by Kathryn Stripling Byer
Louisiana State University Press, $17.95, 57 pp.
This volume of poems, Byer’s sixth full-length collection and her first since the 2006 publication of Coming to Rest, won the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Award for poetry in 2013. That award was certainly well deserved, for Descent reveals a poet at the height of her powers, equally at home in carefully crafted free verse and in the striking sonnet sequence “Southern Fictions” which opens the second of the book’s three parts and which thus lies at the center of this collection. Born in southwest Georgia but having lived in the mountains of western North Carolina since 1968, Byer returns to the landscapes of her childhood and youth in many of these poems, particularly those of parts I and II, to address both the familial past and the political past of racial oppression. In its portraits of racism and southern myth-making, Descent joins such books as C. D. Wright’s One with Others (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) and Frank X Walker’s Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (University of Georgia Press, 2013) in their efforts to resist the historical amnesia that afflicts all-too-many Americans.
Byer’s book is far more diverse in subject matter and intent, however, than this comparison to Wright’s and Walker’s collections indicates. As the evocative term that provides her title suggests, these poems place the poet in motion: descending from the mountains of her adoptive home to the plains of her birth; descending from the living to memorialize dead ancestors; descending from the present to explore the inferno, figurative and literal, of the racial past. Byer’s title seems meant to remind readers of the formative role historical events play in shaping our lives, both as individuals and as a society. That title likewise reinforces the book’s elegiac dimension and its calm acceptance of human mortality, as in the poem “Over,” dedicated (as is the entire book) to the poet’s father, who died in 2006. “Over” depicts an airplane’s scattering of her father’s ashes across the farm he loved: that soil, not some heavenly mansion, his “home,” where he is envisioned as “eternally comfortable / inside the dirt” (41). Byer makes death equally natural in “Easter Afternoon,” which concludes not with resurrection imagery but with “A spiral / of buzzards adrift on a thermal, / the blades of their wings / sudden gold as the sun sets” (54).
For part I of the book Byer selects an epigraph from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish that reads in part, “Soon we will descend the widow’s descent in the memory fields,” the fields Byer cultivates in both parts I and II. That epigraph also refers to “the poem’s road,” helping to establish the journey motif evident in the book’s prefatory poem “Morning Train,” with its opening words “So long, so long” and its apparent pun on morning/mourning. Several of the poems in part I focus on the deaths of kin: those of the poet’s maternal grandfather, of an uncle, and of her mother’s older sister dead at age twelve for whom Byer was named Kathryn. The poem “Lost” movingly portrays this child’s imagined bargaining with death. But part I also contains the nine-poem sequence “Drought Days,” which celebrates that child’s mother, Byer’s maternal grandmother, and her resilience amid adversity, her creativity as a seamstress, her unrequited longings and steadfast commitments. The final section of that sequence makes reference to soul food and anticipates the overtly political poems of part II by identifying the poet’s family, herself included, as “bystanders, and not always innocent ones” (18).
The epigraph to part II reads “I inherited a dark wood . . . (23), words taken from Nobel Prize-winning Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer but also reminiscent of Dante. The dark wood of human sinfulness in Dante’s epic here becomes the moral descent into racism and its betrayal of American political ideals. “Southern Fictions” presents a subtly nuanced account, in six numbered sections that include two double sonnets, of the poet’s experiences with racism and racial injustice, ranging from her father’s displaying of the Confederate flag and the violent expulsion of African Americans from her home county to the killing of a little girl in a hit-and-run auto accident–the twenty black witnesses to that event denied the right to testify in court and the speeding white driver thus found innocent of the charges brought against her. According to Byer, “the truth hid / out those days in silence,” a silence in which she and her family were complicit, she implies (25). Throughout “Southern Fictions” the poet presents herself as questioner seeking understanding because “This story isn’t finished yet” (27). Byer uses the sonnet form in these poems, I suspect, to help shape and control the powerful emotions generated during their composition. As Adrienne Rich said of her early work in traditional forms, “In those years formalism was part of the strategy–like asbestos gloves, it allowed m to handle materials I couldn’t pick up barehanded.” Byer’s rhymes are often slant rhymes, their dissonance appropriate to the mood the poems evoke. “Southern Fictions” has an epigraph from Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” : “. . . human kind / Cannot bear very much reality” (25). Yet while Byer acknowledges that “it’s safer to stay blind” (28), these poems compel poet and reader alike to confront the harsh truths of southern–and American–history. As the epigraph Byer later quotes from one of Rich’s poems states, “The tests I need to pass are prescribed by the spirits / of place who understand travel but not amnesia” (55).
Other poems in part II share the concern of “Southern Fictions” with revisioning. “Gone Again,” for example, addresses the author’s youthful enchantment with the film version of Gone with the Wind, now “newly colorized, ready to hoodwink another generation / of belles” (31), while “Shadow Sister” also attempts to exorcise the appeal of Miss Scarlett. “What I See Now” laments the ignorance of the Civil Rights era among young Americans and recalls the poet’s own memories of a former college roommate, the archetypal belle, who had transferred to Birmingham Southern shortly before a bomb went off at that city’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963, killing four little girls. In dealing with such matters Byer avoids the stance of aloof moral indictment and instead adopts the perspective of someone implicated in the situations to which she bears witness, someone who has reached “an altered state / line I’m still / trying to cross” (37).
Part III opens with two epigraphs, the first extending the line from Tranströmer quoted earlier so that it reads in its entirety, “I inherited a dark wood, but today I am walking in the other wood, the light one.” The second epigraph comes from Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony and refers to a descent to “the fourth world / below,” which holds “another kind of daylight” (39). The dozen poems of this final section are quite varied in subject matter, although the initial poem, “Over,” as mentioned earlier, recounts the dispersal of Byer’s father’s ashes and thus links part III to part I. Readers familiar with Byer’s work will recognize in Part III several of her characteristic themes: nature’s beauty and pleasures, yet its impermanence and seeming indifference to human well-being (“Some Rock Remembers,” “Big Tease”); rebellion against orthodox religion (“First Presbyterian,” “Glorified”); and her profound attachment to the mountain landscape of western North Carolina (“Last Light,” “Here”). The book’s final three poems situate readers in those mountains, some of whose beloved place names the poet invokes as if uttering an incantation: “Snowbird. / Buzzards Roost. Weyahutta. Oconaluftee” (55).
Byer is a poet adept at both narrative and lyric modes. Her poems are filled with vivid images, as when she writes of “Easter sky. Another one. Blue / as an egg being raised from its dye cup” (54) or describes “Heat lightning // banging its anvil” (14). Descent is her most overtly political collection, but it offers many other kinds of poems as well. Whatever her subject matter, this book reveals Byer to be, as she remarks in “Beginning at the Bottom,” “still hungry for words / and the way they can bring me back / home to my senses, / the way they reach out to the world” (52). Readers will find their powers of vision and their grasp of the world enhanced by this superb poet’s latest book.