Four Poems

by Kathryn Stripling Byer


The Still Here and Now
For Ruth
Wesleyan College, 11/6/04


This fragrance I’ve never been able to name,
floating past on the skin of an eighteen year old,
still invites me to stand on the loggia again,
afternoon ticking down into dark,
asking What am I doing here?
lost among strangers with hair more
bouffant than mine, clothing more stylish.

Soon I’d learn the words for what I couldn’t find
in my closet: Bass weejuns, madras, and Villager.
As for the name of that scent mingling
now with aroma of barbecue served on the porch,
it would have to be French, I imagined,
Ma Griffe, L’air du Temps, Insouciance,
not my mother’s stale Emeraude clinging to me
from our goodbye embraces. Now dusk would be
shrouding my father’s farm, doves mourning
out in the empty fields. I knew my way back
to all that. Don’t think for a moment I didn’t

wish I had the courage to set out for home.
But just then the sun set. The lamps bloomed
like story book tulips. The campus unfolded
around me its labyrinth that like a medieval pilgrim
I’d walk until I reached the center where I’d find
no Rose Window as I saw later at Chartres
sifting light down upon us, but tall classroom windows
that shook when the Rivoli train passed. I still walk
those pathways at night, dreaming arias spiraling
forth from the practice rooms, each dorm a beehive
of desk lamps and phones ringing endlessly.

Time, say some physicists, does not exist.
Sheer Illusion. Each moment a still frame,
as though in a movie reel unspooling out to the edge
of the universe. Each now forever.
So let my first afternoon darken to first night.
Inside a small room overlooking a golf course
and woodland, a small bed waits,
heaped with my unpacked belongings.
I slowly walk toward it, my nostrils still seeking
a fragrance I now name Siempre because
the next day I sit down to learn Spanish,
not French. In my best cursive
I write my name on each blank sheet I’m given.
The ginkgo trees flutter their luminous handkerchiefs:
Buenos Dias, Bonjour, Wilkommen.

Again and again I come back
to the start of this journey. I stand looking down
at the fountain, as if to say Here I am.
There you are, water sings to our gathering voices.
The loggia is filling with girls wanting supper,
and now she whose fragrance awakened my senses
so many years back brushes by and the wake
of her passage still trembles around me.









Chicago Bound




On the day you turn twenty-one,
we arrive at the airport,
plenty of time before take-off,
the rain steady, ugly gray
sky while the radio cheers us

on, Jimmy Rogers and Sweet Home
Chicago just what we need on
this Friday you turn twenty-one.
Come on, come on, let’s get a move on.
I’m ready, Daddy, to leave this town.

I hold my breath while the plane rises,
muddy clouds all the way up
till we come out the other side into
the stratosphere, lapis lazuli and white
shag carpet all the way there.

Nobody at home up here. Makes me
feel lonesome till I see the beverage cart
rolling toward us and lower my tray.
What’s for lunch? Nothing much.
Cookie, sandwich, a small Baby Ruth.

Captain’s voice from the cockpit
keeps telling us how long before
we’ll come down. Soon it’s time for a snooze
while this plane flies us over the heartland
to you in your Shakespeare class,

old boss man Lear raving blank verse,
still crazy after all these years. Just a little while
longer, we’ll be on the ground
where we’ll hop a train south to the campus,
a place I like better than this flimsy

carpet of clouds on which I cannot walk
to you. I need green fields
to do that, some tough city blocks,
Kimbark, Ellis, East Hyde Park.
Give me boulevard, avenue,

chemin, rue, strasse, calle,
avenida, el camino, whatever
you want to call it, Baby, if it’s down
there on earth where you are,
it’s Sweet Home. I’ll take it.








Night Fishing




I bait my lines
with the scent of old planks
rotting over the Tuckasegee
River where drowsy snakes
coil in the rushes and lightning
bugs fizzle like spirits
of nightcrawlers nibbled
by minnows. No catch
in my throat but this aching
to wade into lazy black water
and stand all night long
in its leavetaking, calling
the fish home to Mama.








Halloween Again




and time slides like silk
against silk.
Easy to get lost
in letting go
this time of year.
Lost letters.
Lost memories
Lost copper
earrings a friend
gave me.
Split Silk,
I haven’t forgotten
the name
of that church
on the far side
of home ,
how it rose
from the roadside,
a hymn to the landscape
I passed through
where pumpkins
lay stacked beside fields
like the kindling
my ancestors gathered
for bonfires
on All hallows Eve
when the veil
between seen
and unseen trembles
sheer as silk
through which
we might, if
we come close
enough, see
the other side
waiting for us
as a mirror waits
to be filled
with the bright
face of forever.