Poetry Sunday: “Chimneys: A History of East Texas,” by Betty Adcock

Chimneys: A History of Deep East Texas

Built 1830

Dobber chimney, they called this kind
made of mayhaw mud and Spanish moss.
From a distance it must have seemed
a thing placed by giant wasps
with wings of smoke: their nest
with a human house nailed up beside.

To build it, men stomped barefoot in wet clay
and moss-thatch, working, working earth,
then molding heavy cats
tossed up to other men high-balanced
on a simple framework of sticks.

Humblest, most vital house part–like the sex
of creatures it was needed, was the passionate center
of lives in which fire made the meat
and all else possible, even the bear
clawing under the door

                                               for succor or murder.

Built 1836

Hacked and hauled to this stoneless place,
matched mortarless and held perfect                                                                                             
by nothing but form and gravity,
its stones have stayed.
                                              And though a new fire might kill
who tried it, the old are black and righteous
in that stone throat.

In the still shut air of a dogtrot life,
wild joy, wild grief, and moveless loneliness
were breathed up, breathed out into gray
or star-filled sky, into story or golden
summer heat, with the smell of cooked meat.
Animals that were spitted here, and the long gone
man and woman (generation on generation)
who fretted again and again against
this life, or loved or raged in it,
are a faint fat in the soot’s heart.


Built 1900

Here five brick chimneys held the breath
of comfort. Five fireplaces with carved mantels
for clocks and candlesticks and Christmas greens.
Their pale smoke was a courteous scrim
of plenty. It reached higher–like the answered
prayers of the wealthy–though the fires
of these blessed were required, also, to die.



First published in Pleiades. From Slantwise by Betty Adcock, Louisiana State University Press 2008, lsupress.org. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Author Photo Attribution: Tai Lane Ruinsky. Slantwise can be ordered at LSU Press and Adcock’s most recent book Widow Poems can be ordered at JACAR Press

Adcock_by Tai Lane Ruinsky_11-18-15WP-fc

Betty Adcock grew up in rural East Texas but has lived all her writing life in North Carolina. The most recent of her six poetry collections from LSU Press are Slantwise (2008) and Intervale: New and Selected Poems (2002). A chapbook, Widow Poems, appeared from JACAR Press in 2014. She was Writer in Residence at Meredith College for many years, and taught for ten years at the low residency Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her work has appeared in some 40 anthologies, and her honors include the Poets’ Prize, the Texas Institute of Letters Prize, the North Carolina Medal for Literature, the Hanes Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and two Pushcart Prizes. Intervale was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Prize. Adcock has held Fellowships in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, the State of North Carolina, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. She lives in Raleigh, NC where she is completing a seventh book. For more information, visit bettyadcock.com


Notes on “Chimneys: A History of Deep East Texas”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

What fascinated me in this poem is the way it—like the chimneys it describes—is so solidly built. To analyze what holds the poem together, I’ll start at the level of bricks (words, and word pairings), then move to rows of bricks (lines), then walls (stanzas), and conclude with discussion of the structure those walls join to make the poem. 

What makes the “bricks”?

The bricks of this poem are its words and word “pairings.” Of 267 total words, 197 (nearly ¾) are one syllable. Another 54 have two syllables, and just 11 words have three. Among these words are a number of word pairings, adjacent words bound together in a unit. Pairing takes one form in compound and hyphenated words like “mayhaw” (a combination of “May” and “Hawthorn”), “barefoot,” “moss-thatch,” “high-balanced,” “framework,” “stoneless,” “moveless,” “dogtrot,” “star-filled,” “fireplaces,” “Christmas,” and “candlesticks.”

Another thing that binds adjacent words is meter. I found 16 examples of spondees (two stresses in a row), an unusually high number in a free-verse poem: “thing placed” (line 4), “men stomped,” “wet clay” (7), “house part” (12), “new fire” (22), “stone throat” (24), “wild joy,” “wild grief (25), “breathed up,” “breathed out” (26), “cooked meat” (29), “long gone” (30), “faint fat” and “soot’s heart” (34), “pale smoke” (36), and “these blessed” (41). Notice that many of these word pairs are bound yet more tightly by rhyme (“soot’s heart”), assonance (“stone/throat”) and consonance (“faint fat”). Single syllable words and doubled-word “bricks” are the basic building blocks of this sturdy poem.

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  • Gayle Newby June 21, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Betty Adcock is one of my favorites. She speaks of things I know and love, and she speaks beautifully.

  • Joanna McKethan February 9, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Lovely language…leads ne into good places. Betty Adcock, my teacher at several Metedith Focus on Women retreats

  • Catherine Woodard February 7, 2016 at 10:53 am

    So satisfying in so many ways, both the poem and the analysis. Words that matter, sustain. What a contrast to the tornados of words in this political season.