Lenoir-Rhyne University

1

I’m trying, but this guest house is too clean. Too uncluttered. No books. No mail order catalogs. No post-it’s stuck to the walls saying do this And do that. No oak tree beginning To green up its old limbs, beneath it My old dog whose arthritis keeps him From squirrel-chasing. No telling how many Squirrels come and go as they please In that canopy, how many blue jays My dog only twitches his nose after. Owls used to hoot from the woods And a chorus of beagles give voice Every dawn up on Buzzards’ Roost. If I were home at this moment, fraternity houses Alongside our road would be pumping hard rock Through the valley. I’d twist in my ear plugs. Fight back with Beethoven. At home I’d be standing again at my sink, Watching pines bending slowly as yoga instructors. I’d lift up my arms to the ceiling and lean To the left, to the right, while the five o’clock news fills my kitchen with things crashing down around people at home, or like me, not at home, minding our own business.

2

Inside the guest house I’ve barely moved into, The furnace has just come on, 12:35 on a March day that’s dazzling as sun off the chrome of the cars in the parking lot. Somebody’s lugging a box full of file folders into the brick building labeled Admissions. I’ve finished my green tea and two stale granola bars. Nobody’s here to berate me For not writing cutting edge poems About biological warfare or ecological Disaster. I’m on my lunch break And although I know there’s no free lunch, I’ll steal what I can, A few moments to be quiet and notice The daffodils blooming beside the gazebo. Tomorrow I’ll deal with reality, Maybe some car bombs or death squads, The specter of this or that terror: My daughter alone on a dark street In southside Chicago, my paralyzed friend Lying mute in her hospital bed. But right now I’m writing these crows cawing outside my window in black strokes that sound like a punk rocker warming up. Or Federico’s wild duende turned loose in the parking lot.

3

This season whose name means Relinquishment, word I love to vocalize, Has always been given short shrift By us dull Presbyterians. Someday I’ll do it right, I used to promise myself, I’ll relinquish all pleasures. I’ll not only lend I will give away, Not all I have, But enough, To the poor And I’ll struggle To see the world clear On an empty stomach. These days the destitute Stare over rubble of bombed houses, Wail over washed away children While I’m standing over the stove Stirring chicken and vegetables. But how would refusing To uncork a bottle of wine Help them now? On Ash Wednesday At the Methodist college For women, my atheist roommate Asked, dealing the cards Round our bridge circle, “What are we giving up For Lent?” We looked blank, While she smirked. Over coffee and cigarettes, We made a list: Coffee, Cigarettes, Desserts, French Fries, French kissing, And for a few nights We each dared the other To live, if not fat-free, Then smoke-free And dateless. We bent to our books, Now and then sneaking Nervous looks over Our shoulders As if God himself might be Watching us. We knew the game was up, We were just biding our time Like this squirrel I see clinging Head down to the trunk Of the oak tree, His tail wired With rodent electricity, Waiting as long as he needs to For me to go back in the house After I’ve filled the bird feeder.

4

Good Friday, and I’ve draped a blue scarf over one side of the dresser, my concha belt over the other. I’ve completely moved in. Now I can’t sleep. No husband In bed with me, only these books and these pages With words sliding over the surface. I’ve grown tired of plunging under the surface, Which all week has been a blue sky and wisteria Blooming around the abandoned house down the street. Every day I see squirrels and a yard full of birds And forsythia. A neighborhood where everyone keeps Up their neat yards and nobody plays rock & roll After any p.m. On this street I hear chimes On the half hour, the college clock tower Chiming. I chose not to say tolling. Do not ask For whom…as if I don’t know already. Death’s always been here at the edge of my vision, A blurry thing scuttling back under the bed. To be honest, I’m tired of the surface, too, This page, my words crabbed and fearful. My nerves Raw from too much caffeine. The surface I see is a page full of holes. Give me any spring day and I’ll find all The holes in it, mourning its passage before I’ve had breakfast. That why I can’t stand this: This beautiful surface of this day, This life all around me, while I wait for death’s Spiteful finger to startle the sky That was resting awhile on the pool’s surface.

5

The most frightening sound? Wings In the chimney or trapped in the house. Such a garden Of fears I’ve grown throughout my life! When I can’t sleep I reach for my notebook and turn on the light. Without words in my hands, I would freeze. With these words in my hands I try to freeze Time. I woke up to Herbert’s Easter Wings In my head, wanting a form that will let in more light, More surprises (while exploring the garden, I saw round an empty house swags of wisteria!). Sleep’s Never easy for me to sink into. When I sleep I sleep lightly. This morning I woke early, the freeze Frame of window too bright and the garden Outside already noisy with crow squawks and wings. By 7 O’clock there’s already too much light. But it’s Easter, there’s supposed to be more light. The point of this day is not to sleep Late but to wake up and flap our wings, Chirping like pink Easter biddies. I’m freezing. The temperature’s dipped to the 30’s and the garden Looks almost the way I remember those gardens Where we’d poke and scrabble for Easter eggs. Light- Ly, lightly, that’s how we should bear it. We all freeze Eventually. We all oversleep At the end. And then what? A flurry of wings? Or just more sleep? A stroll through a garden, Where wings play through infinite space, light, Frozen in timelessness.

KATHRYN STRIPLING BYER’s poetry, prose, and fiction have appeared widely, including Hudson Review, Poetry, The Atlantic, Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and Southern Poetry Review. Often anthologized, her work has also been featured online, where she maintains the blogs “Here, Where I Am,” and “The Mountain Woman.” Her first book of poetry, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, was published in the AWP Award Series in 1986, followed by the Lamont (now Laughlin) prize-winning Wildwood Flower, from LSU Press. Her subsequent collections have been published in the LSU Press Poetry Series. She served for five years as North Carolina’s first woman poet laureate.