November 2009

David Rigsbee


David Rigsbee David Rigsbee's 7th collection, Two Estates, was recently published by Cherry Grove Collections. He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review.
Slantwise by Betty Adcock


by Betty Adcock
83 pages
LSU Press, 2008

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The title of course directs us to Dickinson's truth, also to the truth that to be slant is somehow to repose, diagonally, in wisdom. There is in fact so much mojo in the title that we are hooked up with poetic goodness before we even venture into the first poem. Betty Adcock has been writing an agreeable brand of poem for years and has built a fan base that would make a Republican candidate sit up and beg for buttermilk. In Slantwise, she doesn't disappoint. Her poetry is accessible and carefully rendered, and that accessibility begins in part with her subjects: family, origins, place—the tangible durables. For Adcock, these are the massy keys that open up the Mystery. I remember something Martin Amis said about Saul Bellow, that he wrote surpassingly because he quite simply had the talent to see an inch or two below the surface where other writers found their sightlines returning a blank. Permit me to draw this strange comparison between Adcock and Saul Bellow on the same grounds: she works the surfaces to yield another depth, where insight becomes vision. This was Miss Bishop's great talent, and Adcock shares some of that DNA—but not the habit of producing poems as presentation pieces.

Slantwise takes off with a masterful poem (that is indeed not subsequently surpassed). It begins with a pine needle:

needle falling through green
shade, through warp and shimmer of
September sometimes,
                                    end over end will
turn as if marking the passing
air with form, circumference
as of time's real motion or
the approximation of, say,
a face.

We have all seen this twisting, dancing slow-motion descent in the movies, of leaf or snowflake, the touchdown accompanied the sudden realism that gravity lays claim to. I am reminded of the delicate tracery of A. R. Ammons, who also tried to maneuver space through voice and who also was obsessed with form. That pine needle, of course, is a compass bearing witness to opposite directions it can't bother to overcome or reconcile:

being only
a downed, straitened angel,
pin and linear argument,
line of prophecy flattened letterless
whose browning measure
                                       beneath notice
points both ways at once

Even in its ambivalence, it is the "little" text, ancestor of her poem, that "could shine the way/ scripture shines." Bloom used to make a big deal of Ammons' poems as operas of Romantic ideas derived from the solicitation of natural fact (and the misprision of ancestral voices). Adcock's poem is no less a performance whose aim is to find prophetic song in natural theology, though elegy, with its old values, is still the mode:

                                                       barn swallow
hawk-snatched from the sky, redtail
gone, gone by.

If you think the poem is headed in another direction, after its nervous reaction before the hourglass, then you've been keeping up. As is the case with many of the poems here concerned with loss, elegy—that modus operandi at absence's crater—is always, finally, personal (and hence requires persons). Adcock meanwhile hears another kind of silence waiting to surround "[t]his present chainsaw-battered/ earth." I don't wish to make heavy weather from this or to suggest that Adcock has gone cosmic. The fact is, she rarely strays from the bandwidth that makes up her Muse's comfort zone, and when you think about it, that can be a good thing. In her case it ensures not only compatibility, but consistency. With their classical ears tuned to the plow's drag and their eyes scanning the sky's dignified monotony, southern poets have always been eco-poets avant le lettre. The poet who writes, as Adcock does in "Why White Southern Poets Write the Way We Do," that "a mist can sit in a pasture/like a cloud in a basket" requires little retro-fitting with respect to addressing the plight of habitat.

In "1932," she returns to personal origins and the issue of identity with a poem that re-members the parents whose convergent relationship she was in no position to observe, being not yet born, and their sad discontinuity, when her mother died young: "There's nothing/ I know except that he lost her, and I lost them both." Strange to say, she has the story, but it's all based on rules of plausibility, thanks to a kindly friend, who is part custodian, part interlocutor:

One of the family that boarded my mother
has told me this story: all that I have
of their early knowing one another.

Despite the brevity of the time allotted them, her parents are the dance, and she—the poet—the point of that dance, insofar as dances can be said by means of the human laser-dot to have a point (and the question is by no means academic, as it goes to the heart of identity, as Yeats, Eliot, and busloads of poets will attest).

The deer have run from a foreign thing.
There's no automobile out this late.
The horned owl complains and does not stay
where they and their lantern are dancing.

Well, for sure, nothing runs like a deer, and the "foreign thing" from which this one bounds is as much the sculpted presentiment of loss, as of the loss itself. Given only clues to which she is, perforce, second-hand in her honoring, a connector of dots, she nonetheless knows and concludes that "it is enough" to know the minimum. Even from the scant hearsay, she is able to construct images that remain forever meaningful, even if they may be false to minute fact. At once the straight-up victim of history and the timeless pair choreographing their roles, they are true to the love whose object she construes, reveling in her own inadvertent complicity in being alive at all:

                                       I hear them hum

along with a scratchy saccharine tune
from that poverty-ridden American year,
and she turns and turns in the arms of my father...

If such sticks are no bar to the solidity of memory's house, then our truck with time's backward abysm is seriously on a roll. Taking the other tack—that forgetting achieves special provenance in love—becomes the subject of "No Elegy in November," my favorite poem in this collection:

They will not turn, the dead,
from their ashen lace or outward-facing
stone. Having fled along the route
all planetary matter takes, they race—
like light for creation—

invincibly away.

Notice how that editor-unfriendly adverb, "invincibly," steps forward to make the image, and how "turn" almost but doesn't quite remember "return"—as indeed they do neither. Forgetting, too, becomes love's ne plus ultra because it takes on the sacrificial nature by which love enables the person to escape the ego's prison. The poem stands precisely in the place of the loved one, and no elegy and elegy are thereby reconciled:

Unkindling utterly, you will not turn
nor send your wildfire spirit back to speak.
You'll not forgive, nor longer wish, nor see
how you have left the rest of us to burn.

Notice here how the knowing use of the conventional imagery of burning yields "unkind" to hide in plain sight of "unkindling," meanwhile pointing to its assonance partner, "utterly." To leave—to absent oneself through death—feels at first like a special existential unkindness to the survivors, but time will change this too, collapse all into the poem and into the final word "burn." The point, both obvious and mysterious at once, is that only the living "burn," that living is itself burning. The mystery lies with the thought, a thought that follows hard upon the silence gathering after the final period, that only the living know poetry and that poetry itself reconciles the inert symbol with its burning authors.

It is hardly surprising that Adcock takes special care to marshall and deploy just the right words. You sense, reading Slantwise, that this is a poet who scans every word like a quality-control expert training a beady eye on the neutral bric-a-brac of parts of speech coming down the conveyor belt, supplied first by literature, then by colloquial conversants. It is of course of the essence of middle-brow conventionality to remark approvingly on the "connoirsseurship" of certain wordsmiths, but if verbal connoirsseurship were the end-all, it would be no different than any other fetish. In fact, as we know from "1932" and from "Seeing Josephine," about a visit with the poet's childhood "caretaker/playmate"—"Black Josephine, twelve years old when I was five"—words generate their own reality. And although no less a wordsmith than Eliot warned us that words don't stay in place, we see that in some sense we don't want them to. Their very slippage is part and parcel of the reality they describe:

my grandmother's whispers, fifty years gone,
overheard once and meaningless then: Moll's cabin
she said, naming terrible and shame, naming
my grandfather's nephew not gone
till after-sun-up. Those syllables
rolling away, lodged blue in the morning-
glory vine around the well, reddening
on the tomato plants, a dark weave
in the cock's crow and the lovely trill
of the peach orchard's mockingbird—�
all strung now on frailest memory.

One would think it unnecessary to be a charter member of Club Le Mot Juste to submit one's own name to doubt. Why, it's practically Cartesian! But Betty Adcock lines up with Randall Jarrell in believing that the greatest, most telling and judicious (and forgiving) phrase in English is "and yet." She begins with "My real name is Elizabeth, so right for a poet." And yet the name doesn't stick (I knew I was an Elizabeth/ but nobody listened") but devolves past "Lizzie" to "Betty":

                                            How awful
to be Betty, all aprons and frosting mix,
thirties cafrtoons, fifties pinups,
boop-boop-be-doops and va-vooms.
It's a name for a waitress, a bowler, a clerk
in a store, a housewife, an apple dessert.

It is never, ever, the name of a poet.
                       And yet . . . and yet,
doesn't poetry have to be as tough
as the woman pouring diner coffee?

Betty Adcock can as delightful in her lamentations as better-known poets are in the full flower of their wit. She knows how to fetch the domestic detail from the clutter and bring it to the front to emphasize contrasts in value. Her skill-set also shows that she can make the ordinary approach poetry by invoking the metaphor implicit when things take up residence in thought. For example, in "House Cats," she observes,

Think of the way a cat becomes
another thing: the inside
of a small dark place, a momentary ribbon
of wind, a blade of light. All metaphor,
that body converts into liquid,
into mist, into wit, into shine!

While cats connect us to our own mythical ancestry from which they first "came to flicker/ at temple fires," the magpie habits of the quilt-maker for "an inspired treachery" in "Told by the Madwoman Who Stopped Making Quilts" connect us to the artistic impulse. In this poem, the paradox of any creation—from the "garbage" (Akhmatova's term) from which poems emerge, to the snippets (often stolen) from which quilts are stitched-lies in its seeming lack of predetermination:

I gathered figured fabrics and splashes
of single color, vivid sparks
the world threw off. I filled my days
with baskets of the past, small thievings,
taking part in life by taking part
of it to make it art.

And in the end, the made thing in the sum of its accidents is like "a flock of winging birds caught fast/ in the blinding net of likeness and these words." That emphasis on the likeness of things, that search for harmony, belies the arbitrary nature of its origins. It is a vision that still moves the imagination, although poems of disaster—of the unlikeness of things—also must figure their disfigurements (I am thinking here of poems about 9/11 and the Space Shuttle explosion in this volume) into what is still a pattern. Betty Adcock's new volume takes up such issues without showing the sweat marks of heavy-lifting. But that is what it means to be graceful, to have an art that speaks to the felt and to the thought that describes the feeling, then to the words that describe the thought. It's what Wittgenstein meant when he said he wanted thought to be a ladder we climbed and then afterward, satisfied that there was no remainder unaccounted for, we would pull the ladder up after us.




David Rigsbee: Book Review
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