Coming to Rest By Kathryn Stripling Byer. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. $16.95 (pa.)
In her latest collection, Coming to Rest, North Carolina’s poet laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer creates a fluid landscape with her poems. The voice in these pieces travels from coast to coast as well as abroad, refusing to rest in a singular present moment. In doing so, the collection arrives at a more circular pursuit of history, “each now forever” as Byer writes in the poem “The Still Here and Now.” It is through creating a circle of family and feelings that these poems search for home, not merely as a place, but as an intangible sense: the slow familiarity of “late summer afternoon / and the dogs asleep under the oak tree.” Though the collection paints many pictures, it is the relationships that Byer presents rather than the landscapes that cultivate a ghostly, but very real sense of home.
In the title poem, Byer wrestles with the legacy of a namesake she never knew while openly questioning her choice of form in the first two sections, one of which is a ghazal and the other a villanelle: “Why cling / to another old form like this no-holds- / barred song for my aunt who died too young.” The revelation of these poetic choices establishes a trend in the collection, drawing the reader into the creative process. By being more closely aligned with the mind of the poet, the reader cannot help but also be in tune with the emotions of the poem. In the final section of the poem, entitled “Free,” Byer returns once again to the physical world, tying her relationship with her aunt to a “nameless creek / almost obscured by shade.” It is in the creek that Byer can reconcile her aunt’s “coming to rest” with Byer’s own continuing struggle with guilt, standing midstream in the water that “keeps rushing through [her].”
One of the finest poems in the collection appears in the final section, a tribute to Robert Watson entitled “Exotics.” Polished and well-crafted, the poem drives toward a relationship heretofore untouched, that of the student-mentor. While this relationship has little to do with the physical space of a house, to a writer it seems as though it is an instrumental step along the way to creating a feeling of home. It is in this environment that Byer recognizes the manner in which a person can take hold of one’s imagination, just as easily as a place: “I confess I have gone nowhere. / I’m still caught inside the same lines I’ve been trying / to write since we walked to Bob’s class.” Through remembering an old classroom with a brilliant professor, Byer creates in the poem a safe space, a peaceful enclave.
What results in Coming to Rest is a “hymn to the landscape,” a collection that digs beneath the dirt from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to the roadside of Interstate 65, and beyond. Byer’s poems scour the past and ultimately leave the reader at once vulnerable and whole, awake to one’s own fragility and aware of the landscape’s ability to be. Byer conveys that home is not merely a place, but a meditation on the moments of quiet that can be found amidst the uproar of everyday.
Causes Kathryn Byer Supports
Any environmental causes to keep our Southern mountains and our planet from devastation. Conservation Trust of North Carolina Nature Conservancy ADC,com...