August 2002

Kathryn Stripling Byer


Kathryn Stripling Byer's four books of poetry are Catching Light (2002), Black Shawl (1998), and Wildwood Flower, the 1992 Lamont Selection of Academy of American Poets, all from Louisiana State University , and The Girl In the Midst of the Harvest, AWP Award Series, (Texas Tech University Press, 1986). Recipient of an NEA Fellowship, as well as awards from the state of North Carolina, including the 2001 North Carolina Award for Literature, she has poetry in Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Poetry, and Southern Review, and essays in the Boston Globe, Carolina Quarterly, and Shenandoah, among others. Past Poet-in-Residence at Western Carolina University, Lenoir Rhyne College, and lately on the faculty of the M.F.A. Writing Program of UNC-Greensboro, Kathryn lives in Cullowhee, North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

Attic    Click to hear in real audio

Not buried
but piece by piece carried
up narrow stairs
into the rafters,

her leavings
have summered through
forty-five seasons
of Bible-Belt heat.

I can stand only so much
of being up here,
on this late August afternoon,
dead-end of summer

in which I come looking
for her again.
In the usual places.
This jewelry casket,

for instance.  Inside it
she stares from the heart
of a foliate brooch
that I raise in a tangle

of gold chains I don't
try to loosen.  She's still
here: a face
I have used up

with wonderings.
High cheekbones.
A mouth slightly open

and inside that
no invitation
for me to speak out of it.



My Grandfather's Cattle Gap    Click to hear in real audio

frightened me.  Cattle knew better
than cross, but my cousins did not
and took turns fording slats
over hardly more depth than a ditch.
I refused to play Russian Roulette
on what felt like a train trestle over

a bottomless pit.  Blame the story
my mother had told me:
the tomboy whose leg fell through,
broken, of course, and the train
chuffing closer and closer.
That cattle gap rattled like coffin slats.
What if some poor heifer was dumb enough
to cross over?  Her bones splintered
each time I thought of it.  Poor cow,
she would be shot before dawn.

Poor grand-daughter, she would be
rushed to the emergency room
only to lounge in a cast for the rest
of the summer.  Yes, I blame my mother
for that silly fear.  Not to mention her dream
in which the cattle gap rattles again and again
as she drives toward the burning house
where everyone she loves lies sleeping.



Duskfall    Click to hear in real audio


Step into it,
it is only a word,
like her name, Julianna,
a word now for

mourning and opens
itself step by step
to your saying it.
Duskfall.  A curtain

that's lowered,
a caravan of lights
coming toward you,
cortege, or just

strangers who've
lost their way, each
of them smiling
as if they are glad

to have found you
at home.  Turn
the lights on, the radio.
Open the whiskey

or sloe gin or whatever
waits on the table and sit
down together.  It's duskfall.
You called it.  It came.



Thinking Myself Home    Click to hear in real audio

I have to look up and over the trees
all the way to the mountains I see in the distance,

then hang a left soon as I get there,
thinking my way down the Blue Ridge

and into the piedmont just south
of Atlanta.  From there it's a straight

shoot to home,
if I still want to go, which I do

because this is the best way,
by stealth, no one knows I am coming,

no cake to be baked,
and my mother not worrying most of her day

by the telephone, clearly imagining
fifty car pile-ups,

the ambulance wailing, the whole bloody
nine miles of interstate closed

for the body count.
No idle comments about my new haircut,

my extra pounds.  I could be dust
on the air or a bright stab of light passing through.

I don't have to stay long.
I can leave when I want to, without feeling guilty

when I see my father's eyes squinching
back tears as I drive away.

Hello and goodbye.  That's it.
And I'm back

in my bedroom that faces south into the side
of these trees, with the radio on

warning Traveler's Advisory. Wrecking-ball hailstones.
King Kong tornado. Megaton Blizzard.

A forecast so unimaginably bad, only a fool
would drive home in this kind of weather.



Kathryn Stripling Byer: Poetry
Copyright 2002 The Cortland Review Issue 21The Cortland Review