Adcock’s voice—self-possessed, memorable, original—sings
through such glorious images as these:
Late June spins a thickening
threading needlepoint through the
weave of heat
and lengthened shadow.
[from “Backyard: Evening
Beneath iced bush and eave,
the small banked fires of
birds at rest lend absences
to seeming absence.
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):
seems to be coming apart—pieces
of wall, snatches of a rug,
shingles, plumbing, lamps and
Glass shatters from rows of
faces. The mirrors are dusking over,
no longer disclosing.
as if gravity has
left the place. It’s not
violent; it is a loosening, a soundless
disengagement. Even her body has
otherwise, flesh that can no longer
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
tornado, air full of what could be
confetti in some kind of decelerating
celebration: music, books,
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.
(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
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 tenantsone dark,
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.
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
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.
New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 2001):
than Brancusi. Nobody has ever made an
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
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.
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
R. L. S., 1904-1974
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Difficult Wheel (LSU
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
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.
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.
even kindness runs
the same round course as everything:
a planet, not a sun.
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.
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.