November 2007

Kathryn Stripling Byer


Kathryn Stripling Byer has published five books of poetry, including Wildwood Flower (LSU, 1992), the Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets, Black Shawl (LSU, 1998), Catching Light (LSU, 2001), the SIBA Book of the Year in Poetry, and Coming to Rest (LSU, 2006). She is the 2007 recipient of the Hanes Award in Poetry from the Fellowship of Southern Writers and currently serves as North Carolina Poet Laureate. Her poetry and essays have appeared in journals ranging from The Atlantic Monthly to Appalachian Heritage. She lives in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina.

Queen of Spades    

Bayonet Point, Florida

When he swaggered into town,
slashing though mangrove and prickly pear,
we knew at once who he was. Outlaw.
Renegade. Didn't he brag
to the old men who dozed in the tavern
that he'd escaped court martial,
near certain hanging?
His stories seeped into our own
like a bloodstain,
the flower in everyone's backyard.

We wagered our last pair of stockings
and loose change we'd knotted
in lavender handkerchiefs on how long
before they would tell him about her,
the woman with silver fish hooked in her earlobes,
the one with the rum cellar waiting
from days when her father ran contraband
out of Havana. They'd tell him to laugh at her tales
about doubloons still buried somewhere
in her spice garden. As for the men she had blinded

with fingernails sharper than saw grass,
we knew he would pay them no heed.
He would leave her sheets stinking of sweat
and she'd sigh, "Must you leave me so soon?"  
He would bring her the orchids
she loathed, and she'd whisper, "My Own."

By the time she had found him, as we knew
she would, with his pants pockets spilling gold coins,  
we'd have already conjured where she'd aim her pistol
with roses carved into its handle—
the vein in his neck she had often kissed.

She'd back him out to the patio,
whispering, "Go away,
you of the greedy eyes, drawing a line in the dirt
with your boot." Then he'd brandish the silver fish
ripped from her ears

and we'd hear her screams
trailing him all the way down to the beach
where he sat serenading the moon.  

Maybe he'd go to Mexico.
Vamos a Mexico, we made him sing
as he danced round his plunder.

A horse whinnied up in the dunes
and then they were upon him,
their bayonets gleaming like gold
buried under a mad woman's spikenard bush.

Ask us, what did he cup in his hands?
Something dark as the roses she'd floated in bowls
by her bed, singing gypsy songs
into his neck every night as he fell asleep.

Lover, lie down on the grass.
Let my mouth stanch your blood,
Let my hands mend your shirt full of holes.



At the End    

he said nothing of sun rising
over the hoar-frosted scrub pines

and nothing of mist he saw rising
from deer scat. Never a word

did he whisper of morning cold burning
his throat as he stood at the dawn's edge.

His open mouth bore but a fleck
of blood, last uttered syllable

as he fell back to the pillow,
ice growing lace shutters over

his eyeballs, but not before he pushed
through holly-thorn into the clearing,

the deer turning toward him,
a rush of quail lifting their wings

as he watched his breath leaving
like white cloth he once saw

a carnival magician unwind from his mouth
and throw to the crowd where he stood

wanting proof but ashamed to raise
his hands like the other boys, grabbing at air.

           (for my grandfather Ulmont Campbell,  d. 11/25/71)



Kathryn Stripling Byer: Poetry
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 37The Cortland Review