He stood in the door of the hotel room,
Atlanta, post-civil rights seventies,
where an assortment of editors
and wannabe Jim Dickeys
schmoozed amidst cigarette smoke
on the 25th floor, I the lone female
stashed in a corner,
my plastic cup half-full of bourbon,
my cigarette burning its way down to filter.
He jabbed his silver-tipped cane
toward the window where lights swarmed.
I'm ready, he challenged the sidewalks
and alleys beneath him. Unbuttoned
his waistcoat to show us the gun nestled under
his armpit. His flask gleamed as he raised
it. One slug. Another. He lifted the cane
to my face, stroked its gritty edge
over my cheek. Grinned. Doffed
his cowboy hat, ground his boots
into carpet as if he were pawing
the sod before charging,
bent down to flick one speck
of ash from his tooled leather
boot tip, before drawling, east Texas
train-rumbling down the dead
rails of deep Southern night
falling, Lock and load, losers.
Branches sag under their load of snow
while my husband talks with his father
in Florida where frost threatens
orange groves. Here, snow threatens
power lines. I can hear snow plows
beneath us. Tonight we’ll have black ice.
Just walking a few feet to pick up
the mail scares my father-in-law.
Three times he’s fallen this past month.
No black ice in Florida.
Only gray pavement. No broken bones
yet, he says. I hear the drone
of the weather man pointing to radar
that shows more snow approaching.
Tonight we should stay home,
bring our animals inside, keep warm.
“Please be careful,” my husband
repeats to his father who turns ninety-five
soon, yet won’t wear his hearing aid.
“Don’t go outside by yourself,” he pleads
into five hundred miles of cold air.
I hear limbs crack and watch from
my window as, if in slow motion,
the white pine lets go of its low branches,
missing our car by no more than a foot.
Before dark falls, I know we’ll hear power lines
snap, no more weatherman’s warning, no more
tired furnace laboring. Brought down together,
the branches the snow felled
lie shuddering. My husband has hung up
the phone, shouting “What happened?"
“Already six inches,” I answer. “Still falling.”
And so on
The men stood around saying nothing.
The women talked for hours and hours.
The men lobbed their spit at the dry sand.
They squatted beside trucks,
sucking grass stalks.
The women kept talking about talk
they’d heard on the party lines,
hands over mouthpieces, hair pulled
away from their ears, all the better to hear
what the neighbors were saying.
The men belched or mumbled in tongues
only they could decipher. Their dogs
whined. The doves mourned
in the fields. Underneath everything
worms excreted earth into more
earth. The moles burrowed.
Crop dusters skimmed over fields
like aluminum dragonflies.
Poison dust settled in furrows,
in back yards, on front porches.
The men stood up, rubbing their thighs,
hitching their britches. The women
stopped talking and opened their larders.
Dredged flour into chicken legs.
Pounded the beefsteak. Poured lard
into cornmeal and buttermilk.
Opened the oven doors.
Clouds tumbled over the edge
of the world. The sun melted into it.
Bats fled the attics in swarms,
flying blind as they ever were.
Downwind the hawk plummets
outside my window.
Which prey? Which small prey
of ombre wings fluttering
its spray of doomed feathers?
The sky stays my fear
with its scabbard of branches.
The bush into which the hawk
disappeared still quivers.
I stay my hand on the knife
under which I have severed
the gizzard, the liver,the tiny heart’s
locket of muscle.Poor mourning
dove. Eyelids of blue silk.
Kathryn Stripling Byer has published six collections, five with LSU Press and the reprint of her first book, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, with Press 53. She served for five years as North Carolina’s first woman Poet Laureate and has received honors for her work from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Academy of American Poets (Laughlin Award), and the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and three dogs.
Q: If you could create a soundtrack for your poems, what would it be?
A: A blend of mountain ballads and operatic arias would be a fascinating soundtrack. I'm working right now on a sequence of mountain women's voices, set during the Civil War, with what approaches recitative at times and aria at other times. And of course the influence of mountain ballads is everywhere in it, too. I hope to put together a sequence of poems in the voice of ballad-women—Pretty Polly, Silver Dagger, Demon Lover. If I could have been a singer, I'm sure I'd have been torn between ballad and opera. Though I also love blues, so maybe I could work in some Otis Redding, BB King and Nina Simone, who was and still is one of my best-loved singers. Along with Netrebko, and several other amazing opera singers.
Q: You have a guerrilla poet’s gift for letting us focus on the surface before the blade comes slicing through: “The tiny heart’s locket of muscle.” I think of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts… any thoughts on your technique, or inspiration?
A: Auden's Musee has been one of my poems of instruction, so to speak. I want the undercurrent to be always sounding somehow or other, that blade waiting, but I want the surface to be an invitation, weaving its spell of believability, the dark chords kept in check till it’s time for them to sound.
Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?—and why?
A: I collected paper dolls for whom I created dresses and stories. I guess I'd say the narrative impulse was already there. And the love of design and color. I was tempted early on to be a visual artist or a dress designer. I never collected stamps. I collected day dreams and images of trees as they rose out of the morning fog. I collected favorite fields to hold in my mind. I did this, I'm sure, because place was even then terribly important to me. That's where my identity lay. I can't imagine what would have become of me if I'd been forced to leave those places I loved at a young age. I come back to them often in my imagination.
Q: “Literary Conventions” arrests a moment – might you offer more?
A: This was an incident, a real one with a bit of fictionalizing, that scares me even now. The gunslinger was a famous Southern critic and professor from Texas, right-wing, stringently anti-civil rights, and, it was rumored, gay. The cane image comes from another incident in which an elderly white man, of the plantation owner type, caressed the cheek of a college friend of mine with the tip of his cane. I was, shall we say, a bit repulsed by that. This was the ‘60s in the deep South. And in the ‘70s things had changed a bit, but not by much. Being a woman in such a deeply male-oriented literary tradition was fraught with various indignities, though in their defense, I will say that those men in the room were often generous friends to me, and they gave me a strong sense of how literary tradition, no matter its origin, can be a source of ongoing strength and regeneration as one moves through one's life.