DESCENT by Katherine Stripling Byer (LSU, 2012)

Philip Belcher Click to

Philip Belcher is the Vice President, Programs, of The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina in Asheville, NC and the author of a chapbook, The Flies and Their Lovely Names, from Stepping Stones Press. A graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Duke University School of Law, he also has an MFA in Poetry from Converse College. Belcher’s poems and prose have appeared in numerous journals, including The Southeast Review,  The Southern Quarterly, Asheville Poetry Review, Southern Humanities Review and The South Carolina Review.

What a pleasure it’s been to spend time with Kay Byer’s volume of meditative poems and find there a poetry that is profound but that resists the temptation to flaunt all of the effort it took to be that way.  These poems reveal their power not through linguistic pyrotechnics or thematic novelty but, rather, by risking honesty without stumbling over the ledge of sentimentality.

Byer has tied the volume’s three sections together in a narrative arc that considers family and loss, the struggle of white Southerners of a certain age to come to terms with the racism sewn into the fabric of their childhoods, and the wisdom available to those who continue into middle age reflecting upon the currents of love and resistance that battle in memory for a lifetime.  The thematic ties of the three sections are punctuated by recurring declarations of identity.  In the first section’s “Lost,” a poem dedicated to a young girl who appears to be the poet’s aunt and namesake, a dying child negotiates with God, “yearning / to say Here I am / but am not.”  In “Southern Fictions,” the middle section’s sonnet sequence confronting identity and race, a black girl calls out “Here I am” to announce from outside the house her arrival to clean as the family’s father broods over his failure to protest the abuse of black residents by local white bullies.  “First Presbyterian,” a poem appearing early in the volume’s final section, picks up on an earlier poem’s theological skepticism and ends “. . . Just As I Am, we sang, closing the service. / My soul took a deep breath and walked out.” Finally, in “Here,” the volume’s last poem, the speaker reflects on the arc of her life:  “. . . Over thirty years I’ve watched the way / light begins here. It still wakes me up. Lets me be. / Here. Where I am.”

Readers will return more than once to “Southern Fictions,” the book’s most powerful poem. Here, Byer displays in form and content the tensions between cherishing a place and regretting its history, between love of family and disappointment in their subtle complicity in injustice.  It is clear that the poet abhors racism, but the poems are sonnets.  Through their form and subtle music they exhibit tenderness as well as outrage.

Poems of reflection upon family, death, race, and identity are too often assigned these days to the shelf labeled “regional,” but only a narrow reading would suggest that the poems in Descent are parochial. Rather, they are well-crafted leanings into the universal concerns of family, place, and the continuing struggle to see oneself in the “other.”