the “years she’s been mopping up / after babies and truck drivers.,” and the way “nothing they say surprises her.” The poet claims the archetypal figure of this tough working woman as “Part of the light in my eyes, / blind Texas sun I grew under.”
It could be argued that, by predisposition and circumstance, Betty Adcock is an outsider artist. Not too far outside mind you, but definitely a ways off the front porch, out where wild, uneven ground begins to resist the predictable arguments of horticulture. Biography reveals that the arc of her career has not been typical. Married at eighteen, a mother at nineteen, Adcock recounts how “family and financial responsibilities” dictated that she enter the workforce early on, forgoing “graduate schools, summer conferences, residencies at writers’ colonies, or teaching positions.” Intellectually Adcock perceives herself as “outside the circle” of the academy and is quick to confess her refusal to be swept up in the great wave of academic feminism of the 1970s and 1980s. If, as many critics within that movement seemed to argue, the only way to move forward from their historical moment was through the rubble of an old school built upon the revered tradition of such figures as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, Fred Chappell, and Dave Smith, Adcock realized she would have to take a different path.
On her solitary journey, “without classrooms, without any received opinion,” the poet discovered what she loved by ranging widely in the literary wilderness and depending on “hope and accident” to carry her within earshot of the voices she needed to hear, among them Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Wilbur, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robinson Jeffers, the poet whose “narratives and fierce lyrics” Adcock claims as “most central” to an understanding of her own work.
In “Permanent Enchantments,” a memoir/essay which appeared in the Southern Review in 1994, Adcock very discerningly draws a number of parallels between her own poetics (and her career as a writer) and those of the Irish poet Eavan Boland. Adcock observes: “The Irish woman poet and the southern woman poet of our generation have much in common.” Boland, writing against the troubled backdrop of Irish nationhood with its own violent history (still in progress) has much in common with Adcock, who notes the American South “while not a nation, has been until recent decades separate, some might say colonized by industry, caught still in old moral tangles, and at odds with itself.” Even though she admired the passionate example of such figures as Adrienne Rich, Adcock, like her Irish contemporary, committed herself to the lonely task of working out “an understanding of her stake in the tradition that had both hobbled and illuminated her writing life.”
The poems in Slantwise continue to explore the themes Adcock claimed as the wellsprings of her poetry in an entry she composed for Contemporary Authors upon publishing Walking Out, her poetic debut: “growing up in rural, small-town south, folk-tales, ancestral hauntings, objects touched by time, the world’s myths, the despair of the present, language as possibility.” And if, at moments, the poet bemoans the little doom of being “Betty, all aprons and frosting mix, / thirties cartoons, fifties pinups” she cajoles herself through it to a hard-won recognition of the distinct pleasure of being comfortable in her own hide:
Still, for all her gutsy outsider swagger, a plaintive note haunts Betty Adcock’s voice. It makes me wish (for her, for myself) that it might really be possible, some day, to send an incredibly advanced Hubble-telescope-of-the future hurtling out into the heavens fast enough, far enough to gather back again all the “merciless light” this world has scattered, to reassemble for her the lost or partial stories her poems so lovingly evoke. Tales of her mother and her father, the Ays Indians, the drunken frivolity of Byron out on Cape Sounion, carving his name on that high plinth consecrated to Poseidon. But, then again, Adcock has been to Greece already, and it reminded her of home.
Betty Adcock is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Slantwise (LSU Press, 2008). A recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, the Poets’ Prize, the North Carolina Medal for Literature, the Texas Institute of Letters Prize for Poetry, the Hanes Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Adcock teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. Her poem, “Found” appears in this issue of Blackbird.