Two Poets


On Poetry

From 1993 to 1995 I stumbled in two graduate programs, first economics and then religious studies. I was undone by advanced calculus and cultural theory—couldn’t handle the rigor of either, the puzzle of value unsolved. The abstract challenges of school were leavened by my job at Quail Ridge Books, an independent store in Raleigh. There, I shelved hardbacks and backlist paperbacks by Baldwin, Banks, Berger, (Amy) Bloom, Boland, Gass, Grumbach, Gurganus, Le Guin, L’Engle, Malamud, McCarthy, Mitchell, Munro, Walker, Wideman, (C.D.) Wright, (Charles) Wright, (Richard) Wright; I managed the magazines and literary journals, worked the cash register, and made friends with the customers.

I met the late Don Adcock there. A jazz flute player and the longtime band director at North Carolina State University, he first heard bebop in 1945 when he stepped off a battleship in San Francisco and wandered into a joint where Howard McGhee was playing. Fifty years later he would walk into the store and instantly identify whichever jazz musicians were playing on the house stereo—Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Al Haig, Dexter Gordon, Zoot Sims, Lee Morgan, Bunny Berigan—and he knew all the songs, too. He often visited the store with his wife, the poet Betty Adcock, who taught at the local Meredith College as well as at Warren Wilson. Don and Betty became critical sources of encouragement for me as my writing developed, and I spent many afternoons at their Raleigh home—a modern, postwar structure with a flat roof surrounded by heavy woods.

Over a similar period of years the poet Claudia Emerson, too, spent many hours in the Adcock living room, after driving down from her home in central Virginia. In her new book, Secure the Shadow, she writes about the room in a poem dedicated to Betty:

The rear wall of her house all glass, the garden
defined the living room with its small stand
of paper birches, a narrow stream, the hillside
that confined it—all quick with flight and shadows
of flight—cardinals, thrushes, juncos, doves,
sometimes a heron, a hawk. She said
the birds must believe, if belief applied in such,
that the mirrored trees were ahead when they flew
into the reflection that was her house,
unaware that what killed or stunned was more
than glass—the misdirected flight we all
take sometimes into the place just left behind. (from “Jubilation”)

I remember Betty mentioning Claudia’s name long before she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book Late Wife in 2006. I never met Claudia herself until Don Adcock’s memorial last year; I spoke at the service, and Claudia read the Dylan Thomas poem “Fern Hill.” In January, when Betty told me that Claudia was coming down from Virginia for three days—just the two of them, reading their latest work to each other, drinking tea in the daytime and wine at night—I inquired about stopping by to chat. They invited me. I took a tape recorder, and we sat in the living room.

Betty was born in 1939 in San Augustine, Texas, a town of two thousand people.

Losing ground, this obscure East Texas county’s
gone into its past like a withering plant,
its one town shrinking inward, root-cut. (from “Rare”)

She met Don in 1956, in Deming, New Mexico, where he was teaching high school music. She was in boarding school in Dallas at the time, but after a year of long-distance romancing, they married and spent the summer in New York City. By day, Don renewed his teaching certificate at Columbia; at night they trolled clubs like Birdland and the Village Vanguard. Later, they settled in Raleigh, down the road from his hometown of Durham. They moved into the house where Betty still lives.

I asked Betty what odds a young female poet faced in 1960s North Carolina. “Poetry,” she said, “had a hard time gaining traction among women writers in the South. Part of the reason is that there were so many good models to follow in fiction—Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Doris Betts. They were like comets. But the poetry world was controlled by the universities in the South, and women didn’t have access to the faculty lounges and English departments back then. I never considered myself a feminist poet, as it were, because I don’t write out of that drive. But perhaps my work helped change the way the Southern experience is seen in poetry.”

Claudia came across Betty’s work in 1992, when she was teaching a Southern literature course and realized there were no Southern women poets in any anthologies. A colleague handed her Betty’s 1988 book, Beholdings. “The first poem in that book,” Claudia said, “entranced me like an opening track on a good record. It was long, several pages and it had her trademark fusion of cultural, historical, and personal elements.”

After this kind of death, sudden and violent,
there’s difference forever in the light.
Here’s the sun I’ll see from now on
aslant and keeping nothing
in its backward look. I have become rich
with disappearance. I have become this light
pooled now on my father’s desk,
his grandfather’s—rolltop sturdy as a boat
and ice-locked in a century of deepening afternoon.
I have to open it and take the cargo on
myself. There’s no one else. (from “Clearing Out, 1974”)

“Betty’s work gave me permission, in a sense, to do what I do,” Claudia added. “She is never bored by anything. Her intellect is fierce and wonderful. She affirmed to me that poetry can come from anywhere, and a woman can have a slightly different way of seeing, a different angle on nature, or a family, or history, or an old desk. Her work also indicates that you should know something about the world—history, science, geology.”

I asked Betty what she heard in Claudia’s work. “When I first read Claudia’s poetry,” she said, “I was impressed by her vivid physical presentation in lyric and narrative, image, metaphor, the senses. That’s not fashionable, but it’s what I loved about her work. I’m thinking of her poem ‘Bait Man,’ about a paraplegic man who sells worms and minnows and crickets. It’s Southern gothic turned to a different purpose. She uses some of the same lush, intense, passionate language that most of the poets I loved use—Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Dickey, Theodore Roethke, Robert Penn Warren.”

In Secure the Shadow, something dies in just about every poem (Claudia’s brother, her father, calves, hogs, birds) and things are abandoned (asphalt roads, gas stations, motels, swimming pools). The title poem is about postmortem photography; elsewhere, a young woman’s tattoo on the inside of her wrist, “above her pulse,” is mistaken for stitches. The book conjures rich, abundant images of death and decay that evoke the photographs of Sally Mann, another native and resident of central Virginia whose recent work has focused on old landscapes, corpses, and the vagaries of illness.

Claudia’s spry, casual manner belies the melancholy of her work, reminding me that a half century ago Tennessee Williams and Yukio Mishima agreed that the American South and Japan shared a blend of “elegant” and “brutal” natures.

I left Betty’s house late in the afternoon and drove twenty-five miles through January’s early dark to my place in Chapel Hill, traversing a region transformed in recent decades. An NHL hockey arena now sits just two miles from Betty’s place and I headed past it going west on Wade Avenue.

Claudia didn’t begin writing until she was twenty-eight (she’s fifty-five today). Before that she carried mail on an eighty-six-mile rural route in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, where her family goes back several centuries. Recently, she tried to retrace the route, but the fields, forests, and built structures had changed too much for her to be sure. Delivering messages from that landscape and culture, though, remains the core of her poetry, as in “Flocking Theory,” from her new book:

At dusk each winter evening, in the half hour
Before they must relinquish sky to night,
starlings quicken, flock in forms—symmetries
shifting—the likenesses so fast and fluid
I can’t hold on to any one before
it dissolves into another, and I
have taught myself to accept the seamless
recreations not as uneasy
whimsy but as the musings of a lucid soul
or the disclosures of God: the wind
itself made seen, the shade a shadow casts.
No one knows for certain what controls this,
the flock moving by space measured and kept—
strict distances—between the bodies.
But the birds, I like to think, are having
none of theory, anyway, whatever
it may be, none of me, abandoning
themselves instead to the invariable
bliss of what is, the fact of flying
manifest in every changing figure:
one enormous wing, a waterfall
of bees, a murmurous curtain falling
to rise as smoke, a funnel cloud,
helix, an arm, its empty sleeve.

Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.