Kathryn Stripling Byer, Three Poems

The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature is proud to feature the work of 2007 North Carolina Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer.


Making earth part its red sea
was how I spent April,
as if I could walk down those furrows
clear out of the sweep of my Mama’s words
that I would never no matter how
deep I could dig, be the son she had wanted:
WWhat’s worse, you’ll find no man
who’ll have you, so loud
you sing when you come home
with your dirty hands, sassing your Ma
like a boy. “I’ll be no sickly woman,”
I swore at the sight of her crouched
by the fire, pleading rheumatiz.

Into a gravehole so deep
I thought I’d dug the tunnel to China,
I shoveled my bonnet,
my black leather shoes
and my store-boughten dress that
crawled over my skin something worse
than the sweat that seeps through
while the preacher talks circles
around and around sin. I muttered
my meanest words over that burial ground,
as if I had forgotten next Sunday

when she chased me out with her broom,
shouting God down to judge me.
She stood in the rain while I dug
up my dress and poured mud from my bonnet.
I’d wear it that morning, she said,
holding close her tin mirror
so I could see what I was. Woman,
she made me say, knotting
the muddy strings under my chin.

Crone’s Quilt

Slow as molasses
she said I was,
needle poised
over the quilt top
that covered my knees.
No thread?

So, I found it.
Now Lick it.
I did,
aimed it straight
through the eye
of the needle
and stitched
till her voice
hummed to nothing
at last.
I stitched through
those scraps
till my fingers bled.
Not saying
what I was thinking.
Old woman,
don’t open
your blunt
blinking eyes.
Keep your mouth shut.
My head hurts.

Exit to C.E.R.E.S.
(Before crossing the Mississippi)

Looking up from Interstate traffic, I’m tempted
to veer off the exit ramp, looking for Her
whose old story of earth’s bounty lost
to a mother’s grief still haunts me so much
that I can imagine her wading the ocean,
her skirt dripping starfish,
then crossing Big Muddy
as though it were nothing but witchwater,
still searching, even as I’m driving
west to my own daughter, longing to find her
again as I love to remember her,
running fast into the dark on her bare feet,
enchanted by such early leavetaking down
to the deep South of Grandmother’s house
that no fear tripped her voice,
singing out her three words,
Look, Mama,

(p.s., my daughter’s name is Cory, Corinna–from the Green Korinna, Kore)