Byer’s book brings us a sense of place
Kathryn Stripling Byer lives in Cullowhee. Poet Laureate Emeritas of North Carolina for a number of years, she was this year inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. I’ve known her since 1973 … so I’m going to call her Kay. The lines quoted below are from the opening and closing stanzas of “Morning Train,” the first of 26 poems in her absolutely remarkable new collection titled Descent (Louisiana State University Press, 2012).
So long long, the train sang
deep in the piney woods, well out of sight
… that old rhythm and blues beat
I can’t stop from singing me home
on this slow moving train
of a poem, its voice calling
downwind, What took you so long?
— Morning Train,
by Kathryn Stripling Byer
The descent in question could be into hell. Lots of poets go there. But the cover image by Cindy Davis depicts a mist-shrouded Turner-like inferno of sunset titled “South Georgia Pine.” So this train is bound for the slash pine flats where Kay grew up. That was before she settled down here thirty or so years ago. Western North Carolina and south Georgia … not far apart but different … about half a day’s drive and she’s home again at either end.
Lots of the folks she’s descended from appear in the poems, especially in the first of the three parts into which the collection is divided. The epigram for Part I from Mahoud Darwish’s “Here the Bird’s Journey Ends” serves notice of our next destination: “Soon we will descend the widow’s descent in the memory fields.” And we do.
The dedication reads: “For my father / C.M. Stripling (1920-2006).” Kay describes him as a stubborn man “who clinched his fists / round the tractor’s wheel / … ground his teeth / on the grit of his field.” He is a Southerner whose “battle flag is draped across a back-room window.” As she drives away one day … headed for her other home … she sees his eyes “squinching back tears.” In a poem titled “Over,” we watch as his ashes descend “in no hurry” from a crop duster’s plane to the fields he once tilled.
In “My Grandfather’s Cattle Gap,” a story her mother tells causes her (the poet as little girl) to imagine breaking a leg in one of his cattle gaps, which “rattled like coffin slats.” And they kept on rattling “again and again” in a dream she (the mother) had about driving home toward “the burning house / where everyone she loves lies sleeping.” Past and present … dream and reality … merge in these poems the way they do in real life.
In “Down,” the dogwoods and pear trees are blooming … an uncle lies dying ... his sister cries out “almost gone” … and the little girl who grows up to write the poem you’re reading stands “at the edge of the known world” watching “the swollen sun” she “knew nobody, / not even Jesus, could / talk into not going down.”
In “Retablo,” at her grandfather’s funeral, Kay thinks of his “forevermore closed eyes.” Her grandmother described their color to her as “Bird’s egg blue.” First time ever she saw him, he had “come calling / to fetch a stray dog.” Someone had told Kay that eyes are the first thing “to decay once the coffin lid’s shut.” Kay’s grandmother (Carrie Mae Campbell) was apparently one of those irascible sharp-tongued women of the sort the South specialized in producing with regularity until not long ago. In “Drought Days,” which is dedicated to her, Carrie Mae bitterly resents the absence of rain and knows for certain the “He in the sky” who is to be held responsible: “God stank like a singed field. / His taste in my mouth like a rusty nail. / I wanted him kept well away / from the places I loved, / his narrowed eyes raking the world.”
In Part 2, the poems are often about the poet as young lady finding her way … as she puts it … in “the good old South I love to hate.” She smokes the obligatory cigarettes with a girlfriend. In “Gone Again,” seeking glamour where she can find it in the slash pines, Kay becomes Scarlett (you know who) “staring at Tara, intoning Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” And she exclaims in mock exasperation: “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 roundabout … The truth? What’s that? How should I know? / I stayed inside too much.” (So did Emily Dickinson.) At the end of one of those dirt roads, a dog lies dying in a ditch. The man who shot it gives Kay a wink.
The epigram for Part II — from Tomas Transtromer’s “Madrigal” — consists of five words: “I inherited a dark wood …” The epigram for Part III completes that sentence (“I inherited a dark wood, but today I am walking in another wood, the light one”) and appends these lines from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony: “They flew to the fourth world / below. / Down there / was another kind of daylight.”
The place names at this end of the journey are reassuring. We know where they are: Ramsay Cascades … Rocky Face … Buzzards Roost … Weyahutta … Oconaluftee … Chimney Tops. The closing poem is titled “Here.” It consists of 29 lines arranged in four stanzas. In it, Kay turns up the music and sings us home:
From the southernmost reaches of night, /
I have come here to stand at this window.
Here I can see / winter trees line dancing
the horizon and glimpse over traffic /
the bolt of the gray Tuckaseegee ... /
No wonder, leaving my father’s black
fields / where the dirt smelled of duty
and death / and the sunset burned all the
way down to its roots … / I arrived,
not a moment too soon, at the junction /
of Thomas Divide and Kanati Fork, /
air ripe with bear scat and leaf mold. /
… was it because of the windows
where every night I watched / the
sky field on fire dying out, cloud by
cloud, / into darkness that I came /
to this place where sky huddles over
the Balsams / and lingers awhile every
morning / as mist lifting off the weeds
clasping the edges of Cullowhee /
Creek? Over thirty years I’ve watched
the way / light begins here. It still
wakens me up. Lets me be. /
Here. Where I am.