BOOKS & THE CULTURE A Longing to be Whole BY GEOFF RIPS THE DIFFICULT WHEEL. By Betty Adcock. Louisiana State University Press. Early this past winter, Observer poetry editor Naomi Shihab Nye handed me a book she said I had to read. Unfortunately, I stuck it in a file folder I was carrying at the time with informa tion on water levels in the Edwards Aquifer, and that was the last I saw of it. As the drought of ’96 burned on, water levels in the Edwards fell low enough to cause me to pull out that folder again. The receding waters revealed The Difficult Wheel by Betty Adcock, born in San Augustine in deep East Texas. Reading the collection, it makes perfect sense that it reappeared as one of the tiny ripples in the undulations of the natural order. It is one of Adcock’s missions to explore, occasionally understand, but certainly not resolve, the apparent incongruity of the natural world and human consciousness. Apparent, because Adcock seems to think that we may just not understand how the ordered mind, actually “compassless and dangerous, good at belief and good at lies,” melts into the mystery and chaos of the natural world. As I read it, Adcock’s poetry is a longing to be whole. That wholeness is a disappearance into the natural world. That disappearance is held back by the limitations of human consciousness \(“I must have seemed / some part of auThese limitations and dead-ends are scattered across the landscape. Consider the mule, thick as a stump… he stands in his singular inch of time, the present tense… Over and over, he dies out. No wide-flung history of horse can race in his stalled sleep…. Not this one. Born canceled, he works and balks, angry always in the muscle of his unknowing, himself his only tribe, and that one going. He waits in his rubbly coat for dark, rowing and rowing the stony field, turning the difficult wheel. He bears the hard goods of this world on his back, and the black whip and the man who wields the whip the man who is angry too, sensing the serious kinship. And, there, in the last two lines, a good poem approaches greatness: the comfortable, well-wrought distance achieved by the mule as metaphor for the human condition is torn away, and we are right there, angry, wielding the whip, born canceled as we work and balk. Betty Adcock can do this. “Things will not dim,” she writes. “No matter how the eye / squints out the day’s blue fires, / the dogwood in the wind’s a riot / of shooting stars.” Adcock finds this finitude, this separation from the great mystery of the natural world everywhere she turns. Remembering skipping math class with friends in the ’50s while a student at Hockaday in Dallas, she writes: “…we were privileged and sure and dumb, isolated….” The girls were looking for some grotesque curiosity in the declining neighborhoods near the school. Instead, they found a boat being built in a backyard “in the middle of Dallas, Texas…out of scale…with sails and riggings and a face on the prow,” bigger than most backyards. They found a mysterious universe larger than their carefully circumscribed world. “Didn’t we feel how thin / the grass was, like a coat of light paint, like green ice / over something unmanageable?…as if all around us were depths we really could drown in.” For Adcock, getting older seems to offer the opportunity to approach the continual conversation of the natural world. In “Straying into February Woods,” she writes: …Imagine all that goes when summer goes: all that living stuff. Doesn’t it reject us by coming back? Wasp thrum, birdsong, the jagged best arias of the creekall die with autumn’s fortune, and are yet next summer so exactly present no note is ever lost. Nothing in us can do that. With the generations, we always lose the tunes…. What I hear now is poetry, that next to nothing. I’m here simply to hear such shading slight and equal to the coming night. I claim the forest privilege of talking out loud to myself… There’s music in Adcock’s poetry. Words are carefully chosen. Images are new and right on the money. Writing about a deer closely observed in the woods: “Nothing / had ever happened or ever would / while I could hear that stranger-breath and see / each separate shoulder hair shift color as he blew / a snort like a horse’s.” Near rhymes, occasional rhymes and slant rhymes weave through poems, providing the subconscious echoes that carry you back and forth across a poem even as you read. A human order employed even to long for “a sound that dimmed / at the edges then came back all wrong / because there was no order in it, / no human rhythm” \(the same deer approaching, at Adcock has the same highly developed sense of music as Richard Wilbur, Ruth Stone. You can hear the inscape of Gerard Manley Hopkins, as in the lines quoted above: “wasp thrum, bird song, the jagged best / arias of the creek.” Where did all this come from? She was born in East Texas, boarded at Hockaday, went to Texas Tech for a year, and then family, work, other responsibilities interceded. She worked in advertising for thirteen years and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she is now the Kenan Writer-in-Residence at Meredith College. The Difficult Wheel is her third book of poetry and was awarded JULY 26, 1996 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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