A CLOSER LOOK: Betty Adcock

Betty Adcock’s voice—self-possessed, memorable, original—sings through such glorious images as these:


Late June spins a thickening twilight, birdsong

threading needlepoint through the weave of heat

and lengthened shadow.

[from “Backyard: Evening Variations”]




Beneath iced bush and eave,

the small banked fires of

birds at rest lend absences

to seeming absence.

[from “January”]


Her voice no doubt owes some debt to several particular sources: certainly her origins in rural east Texas, its rolling hills and deeply wooded landscape, and the mild twang and musical drawl of its spoken language; her long relationship with the jazz flutist, Don Adcock, her late husband of more than fifty years; and her self-education as a poet—no BA, no MFA, no PhD (“Except for one class—with the wonderful Guy Owen—I have had no teachers. I never spent time in wonderfully seedy bars or cafes with like-minded souls—some of whom may actually have published something!”). For Adcock, “Controlled freedom, as in mainstream jazz, is what interests me.” 

Betty Adcock is the author of seven books of poetry. She’s won 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 Guggenheim and NEA fellowships. She’s taught at Duke and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. For a number of years, Adcock was Writer in Residence at Meredith College.

In her poems, she hopes “to tell the truth and find that it is music.”

Read more about Betty Adcock:








A Selection of Poems

by Betty Adcock


from Widow Poems (Jacar Press, 2014):

The Widow’s House

seems to be coming apart—pieces
of wall, snatches of a rug, chair-rungs,
shingles, plumbing, lamps and doorknobs.
Glass shatters from rows of still-framed 
faces. The mirrors are dusking over,
no longer disclosing.

Everything floats

as if gravity has left the place. It’s not
violent; it is a loosening, a soundless
disengagement. Even her body has become 
otherwise, flesh that can no longer
recognize itself.

Perhaps it is she who has gone to ash,
gone to ground and the dark.
She has asked so hard for him,
crying out in the night, weeping into
pots on the stove, roses in the yard.

Perhaps she is the ghost 
in the house they built dissolving,
turning now as if in the grip of a slowed
tornado, air full of what could be 
confetti in some kind of decelerating
celebration: music, books, conversations
shredding in the wind that memory
always becomes—unfastened, recasting,
disheveling as the end of lovemaking.
She sits on a splintered floor
surrounded by the done-for. 

from Slantwise (LSU Press, 2008):




I was twenty-two, pretty maybe. It was a small town

county fair: hot dogs, freak show, cotton candy,

and heavy wheels laden with light,

all tuned to the gaudy air.


The Octopus—remember that one? Eight

arms like extended girders, the thing was a metal

Shiva juggling worlds: a cup spun at the end

of each madly oscillating arm, every cup

overfull of squealing kids or lovers drunk

on the whip-sharp unexpected torque

toward the expected rapture.


He was maybe twenty, bare-chested, tanned

and gleaming in the southern September night,

a kind of summer in the lights that played

across him as he pulled levers set to arm

the bright contraption with speed and plunge,

with whirl and rise. His hair was almost red

in the lights’ translation. Not many

riders yet, when suddenly he leapt

onto one of the metal arms in its low sweep

and rose with it. And laughed.


I thought it might be for me, this showing

off. He jumped onto the next arm as it rose,

went up with it, then landed easy on the ground.

He vaulted the lowered ones as they went by,

stepped up again, and down again, then ducked

under so a steel arm grazed his cap. How long

ago it was.

How long did I stand and watch

that wild control before I turned

to find my husband and my child?


He’s likely dead now. Or deep asleep

in some wine-dark room, some ragged dream.

I think no golden years follow that life,

though I still see him shining new

against black sky and turning stars—

chancing it, taking on the monster,

winning, dancing it.



Backyard: Evening Variations


Late June spins a thickening twilight, birdsong

threading needlepoint through the weave of heat

and lengthened shadow. The thrush’s madrigal,

rilling silver along the rising dark,

stitches summer’s flowers on

the long train-whistle’s dopplered ribbon.


The long train-whistle’s doppler ribbons

tiger lily’s going day, blood-rust zinnia,

sunflower fringes troubled with finches.

A cardinal chips as if at granite-colored

cloud. To what island do they go

when the world is out of light?


When light is gone, where do the birds go?

In full night, all green leaves disappear—

only the birch trunks vivid, as if moonrise

brought an errant winter to snatch them bare.

Watch how the sun goes raveling down

waves of suddenly brilliant clouds, drowning


all that is not cloud and color. That’s when

the vanishing speak their exit: towhee’s

torqued query, bluejay’s final quip,

the thrush’s braiding-downward fountain


   Now the bat’s high notice warps

and wimples. Now fireflies prophesy.


The one loom fabricates, again, the stars.



We bought a roofed box for birds.

They never came. We nailed it higher

in the oak, and got for tenants

one dark, unspecified snake,

a bat the color of cinnamon,

and finally, a flying squirrel

with regular habits.

No wings unless you count the squirrel’s

gliding skin or the bat’s leather.

The snake, of course, was earlier.


In another house I was learning never

to quarrel with means of ascension.

Let rise whatever will, in whatever

way is possible. 

   Or several.



Barrier Islands


Skirts or the continent, ruffled in heavy pavane

or sand and tide or frenzied in capriccios

of gales, can sometimes tear like lace in the turns

as of dancers wearing the wind, wearing the moon.


Salt-drenched beloved of the hurricane,

their drift is longer than the sea’s step in,

step out; partners the storm but answers

no augur.

    Edgy, we say,

or something new. Cutting edge, we say.


This power’s like the slow velocities

of art, shape-shifting stillness, all time

in motion, all motion

trying to be form.


from lntervale: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 2001): 


Cycladic Figure


Better than Brancusi. Nobody has ever made an

object stripped that bare.



After the Fall,

after the plummet from pliable green

and lambent shadow, all impression

of the garden vanished. Imprints

of blossom and fruit, entangling vine,

leaf and animal and bird

in their once and perfect forms—

these have been excised.

Exile has pared this image;

implement and need have come


And the mild, vaporous dawn

that could not die is lost.

Lost, the life on which wild world

engraved itself, blunt kinship

with beasts and stars in that before

where bloodshed daily was

unconscious and undone.


Not yet begun: the known,

our waking dream, labor of time

and the mistaking mind.

Soft Minoan frescoes are not quite

imagined. Inconceivable the Attic

art that will be born in grace

and die diffused in ornament.

Languages, philosophies to be caught

in the nets of possibility, faiths

and wars and kingdoms—none is yet.


Luminous, seeming to be made purely

of tenuous light, this figure clasping its own

form is born altogether of earth

that has given such reflection

again into our hands,

a charm, a grave conjecture

thin as the new moon.


This candle we may bear

as we have done before

into the sepulcher.





Dusk and snow this hour

in argument have settled

nothing. Light persists,

and darkness. If a star

shines now, that shine is

swallowed and given back

doubled, grounded bright.

The timid angels flailed

by passing children lift

in a whitening wind

toward night. What plays

beyond the window plays

as water might, all parts

making cold digress.

Beneath iced bush and eave,

the small banked fires of

birds at rest lend absences

to seeming absence. Truth

is, nothing at all is missing.

Wind hisses and one shadow

sways where a window’s lampglow

has added something. The rest

is dark and light together tolled

against the boundary-riven

houses. Against our lives,

the stunning wholeness of the world.



Sister, that Man Don’t Have the Sting of a Horsefly


However, woman can never be a poet. She is a muse or she is nothing.

—Robert Graves, The White Goddess


But doubling’s a specialty among us.

She looks from my mirror, that other’s

face nobody suspects me of.


Part of the light in my eyes,

blind Texas sun I grew under, color

of brass, her face is loud as a street band

as flat. I know how it feels

standing behind the “Eat-Here” counter in the bus station,

still as flypaper, waiting for the next one.

She’s that kind of weather, never

taking no and never going far,

lighting up one after another.


The bastards don’t bother her,

wanting that brassy light she’s got,

wishing she’d get out of theirs or at least

take one of them home before she marries a plumber.

Years she’s been mopping up

after babies and truck drivers.

Nothing they say surprises her.



Topsail Island


January absolves the village.

Summer left no flags. I’m living

just now alone in a room on stilts.

Whatever silts this way is what I’ve got.


It’s clean. Even the fake flowers

left behind on a porch step

are stripped of pretension.

They bloom no-color, original plastic.


Perhaps I am here to practice.


Surely at night these houses break

and sail on perfect silence into the world’s

dreams of vacant houses. Then we all move in,

without even a lamp or a suitcase,

until the morning’s drydock light

establishes them again, crooked and empty

on their bad knees.


Miles under a blue sun, sand

in my shoes, my heavy parka on:

this is the way the child whispered

I’m the only one.

So many swimmers pulled away from my hands.

Not one of them reached back.

I’m learning the stroke, stroke,

afloat and purposeful along these paths

following a windful of gulls and grackles.


For now, the island’s mine, talking

a cold tongue blue,

the light shot through with birds.

The stretch of script behind the tide

I’ve got by heart,

though every day a new translation

lies down in the clarity of salt.


The shells are millions of new doors, all open.

In the dunes where long grass bends to trace

every tick and tock of wind, the dead

dry fast. Beak and crabclaw hold

what can be held. The tern’s dropped flightfeather

knows its own weight at last. Like this

I mean to weather.



To My Father, Killed in a Hunting Accident


R. L. S., 1904-1974


You ’d have been waiting all morning

under the flares of longleaf pine

alone with the gun in your arms.

And watching, as you were always watching.

This was the way trees are

under the sun plain as a hand,

such waiting its own place, without time,

and printed with the squirrel’s passage

and the small yellow sounds of grass.

The sky of it was the oldest circle

of hawk and sparrow.


Holding the gun, remembering to think

of holding the gun, you held

a lifetime bent to the minor gods

of a particular and passing kingdom.

Its history waited with you—this light

only daybreak on the first kill you shouldered,

this sun splayed on your great-grandfather’s bear.

Did your daydream search those red seasons,

knowing each of their beasts,

fur, hoof and jawbone, for a trophy

you could perfectly own?

Did you think again of that emblem, the knife

you once lost by the muddy Sabine, water rising,

you fourteen and lost too on your pony?

Telling that story, you were always sure

the one blade you needed was back there.


I cannot guess your careless thought,

how it unfolded in pine scent,

some strand of memory or need unwinding

too taut and suddenly

broken just there on a buried edge,

your father’s father’s gun taking on

a weight that shifted utterly

because of a low branch

rock underfoot or a root

    the stumble because the world does

turn over     turn over and kill because

the world does and the sound of it

dies out and dies out

in the hot thick light, and ground

can shake like the hide

of a thing enormously alive.


You got to your feet for hours

holding your opened belly,

cicada-hum braiding through red

pain    hope     love     terror

gripping the backbone.


You were standing when strangers found you.


I who am daughter and stranger

find you in every weather of sleep,

the fox’s lent eyes seeing for you,

the will of the gutshot deer holding on

where the bobcat in darkness brings out

its wreath of claws, and the smoldering

remnant wolf lays a tribal ghost.


I have nothing to give you but this

guesswork and care; oh careful

as the long women who bring wildflowers

to graves in that country, I place

live birds in the hours you stood for.

And to me you have given a history

bearing up its own animal, the alien

close kin and enemy

who eats in my house

now that the weapons are given away.


Poised in any prayer I make for light,

to catch the way it glances off the world,

your ignorant knife is

praising the river, praising

currents of canebrake, pinewoods,

thickets under the wild sky—

whatever lives there lost,

and whatever is helped to die.



Rent House


I can’t think why I’ve come to see this

house with no resonance, temporary

years between the real houses: that one

I was born to, the other I traveled from.

The interim is here, habitual, stupefied

summers of brass and blue enamel,

smudged backyard grass of fall.

Everything that was here still

stands except the cannas. The journey

of the same cracked two-strip driveway

ends the same.


Before this, the short life it feels like dreaming

to remember: field and barn, pecan trees,

the rambling gentle house holding its own

wide skirts of pasture, fluttering henyard,

and my live mother close.

The town doctor’s had that place for thirty years,

all the pecans, sunset behind the fence rail,

a bed of asters in the filled-in fish pool.


The last of childhood left me in yet another

house, five unsteady porches, grandparents,

a spread wing floating me along until I simmered

into leaving.

Years ago, a retired contractor from Houston

restored that one to unremembered splendor.


This narrow house between.

I look a long time, thinking

I need imagination, but there’s nothing

to be made of such temporal defeat.

How long was it we lived on this back street

behind screens billowing with rust?

I remember how long one afternoon


I wrote my whole name broad and hard in crayon

on every single windowscreen in this house,

and then was punished.

Forsythia is the name of those flowers

I watched darken in the wallpaper.


All night I’d listen to the child next door

cry and cut teeth. Now he’s a lawyer

in San Francisco. I matched his howls

with those I kept back. Both our voices

ran down the moony street alongside crossed

adult allegiances that roamed, like ghostly wolves,

the nights of any town so old.


Nobody rented in a town like this.

Why did Papa bring me here

to this aunt who makes me braid my hair?

Where is my mother?

Where’s the calf you said was mine?

What happened to the trees?

Then they’d drive me out there so I’d see

fields dizzy with briers, the derelict house

large and sad and creatureless.

Until I lost even my loss, got used

to a cramped hallway and a makeshift life,

the tight backyard with no hen in it.


And it was here I staked a claim: from any room

I could look up to see my name

purple or lime green against the sun,

or clearer, lamplit on the night outside.

Nothing they tried would get it off

those years I thinned down, toughening,

asthmatic with grief and discovery:

how the self, amazed, swam up like bone

through the lost landscape, through the mother’s

vanished flesh, through all remembered

and all future home,

to build garish letters on the riddled air,

knowing there’s no place else. Not anywhere.



Four from the Spider


Enact yourself between fixed points,

but loosely—let the wind anoint

clarity with death, and death with light.

Live on the sheerest opposites.


Dance in a thin but working order

Choreograph a net that severs

with just such difficulty as

makes it worth the making-over.


Take what comes, food or the random blown,

with indiscriminate self outspun.

The world is everything that sticks.

Choose. Then count illusion’s tricks.


In the season’s final filament be caught.

Nothing—not saying grace nor closing argument—

attaches to your having been

the wheel you turned in.



Digression on the Nuclear Age


In some difficult part of Africa, a termite tribe

builds elaborate tenements that might be called

cathedrals were they for anything so terminal

as Milton’s God. Who was it said

the perfect arch will always separate

the civilized from the not? Never mind.

These creatures are quite blind and soft

and hard at labor chemically induced.

Beginning with a dishlike hollow, groups

of workers pile up earthen pellets.

A few such piles will reach a certain height;

fewer still, a just proximity.

That’s when direction changes, or a change

directs: the correct two bands of laborers

will make their towers bow toward each other.

Like saved and savior, they will meet in air.

It is unambiguously an arch and it will serve,

among the others rising and the waste,

an arch's purposes. Experts are sure

a specific moment comes when the very structure

triggers the response that will perfect it.


I’ve got this far and don’t know what

termites can be made to mean. Or this poem:

a joke, a play on arrogance, nothing

but language? Untranslated, the world gets on

with dark, flawless constructions rising,

rising even where we think we are. And think

how we must hope convergences will fail this time,

that whatever it is we’re working on won’t work.



Time after Time


An Australian sound engineer has

developed a unique way of clearing the

tire hiss and clatter out of vintage jazz


—Associated  Press


Time: it does things

out there among the galaxies.

Clatter and hiss? Perhaps.

That’s one metaphor for distance,


which is time. And our remembering?

There’s less and less,

the dissonance of now and then

no longer audible when

mechanics cancels difference.


So out with the scritch of decades,

the sizzle and scar of error,

remembrance’s waver, susurrus

of mortality, dust-riff, blues-ether.


We will turn them into us,

our sound loud as a spotlight,

bright as an electronic toy,

cleansed of those troublesome sixty years

and that old distortion: joy.


Poem for Dizzy


written after discovering that no poem in The Anthology of Jazz Poetry is written to, for, or about Dizzy Gillespie, who was cocreator (with Charlie Parker) of bebop, the style that ushered in the modern jazz era


Sweet and sly, you were all business when the old bent­

skyward horn went up. Sometimes it went up like a rocket,

sometimes like a gentle-turning lark

high on a summer day. It could blow an island wind

snapping a line of red and yellow clothes

hard against blue.

The breath pouring into that banged-up

brass inclination heavenward

gave us lesson number one: Be.

Lesson number two came naturally.


And you were serious as sunrise. Those who scoffed

or bristled at the little stageside dance,

the cutting-up, the jokes and jive, have all gone off

to other targets. And you, Dizzy,

you’ve gone off too, asleep in your chair,

leaving us bereft. There was nobody better.


But there were lives the poets would want more—

for tragedy or politics, harsher

experiments: Bird’s drugged vortex into gone,

Coltrane’s absolute, Monk’s edgy monologues, the demon

Miles Davis posed as, then became.

But you played clown, put everybody on.

You played the house, but played a soul into the horn.

And you outlived them all. This too was real jazz.


Talking, you were evasive, slant as a riff

around a melody, more private maybe

than anybody knew. I remember your one week

in our town, 1970:

afternoons you’d wander with your camera.

Putting his flute back in its case, Moody told us:

He does that every place we go, walks around

for hours by himself, just taking pictures

of wherever it is he is. Lesson number one.


You looked like the face of South Wind

in my childhood picture book,

like the best cherub

Italy ever chiseled above a doge

or saint, rich man, or pope.

What were you storing in those blown-out cheeks

all the years? Your darkest jokes?

some brand-new pure invention, notes

outside our hearing? Or perhaps some simple tune

we’d never have made much sense of,

the one about hope. The one about oldest love.

from The Difficult Wheel (LSU Press, 1995):


White Rhinoceros


Immense, stuck with two nose-horns, they’re ghostly

cousins of the unicorn’s first draft,

though that is hard to credit. Two sit,

two stand in the sand trucked in

to make a plain. It’s African

terrain as Carolina U.S.A. imagines it.

Complete with lifelike boulders of concrete.


Not really white, all four have rolled the sand

into a final skin. We’ll wait all morning

for the largest one to move

not much, the great head a kind of engine

pulling the body like a Macy’s giant balloon.

It’s said they’re fast. Perhaps that’s just momentum.

Any serious motion they began

would have to last, and increase.

But we won’t see them run.

In this world that’s found them,

they cannot have begun,

not for our money or their own

lost currencies of rut and territory.


When one lies down, the shape’s a complication.

No place to put the huge, pulled-taffy face.

A vasty nostril’s squashed, the lip’s displaced.

No place to put a horizontal half-ton leg and foot.

Bone, flesh slab, and leather undertake

a cosmic squirm, a quake

for antique comfort’s sake.


How life has yearned all ways for more of itself!


We think the rhinos dream. We think that

the same way we guessed from a distance

they might be fiberglass. Closer,

we saw two bump like dreamy train cars,

their eyes not looking anywhere

but looking nonetheless.

We think they listen. The small ears twitch

as if they listen.

What image comes to them, what voice?

Some surreal version

of Lost World from late-night television?

Or can they imagine only this blurred

landscape of made indecision,

this air drilled with Carolina birds?


Perhaps the others gone or nearly missing

sing to these? Perhaps the Aurochs

sings four hundred years of darkness

prototype of all our cattle, bull

that held Europa. And does the Quagga,

onomatopoeic, cry out the name

heard by the Hottentots who gave it back?

Perhaps the Blue Buck answers reverie

in our rhinos who now are nearly myth

themselves, who may be humming as the Tiger hums

far under consciousness, a vanishing.

If the discarded continents, snowy with ghosts,

make such a music—if

behind the forehead’s massive boneplate

the rhinos know that shadow descant ringing—

we do not think for us.

We think the fey


We think that.



A Death


Our aged cat has sickened. We did make

the right decision—the gentle veterinarian

says we did. Now I’m allowed to hold him

wrapped in a blue towel against the cold

of the metal table. He lies in my arms

and purrs as he would at home, secure

while death crawls along a vein,

then skids into his eyes. They stop,

alarmed, then fixed, then not.


Just a cat. But all of life is just

one or another. And each one

may live so much, so far. And must.

The world’s not just.

A natural end for him would be

only narrow and deeply cruel—

as we secretly feel ourselves to be,

taking him home in a box.

       How naturally

even kindness runs

the same round course as everything:

a planet, not a sun.



Siphnos, 1987


I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field for awhile, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl of great price, the one field that had the treasure in it.

R.S.Thomas, “The Bright Field”           


Just past our neighbors’ lemon trees

heavy with their eggs of light,

one plot of ground was measured out

by stone walls whitewashed to shining—

something I might glance toward, walking on.

It was as blunt as any field in Wales,

as full of weather in a place where weather

likewise mints the farmer’s coin.

But this piece of land was given over.


I’d never seen wild flowers in such riot:

empurpled, gilded, smeared with the blue of icons.

And wide-faced poppies crowded luminous

as figures in the stained glass of cathedrals,

the blood of saints in them.

I hadn’t guessed Greek sunlight could repeat

at certain moments everything

that’s been said about it—molten

gold, honey, wine—pouring overmuch

on April’s prism, making rich

even the wooden donkey saddle waiting

daisy-bestridden, beneath an almond tree.


In air so clear, any sound will carry

until it seems almost material

beneath a sky that holds its clarity

the way St. Spirodon’s blue dome

above the dark chants holds perfection.

A fisherman in the village square was calling

the names of his catch, red mullet

leaping in his voice. The priest’s donkey

clattered past in a stutter of yellow.

Behind the stone church, a woman

in a moan of black skirts combed

her child’s hair softly with a song

green as the turning sea.

And surely the ragged wail sent down

by the goat lost on the mountain

bore the violet bruises of despair.

I stayed the morning there, in thrall

to something in particular.

Memory has taken it: white wall, the shine

of voices, the blossoms plying like gaudy fish

their sea of wind.

This was the bright field, the burning bush

that startles stone to words. It outstays

Mycenae’s gate, Delphi’s high and sibilant ruin;

the laws already broken

of matter and of time.



















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A CLOSER LOOK: Betty Adcock

Grace Cavalieri

Patricia L. Hamilton

Sonja James

Rod Jellema

Robert Krenz

Miles David Moore

Jean Nordhaus

Kyle Norwood

Stephen Oliver

Barbara J. Orton

William Page

Patric Pepper

Oliver Rice

W.M. Rivera

Peter Serchuk

M.R. Smith

Ellen Steinbaum

Myrna Stone

Robert Joe Stout

Tim Suermondt

Ayten Tartici

Rodney Torreson

Buff Whitman-Bradley

Katherine E. Young















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