I am preparing to participate in a gathering commemorating the life and work of Kathryn Stripling Byer, whose teaching, poems, and spirit will resonate in these hills for many decades to come. I was able to be in a workshop she led for about a dozen of us in early May. In early June she slipped away to the Greater Life. In her teaching at Western Carolina University and her tenure as Poet Laureate of North Carolina she touched many, many people with her delight in and commitment to what they could bring forth in those words we call poetry. She encouraged and guided me as well as I turned from academic prose to poetry in these later years. We will miss her deeply.
At this gathering of friends and admirers I will read her poem “Kitchen Sink,” from her collection The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest. Kay, who grew up in south Georgia but claimed these mountains as a young teacher, was able to capture the deep, brooding melancholy that wreaths these hills as well as the unshakeable life and strength of the people who have wrested food, shelter and community from them for centuries. Her words can haunt as well as inspire. They can be as spindly and sharp as the greenbrier but with roots that go deep below the rocks of our inner life.
As I read through some of her collections—Black Shawl, Descent, The Vishnu Bird, and others—I was struck with the melancholy that lingers in their shadows as well as the beauty they draw out from ordinary things. Out of that reading and reflection emerged this poem, which I share with you today.
There is an intractable melancholy in these mountains.
Here mists rise up to mourn a heavy storm,
lie grieving on the valley floors
embracing graves and broken barns
where settlers carved a living from the stones.
Some say it is the cries of immigrants
who sang in strange and haunting keys.
Some say it is the ghosts of persecution driving them
to hidden coves suspicious of the light.
Others say it is the sighs of ancient Cherokee they drove off on a trail of tears.
Still others say it is the loneliness of cussed independence.
But a melody still sings within the melancholy.
In the shroud of morning dews
small flowers struggle underneath the darkened canopy
of oak and cherry, walnut and beech,
declaring victory in the spring
before they die in summer’s arms.
Furtive salamanders ooze into the humus
by the ceaseless trickling streams.
The leaves in clapping hush the dying katydids
when fall begins to nip the trees.
The children squeal in delight when fiddles find a conversation with guitars.
Young lovers still find heaven in the pungent new mown hay.
Old lovers sit and rock and tell old tales
holding hands long gnarled in the roots of care.
And neighbors always bring a casserole assuaging grief.
The beauty in these mountains is intractable.