As a fellow Georgia native, Kathryn Stripling Byer’s poem about a young girl enduring Sunday church service in “a girdle and hose” and singing the hymn “Just As I Am” brought back memories.
Byer’s latest collection, Descent, is brimming with scrub pines, chicken and biscuits, and drunk drivers playing “Dixie.” One minute dirt yards are parched by drought, and the next, the Flint River is overflowing its banks. These are images that emerge from the depths of Byer’s life experience; they aren’t merely sprinkled in like tabasco for extra flavor.
In Byer’s poetry, inner and outer landscapes are inextricably linked, just like the past and the present. “Southerners claim that they have a unique sense of place,” Byer explained in an interview with New Southerner magazine, “and I’d like to challenge Southern writers to make good on that in our current political landscape, which is one that threatens a barbaric destruction of place.” Byer may describe the rural Southern landscapes of her childhood with fondness, but she keeps a sharp eye focused on the wolf at the door. Whether “the wolf” takes the the form of hardscrabble poverty or fast food chains, this dose of reality prevents these poems from lapsing into nostalgia.
Descent is divided into three sections, as Byer told Chris Pepple in a recent interview. “With this book, I wanted to explore the metaphor of descent—family descent, the descent that is the racism haunting the South, and in the third section, the American Indian symbol of the descent into the earth itself; the fourth world as sung by, for example, the Pueblo, where there is light and everything is beautiful. The book is dedicated to my father, whose ashes did indeed descend into the fields from the crop duster’s plane.”
Byer’s poems are both musical and intimate, and at times, courageous in their honesty. “When the feminist poet flew down from New York,…” she writes in the final section of “Southern Fictions,” “I kept quiet, ashamed to say I’d been no activist. / That I’d done nothing, joined no protests, / felt no guilt.” If what John Stuart Mill said is true, that “eloquence is heard” and “poetry is overheard,” then Kathryn Stripling Byer has given her readers a privileged seat, just in earshot.
“In an ideal world, our poets would sing our stories back to us,” says Byer, “connecting us through language that’s memorable, moving, often disturbing: our poets would through their poems urge us to awaken and look around us, fall in love again and again with the things of this world.”
I have four poems from Byer’s book Decent to share with you today. If you’re in the New York area, mark your calendars. At 4:30 P.M. on March 20th, Kathryn Stripling Byer will be reading at Founders Hall at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, New York. The reading and reception are free and open to the public. Visit the St. Francis College website for more information.
All morning we’d climbed until
we reached a primitive graveyard
whose stones bore no names we could read.
The season too early for wildflowers,
we searched for other unfoldings,
cumulous climbing the afternoon’s
trellises. Branch water cascading.
Creek side, we nibbled the chocolate
eggs filled with marshmallow cream
we had bought on a whim
from a shelf bare of all but a few baskets
no child had wanted this year
or the last, no expiration date
stamped on their green wrappings.
Not like the hard-boiled eggs in their nest
of cellophane grass I shoved under my bed.
They decomposed like the flesh I heard preachers
declare doomed, yet saved by the sun
rising over an empty tomb.
Through tiny holes, my aunts blew
the yolks from their eggs
to craft miniature worlds within
empty shells. I marveled at how they made
something so fragile hold fast.
Swans adrift on an emerald pond. A bride
in her almost invisible veil.
How long would those eggs last
displayed on a shelf? Kept under glass?
Easter sky. Another one. Blue
as an egg being raised from its dye cup.
Upon it the script left behind
by a passing jet. A spiral
of buzzards adrift on a thermal,
the blades of their wings
sudden gold as the sun sets.
from Southern Fictions
. . . human kind
Cannot bear very much reality
—from “Burnt Norton,” T.S. Eliot
I don’t know. I still can’t get it right,
the way those dirt roads cut across the flats
and led to shacks where hounds and muddy shoats
skulked roundabouts. Describing it sounds trite
as hell, the good old South I love to hate.
The truth? What’s that? How should I know?
I stayed inside too much. I learned to boast
of stupid things. I kept my ears shut tight,
as we kept doors locked, windows locked,
the curtains drawn. Now I know why.
The dark could hide things from us. Dark could see
while we could not. Sometimes those dirt roads shocked
me, where they ended up: I watched a dog die
in the ditch. The man who shot him winked at me.
What I See Now
I see yucca and winter stubble along
their route, now and then markers
noting the sites where they camped,
singing hymns, keeping watch as the Ancient
Ones do in the Bibles they carried.
I take note of hay bales like those
I grew up seeing everywhere,
Billy’s Tire Center crumbling to nothing
beside a small graveyard with plastic blooms
bled now to white from the weather.
Montgomery waits straight ahead,
looking these days like anyplace else
with its Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
Driving through downtown,
we tick off the fast-food chains.
Why not MacDonald’s? We order
our coffee to go. Senior
discount: the girl at the register
rings it up, looking no older than
seventeen, her story holding
not much left of what happened
forty years ago.
I notice. Stark
purple eye shadow.
My best friend at Finishing School,
as we called it while lifting
our lily-white pinkies
and pursing our lips for effect,
came from Selma,
a beauty queen born late
to parents who asked that their only child
not room with anyone whose shade
of iris bloomed darker than blue.
Smoking cigarettes, bold in the parking lot,
we watched a regiment of frat men
in Rebel duds raising the Bonnie Blue Flag
while their girlfriends stood swaying
in hoop skirts: a squadron of cheerleaders
urging them onward, their brave drunks,
defenders of white Southern womanhood.
Meanwhile her mother was driving
across the state line with a black woman
kept in the back seat to mind
many layers of pink lace and satin,
arriving in time for the ball gown
to be lifted out and ironed ever so carefully
down in the basement where
those not invited to Mayday
Ball, rapt as an ashram
of wannabe’s, inhaled
our Salems right down
to the filter and exhaled
our smoke rings,
observing them hang
in the singed air like ghosts
before fading away.
Spanish moss hung,
my friend later told me,
from phony live oaks round the dance floor
while black waiters served phony champagne,
no alcohol within a fifty-mile radius lest
we be banished, forevermore losing
our chance to be “finished”
like fine crystal ready to be rung
by just the right finger.
My friend’s gown came back
splashed with whiskey, a stain
that could never be washed from its pink
satin bodice. My friend did not come back
the next year. She transferred to Birmingham
Southern. I wonder what she saw
with those bonnie eyes when the 16th Street
Baptist Church blew, and the little girls pulled
from the rubble lay finished
their role in this story I see now
as being a stubble field at the edge
of an altered state
line I’m still
trying to cross
with an old
inside my skull.
Beginning at the Bottom
the bottom of the backwoods . . .
—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, describing
my home county in the 1950s
My small-town backwater library,
behind the bank,
across from the post office,
floats to the surface of right now,
daylight drifting through window
shades onto the wooden floor,
golden light, let’s call it,
because to say sepia places
it into a scrapbook, and this story
still lives inside the folds
of my mind’s aging labyrinth,
its infinite pages bound
fast in their signatures,
spines named and numbered,
its nooks where I hid myself,
lifting a book to my nostrils,
as if I could sniff out
a good story, just like my grandfather’s
bird-dogs flushed quail
from the underbrush. Sometimes
I heard whispers rise
from a neighboring bookshelf,
a telephone ringing, the bookmobile
laboring home from the backwoods
and always the light bulbs
in every lamp humming like bees
round a sweet pool of soda spilled
onto the pavement.
To that hive of bookshelves,
I journey again,
letting go of my one life
to enter the stories of others,
still hungry for words
and the way they can bring me back
home to my senses,
the way they reach out to the world.
About Kathryn Stripling Byer
Kathryn Stripling Byer was raised on a farm in southwest Georgia, where the material for much of her first poetry originated. She graduated from Wesleyan College, Macon, Georgia, with a degree in English literature and received her MFA degree from UNC-Greensboro, where she studied with Fred Chappell and Robert Watson and formed enduring friendships with James Applewhite and Gibbons Ruark. After graduation she worked at Western Carolina University, in Cullowhee, North Carolina, becoming Poet-in-Residence in 1990.
Her poetry, prose, and fiction have appeared widely, including Hudson Review, Poetry, The Atlantic, Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and Southern Poetry Review. Her body of work was discussed along with that of Charles Wright, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Jim Wayne Miller in Six Poets from the Mountain South, by John Lang, published by LSU Press. Her first book of poetry, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, was published in the AWP Award Series in 1986, selected by John Frederick Nims, followed by the Lamont (now Laughlin) prize-winning Wildwood Flower, from LSU Press.
Her subsequent collections have all been published in the LSU Press Poetry Series, receiving various awards, including the Hanes Poetry Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Poetry Award. Her poetry has been set to music by Martin Bresnick, William Bolton, and Harold Schiffman, whose cantata “Alma,” for chorus and orchestra, was premiered in Hungary four years aga. Schiffman’s song cycle for soprano and piano, based on her sequence “Blood Mountain,” from her collection Black Shawl, was premiered in New York City in 2008. She served for five years as North Carolina’s first woman poet laureate. She lives in the mountains of western North Carolina with her husband and three dogs.
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All poems © Kathryn Stripling Byer. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Descent: Poems (Louisiana State University Press © 2012) and were published with permission from the author.