Leaving the Dark Wood Behind
Southern poetry is canonically known for its fullness of landscape. It is the attachment to the land that makes Southerners Southern—the seeking out of solitude to read nature’s messages through creeks and decaying leaves where ferns will eventually sprout. We find saviors and messengers in animals, the way Jesmyn Ward demonstrated in Salvage the Bones with the pitbull, China. Like Richard Wright, we find grounding and sustenance in grasses and mountains. Through connection with these physical landscapes, we learn how to navigate other scapes including the political, identity, and our interpersonal relationships.
Kathryn Stripling Byer uses landscapes in her poetry to explore the latter—mother to daughter, lover to lover, and then a few unnamed folks—whose habits and movements inspire descriptive details. She uses her poetry as a tool to connect land with people and their relationships. The Georgia native moved to North Carolina as an adult, with both states’ vastly differing landscapes inspiring much of her work. Additional travels to other Southern states further inspired her writing as she noted the differences of relationships and landscapes.
Byer has a knack for pulling things folks would rather forget into the forefront of her poems, and pushing them to confront the ideas or memories that they’d rather leave collecting dust in a mental box of cursed mementos. “A lot of everyday Southern history has been pushed into the background, forgotten, and gladly forgotten,” she said in an interview for storySouth. Of her poems, she stated that “I’d call many of them elegiac, but others I’d call confrontational, in that I’m confronting myself, my heritage, my lineage.” The ideas and memories she confronts go beyond general Southern history and politics, diving straight into the icy streams of intimacy, homelife, and family. “The poems… are not ones that my family and community will find easy to read, I’m sure.”
Work offers a form of escapism from fear and the general unknown—as well as a vehicle for frustration. Raw, earthy field work where hands meet soil and blister provides the perfect scape for Byer to reckon with her internal fears in “Wildwood Flower.”
Beyond me the mountains continued
like God. Is there no place to hide
from His silence? A woman must work
else she thinks too much.
The narrator hoes “thawed ground with a vengeance” when spring slowly trickles down the mountainside to touch patches of land its dwellers live on. She expresses fear of falling ill and succumbing to lockjaw, how she feels lacking in God’s silence, and her attempts at mitigating doubt and emptiness with working to obtain food. “We must eat. I will learn / to be grateful for whatever comes to me.”
“I still can’t get it right” delves further into the winding psyche of what we’ll filter out of our memories and what we allow ourselves to remember. Byer describes unkempt dirt roads rife with unpleasantries and stray animals left to the mercies.
Describing it sounds trite
as hell, the good old South I love to hate.
The truth? What’s that? How should I know?
I stayed inside too much.
The narrator’s resolve to remove herself from the harsh truths of the world result in boasting “of stupid things.” She lives in a world where curtains remain closed, along with eyes, ears, doors, and windows. The isolation feels safe, but to what end? At the expense of avoiding a South she “loves to hate,” she also doesn’t learn from or experience reality. But this avoidance doesn’t erase the past we try to forget nor the present we ignore. “The dark could hide things from us. / Dark could see / what we could not.” But ignorance through hiding doesn’t erase the happenings surrounding us. The poem’s dark ending reminds us that violence can present itself with charming candor. “I watched a dog die / in the ditch. The man who shot him winked at me.”
In her storySouth interview, Byer stated that “one inherits a dark wood but one doesn’t have to stay there. There is another wood—the light one.” Her body of work and the words from her own mouth imply that it up to Southerners to collectively acknowledge what lurks within their personal dark forests, and to make the active decision to move on from it. Moving on requires confrontation of both the beauty and the ugliness. The beasts with fangs have as much place in a fairy tale as the glittering royal court. But the goal isn’t to remain with the beasts while simultaneously ignoring them. It is to bid them farewell, and leave them in their habitat—the past. In “Diamonds,” Byer describes finding riches despite lack of financial gain. The narrator finds love with a poor man who offers a dew-embedded hickory leaf.
And he lifted my hand to his lips,
kissed the fingers that might have worn
gold rings if he had inherited
bottomland, not this
impossible rock where the eagles soared
after the long rains were over.
But maybe that gold would have been ill-won by generations past. Maybe the rings would be cursed. We all think we want gold through whatever means necessary. But instead, let’s all learn to find our hickory leaves in the hands of folks who would crown us as “Queens of the Meadow.” We can move from the darkened, dirty, dead ends of our past and into the dewy shimmer of a better future.
How do you move from the dark wood you inherited to the light one? Tell us in the comments.
Photograph by John Newman. Courtesy of Louisiana State University Press (via Georgia Encyclopedia)