Winter 2005

Kathryn Stripling Byer


Kathryn Stripling Byer has published four books of poetry, most recently Catching Light (Louisiana State University, 2002) which received the Southeastern Booksellers Award for Poetry. Her fifth, Coming to Rest, will appear in 2006. Spring Street Editions published her chapbook Wake in 2003.
Coming To Rest    

1. The  Name

Because she'd not bury
the name with the dead child,
she made her surviving five children
swear they'd pass it on
to the first daughter born to them.

Another name for letting go.
Or holding on.

Another name for home.

2. Birthday Ghazal
Why this old Persian form for today, of all days?
Why not sonnet or blank verse to help me take hold?                  

Down to the wire goes the season's gold,
late this year, so long it took to take hold.

I don't care that my days tumble down
to the compost pile. I want to look, to take hold.

Seize the day. Carpe Diem, if you like.
Bite down hard on the hook and take hold.

Down the creek float the leavings of what I once was.
Just a girl. Mostly waiting for luck to take hold.

Last night rain kept the roof busy scolding
me, wake up, you dumb cluck, and take hold.

I've already  answered my e-mail, my voice
mail, my snail mail. My real work? To take hold.

Kathryn died too young. Age twelve. Now she tolls
in the dust of my name: to come back, to take hold.

3. Sinking

The aunt I was named after died too young.
She sank at age twelve
into diabetic pneumonia. Then coma,

too pretty a word for her dying. Why cling
to another old form like this no-holds-
barred song for my  aunt who died too young

to care about romance? What good is a song
now, to her?  Or to me? Maybe I've grown too old
for such artifice, as if I'm trapped in a coma

of middle-aged dullness. My tongue
slips on names. But not hers. But why dwell
on her death? So she died, much too young,

not at all like an angel who could do no wrong,
not at all blonde & pretty as I had been told.
When she sank into that final coma,

she must have looked ugly. I can't make this  
villanelle sing, no matter what I've been told
about Kathryn, who died too young,
years before insulin, of diabetic pneumonia.

4. Stuck

She smoothes her skirt and squints at me.
I don't know what to say. Or why she's come.
The clock's stopped ticking on the wall. Back home
again, she sees what I see, same old creek
reflecting nothing but a sky where trees
fish with their lines of moss all day. Let's thumb
a ride to town
, she dares. Let's make the phone lines hum
above these droughty fields. Now that I'm free

I'm getting out of here
. She says she wants to hear
the latest gossip, wants to have a little fun.
She tells me everything that hangs around
too long gets stuck. I nod. I don't dare
ask her why she's here, this dust I've stirred from
sleep. This shell of light. This sullen hologram.

5.  Free

This nameless creek
almost obscured by shade
where she was last seen
by the camera lens
keeps rushing through me
as she hikes her skirt
and stands wanting to be
brave enough to walk
into the current,
sickly girl whose cropped
hair won't blow
in the summer
wind, too short,
too short, she cries,
coming to rest
in the photograph.




I lie down in her sea bed that bears
me back home to the nothing left
after her house burned around it.

Her lavender handkerchief knotted
round nickels and dimes. On her dresser
a brooch in the shape of a peacock's tail.

Organdy curtains that breathed in
and out when she opened the windows
for March to blow through like a lioness

stalking the boxwoods or a lamb bleating
out by the pump house. Her hairpins
sown over the rugs. Her voluminous apron.

Her false teeth that grinned
every night from a tall iced-tea glass
as she pulled off her house dress,

her shimmy, her bloomers
that even now swell like a mainsail with
nothingness. Lorna Doone shortbread

she nibbled till she fell asleep, leaving crumbs
in the bed sheets like sand from the white beach
at  Panama City whenever I crawled into bed

with her body that smelled of the ocean
at low tide and tasted of salt
when she pulled me too close to her.



Shadow Sister    

Sometimes I still see you
haunting the thickets around every
stubble field. You swing the rusty gate open,
then you swing it shut. In the after-dust
you scrawl your hop-scotch and dare me
to leap over cow pies and cockle burrs.

Trapped In your eyes I see Sherman
march through here all over again.
I see smoke rising out of the cornfields
while you, having only a poor piece of dishcloth
to beat against those flames,
keep stamping them out with your bare feet.

No wonder you love to say
you are Miss Scarlett right down
to the bone, when you aren't being Orchid
or Jasmine from way back,
a belle who loves picking her way
through a wasteland of snake-nettle.

Sometimes I still want what you want,
the keys to a red-hot convertible,
top down and who the hell cares
if a hard rain comes,
we're headed north, east,
west, we are out of here, girl.

But it's too late.
I see what you are. A long drought,
the kind I have known more
than one farmer's daughter to curse,
shake her fist at,
for all the good that ever does her.



Kathryn Stripling Byer: Poetry
Copyright © 2005 The Cortland Review Issue 27The Cortland Review