So silly of me it was, looking back—being nervous to meet Kathryn Stripling Byer.
To be fair, I only knew her then by her poetry and accolades, both of which were formidable. I was hesitant, brought up short when I was less introduced than pointed out to her, as if we’d surely met before.
She still was Poet Laureate of North Carolina then, the first woman to wear those laurels. I was the new director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, the first man to hold that position in more than 20 years. I very much hoped I would not say something stupid, something unworthy.
Soon I would learn that the only thing unworthy was my hesitance itself, my failure to greet the world and all in it with a grace and empathy anywhere close to Kay’s.
In my defense, who can?
As a poet Kay had little in common with Walt Whitman. Most of her poems are finely wrought, concise and precise, and local to the southern Appalachian Mountains. In Kay’s mountains there were no open roads. Her mountains had footpaths, slim and serpentine, barely worn from bare rock, crowded by vines and briers that snatch and snag your skirts, bordered above by laurel hells that shut out the sun, and below by sheer drops into void. In the midst of vast wilderness and epic grandeur, the speakers and subjects of Kay’s poems suffer from claustrophobia. They long to ride off with a gypsy, a fancy man, a stranger passing through with “gypsy-black boots/in the stirrups.”
Like Whitman nonetheless, as a poet Kay was large and contained multitudes. Her spirit and learning (but that is redundant, for what is any learning but the expression and desire of one’s spirit?) were capacious enough to take in and reconcile what most would hold in opposition. She kept some part of the southwest Georgia farm girl even as she traveled and took in the world, sought advanced degrees, taught and accepted honors. In her poems she could invoke Vishnu, old-time quilting techniques, ballads of the borderlands, wildflowers by their ancient names, medieval Welsh poetry, myths not just of the Celts and Cherokees but the Greeks and Romans, too, all with unshowy elegance.
After her unexpected death on June 5, I turned to my favorite of her books, Black Shawl. Published by LSU Press in 1998, Black Shawl won multiple awards, so the collection is not an obscure or hipster choice, not a deep dive into the back pages of her work. Black Shawl, though, is the book I take with me into the mountains, the book I read between acts at MerleFest. This book always has felt to me like a culmination: not, by any stretch, her final reckoning with the mountains where she made her home, but a satiation of the poetic hunger whetted in her first two full-length books, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest and Wildwood Flower. I long have felt that Black Shawl freed her to widen her scope, to let her poet’s eye wander beyond the mountains, though I have no idea if it felt that way to her.
The effect on me of reading Black Shawl straight through is like breaking the tree line onto an Appalachian bald: the sudden burst of sunshine, the yawping space of the peak after the long shadows of the dark wood, the glorious realization of the height you’ve reached after the grinding myopia of a steep climb.
I suspect Kay meant for that to happen, whether she planned it or not. The structure of the book seems to suggest that she did. Part I, “Voices,” begins with “The Ballad Singers,” a poem that follows the women of its title from the Old World docks, “nursing their babies/and watching the gangplanks beginning/to rise on the ships,” and into “the new world” of the mountain fastnesses, with their “laurel/hells, rockslides/and bottomless chasms.” There “they sing/their solitude into/those old songs of love/and betrayal.”
The speaker of the poem makes clear these are not eager pioneers: “Having no say/in their journey, they came/here.” From the very first words, the poet has dispensed with sentimentality: “They had no use/for such romance as clings/like the stubbornest/ivy.” (I’m reminded of Auden’s question, “When Norsemen heard thunder,/did they seriously believe/Thor was hammering?”) The rest of the section follows these early, unwilling settlers and their daughters, trying not quite to civilize but to make bearable the wilderness in which they find themselves trapped, trying to make their voices heard “into the ceaseless/wind sounding the bedrock.” This struggle for voice provokes and piles resonances onto Byer’s oft-repeated phrase, syntax tumbled slightly with each use, “Here I am.”
Part II, “Blood Mountains,” sinks into the lives of the settlers’ descendants, for whom “one story’s/good as another/so long as there’s/blood in it.” They live in a violent, possessive, ridiculous patriarchy that would be laughable if it weren’t so damaging. The section tells the story—or a story, or a couple of different stories, or more—of a girl who maybe gets away, escapes the abuse, the straitjacket strictures of a community on the edge, the beatings and rapes and blind eyes turned to her plight and “the same boast: That little gal’s not going anywhere.”
Instead she took “some two-day-old cornbread/and left the back door/open.” She rode off with a “Gypsy,” the title of the section’s fifth poem, just like in the ballads sung by her grandmothers, even though “his breath/in her face smells like death/or close to it.”
But the section’s last poem, “Let’s Say,” conjectures, “she didn’t.” The gypsy left her behind:
Let’s say she hobbled back home
and proceeded to live out her days
either waiting for blood
or else scrubbing its tracks
The girl grows old, soaked in the blood of the game and stock she butchers to feed her family, so like her own blood of menstruation and childbirth and wounds, and she bites her tongue till it bleeds “whenever she heard round/the quilt circle tales of another girl/gone down the mountain.”
And then, Part III, and “Delphia.”
Already alluded to in the perambulatory poem, the somehow cheeky-but-magisterial “Mountain Time,” Delphia belongs with Scout Finch and Faulkner’s Ratliff as one of Southern literature’s great Inside-Outsiders. Not full-on outsiders like Boo Radley or Joe Christmas, these Inside-Outsiders are welcomed within their communities, but warily, and with reservations on both sides. Delphia is set apart from her neighbors twice over: first as a quilter “whose hand never wearied,” and therefore an upholder of traditional craft and women’s traditional place; but second as a self-employed, self-appointed, itinerant teacher, teaching mountain children—boys and girls alike—to read, and therefore a herald and vanguard for the breakdown of tradition, the liberation of women (and men), maybe even the end of the community itself.
Her intelligence—like Scout’s and Ratliff’s—makes her valuable, and a threat, a bridge-builder and –burner at the same time, because she has the ability to see these mountains from a higher vantage, to place in context and critique.
“Delphia,” the poem that bears her name, begins, “told them the truth early on.” While the girl’s kinswomen in “Blood Mountains” submitted to the violent patriarchy “or else, goodness knows,/what’s running wild might come too close,” Delphia teaches her (female) quilting students,
What keeps the whole blooming
patchwork from falling to pieces
is stitches no bigger than pinpricks
Delphia’s is not a happy story, really, for through her Byer explores questions of aging, decay, and death—not only of Delphia herself, but of the mountain community and way of life, which Delphia knows she cannot save and isn’t entirely sure she wants to. How to pass on the ballads, without turning them into kitsch, but without passing on the loneliness and voicelessness that their ancestors sang into them? How to—should you?—pass on the beauties of a way of life, continue a community, that so abused and curtailed its members? How to emulate, or at least admire, the strength of women who endured so much, while working yourself to the bone to make sure the girls around you never have to endure the same, never have to summon the same kind of strength?
O, the kitsch we make of our mountains.
Upon them we are closer to God. Within their folds and hollers they preserve a life and culture truer and purer than the hectic commercial plasticity of the flatlands. The Scots-Irish settled there by choice—for the beauty! for the freedom!—and not because speculators had priced them out of all the decent farmland down below. (For who in their right mind wants to try to make a living plowing thin and rocky soil at a fifty-degree angle?)
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera spent all of Part 6 of The Unbearable Lightness of Being exploring kitsch of various kinds. He defined it, among other ways, as “the aesthetic ideal of . . . a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist,” excluding “everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”
Our kitsch requires the mountain folk to be our new Noble Savages, now that American culture finally admits we’re supposed to feel guilty about the Cherokees those mountain folks’ ancestors displaced. Our kitsch requires us to prettify and simplify how miserably lonesome mountain life could be, then, and now, and to admit no exceptions, no subtext, no complications.
Byer’s poems in Black Shawl cut through the kitsch and myths of the mountains like a pair of sharp shears. Her empathy and ear for story will let her do no less. A cheap reading of the poems will hide this, may even suggest its opposite, for what has become kitschier about the mountains than bonneted grannies singing ballads and stitching quilts? Her study of, and identification with, two of the mountains’ most famous—and most feminine—arts lets Byer more effectively subvert the stereotypes and sentimentality through which we want to see those granny women, and all their neighbors, too.
If in kitsch, as Kundera said, “all answers are given in advance, and preclude any questions,” then it must ignore or eliminate those whose existence, whose being, pose questions with no clear answers. Delphia warns outright, “Don’t ask me the big questions/none but a fool tries to answer/straight.” Kitsch must ignore those like Delphia.
Delphia could have escaped.
If Kathryn Stripling Byer knew comforts, honors, status, and travels that Delphia could not have imagined, like Delphia she gave herself out there, where she was, just the same. She was, as Network board member Nicki Leone said, “instinctively generous,” but I never quite shook the sense that some of her generosity was learned, too, the result of the training that every white girl in the South receives: training in how to serve, training in how to please, training in how to smile through the pain and put others first. Since her death, her friends and admirers have crowded the Internet with stories of her giving: the poems she wrote for us, the poems of ours she read and nudged to be better, the writers encouraged and befriended, the human kindnesses performed. I wrote one for the North Carolina Writers’ Network website, about that time she emptied her house of blankets and (of course) quilts to bring to students staying in an over-air-conditioned dorm.
If Delphia could cross and re-cross the ridges and peaks to teach children to read and to stitch, then Kay could, and would, and did, cross and re-cross the state to teach any and all to write or write better, to feel and think fully. She critiqued with an eye and a pen that never wearied. Like Delphia she was set apart by her knowledge, her skill: in the Writingest State, she wrote better than all but a few. She read with a keener eye. She gave that back until she had no more to give, teaching her last workshop only a month before she died.
I rack myself asking what I could have done for her, but that is mostly male ego, for I’m thinking not of kindness but of rescue and repaying debt. I would, now, happily take a less generous Kay Byer, if it meant she’d still be with us.
I am not ready for this.
I am not ready to end this essay, because I do not know what I want its conclusion to be. I am tempted to say that’s because whatever that conclusion proves to be, it will be my last goodbye to Kay, and letting sympathetic readers aww and sigh. But no, that is rank sentimentality, cheap and easy, and Kay deserves better.
I thought—no, expected, thoughtlessly—to have a few more years to learn from her, to take on some of her wisdom and empathy and generosity, or at least their appearance, and in the meantime to hide behind her when I had to. I thought to have more time before we, the writers who looked up to her, would have to take responsibility, to try to be authorities, advocates, consciences for our community, our state.
I’m not sure that we can, through no fault or failing of our own. We write in a different state, a different world, than that in which Kay made her name. The paths she followed are closed to us, and we are still hacking out our own, not sure of what we will find, or want to find. If Kay in her poetry chronicled Delphia watching the end of the ballad singers and quilters, what is left to us? Can we make poetry of bloggers and Etsy? Can we make poetry heard in a state now overrun by those with an unsurpassed devotion to kitsch, to cliché in place of memory and image in place of story, who believe they’ve answered every question because they can think of no worthwhile questions to ask?
I’m rushing to get these thoughts down, to reach some coherent conclusion, before my baby daughter wakes up and ends my writing time for this morning. In the meantime I’ve been using the baby monitor to hold Black Shawl open to the pages I need, my daughter’s restless form curling and rolling atop the Delphia poems.
I will conjure or stitch no better conclusion than that.
Ed Southern is the executive director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, a 1,400-member literary organization founded in 1985. He is the author of four books, most recently the short story collection Parlous Angels, and his work has appeared in storySouth, the North Carolina Literary Review, South Writ Large, the anthology The Shoe Burnin’, the Winston-Salem Journal, and the Charlotte Observer, among others. In 2015 he received the Fortner Award for service to the literary arts in North Carolina. He is a native of and, after living all over the place, a resident of Winston-Salem, NC.