KAY BYER — POET, TEACHER, OLD SOUL
See her three new poems in the current issue. A full feature will be complete in the coming weeks.
On June 6 the community of writers and readers lost acclaimed poet Kathryn Stripling Byer to leukemia. A former Poet Laureate of North Carolina, Kay was the author of six books, recipient of many awards and a wife, mother, teacher, friend. She had taught at several colleges, primarily Western Carolina, and conducted numerous workshops. She was born in Camilla, Georgia, educated at Wesleyan College and UNCG and spent half a century in Cullowhee, North Carolina among the mountains and people she loved. Novelist Lee Smith has said, “The fact is that Kathryn Stripling Byer’s poems are absolutely necessary to me.”
Byer’s poetry collections are The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest (1986), Wildwood Flower (1992), Black Shawl (1998), Catching Light (2002), Coming to Rest (2006),Descent (2012), all but the first from LSU Press. She had also completed a new collection for future release.
Alice Friman’s Appreciation of Byer’s “Pretty,” which appears in this issue of Shenandoah
the world I saw after he pulled me up
onto the saddle so pretty
I whispered into his backbone,
the taste of his sweat through the rough
of his shirt, on my tongue
pretty snatches of lovesong and
doe-si-doe. as the laurels sprayer
down on us sweet creamy
petals and overhead blue china
saucers on which the clouds
floated. Clotted cream, I would
serve wedding guests such
a fine sweetness they’d never again
doubt my true love. Never ever again
caution rectitude. I’d cast my bouquet
so far not a girl in the county
could catch it. Such a fine day
as higher we climbed
the leaves churning with wind
while into his back I breathe
When. And he answers soon,
oh soon, as we sink into swirling
shade, pink ladyslippers strewn
over the banks, and fairy wands
trailside when suddenly, witch-hobble
snaring my skirt, he turns to me,
pulling the combs from my hair,
ripping my pearl-buttoned blouse
to my waist, his tongue on my
neck, forcing my mouth open wide,
my stays ripping apart,
soon, of soon I hear him
moaning, even as over my face
I feel dirt falling, hear the trot of his horse
leaving as I try to call out to him
cupping my heartsblood,
this love that lies
bleeding into my hands.
First thing I love about this wonderful poem is the pace, the racing lines under which one can hear the racing horse, the man’s racing thoughts, and the youthful narrator’s racing heart. A galloping, reckless quality created by enjambment—a winding of the lines—and sentences that run headlong on, thus recreating the breathlessness of desire. And like desire, the poem climbs, the way the horse climbs, the man’s need climbs, the narrator’s pulse climbs driven by the repetition of “When” and “Soon, oh soon” until it all comes to a screeching halt when the two seemingly parallel desires run counter to each other, clash, crash in a rape and betrayal.
But this is the narrator’s poem, and we look through her eyes, her young, willful, and romantic eyes to see that this day even nature is on her side. Floating clouds and carpets of pink ladyslippers. What does she want but what she’s been taught to want: wedding bouquets, love songs, and a clotted-cream reception. Not to mention vindication, for how can this great bursting feeling she has in her chest not show everyone who warned her against this man—this man of sweat and rough clothes—the rightness of her love. This pretty, pretty love. And the man? We know him only through her senses. We never see his face, only feel the masculine urge of him through what she smells and feels against her cheek. Nor does it matter. For what she is enamored with is the “other” that is him. The opposite of family, of safe, of all she’s known. But most of all, the opposite of “pretty.” The trouble is, the world of “pretty” is the reality she puts him in, the only world she knows. The world of high romance, chivalry and love. It’s interesting that Byer places the narrative in a long-ago past. Note the “ripping stays,” the “pearl buttoned blouse.” If I didn’t know better I’d think Byer were writing a satire on popular bodice rippers. But no, this piece hits too hard, too close to truth. The turnaround at the end too real, too heartbreaking. Dante in his Comedy put betrayal at the very bottom of hell, the punishment, being encased in ice—payback for coldness, for using people for one’s own ends. And here we have the perfect illustration: when the man gets done, he turns without a word and rides away, his horse kicking dirt in her face, and she calling to him still offering her love, “Take it, / take it, / this love that lies / bleeding into my hands.” Will she stop loving him? I doubt it. She will go on with her dream, her love battered and bloodied, but still there. How do I know that? Well, it takes one to know one. –-Alice Friman
Joseph Bathanti’s Appreciation of Kay Byer’s “Tobacco,” which originally appeared in the fall, 1995 issue of Shenandoah
mouthfuls ripe as
wild plums. Spat. Missed
houseflies and hound
dogs that stirred up
the dust. Her front
porch mottled brown.
closer, can’t see
where I’m aiming.
I pushed the can
close with a stick.
Ran. She don’t miss
a trick, said her
old man who hid
in the shed with
his whiskey. She
sees better, hears
better, what’s more
she’ll live longer’n
you or me. Don’t
ever ask her
Mama said. She
won’t say doodley-
squat. Just let her
sit. Chew her cud.
Cow. The devil
take her black tongue
Since determining to write about Kay Byer’s poem, “Tobacco,” I’ve carried it with me a solid month and read it maybe fifty times. It was first published in Shenandoah and then in Kay’s 1998 Black Shawl from LSU. The poem is a modest 99 words: written in tight syllabics – 7 quatrains followed by a couplet. Thirty lines of 4 syllables per line, 120 syllables all told. Eighty-one of those 99 are one syllable. They issue from a small bore – immaculate, economical, lightning-like –yet spray collaterally like buckshot, sometimes rock salt. The poem is tough – a few thorns, not a whit of sentimentality – slant rhymes and assonance, the weave, stitch and trope of a meticulous, elegant hand. Kay’s hand. It forms a backbone and looks like one on the page, albeit tensile, elastic, sonic.
Now I have Kay to thank – as I do for so many other things that have led to the unlikely reality that I myself have become a poet – for an even keener appreciation for why rereading is just as important as rewriting. If you read a poem as textured and clairvoyant as “Tobacco,” it strikes up a chant that won’t leave you. It might even tell you what it’s about.
“Tobacco” starts with that ostensibly scary “Grandmama” (muse) who chews tobacco “ripe as / wild plums” – the only bit of sweetness, the only sensual image in the poem, other than when she addresses the speaker-granddaughter, her heir, as “Honey,” and asks her to “idle that cuspidor” / closer” so she can “see / where she’s aiming.”
I love the verb “idle,” but what I love best about the poem is that the little girl, eye-witness though she is, stands at the edge of the frame, not deigning to touch the “can,” but rather keeps her self-possession and distance by using a “stick” (the talking stick?) to obediently accommodate her grandmother. Then the girl runs off, but not out of earshot. Her grandfather – Grandmama’s “old man “ – “[hides] / in the shed with / his whiskey.” Fearful of his wife, he declares “she don’t miss / a trick” – even though she “[misses] / houseflies and hound / dogs” she’s spitting at.
Yet we find out that Grandmama’s aim is pretty deadly. She “sees better, hears / better” and will “live longer’n” her “old man,” even longer than the little girl speaker. He accords his wife superhuman powers of reckoning and longevity. And, of course, he’s right. “Grandmama” is immortal – in the poem written by her granddaughter who, unlike the others, has been paying keen attention, not missing a trick either. She too sees and hears everything. Their kinship is certain.
The speaker’s mother – we’re invited to see her as Grandmama’s daughter – adjures the speaker never to ask Grandmama “for anything” because she “won’t say doodley- / squat.” Yet Grandmama has been far more eloquent than “doodley- / squat,” and her granddaughter has understood perfectly their private language. In the poem’s surprising concluding couplet, in a sudden departure from that spine of quatrains, a narrowing, she impugns her mother: “Cow. The devil / take her black tongue.” Anathema, perhaps the curse of being a seer, possessed of a “black tongue” that wags with truth. And a tad of irony, a dash of humor, in the bargain; everyone in the poem, other than the girl, is cowed by Grandmama.
Grandmama is mythically imposing, archetypal. I like her and she and I both like that cagey little girl who understands everything, and is busy listening while the others hunker and cower and indict. She’s wary, but not afraid, and abundantly curious. She’s hatching her own language, keen eye and ear, apprenticing as the poet she’s destined to be. That “black tongue” is power, and she already knows how to wield it. She’s heard stories she can’t help but tell. — Joseph Bathanti
Kay’s awards include the AWP Prize in Poetry, The Lamont Prize, The Roanoke Chowan Prize, the Brockman Campbell Award, the Hanes Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the North Carolina Award in Literature and others. Of her work, Mary Oliver wrote, “Byer’s poems are certainly gentle, lovely, even delicate; also they tremble, they plunge, they rage, they lash with life.”
“Gypsy,” first collected in Black Shawl (1998), has remained one of my favorite of Kay’s shorter poems. Just five quatrains, each featuring a pair of rhymed couplets, the poem recounts an old story of the settlement folk trying to protect and control their own but fearing the marginal, outlaw element, whether manifested as snarling bobcat or a whispering, tempting romantic figure complete with stallion, whisky and a breath that “smells like death.” More than a story, it’s the silhouette of a folk opera the imagination keeps filling in long after the last line. The dark man is the spirit of wildness, the ticket out, but also the demon lover of so much myth and song. Here’s the poem.
Tonight by the flare
of a pine knot, his stallion tears
clean through the limb fog that lays
itself down along Beggarman’s Trace.
When he stops at the Jump-Off
to guzzle more whiskey, she coughs
at his back till he turns, and his breath
in her face smells like death
or close to it. Below, lamps illumine
the houses where she should know women
are already telling how she’s become nothing
but wind they hear mouthing
temptation: Let Go. (Now she’s
no longer neighbor, they’ll let her be
damned to a shallow grave.) They try
to listen as far as they can for the cry
of the bobcat their men will be out
tracking all night. They want it brought
down by its throat or else, goodness knows,
what’s running wild might come too close.
She gives us the topography, with the “gypsy” – not so named within the poem, as the unnamed woman might herself might be(come) a gypsy – “tearing through fog” along “Beggarman’s Trace.” The abduction or seduction or rescue has already occurred, as “she” is mounted behind the horseman, all lit by torchlight as the rider halts at a place ominously called “Jump-Off,” and the village she has left is “below.” In the middle of the poem the lens turns away from the torch-lit escape to the lamp-lit houses and their applicants, who are already starting the lapidary work of the tongue that explains and advises and dismisses. Even though She is now “nothing / but wind” her voice is beckoning them: Let Go.
But they can’t explain or talk it away. The urge to see a less predictable and less circumscribed world is rampant. The village women may want to curse her (even if touched by envy), but they can’t stop listening “as far as they can for the cry. . . .” But what cry? We expect stallion or lover or fugitive girl, but we get an actual (or perhaps wished-for) bobcat, indigenous, an unmythic substitute for the more mysterious outsider.– RTS
Ave Atque Vale
(What follows is less obituary than remembrance and testimony, as I still stammer when I have to refer to Kay in the past tense, but the body of her work does and will survive.)
Kay Byer spent most of her life in western North Carolina, a town called Cullowhee. Romantics like to say that the word is a Cherokee term for “valley of the lilies,” but it’s more likely derived from Judacullah, a titan of Cherokee myth, a warrior/hunter whose name was associated with “great spirit.” If anyone ever found a territory appropriately named to nurture them, it was Kay.
I first met Kay I when was in graduate school at Appalachian State, and she had been invited to read, with me as the warm-up act, to an audience gathered to celebrate the work of Robert Penn Warren and the man himself, who was in the audience. For a week I’d been drinking too much coffee, hiking to Howard’s Knob daily and generally shivering in my shoes. Warren was, and still is, an inspiration to me, largely because “Audubon: A Vision” has long been my favorite poem.
Kay arrived the day of the reading and was friendly but business-like. No flash or flair, no performative artiste gestures. She was not “stylish,” but she had style, presence, an understated authenticity. I hoped that at least my Dickey-drama method of reading would play well beside what was likely to be an understated and modest rendering from Kay, though I noticed that the occasion itself had not given her the fantods. Probably, I reasoned, she didn’t realize the enormity of the moment.
When it was all over and she had read some poems from The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest and a few about mountain craftswomen and an adventurous renegade wild gal,” , I was still shivering, but now due to the precision and understated grit of her powerful poems, the traction of the narratives, the hand-hewn feel of her language, the passion about the lives of women who had long lived in near-silence. It was as if the poems had read themselves, and what comes to mind now is Twain’s quip about how impressive thunder can be (sound and fury and all), while it is the lightning that does the work. Kay was the lightning.
Three years later we were at a two-week retreat in Critz, VA (which we dubbed Gritloaf), along with Ammons, Applewhite, Deagon and some dozen other poets, most of whose work I knew. Everyday we’d “workshop” our poems, and again I could see how the drama of my attempts still lacked an architecture of feeling and fearlessness of belief. Not so with Kay’s work, but what I recall most is another poet telling Kay that she couldn’t make a career out of grandmother poems.
Well, it turns out that you can and you can’t. Not that Kay’s range was narrow, but she did have a gift for (and a commitment to) matriarchal lines, women’s work and vision, mountain marriages, recognition of the neglected and hushed beauties beyond the pageants and sashay cotillions that continue to riddle the South. I say you can’t “make a career” of it because, while extending her perspective to landscape, politics, solitaries, historical figures, music, migration, labor and on and on, Kay Byer held the mountains as touchstone and lodestone as she spun a whole unexplored dimension. She also found family and folk culture fathomless and crucial. Unfortunately, too many people (readers and professors, too) were reluctant to see Appalachia as the cutting edge and the heart of the country. She’d taken the Appalachians as her postage stamp of territory and brought the music away from the hearth and onto the stage (though it’s there on the hearth still, magically). Her first couple of books received national prizes – the AWP Book Award, the Lamont – but after that, she was often pigeonholed as a shawl woman, a porch voice, a kitchen healer. Well, yes, those too, but she was both in the midst of the harvest and the harvest itself, the collector of wildflowers and the wildness in them, the celebrant of hardscrabble and the melody of grief. She swerved free of the sentimental and nostalgic and spoke as nurse or earth mother, ambivalent bride, ingénue or scold, as the poem required.
While we were in Critz Kay gave me a copy of North by Heaney, whose poems I was coming to like but whose books I didn’t know. I remember sitting at a picnic table and listening to her describe and unknot Heaney’s poems as she praised them with precise zeal. She basically took me by the scruff of the neck and said, “You need these poems, and you need them now.” I tried to remember every syllable.
Whether she was writing about a ballad heroine, a midwife, Miss Scarlett or Belle Boyd (a sequence she never finished), Kay was lyrical, prone to whisper, inclined to paint with swift strokes, highly conscious of every nuance in her rhetoric, perhaps more luthier rhapsode than scribe. And she was generous with her subjects, committed to cultural and geographic accuracy. People who knew her as a workshop leader, teacher and barnstorming poet laureate always speak of her enthusiasm and encouragement, her accessibility and laughter.
But she was no pushover. She endured, deflected, rebuffed and shamed the male poets who wanted to treat her like a sidekick, the token po-gal there to lilt and flounce for their entertainment. They say the in-fighting in the arts world is so fierce because the stakes are so low. Kay knew otherwise, though real monetary reward is rare. She saw that the stakes in poetry were at least as high as those in governance, and her talk and poems reflected the continuity among literary politics, sexual politics and Politics, especially those addressing the environment. I must have heard her read half a dozen times, three at my invitation, and she never failed to bring her A game because the poems deserved no less and because the people she wrote about and on behalf of deserved no less. She wrote about herself, too, but through the prism of others, grannies or runaway girls, singers or avenging angels, youngsters in the corn rows and teachers in the classroom.
Kay’s work appeared in the first issue of Shenandoah I edited in 1995, as well as many others, including the current (April, 2017) issue. I am in her debt for this, as well as for her mentoring, her strength and the kindness she showed me when I had cancer 16 years ago. I could say much more about her personal presence and private words, but I’m going to hit the brakes here and get back to the real (though sorrowful) consolations left to us, the poems. RTS// June 20, 2017