Blue Fifth Reviews – Tribute to Kathryn Stripling Byer (July 2017 / #10)
Any conscientious critic who has ever had to review a new volume of poetry in a limited space knows that the only fair thing to do would be to give a series of quotations without comment but, if he did so, his editors would complain that he was not earning his money.
–W. H. Auden, “Reading”
Each month the editors select collections of poetry, flash, and short fiction to present to our readers. We will be heeding Auden’s advice, listing, without comment, key passages that we consider representative of the featured works. Our hope is that readers will also be moved, and will seek out the books.
“This special issue of Reviews is a tribute to Kathryn Stripling Byer, a universally gifted voice and writer from Appalachia. From the moment I read Byer’s Wildwood Flower – at the urging of Ann Richman, a writer, editor, and friend – my approach to writing would never be the same. It seemed only fitting, following the sad news of her death, that Blue Fifth Review would celebrate her work and contribution to literature. I asked several writers whom I knew shared a passion for Byer’s work to participate, and they agreed. The goal was to focus on individual poems from separate books to present readers a broader view of Byer’s writings, themes, and poetic vision.” – SR
Marilyn Kallet Richard Krawiec
Felicia Mitchell Rita Quillen Sam Rasnake
Remembering Kathryn Stripling Byer through Her Powerful Poems
Kathryn Stripling Byer (1944-2017) received many accolades in life, and these accolades will continue after her death. To understand her magnificent contribution through her poems and through literary activism and literary friendships, we will all do well to turn to her own words. As an intelligent and talented writer, Kay used her skills over her career to share insights in intriguing poems. As a teacher—which included sharing her gifts in her profession, as Poet Laureate of North Carolina, and as mentor to other poets—she touched so many of us. What James Applewhite said in the introduction to The Girl in the Midst of Harvest, the first full-length book (1986, Texas Tech Press), remains for me a favorite assessment of her work. Examining ideas and motifs that would follow her, he called Kay “both a full human being, living to the limit every dimension of inheritance, every possibility of plentitude—from fruitfulness in the present to a reconstruction of the past—and a full-scale poet, bringing this complete emotional world into verbal realization.” Through her life, this “verbal realization” continued to flourish as Kay embraced and questioned her place as a poet, always writing, as she would say, “Here, Where I Am.”
Early in her career, which began with brilliant and wise poems and continued with many more, mining the depths as she aged (although I tend to think she was born an old soul), we saw in Kay’s poetry one of her gifts in life: an ability to weave together many threads from personal, mythic, and socio-political connections. In a time in which we debate the concept of cultural appropriation and who may be allowed to write about what, we need to remember Kathryn Stripling Byer’s important poems based in the exploration of diverse women’s voices from Appalachia and her mining of archetypal myths, songs, and stories. In Wildwood Flower (1992, LSU Press) she gave us Alma, a mountain woman from the turn of the 20th century whose voice “brilliantly recreated a lost world” (book jacket). Black Shawl added the voices of additional women, some of whom have roots in Celtic poems that inspired Kay just as traditional Celtic ballads have inspired the ballads of Appalachia. Descent (LSU, 2012), which allowed Kay to probe her southern roots and family within the context of the South’s racial and racist past, opened new doors for her as it also circled back (for example, to her love of song with its opening homage to Precious Bryant’s “Morning Train”).
Poetry has always done the job of allowing the poet to serve as a conduit between past and present traditions, between personal stories and myth, as if the future depends upon it. That is what I see when I read Kay’s poems. I see her, and her wise eyes, but I also see myself reflected in the mirror she holds up to readers with her well-wrought thoughts. This ability to balance the self-reflection a poet needs with an ability to experiment with the self to find the right words, and to bring others into the narrative, was remarkable. It always welcomed growth. In a collection praised for its exploration of aging, Catching Light (2002, LSU Press), Kay wrote in the voice of an artist’s model, Evelyn, in a sequence that prefaced poems in her own personal voice, poems that invited us into the depths of Kay’s psyche. Her personal voice becomes even more powerful with the wisdom of age, and the lessons of community, in Coming to Rest (2006, LSU).
It is easy to talk about the poems, almost too easy, because it allows me to avoid commenting on the loss of the life of a dynamic, powerful woman who will be missed by family, friends, poets, students, readers, and readers who have yet to be born. Kay was so much more than her poetry, and people who knew her well, and people who barely knew her, have mourned recently. It would be too simple to say that she died too soon. She died just when she did, leaving us lonely. Her elegy within The Vishnu Bird (2015, Jacar Press), written for a friend who died of cancer, seems all the more poignant these days. When we are loneliest, though, it will be important to remember that Kay’s humanity was given voice in her poems, just as the poems will continue to inform ours, and that voice and its widespread influence will not die.
Byer’s website is here.
“The space is empty, but air is supposed to be, isn’t it?
Houses, pools, bedrooms, are not.
Why do they haunt me? Do we really leave behind part of ourselves in our places, some presence that waits, that pulls at us through the absence.”
– Kay Byer, from “Last Day,” The Movable Nest: A Mother/Daughter
Companion, eds. Kallet and Byer, Helicon Nine Editions, 2007
On “Kitchen Sink” from The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest
Today she would change nothing,
not even the wallpaper peeling,
like dead bark. Nor, outside, the shadows
approaching the yard where ants
toil like women in their houses of sand.
Never mind that the sun will be setting.
in what’s left. Dishes stacked on a strong table,
Jars of dried beans. Scraps of cloth,
And the ten thousand things of her own thoughts,
Incessant as creek water. She has been able
to lay up her treasures on earth,
as if heaven were here, worth believing.
In the water her hands reach
like roots grown accustomed to living,
the roots of the cat-briar that hold to the hillside
and can never be torn free of this earth completely.
It is the last page of her book The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, section 8 of the long poem “I Inherit the Light of My Grandmother’s House.” Dr. Robert Denham, then a faculty member at Emory & Henry College, had made a beautiful broadside of it on his antique letterpress and gave it to me sometime in the early 90s. “Kitchen Sink” hung on the walls of my offices during most of my 30+ years of teaching.
I first discovered that there was such a thing as “Appalachian poetry” through the work of Fred Chappell, Jeff Daniel Marion, Robert Morgan and Jim Wayne Miller, and broadsides of poems from all of them hung in my office, too. But it was this poem, this voice, and these lines that had stopped me in my tracks like nothing I’d ever read. This was a voice that echoed; it was as if she had been inside my head, and obviously, she had been inside my world. This was the anima, the female spirit, speaking from the country of the mountain south and of the human heart, the intersection of that cosmic landscape that grows the very best poetry. I cannot claim a personal friendship with Kay herself, but her work is part of me and my work, and I am so grateful to have had her out on the trail in front of me, holding a light for me to follow. “The reward of a long life is faith/in what’s left.” Katherine Stripling Byer’s life and work left a great deal behind.
On “Trillium” from Wildwood Flower
April, and I have come far as the trail’s
fork to whisper it, watery sound
like the swollen creek running beside us
the morning we left church and walked till
he threw down his coat on the grass.
How the ridges were rife with this word’s blooming
multitudes, sprung out of nothing
and overnight, as if the souls of all creatures
with wings buried under the leaf mold had risen
and, but for our presence, might take to the sky
singing praise! Nothing moved.
Neither wind, nor the scurry of mice
in the underbrush. Far away I heard the bluejays
rejoicing. And then his breath filling my ear
with my name. Soul of Sweet Mercy,
I should have covered my head with my shawl
and kept silent! Though we spoke of love,
I know now it means little
but loneliness. Better if he had said, “Trillium,
trillium!” I might have known what
he meant: Flood tide.
Both of us well-nigh to drowning.
I’m on a porch in Eastern Carolina, the Outer Banks, when I receive word that Kay has died. The mountains 500 miles west hush, and the ground makes itself ready for summer heat. Pairs of words fill me: light / darkness, flower / rock, hope / silence… Over my head, wind bumps the pelican chime to its song of both sadness and possibility. Sad news in the wake of a clear day that is to be thick storm by morning.
There are so many threads of connection in our lives, we can’t possibly hold them all. At home, a week later, I search my shelves, and there it is – Wildwood Flower, Kay Byer’s second book, astonishing poems of voice, of mountain, of path, beauty, solitude. What I don’t expect to find in her pages is a first draft of one of my own pieces: “The Next to Last Poem”. I can’t remember how my poem came to be, but the evidence is speaking clearly. I must have left it where I began – beside “Trillium”. I scan my handwriting, then her poem:
her path to my road
her creatures with wings to my red-bellied woodpecker
her April and trail’s fork to my April wind in the fields
her swollen creek, my coffee cup with steam rising
her covered head, my empty hand
her flood tide, my silence
I see the symmetry I must have felt when writing my poem – how the voice of Alma was speaking to me as my pencil moved over paper. If I began drafts with keyboard and screen, my poem would never have been written. My note page fell easily against page 23 while the brilliance of “Trillium” on 22 kept whispering to me even though, most likely, I never looked at her words as I wrote. I didn’t need to. They were in the flow of my living already, and I knew them.
“Trillium” is a marvelous poem, truly, though I won’t say it’s the best poem in the book or even my favorite. The collection has so many strong pieces. Impossible to choose only one – “Alma,” “At Kanati Fork,” “Black Shawl,” “Weep-Willow,” “Mary Walks the Fields”. Lucille Clifton, Jorie Graham, and Robert Morgan must have thought so as well, choosing Kay’s manuscript as the 1992 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. I will say that “Trillium” is the poem that takes my breath tonight as I write these words. It’s how I’ll remember Kay: all creatures with wings taking to the sky singing praise.
On “Mountain Time” from Black Shawl
News travels slowly up here
in the mountains, our narrow
roads twisting for days, maybe years,
till we get where we’re going,
if we ever do. Even if some lonesome message
should make it through Deep Gap
or the fastness of Thunderhead, we’re not obliged
to believe it’s true, are we? Consider
the famous poet, minding her post
at the Library of Congress, who
shrugged off the question of what we’d be
reading at century’s end: “By the year 2000
nobody will be reading poems.” Thus she
prophesied. End of that
interview! End of the world
as we know it. Yet, how can I fault
her despair, doing time as she was
in a crumbling Capital, sirens
and gunfire the nights long, the Pentagon’s
stockpile of weapons stacked higher
and higher? No wonder the books
stacked around her began to seem relics.
No wonder she dreamed her own bones
dug up years later, tagged in a museum somewhere
in the Midwest: American Poet – Extinct Species.
Up here in the mountains
we know what extinct means. We’ve seen
how our breath on a bitter night
fades like a ghost from the window glass.
We know the wolf’s gone.
The panther. We’ve heard the old stories
run down, stutter out
into silence. Who knows where we’re heading?
All roads seem to lead
to Millennium, dark roads with drop-offs
we can’t plumb. It’s time to be brought up short
now with the tale-teller’s Listen: There once lived
a woman named Delphia
who walked through these hills teaching children
to read. She was known as a quilter
whose hand never wearied, a mother
who raised up two daughters to pass on
her words like a strong chain of stitches.
Imagine her sitting among us,
her quick thimble moving along those lines
as if to hear every word striking true
as the stab of her needle through calico.
While prophets discourse about endings,
don’t you think she’d tell us the world as we know it
keeps calling us back to beginnings?
This labor to make our words matter
is what any good quilter teaches.
A stitch in time, let’s say.
A blind stitch
that clings to the edges
of what’s left, the ripped
scraps and remnants, whatever
won’t stop taking shape even though the whole
crazy quilt’s falling to pieces.
Kay’s book Black Shawl follows through on the promise of the poem “Black Shawl” in the previous collection, Wildwood Flower, with its images of black roots and black threads paired in a way that always reminds me of what resonates when I read Kay’s poems. I like how I have to look deep, as if through black water, to find what I need to know. Appealing to us on so many levels, the poems are precise and expansive, pairing conflict and clarity with perfect control of poetic elements. The poems are wonderful. What lies in the center of them is the contribution of a unique voice whose timbre we hear even as we listen to ballads others sang, experiences others had, and lessons we need to learn. “Mountain Time,” the introduction to the collection of poems in Black Shawl, helps us to understand all of this. I love this poem for many reasons, especially for the way it serves as a manifesto that will continue to remind readers just how important poetry is. When I read the poem, I hear Kay’s craft and social conscience paired soulfully. I like how the “we” that follows the “I” of the first stanza is a broad “we” that is inclusive of both Kay and Delphia, a voice in this collection that includes several voices, to honor the wisdom of women. The voice resonates to include the rest of us too. “While prophets discourse about endings,” Byer asks, “don’t you think she’d tell us the world as we know it / keeps calling us back to beginnings?” We are urged to realize “the ripped / scraps and remnants . . . won’t stop taking shape.” I believe that. Byer made me believe our voices (all of them) matter. Beginnings matter. Multiple voices matter.
“Memory, I am learning, is not dependable. Daily things slip from its grasp. I know that most of this day will flicker out. But not too soon. I remember a poem by Margaret Atwood, the sister watching her younger sister ice skate, the brilliance of the moment. The final line.
Over all I place a glass bell.”
– Kay Byer, from “Last Day”
On “Chicago Bound” from The Movable Nest: A Mother/Daughter Companion,
edited by Marilyn Kallet and Kathryn Stripling Byer
On the day you turn twenty-one,
we arrive at the airport,
plenty of time before take-off,
the rain steady, ugly gray
sky while the radio cheers us
on, Jimmy Rogers and Sweet Home
Chicago just what we need on
this Friday you turn twenty-one.
Come on, come on, let’s get a move on.
I’m ready, Daddy, to leave this town.
I hold my breath while the plane rises,
muddy clouds all the way up
till we come out the other side into
the stratosphere, lapis lazuli and white
shag carpet all the way there.
Nobody at home up here. Makes me
feel lonesome till I see the beverage cart
rolling toward us and lower my tray.
What’s for lunch? Nothing much.
Cookie, sandwich, a small Baby Ruth.
Captain’s voice from the cockpit
keeps telling us how long before
we’ll come down. Soon it’s time for a snooze
while this plane flies us over the heartland
to you in your Shakespeare class,
old boss man Lear raving blank verse,
still crazy after all these years. Just a little while
longer, we’ll be on the ground
where we’ll hop a train south to the campus,
a place I like better than this flimsy
carpet of clouds on which I cannot walk
to you. I need green fields
to do that, some tough city blocks,
Kimbark, Ellis, East Hyde Park.
Give me boulevard, avenue,
chemin, rue, strasse, calle,
Avenida, el camino, whatever
you want to call it, Baby, if it’s down
there on earth where you are,
it’s Sweet Home. I’ll take it.
In our conversations about motherhood and letting go, Kay Byer and I spoke of our hope to accomplish a more positive, less guilt-ridden job than our own mothers had done with us. In our efforts to encourage joyful independence in our daughters, Kay Byer and I hatched a plan for The Movable Nest: A Mother/Daughter Companion. We canvassed our writer friends, mothers who had bid goodbye to their daughters, and asked for poems that covered the complex topic of leaving the nest. Kay and I agreed that we liked Pat Mora’s concept of a “movable nest” better than an “empty nest.” When Kay’s daughter left for University of Chicago, when my daughter Heather left at sixteen for the North Carolina School of the Arts, we felt many things: pride, sadness, love––but no emptiness. We did not anticipate the joy we would find in the “returns,” the homecomings, the phone calls and strengthened bonds. That’s the movable part of our heartland.
Kay wrote a lyrical, unsentimental essay, “Last Day,” for our volume; her daughter Corinna Lynette Byer offered a poem, “Citrons,” in which her footsteps leaving the farm echo those of her mother, departing decades earlier. Several writer-daughters provided graceful poems that responded to their mothers’ songs of blessing and leave-taking. We were in this together, this letting go and finding new connections, this art of bearing witness to each stage of our lives, our loves.
Kay chose her poem, “Chicago Bound,” for our collection. She composed this lyric on a visit to Corinna at the University of Chicago. The poem clears the air of excess sentiment with images like “muddy clouds all the way up,” and “white shag carpet” for sky; the lunch cart offering is small. “What’s for lunch? Nothing much. / Cookie, sandwich, a small Baby Ruth.” But our poet lets the feelings soar toward the end, where the poem turns into a love poem without apology:
Give me boulevard, avenue,
chemin, rue, strasse, calle,
Avenida, el camino, whatever
you want to call it, Baby, if it’s down
there on earth where you are,
it’s Sweet Home. I’ll take it.
There’s no love like this one. Yet Kay Byer’s poem in five-line stanzas evokes a contained, formal feeling, like that which arrives after great pain, according to Dickinson. But now the poem bears great joy––the expectation of seeing the daughter––and travels weightlessly, like a smooth flight over Chicago, preparing to land smoothly and to deposit both parents onto the city streets. Our unsentimental poet declares the need for both “green fields” and “tough city blocks” in order to travel a path to her daughter. She needs the complex, solid ground of reality rather than greeting-card sentiments. Below, the daughter is in her Shakespeare class studying some of the best verse our language has to offer. “Boss man” Lear may be raving in the background, “still crazy after all these years,” but from a distance the voice is sweeter and more modern, like Paul Simon’s. Like a ballad that continues, Kathryn Stripling Byer’s poetry endures.
On Southern Fictions
“For years I tried to write about the racial conflict in my Southwest Georgia county as
I experienced it growing up in the 1950s and 60s, but I didn’t trust my own voice to
speak honestly…Who was I then? Even more important, who was I now.”
from the introduction to Southern Fictions
Kay Byer’s poetry was a constant drive to speak honestly, to tell the truths of her life, to embrace and confront while not loosening her love affair with her beloved South. It was this desire for truth that led her to grapple with the difficulty of living in a place she loved, while at the same time recognizing it was disturbingly flawed. “I can’t deny it’s safer to stay blind,” she wrote.
Yet she didn’t choose safety. She chose to openly address issues of gender and race discrimination, the savagery of a place where children are run down in the street and no one ‘sees’ because of the child’s color;
“…the little girl who never heard
her mama screaming as the crimson sports
car sped around the bus and knocked her forty
feet…It never once occurred to me
that men would lie…”
a place where men, as her father, tells her, spend a day trying to ‘beat’ the African-Americans out of the county. As her father broods, tries to reconcile the actions with his belief “They aren’t bad boys. Just misguided”
girl come to clean house stood outside
calling, Here I am.”
Kay knew the deep wells that fed these contradictions, the good boys who committed horrors and didn’t recognize the darkness within them.
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
what 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.
Southern Fictions, a limited edition hand letterpressed chapbook, is her darkest work, but as important as anything she’s written. As in all her poetry, she refused to turn away, refused to stay blind, to the problems of her land and the people she still loved, and always would.
“…I had no wish to take flight,
the good earth enough for me,
down on my knees digging beds for the seedlings.”
from the poem “Winged” (The Vishnu Bird)
One of the many things that made Kay unique was her ability to write lines of lyrical beauty, even when examining her own response to injustice. Her flawed land was home in all its sustaining meaning. Her refusal to flinch from what the truth revealed is what made her poetry unique and profound.
“What are you writing? A poem? She is watching me, hanging on to the edge of the pool.
Just writing, I say.
Another turning. So many. And it does no good to tell me I must learn to let go. Letting go is what we spend our lives doing, whether we want to or not, whether or not we learn how to do it.”
– Kay Byer, from “Last Day”
MARILYN KALLET is the author of 17 books, including The Love That Moves Me, poetry from Black Widow Press. She has translated Paul Eluard’s Last Love Poems, Péret’s The Big Game, and co-translated Chantal Bizzini’s Disenchanted City. Dr. Kallet is Nancy Moore Goslee Professor of English at the University of Tennessee. She also leads poetry workshops every year for VCCA-France in Auvillar. She has performed her poems on campuses and in theaters across the United States as well as in France and Poland, as a guest of the U.S. Embassy’s “America Presents” program. The University of Tennessee
lists her as a specialist on poetry’s role in times of crisis, as well as on poetry and healing, poetry and humor, poetry and dreams, poetry and Jewish identity. Her next book of poems, How Our Bodies Learned, is forthcoming from Black Widow Press.
RICHARD KRAWIEC has published three books of poems, most recently Women Who Loved me Despite (Second Edition). His work appears in dozens of literary magazines, including New Orleans Review, Drunken Boat, Shenandoah, sou’wester, Lavure Litteraire, Dublin Review, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Spillway, Blue Fifth Review, Connotations Press. In addition to poetry, he has published two novels, Time Sharing and Faith in What?, a story collection, And Fools of God, and four plays. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the NC Arts Council (twice), and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He has been short-listed for Best American Short Stories and nominated multiple times for a Pushcart – twice last year. He teaches Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced online Fiction Writing for UNC Chapel Hill, for which he won their Excellence in Teaching Award in 2009. He is founder of Jacar Press, a Community Active publishing company that also runs an online magazine One. He has taught writing to people in homeless shelters, women’s shelters, prisons, literacy classes, and community sites and elsewhere.
FELICIA MITCHELL is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwest Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. Her scholarly work includes Her Words. Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women’s Poetry (University of Tennessee Press), with a section on Kathryn Stripling Byer that shares her poems “Wildwood Flower” and “Black Shawl” along with “Singing Our Hearts Away: The Poetry of Kathryn Stripling Byer,” an essay by Ann F. Richman. Felicia’s recent poetry collection is Waltzing with Horses (Press 53).
In addition to the novel Hiding Ezra, RITA QUILLEN has published six books of poetry and prose. She was a semi-finalist for the 2012 Virginia Poet Laureate, and her most recent poetry book was a finalist for the prestigious Weatherford Award from Berea College. Other awards and recognition include two Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and the Book of the Year award from the Appalachian Writers Association.
SAM RASNAKE works have appeared in The Southern Poetry Anthology, MiPOesias Companion 2012, Best of the Web 2009, LUMMOX 2012, BOXCAR Poetry Review Anthology 2, and Dogzplot Flash Fiction 2011. His most recent collection is Cinéma Vérité (A-Minor Press). He has served as a judge for the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, University of California, Berkeley, and presently edits Blue Fifth Review.