Project Description


Perhaps we die of an overload of stories.
Too many sagas, memories, jokes, pantomimes;
too much melodrama, history lived or teased
out of the inexhaustible.
There’s the truth about our parents. And
the way the West was really won; why the chicken
crossed the road. And what my neighbor said
when she went mad.

                                              Then there’s the epic
of matter imagining itself: the latest dream
mammalian. Underneath, the bone-deep nightmare
of tectonic travel. And there’s that
tallest tale of an expanding
universe, or a contracting one. Or
the invisible black weight that is
the finish of a star.

youth kept us safe:
no room in us for all that, for so many
verbs, so many distraught and pushy adjectives,
armies of vowels and consonants; no room
for so many perilous serials.

I’m sitting now in the low backyard
where moss outdoes the grass.
It’s July again too quickly. Fireflies
have begun their obstinate questioning.
Remember how we used to catch them, the jar
we’d put them in, the lively lights
so clearly dying and coming back?

Maybe the stories that live in us
collect the way newspapers and books fill up
the house of the lunatic, chaos through
which some path must be incised—the body
so full of profoundly more than blood
and bones, cholesterol and carcinogens,
fat and shit and the makings of desire.

My half-Indian great-grandmother sits
in my knees, an ache like too much prayer.
The madwoman gone from 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.

There was a man in our town whose baby boy
was taken up into the mouth of a tornado
and set down unharmed in the middle of a road—
what to do with that one, its ungainly
angles resolving with such grace,
its cry of surprise?
I had a relative who killed a man
and ran off to Chicago with his father’s
money, never again heard from.

                                                                      None of them
heroes, not one of them more than
particular, outlined briefly against cosmic
night and geologic time.

Perhaps the stories are what we come
at last to be ourselves, the sum of them
what we come finally to understand,
along with atoms and the many extinctions:
dinosaurs and wolves, ivorybills and whales.
Is it then that we can begin to love
the world before us, all our ghosts
with their changing outlines
showing like petticoats?

                                                      All that we never
asked to know can enter the body, can enter
and fill and stay. My spine weakens
under the weight of another great-grandmother
who saw her daughter raped in a Georgia cornfield
by Union soldiers. The wagon she drove alone
with her five children to Texas
shakes my marrow loose.

Understand, if I try to give them away
they will hide and pretend the way icebergs
are deep under sunlit water. I have to
carry them. They go before me
like breath you can see when it’s cold.
I hold them in me like coals in a basket,
like a summer’s quick-winging lights
in a casket of glass.

Betty Adcock

Betty Adcock is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Slantwise (LSU Press, 2008) and Intervale: New and Selected Poems (LSU, 2002), which won the Poets’ Prize and was a finalist for the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize. She has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes, the North Carolina Medal for Literature, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a 2002 Guggenheim Fellowship, among others.

Primarily self-taught, she has no degrees, and studied and wrote poetry for more than ten years while working in the business world. After her first book was published, she was awarded a teaching residency at Duke University. Other teaching positions followed, most notably as a writer-in-residence at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, which she held for 20 years. She currently teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program.

When asked in an interview what she hoped for in her poetry, Adcock replied, “to tell the truth and find that it is music.”

—Poem from Slantwise, LSU Press, 2008