Sally Buckner   •  October 25, 2003

Quickly Aging Here

A Review of Kathryn Stripling Byer’s Catching Light

Catching Light, by Kathryn Stripling Byer. LSU Press, 2002. 62 pp.,
$15.95 (paper), ISBN 08071-2769-1;
$22.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8071-2770-1.

From Alma, her first chapbook, through Catching Light, her fourth full collection, Kathyrn Stripling Byer has sung the songs of women, mainly those living in the Appalachian mountains. Some of her narrators from previous generations describe the isolation and hardness of farm life in mountain regions, endured before electricity, telephones, and good roads made communication and community easier, options more plentiful. Some are young and yearning, eager for love and life; others have lived hard enough and long enough to have had the edge shaved from their optimism. Too often disappointed or even abused or abandoned by the men in whom they have invested not only their love, but their trust, they find themselves gazing at an uncertain horizon — but without flinching. Several, like Delphia in Black Shawl, turn their daily tasks — crocheting, cooking, quilting — into metaphors for the wisdom they have gained through their struggles to become themselves in a not-always-friendly world.

Catching Light turns to yet another facet of women’s lives: aging. Not many poets have chosen to deal with this subject; those that have often stumble into sentimentality or inauthenticity. (Remember Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me/ The best is yet to be.” Had he dealt with a parent struggling with the agony of cancer, lost in the maze of Alzheimer’s, bent into an S-curve with osteoporosis, left sans spouse, children, or income to face a pitilessly routine existence?)

Nothing sentimental in Catching Light, and everything is authentic. Byer opens with a ten-part monologue, “In the Photograph Gallery,” inspired by a series of photographs depicting Evelyn, a former artist’s model, now in her final years. It’s a remarkable tour de force, pulling us into the mind and mood of a woman who is fully aware “what a clutter my days/ have come down to,” and images herself as “hair by hair/ kindling, the whole of me/ waiting to go up in one burst of late/ afternoon torching everything.” At one point this once-great beauty remarks wistfully, “A place for everything…/ but how can everything stay always/ in one place?/ and where is my place? In this mirror/ I don’t want to look into?” Digging “in what used to be a garden,” she thinks of the “blazing/ white sea-swell beyond me” which moves towards her “while here in the undertow/ I grip my trowel,/ the afternoon fading,/ the pool of my life/ growing still.” In her attic she holds up an old white net hoop skirt, remembering “one more luminous moment” when for a moment “daylight as seen through/ its netting looks/ dreamlike as first love,/ the lights on the dance floor/ beginning to lower,/ the slow-dance we waited/ all night for/ about to begin.” But she realizes that if she tried to dance now, the skirt would collapse, and “perhaps I would trip over it,/ tumble into/ the rubble of too long a life.” In the first part of the monologue she recognizes that other people see her as “Just a little old lady”; in the final one she demands, “Tell me,/ you who see only the back of me,/ how does my face look/ confronting the light?”

Part II continues with Eve’s musings, then for a dozen pages moves into the voice of a woman remembering her own past marked with the strong figures of her grandmother and mother. Some of the memories are happy, but none entirely sunny. She recalls “The last rose of summer,/ that sobbing old/ song bubbling out of the piano keys,” as she sings with her grandmother, “chirping of shadows that fell on a faraway garden.” She recollects older women dressing her in her lace-edged Sunday-best, and how she “sashayed around./ Because I was a girl. I was their girl.” But “Their hands on my body were cold,/ their mouths clicked and chirped./ The wind howled.” In “Correspondence” she watches her grandmother write letters, “words streaming onto the ivory vellum/ like blue tributaries,” thinks of the page’s “seamless meander of words.” In “Pearls,” we are cast back to 1940, the war a distant rumble, and listen with the mother “through static/ to Glenn Miller swinging/ his wand to the music of pearls/ on an endless gold string.”

Part III moves us from memory back to the present of different women facing their diminishing lives. In “Dark Hour,” a woman who has “drunk too much wine,/ nibbled too many hors d’oeuvres,” confesses that she has always wanted seconds, thirds, more, more, and now she refuses to “be bullied,/ or spooked,/ by Night’s blank windows/ shining my ghost faces back at me.” “Wedding” is spoken by an unmarried woman who always sits in the back pew,“the easier to escape/ once its over.” She wonders at the preacher’s statement that “Man was not made to be solitary,/ and this is why God ordained marriage,” and considers how sacraments bind things to one another, “man to woman, “blood to wine,” while “his mouth full/ of false teeth/ and snuff, his idle hands age-speckled,/ God sits alone/ in his canopy of stars.” Then we turn again to Evelyn, who “sings to the okra” as she uproots it; “nobody promised you September/ lasted forever.”

Nearly all of these poems are written in very short lines, as if the narrators speak in a halting voice or perhaps find it difficult to catch their breath. The one exception is “Sleepless,” near the end of the collection. The speaker here admits “It’s been years since I’ve kept a garden,” then uses garden as metaphor, first a garden of fears, containing all the old phobias and worries from early childhood on. Then she “imagine[s] a garden/ the dying walk into as they take their last breath/ before the gates slam shut.” Finally she considers Eden, where “God’s light/ seemed thrilling at first. They were glad to sweat/ under it, tilling the soil of that first garden,” expecting nothing but good. She acknowledges that, like Eve in Eden, sometimes she is “amazed by the simplest things — light, for example, or air, the way it’s made for wings.” Then, in a stunning turn, “I remember my father at night washing sweaty hands,/ dirt spinning round in the drain. He could freeze/ me with one look,/ God turning me out of the garden.”

This collection, which was recognized as the 2002 SEBA Book of the Year in Poetry, is as honest and thorough a survey of vision of aging women as I have yet seen in any genre — poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. It certainly is not a cheery book, yet neither is it grim. These women recognize the dwindling of the light, the narrowing of time, the limiting of possibilities, but they do not complain. They examine what looms before them without blinking. We cannot but admire them.

But we need to know them. We whose family and/ or friends are facing diminishing lives need to understand them. We who are facing those realities for ourselves need these models, who can declare that “The windows/ still open,/ already the end/ of september,/ the last day,/ the very last day of my life/ I will wake, saying morning again.”