by Betty Adcock
LSU Press 2008
Reviewed by Diane Schenker
I randomly opened Slantwise, Betty Adcock’s sixth book, to a poem titled “Names,” her contemplation of ending up as Betty instead of the much more poet-like Elizabeth (her given name). I felt as though I had come all alone to a party and was taken in hand by a delightful person who put me at my ease, made me laugh, made me think, made me want to go on with the conversation all night–and who, it turns out, was the hostess:
. . . At fifteen,
I knew I was an Elizabeth,
but nobody listened.
to be Betty, all aprons and frosting mix
. . .
And yet . . . and yet,
doesn’t poetry have to be every bit as tough
as the woman pouring diner coffee:
as practical as the mother of several
who tends bar, does laundry, and cooks?
It has to sing a little, toe the line
like a dancer, and good looks won’t hurt it.
It has to rise and shine and be able
to clear a table and make change
in a New York minute.
I liked this person. I wanted to read more.
Folksy charm by itself wears thin pretty quickly, but this congenial nod towards Elizabeth Bishop (you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them) was just an appetizer. Adcock’s range runs deep. The warm, welcoming hostess becomes by turns intimate, political, gruesome, funny and fearless. And always, always generous. Whatever territory she ventures into feels like having a good friend hold your hand and walk you through things you’ve looked at but never seen, parse you memories so vivid you forget they’re not your own.
Adcock grounds herself in geography and the natural world–commonplaces in poetry, but her freshness drew me in time after time. Each sunset, each woods, each jay, each lake–it was as though nothing like this had ever existed in quite that way before (remember Bishop: “nothing stranger /had ever happened”). Not a bad definition of poetry. “Barrier Islands” is an example:
Skirts of the continent, ruffled in heavy pavane
of 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
In human affairs, she steps back and is able to ask an innocent question and provide an innocent answer about a crux like, for instance, death. In “Diagnosis”:
Perhaps we die of an overdose of stories. . .
I am adding this to my list of favorite first lines of poetry. It’s a long poem and yes, it lives up to its opening. But I’m not going to quote any more of it because you should read it.
So how does Betty Adcock take the old tropes and knock them fresh? She inhabits a world so tactile, so saturated with color and smell, so delicious, it makes you want to eat it with a spoon. And the next layer after her slant, full touch observations of natural surroundings is not exploration of us now, but of ghosts, the unseen, things past. Then us. Current time comes last in this lush world. Adcock’s shades have much to teach us, not least that we feel our place in the world among them.
But we do get our lessons, too. We learn of love, of long marriage. We learn of loss, of aging parents drifting away. And poetry itself, crazy endeavor, even there, her lessons are fresh reminders. “Letter to a Gifted Student” sets out the essence of the life of a poet, in all its futility and necessity:
Know this first: the gift is worthless
you’ve been unwrapping all these years,
unlayering a Christmas paper gorgeous-patterned.
Or shroud-plain as clouds. Or soft dark
as velvet marked with wine or blood.
Each time, you’ll keep the faith, something
will turn up—something material and sharp
as money: a knife, a pair of marble eyes,
a tree, a roofed pagoda, a bone, a flute.
Nothing ever does.
Nothing does its dance
with you again: no paycheck, no crown
of laurel, no dragon slain, no downed
champagne. Just this unshading over and over,
the heart opened like a pomegranate . . .
Slantwise includes what has become an almost obligatory inclusion in contemporary poetry collections: the 9/11 poem. Despite my ambivalence, Adcock here, too, wins my heart. She is able to embrace and honor in one poem the personal devastations and the historical context. She evokes the particular vision of horror, a woman in a Brooklyn kitchen, Hiroshima, global economics and “the slant light of every September . . .” She concludes:
looking-glass holds, in its network of steel
and invisible signal, history and myth
and money laid across the world.
That great snare shines in its cables
like the orb-weaver’s art, trembles fragile
as any web on night grass
in a field of starlight.
Go get a copy of Slantwise. It will give you a big dollop of the best poetry has to offer: those things you thought you know will jump at you as though you’ve never seen them before. Let Betty Adcock take you by the hand. She throws a great party.