Kathryn Stripling Byer


A woman employed to inspect the dress of a corpse, to ascertain whether
the law for the protection of the woolen trade had been violated by robing
the body in any other material.
—Anne Baker’s Glossary of Northhamptonshire Words and Phrases, 1854


You might expect children to be what
I most dread, but I fear the women
whom age has already begun to lay waste,
loosening their neck skin like hosiery
falling undone round an old woman’s
ankles, the first thing I see
when I bend to examine their burial
garments. I know all too well
how the underneath fastenings begin
to give way, the breasts sagging
onto the belly, the belly gone slack
as a haversack emptied. So there they lie,
summer or winter, in good English wool.
I inspect the dress, sometimes
no more than a nightgown, other times
well stitched with simple embroidery
over the bodice, a few tiny shell buttons.
All that's allowed, if there’s wool underneath
such embellishment. The grave’s cold
beyond our poor souls’ comprehension,
so they should be glad of a garment
that’s woven of earth’s warmest fiber—
what always I say to the grieving.
And yet the grave leaks! This I know well
from seeing my mother dislodged when
the creek flooded. Wet wool clings fast
to the flesh, but their dead flesh feels
naught anymore, so that I lose no sleep
brooding over how well or poorly
the dead sleep beneath us.
Just once did I hesitate
over a newborn still wrapped
in the slightest batiste,
no doubt brought from the continent,
asking myself if I dared let this
baby go down to his rest in some French
cloth his mother had pieced into swaddling.
I needed this post. I had children myself
and a husband gone wandering.
But watching that woman unwrapping
those limbs yet again and beholding
the knotted fists, fingernails blue
as the first April violets…then wrapping
that flesh of her flesh with the rough wool
I carry to punish such lawlessness…
No, I did not wonder if, every night after,
she felt her skin chafe as she lay beside
her man, clutching the blanket I made her unwind.
I have learned how to make myself sleep
as the dead sleep,
beyond dreams,
beyond any need for forgetting.


Do I wake
when a floss of wind
rouses the chimney,
asking myself if I too
can feel wool rubbing
over my breasts
or my thighs?"

I do not wake
till either the first light
or birdsong
rouses me. Wind
never shakes
me now. I am not
shaken by earthly
gusts. God’s breath

I dare not consider,
the hot or
the cold to it. No need
to worry its path
till the time comes,
the wheat grass will
part where He wishes
it, stooking will blaze
up where he sets his

eye. At the last
trump the bodies
whose shrouds
I have sanctioned
will rise up and stumble away through
the dust, dressed for

journeying over
a muddy world coming
undone, dressed
for God’s breath if
it be like ice, dressed for
wind that would blow their
poor bones to the ends
of the known world
if not for those dumb
creatures shorn when
the earth was still ours
and we labored all day
at our spinning wheels
or at our looms where
the shuttles flew back
and forth over the warping.


Bright as this thread I push
in and out, birdsong embroiders
a hoop of sound roundabout me
at my mending, the yellow descant
of the robin and seek sorrow blue
of the dove. The wrens fear

to come closer, brown voices
warning each other to stay away,
so like the children I pass

on my journeys, no matter if only
to market I go. They know who I am.
When I reach out for turnips
or warm loaves or remnants of dimity
spread on a counter for barter,
I sense how their mothers
draw back. But the birds come.

The ravens descend.
Now the starling and goldfinches.
They do not worry whose grave clothes
these fingers have touched.
With my needle and thread
I stick pretty scenes onto my scraps
of cloth, pear trees and flowers
and children who come to life
under my fingers, at play
in the nest of my lap.


I wander the land
when I need something more
than the scriptures give,
words I cannot understand.

Here I read what the hawthorne
portends, what the flight
of a dragonfly signifies,
what wind withholds in its bellows.

Clouds clot and tangle
like wool before carding.
I watch them stirred
into the indigo dye pot

of sky where they bubble
and swirl while I lift up
my face to the sun
just a little while longer,

for I understand how
the earth waits,
so patiently, under
my good Sunday boots.


On Mayday, the earth sheds
her veils and I dance to her music
as if I am Salome’s sister,

not caring that too soon
the inkblot of sky on this page
of my daybook begins to be

away into darkness,
everywhere birds
fling their matins at us

as if we had forgotten that
death never sleeps amid
so much awakening.


When I hear the bell tolling,
I gather my bag for the journey

and fasten my hair
in a net, wash my face

and my hands, lift
my skirt to examine its hem

for old mud though I know
there will likely be new earth to cling

as I travel the streets
or the country roads; there will be
briars, perhaps, or the dung
left by horses. Perhaps

I will ford streams
or scale hills where sheep
graze. Wherever I go
I will find the same welcome,

a door opened,
nothing said, only the corpse

on a table or bed
and the faces averted as I
touch the clothing to verify
the wearing of wool.

Silver coins stare back
at me from the dead sockets.

Jaws fastened shut by a strip
of cloth, if I am lucky,

or else hanging open,
can gargle no last words

but what I imagine
the dead still remember.

Sometimes I am tempted
to lean closer. But I dare not.


I search out the woodland anemone,
frail as the eyelashes
I must resist brushing fingertips
over. What if they opened,
those eyes that I sometimes
must shut myself,

and let me see down the quick
of them something
as pure as the scent at the center
of this flower, sticky with pollen
that begs to be touched?

Do the dead I have searched
beg to be touched,
if only by some insect crawling their
faces, their innermost secret
flesh under their woolen shrouds?


The first time I marveled at how still
the body lay, then I grew frightened.

A body with no breath to lift
its ribs, no pulse to thrum its neck,

no heart to beat when I lowered my ear
to its breast. What’s the good of it,

then, flesh that finally lies
on a table, a day’s work

to bury it, after which everyone goes
back to dumping the slops,

hoeing turnips, and picking their teeth
with the stubble straw. Why are we here,

I would never dare ask, for it meant I’d be
heathen, no faith in God’s

providence. But now I ask.
I still remember how I kicked

the stones underfoot at my mother’s wake,
wanting only to hurl myself

out of this providence into which
I had been born, by the grace

of an Almighty god who gives,
then taketh and taketh away.