Making Myself at Home

by Kathryn Stripling Byer

Lenoir-Rhyne University


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.


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.


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:
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.


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.


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.