Feature > Poetry
Betty Adcock

Betty Adcock

Betty Adcock' s sixth collection from LSU Press, Slantwise, appeared in March 2008. Her work has received the Poets' Prize, the North Carolina Medal for Literature, the Texas Institute of Letters Prize, two Pushcart Prizes and several fellowships including a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry. She lives in Raleigh, NC and teaches in the Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program for Writers.

Billy Dan

Boys were given double names in deep east Texas
where everything needed repeated force
just to stand out, to be dragged out of the dark,
the dense forests and rutted country roads.
And these were not nicknames but were inscribed
on the baptismal rolls of clapboard churches—
Jimmy Clyde, Bill Tom, Herbert Gene.
Like all of them, you grew into the heaviest jobs,
the most to lose.

Working the night shift repairing downed lines
one icy December, you grabbed with both hands
the live lightning. What must it have been
to grasp, like Prometheus, the fire—without
the power to give it away?
Was there a sudden shimmer of knowledge,
something understood? or only the instant's slippage
swift as a wind-struck candle into night
before you could know that surge?

The surgeons took both your hands.

You'd been the boy who always smiled,
bulky, clumsy, no good at sports, and teased
as such boys always are, but laughing
to make up for what you weren't.
When I saw you for the first time in fifty years,
you hid the hooks, refused to eat
in front of us. And when I reached
to embrace you—No! you said and would not
let me touch you and wouldn't smile.
Later I learned about your only son,
a champion buckle-winning rodeo rider
who blew his brains out at twenty-four in Colorado.

You, who had held onto so much power    
it should have killed you. You had carried that current
like the remnant of a god and it had broken off
as if a luminous spear had snapped inside you,
leaving pitch-black permanence,
the light and dark unparted, doubled and doubled again
until there was no light. There was no light at all.

No Encore

                              I'm just an assistant with the Vanishing Act.
                 My spangled wand points out the disappeared.
                              It's only a poor thing made of words, but packed
                 with sparkle, tracing a starry trail down darkling years—
                              as if any light is truth.
                                                                  Not prophecy, not elegy, but fact:            :
                 the thing that's gone is never coming back.
                                Late or soon, a guttering silence will ring down
                 like a pall of woven smoke on our thickened air.
                                The audience will strain to see what's there.
                 Behold: the old Magician nowhere to be found.

                              For now, I wear a costume, sing and dance obliquely.
                  The rabid applause is not for me, its sound
                              like angry rain—as one by one the known forms cease to be:
                  childhood, the farm, lush remembered ground;
                              the tiger and the condor, the whale, the honeybee;
                  the village, the book,  the lantern. Then you. Then me.



Song for Mary Ellen

She loved to watch them, hummingbirds
drawn to the sweet red of the feeder
and the real fire of her husband's flowerbeds
Gilded with summer, they hovered, gemstones
turning on a strand, or silk streamers
of the morning rising.

She brought the brilliant cardinals to her
and the chickadees, the loud jays and shy
wrens, the purple-breasted finches. And
always she fed the pet rooster—called Floppy
because his crowning comb drooped low.
She forgot no one. Perhaps the birds were heartbeats,
ancient messengers of the spirit, here to stun
us into seeing how bright-winged is time,
how full the world that has in it such startling
flight, such saving flowers, even such
flagging crowns as ours. She fed us too.

And then she flew.

Ode On a Guinea Pig

Borrowing from Kierkegaard,
I love this animal because he is absurd.
A small mammal lacking all ambition,
he carries no heavy affectations of joy.
His whistle is sharp and singular, and only
for food. It makes an honest music.

He does not lie to us.
I am here is the one communication
in his Buddha-sitting, his fat-assed waddle.
The only surprise he offers is the occasional dash,
faster than you'd imagine,
to nowhere in particular.
He's no wild thing, yet not quite tame.

His name is of no interest to him. Don't
call me
, he could be saying. I'd guess his DNA
has nothing of the pig, the rabbit, fox, or cow.
Perhaps he's related to the long thoughts
of philosophers; or is a creature of his own
imagining—a plump baby god watching over
an attenuated world.

He loves us as he is able, comprehending
warmth and softness, lettuce leaves and hay.
He understands snug openings. He embodies      
the poet's admonition not to mean
but to be (and also Hamlet's question but without
the or not part).

There's no creature like him because he has dreamed
no such thing. We should take note of him,
bask in that steady gaze, and learn.

                                           —for Mollie


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