“Wandering in Earth”: Slantwise by Betty Adcock


BY Betty Adcock
(LSU Press, 2008)

Like the pine needle that travels in “Little Text” (p. 1), each of the poems in Betty Adcock’s sixth collection is a journey of and through varying levels of place, change, and loss, whether brought about by time or the passing and unpredictable impact of one thing or person upon another. Nature is viewed not only as landscape but as ground of being, full of signs. And change, the natural flow of a world made up of myriad actions, is relentless in its effects, from the unnoticed to the overwhelming, as in the inaudible squealing of snowflakes in water (“Antinomy,” p. 20) or the devastation humanity too often visits upon itself.

When there is travel there are, of course, landscapes and in Slantwise they are choice: “Egyptian tomb walls,” “the blue shawls of the Aegean sky,” old love letters, a backyard’s “birdsong threading needlepoint through the weave of heat” — settings as large as China and minute as a daylily’s petal, fine as a mist that “can sit in a pasture like a cloud in a basket.” The pine needle, like all objects, settings and persons, is “shining” with a multifaceted story while on its way to the past, a marker of what takes place in “glassclear air.”

The first poem, “Little Text” (winner of a Pushcart Prize), is a three-part sequence set in East Texas. A longleaf pine needle, a remnant from logging, floats through the air and across the land through the “warp and shimmer of / September” via wind, brush, boot, and animal. By the end of the sequence, the needle is indicative not only of change, history and passage but also of what Adcock can accomplish with a single image:

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.

— “Little Text,” p. 1

But that’s not all. The pine needle is also

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

— “Little Text,” p. 1

This sliver of conifer is one of numberless unassuming objects in the world that are barely noticed and though minute, is a meaningful part of the whole, the appreciation of which depends on the mind of the beholder. In Adcock’s imagination, the little green needle receives full consideration, and is sifted, slantwise and otherwise, for all possibilities.

The sequence’s first section presents the needle’s story and what it carries into the present. The second part widens its context, adding the speaker, memory, which breathes its “midge-cloud,” and death, represented by an image of

the armadillo’s metal unzipped,
the flesh burst toward that further
wandering in earth where move
the multitudes

— “Little Text,” p. 2

These four lines on the armadillo demonstrate Adcock’s skill at metaphor and diction, lending the image visual clarity, capturing and voicing the last stage of its silent, earthy grace. Section three of the sequence describes a more complex history, of people, creatures and events that have all passed through the same air as the needle, the speaker realizing

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.

— “Little Text,” p. 4

Another kind of “arcing backward” can be found in “Tree Man,” (p. 10) in which a cheerful arborist is cutting down a tree:

He hangs from a pinnacle —
pin oak —
at seventy feet, its hundred years hold
him by strap and barbed boots when the huge
branches let go under sawteeth. They break
in a little drumbeat of twigs and falling
ivy vine, then the singular thud of earth-grown
weight returning.

As the man works on the tree, he moves almost as a dancer, hanging at one point by a hand, jumping up “to tap across a branch big as a small bridge” —

… he removes
the tracks laid down by all those years
in the deep whorls of the heart,
behind him only the blue sky

emptying now. He’s a high sparkle
of red in his jumpsuit…

Human beings, when revising nature according to their own inclinations, seem to think they are sparkling with noble and useful purpose, even as they take down the planet’s various venerable parts:

… He tips
his hardhat, then turns intent
to the destruction he’s best at,
the joy of that.

Slantwise is filled with occasions of gain and loss, both personal and on a more national scale. In “To Mollie Siju Ruinsky, Granddaughter in the Air,” (p. 75), Adcock’s daughter and her husband adopt a second child born, like her sister, in China. “Elegy in November” (p. 16), is about the passing of someone (“They will not turn, the dead,/from their ashen lace or outward-facing/stone”). “Fallen” (p. 31) recounts the breaking up of the Space Shuttle Columbia over East Texas, and “Asides,” (p. 36) is a poem about the desolation of 9/11.

Running through the book is the present’s ever-evolving transformation into what surrounds us, the shifting context of where we find ourselves and why. In Slantwise, the stories and relationships within the poems are densely and sometimes hauntingly detailed, much like the humid subtropical terrain of East Texas and the deep forested mountains of North Carolina (both states which Adcock calls home), their landscapes and prevailing conditions waiting for us to see and understand.

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