Appalachian Poets and Their Poetic Sources

Appalachian Poets and Their Poetic Sources.

The land of the old South, as it filled with western souls, was refitted of its Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees by the transient bodies from the Northern Isles, who, having left cold, rocky, ancient homes of the past, crossed the Atlantic to find the same anew. The families of the Highlands, weary and hardened, trekked their ways down from Philadelphia, Maryland, and Charleston through the smoke-skied mountains of the Appalachian South. They tied themselves to homesteads in the humid mountains, the large rocks the solid guideposts for a home that would always be theirs, as the histories filled with tyrannical governors like Tryon pushing settlers off their plantation worthy lands, days of slavery when even church lands were stained in the blood of human flesh, modernization pulled Carolinians to the centers, and storms from the East shut them there. Unlike the histories of the rest of Americans, the stories from the Deep South, particularly Appalachia, are old; they are the tales of souls told for centuries across the ocean, transplanted in a new, familiar land. The people, one with the soil, remained; their lives began and ended in the same mountain, filling their souls with its air and their hearts with its memory. This aged connection of soul to land is everlasting, and emanates from the literature Dixie gives, a life-force on her own: William Faulkner, Katherine Ann Porter, Carson McCullers told the same stories, just with different words. Kathryn Stripling Byer did too; with gracious imagery, heaping with the solid history of the path, the tribulation of the ground, and the wandering of the stagnant souls she tells the story of a woman’s Appalachia, her home.

Up here in the mountains / we know what extinct means,” she writes. [Mountain Time, 1-2] She traces the story of the cold mountains Frazier emblazoned in his modern Civil War epic; they are the steady giver of life to their inhabitants, unchanging and unyielding in their awesome power, yet ever transformed by the recklessness of moving time. Her words limn the mountains itself, until the reader can feel the thick darkness of a mountain night.

We know the wolf’s gone.

The panther. We’ve heard the old stories

Run down, stutter out Into silence. Who knows where we’re heading?

Mountain Time, 5-8]

The unchanging spirit of the South, and the quirky restless soul of Appalachia, is epitomized by repetition. Children in the mountains – East Bend, High Point, Tuxedo, Flat Rock – know their ancestors, and their ancestors land, like it is their own. Stories in the south serve as a modern companion; for generations, in a seemingly endless circle, they have shaped the lives of the future with the lessons, values, and lives of the past. Byer, whose modern approach to the Appalachian spirit is all the more maudlin for its acknowledgement of change, speaks of the land and people like an eulogy, the sad, penultimate note before the end of the song.

Byer uses her poetry to speak to something common – it is, in its own right, her version of the stories that she has heard “Run down, stutter out/Into silence.”

Mountain Time, 7-8]

She narrates the stories of women who have come before her in rhythmic prose, connecting her own poetic weaving to the stitching that has bound together her nation.

A she was a quilter

Whose hand ever wearied, a mother

Who raised up two daughters to pass on Her words like a strong chain of stitches.

Imagine her sitting among us,

Her quick thimble moving along these lines

As if to hear every word striking true

As the stab of her needle through calico.

Mountain Time, 15-22]

Byer is unable to escape the responsibility she feels from the stories of Delphia and other female voices of the past; the ones who have, through stories and memories still vivid in her imagination, tied her to the land with the same inescapable stitches that they were.

Inevitably, Byer comes implicitly to the truth that her world is not dying; she may know “extinct,” but more truly she knows life. This is emblematic of the people as a whole, their own ethnic subculture far different than the standard American, sub-divided, Levittown, GAP-filled normalcy; this group knows the smells of the Pisgah forest by season, the dark roads of frost at winter, and the deep blooms of hot summer days and nights studded with stars arrived on the tails of spring. The relationship of the people of Appalachia is inextricable from their land, and in being so, nearly overpowers the mental:physical struggle faced by most individuals; in such a long seated connection to one square of soil, the mental and the physical are one and the same. The people feel their land, know its luxuries and live off its sustenance; it is its own love story, not marked by lust and respect, but instead by the duality of life and death, the very nature of land itself.

Never is this more eloquently colored than in “Diamonds,” a poem regaling the reader of the enduring beauty of the natural gift.

This, he said, giving the hickory leaf

To me. Because I am poor.

And he lifted my hand to his lips,

Kissed the fingers that might have worn

Gold rings if he had not inherited land, not this Diamonds, 1-5]

Not only is this a poem of the bucolic bounty that any rural farmer knows, it specific. Byer is connected not to just land, as many people are worldwide, but is part of a people connected to this land. The hickory leaf is symbolic; it is the fruit of a wood that houses generations of families in the mountains, it is the chips of which give perfect taste to the culinary dishes for which the area is renown.

Taking the leaf from her lover, the narrator drinks down its water. Imagining the hickory leaf, a dark green that edges out to light, glistening with the water droplets of a morning dew or the quotidian afternoon shower, the reader can see the light dance off the liquid and create the same mesmerizing beauty of a diamond. This diamond is free, it is natural, and while she may drink it down, its eternity is something that they people of Appalachia know. The people are inconceivably poor, she knows, “He stood / in the wet grass, his open hands empty, / his pockets turning inside out.” [Diamonds, 7-9] but this poverty does not abolish luxury; the natural world with which they are surrounded reaffirms the solid gifts bestowed by the land.

The importance of free beauty, that non-monetary value not glamorized by the glossy magazines, flows equally between the land and the people on it. While natural beauty is ever-present, regardless of geography, the terrain of Appalachia, so carefully depicted in Byer’s work, commands it.

A woman stands at the mirror./…The pulse points that wait to be dusted/with jasmine / or lavender. / the lips she rubs / rose with a forefinger.” [Vanity, 2-13] the images that make the woman here, Byer shows, wash her with beauty and sweep her through land and life.

The familiarity of the land is inescapable to someone who knows it; the beauty of the soul is here defined, being away from it is like losing a lover of one’s own volition. “Old road dreaming me back home / through coastal plain into the Gulf,” she writes. [Closer, 1-2] While any one who has ever left home can understand that, it is the specific feeling, tied deep in the gut of people from this area specifically, who know it well. The images remain with them, and Byer’s words speak like a knell for their souls to return home.

Arcade of pecan trees into infinity

Through which my memory roams

Like spider webs over wounds

These bare branches over my eyes

Maybe souls do flow into and out of the world

Closer, 5-9]

The inevitability of her soul to reach its final destination is a reclamation of its original berth; Byer feels the call to return to the looming trees and smoky paths that someone who has never been can only imagine from hollowed images, pilfered by Hollywood.

The dramatic imagery, heavy with the terrain and her response to it, is most reflected in the poem that won her recognition as the North Carolina Poet Laureate.

And now that a few buds appear

On the sycamore, I watch the road

Winding down this mountain

Not even a mule can clinb

Without a struggle. Long daylight

Wildwood Flower, 5-10]

The connection of the people to their land is the nature of an Appalachian soul; it is the galvanizing hum that motors generations through its tangled thicket and cold ridge. Byer knows this, feels this, and sets it alive before putting it to rest in her poetry. Through careful image choice, she joins the ranks of the southern literary elite. It is not coincidental that the great writers of the South are not known for social commentary, pink fiction, or the juvenile wandering epitomized by Kerouac, Eggers, and Davies; they are known for their work that puts them on their land, forging an omnipotent bond between the two. It is this story that Byer tells; the story of a soul, one in a line of many, so tied to the land that gave it life, it cannot define life without it.

Byer, Kathryn Stripling. Black Shawl: Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Byer, Kathryn Stripling. Catching Light: Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Byer, Kathryn Stripling. Girl in the Midst of the Harvest. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1986.

Byer, Kathryn Stripling.

Wildwood Flower: Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Kathryn Stripling Byer. New Georgia Encyclopedia. Literature. Available online.

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