“Aiming for Parnassus / and the Solar Plexus”: Constance Merritt on Betty Adcock’s Slantwise


Slantwise, Betty Adcock, LSU 2008

With its allusion to Emily Dickinson’s memorable dictum “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—,” Betty Adcock’s sixth poetry collection clues the reader into its method and much of its matter: Art generally, the art of poetry particularly, and the poet’s vocation are of central concern here. In Letter to a Gifted Poet, for example, Adcock expounds the nature of poetic gift:
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.
There is more of this poem that I want to quote and will. A moment ago thinking to be judicious in my quoting, I considered leaving out the last three lines of the first stanza, but quickly realized that to do so would obscure the signal qualities of Adcock’s work: her facility for wedding argument to song, her artful transubstantiations of metaphor to matter, and her weird amalgamation of gristle and grace in diction and tone. For it is in those three lines that the metaphor of gift—undoubtedly once fresh, but worn by time and hard use into cliché—is returned to earth as matter and, thus, imbued with fresh meaning for us. It is a hard truth this poem is telling, and here the speaker pulls no punches: “Know this first: the gift is worthless”, and though you continue to hope that something might turn up, “nothing ever does.”

But of course, there is always the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” to be accounted for so that “nothing ever does” is rendered ambiguous. Nothing ever turns up and that nothing always turns up; nothing in the first sense being a no-thing, an absence, and in the second, perhaps not a thing per se, but still something. And this ‘something’—whatever it is—that nothing is may still prove engaging:
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 […]
Essentially private (“No one will know you’ve opened this”), the gift is this process of unlayering, of peeling back the million veils of ego with its thick rind of strivings until duly danced by nothing one arrives at compassion (“the heart opened like a pomegranate,” “the one / serviceable tear”) for ‘the going away / of any part of things” and transience being in the nature of things, for all things.

Adcock approaches this radical conception of the poet’s task more explicitly in Ars Poetica on an Island in the Cyclades. There after owning that silence “is part of what I want, but only / part” and rejecting it as “nothing but posing, / another blind door heavy as irony [,]” the speaker turns to the task of elucidating what she does want: words that “wear belief sheer / as a pair of wings, serious as the silver / on the underside of olive leaves / in April wind.” Again, I note the specificity and, what’s more, the aptness of Adcock’s images in the passage above and in the following:
Even the thyme
on the mountain utters a fragrance
meant to be known, and the goat
cries out his fear of becoming
stone – – all things are longing,
like lost children, for a path
as if through the rubble of war
(a path that is only the breath
and the music of breath),
a way back to themselves enlivened,
aghast, unrepentant, spoken anew.

Even that which crouches lifeless,
mineral or granite or empty seashell
desires to enter memory, given voice
even if only for the length of a syllable.

My wish is to finish
with poems pale as their paper, to begin
with the letter A, to leave
nothing out.

According to this poetics, the poet’s task is to become the longed-for path through which all things can be enlivened, spoken anew. Possessed of Keatsian negative capability or the strict self-discipline of Stevens’s Snow Man, the poet apprehends in all things the intention to be known and the longing to be long and obliges by offering the brief refuge of breath.
In fact, though it is only now becoming clear to me, this notion of poet as path, as a living archive of the past, is also the subject of this volume’s opening poem “Little Text.” Set off from the first section of the book, the poem functions as a prologue or overture, introducing the structuring images and leitmotifs of the volume. Here text is introduced as scripture or poem or textile or body, while needle is parsed as leaf of a conifer; indicator on a mechanical instrument, as: a compass; and sewing implement – – a nesting of figures that recurs throughout the book. The poem begins by tracing the course of a single pine needle in the forest, calling forth the full grown pine and the entire woodland habitat in the process. Later in the poem we learn that this is a landscape from the speaker’s past, to which she has returned after a long time away (“so long gone I can’t remember bare / footlogs across the gar-infested creeks / or the heron thrust up white for magic”) to find it utterly changed:
This present chain-saw battered
earth, town-rent, tracked and fired
with pitiful need,
this water
displaced and broken into use.
Hand over hand, image by image, one thing becomes another until “air smeared with smoke,” “with a grease / redolent of human hope,” reveals itself as palimpsest reflecting traceries of scenes from the past: “a naked / walking child, bark-colored women[.]” Here is the fourth and final section of this poem:
What am I but the visible door
onto that corridor incarnate with the ache
of cypress and ty-vine, raccoon and fox,
bat and buzzard, hanged man, red child,
world flesh sutured with our small past,
inscription after inscription missed
or grasped dreamlike in the unsteady
sensing the body is. And the body is
already arcing backward, describing,
darkening into path.
In the context of geometry describe means “to draw or trace the outline of: to describe an arc,” but a further meaning seems to require admittance here: the body might also be de-scribing or un-writing itself, becoming more and more a part of world flesh, the darkening path.
In “Diagnosis,” one of the most breathtaking and provocative poems of this volume, Adcock elaborates this theme of body as archive, path, visible door, taking the measure of this weighty gift. “Perhaps we die of an overload of stories” full stop, the poem begins. This is an intriguing proposition, the kind a lesser poet might be tempted to save for a late epiphany in the poem’s endgame, but Adcock leads with trumps and has moxie enough to make good on all her bids. Not only does the poem’s speaker catalog some of the stories she carries, she also locates them within her own body:
My half-Indian great-grandmother sits
in my knees, an ache like too much prayer.
The madwoman gone for next door
is a mutter in my wrists. The spinster who made
bread for us children – – she spread every slice
with the word of a wrathful God – – lives now
in dreams I still recount. I’m trying yet
to find that dark jam sweet.
Another great-grandmother who suffered the ravages of the Civil War in Georgia weakens the speaker’s spine; “the wagon she drove alone / with her five children to Texas / shakes my marrow loose.” “Nature,” asserts Emily Dickinson, “is a haunted house – – but Art – – is a house that tries to be haunted.” I am not sure that Adcock would accept Dickinson’s too neat dichotomy between Nature and Art, and in the poetic vision Adcock proffers in Slantwise, Art, or at least, this particular artist has no need to try to be haunted; she just is. “All that we never / asked to know can enter the body, can enter / and fill and stay.”
As with individuals generally, surely a poet’s sense of the world, her experience of boundaries between self and other, and her conception of the poet’s task are deeply rooted in the soils of personal history and in the idiosyncratic climate of temperament, but in her poem “Why White Southern Poets Write the Way We Do” Adcock connects at least some of the coloration of her present leaves back to cultural roots. The poem responds to the why of the title with a series of clauses beginning with because:
because every one of us has at least one
relative who plowed poor with a mule – –

because the dead still enter our sleep as columns
of figures on the debit side of the ledger,

and darker voices carry what we cannot speak:
black ghosts, smoke in the twilit live oaks – –

because we found broken words everywhere
rolling like loose beads under the chiffonier,

and we weren’t suspicious when our breath
restrung them in patterns heavy as Scripture – –
Note how the ledger image in the second couplet quoted above serves as both bridge and barrier between the flanking stanzas. The ledger might record the downward spiraling debt of the poor white relative and the price of the blacks whose ghosts still haunt the landscape, as well as a moral ledger, balancing the books between blacks and whites. Also note the utter rightness of the appearance of the old-fashioned chiffonier in the couplet about broken speech. And, finally, here again is the singular blessing of breath.
No review of Slantwise would be complete without a discussion of the extraordinary poem “Fallen,” a poem about the February 1, 2003 crash of the space shuttle Columbia into deep East Texas woods. The poem is an elegy not only for the seven men and women who lost their lives in the disaster, but also for the end of a certain kind of chivalric questing: the birth and death of heroes, our triumph over nature, scientific messianism. After setting the tranquil sylvan scene “our shining myth” will shatter, Adcock bids us to imagine the wreckage, admonishing us not to seek refuge in the old myths:
Imagine the torn, deer-haunted woods
where a severed foot still in its boot
was driven into mud. Imagine rags of flesh,
the heart found near a logging road,
the arm in underbrush, insignia beside
an upended helmet filling with icy rain.

Buzzards led the searchers – –
don’t recoil – – do
not imagine this is a story to be tamed by naming
heroes who died for country and some further bourne
worth dying for.
Don’t imagine this is anything
beyond the old arc snapped, covenant entirely
broken, our ships no more than silver needles
trying the boundless haystacks of the stars.
But of course we do not want to imagine. Rather than see ourselves as we really are – – frail, frightened, ephemeral, oxygen addicts, dwarfed by cosmic vastness and self-exiled from earthly nature, our one true home – – we gallantly struggle to keep up appearances:
the astronauts sent out
as latter knights to press
our argument with airlessness
and make a grail of the mirage our image is,
among the novas and the planetary shrugs.
Slantwise is a deep and delightful collection of poems; one could easily wander here for pages and days and years. On a first reading one is most often delighted by Adcock’s obvious delight in and care for the music of words, with poems here and there – – “Why White Southern Poets Write the Way We Do,” “1932,” “Roustabout,” “Told by the Madwoman Who Stopped Making Quilts,” “Diagnosis,” “Fallen,” “Backyard: Evening Variations,” “Names,” “Housecats” – – flashing out like meteors or knives. But with further acquaintance it is the music of thought, the depth of compassion, the breadth of vision that captivates us and bids us return again and again.
Preparing to write this review I had imagined that at some point I would rail, however politely, at the incommensurateness between Adcock’s prodigious poetic gift and her rep in the poetry world, but somewhere along the way, chastened by the little poem called “Choice” that closes this remarkably artful volume, I changed my mind. Many are called, but few are chosen, reminds one ancient text. While under the aspect of time, one may choose to be famous, under the aspect of eternity, fame may choose us. Firmly rooted in time, Adcock figures the choice this way:
Towers of ambition, a few big pines have toppled
like temple columns, long mysteries forgotten.
One massive oak, pulled altogether out
by some relentless wind, has taken with it
companion saplings, dogwoods growing sidelong
from great knots of ripped-up earth and roots,
living on to spring again their delicate,
precipitate promises.

No heavenward soaring, just this
grounded life,
slantwise, burgeoning and brief.
In lieu of attending the “Convention of Professional Poets,” Adcock chooses to remain at home, ever solicitous for “the one moment graced with the given, / the one line stammering with light.”