Review of Catching Light
By Ron Houchin
Byer, Kathryn Stripling. Catching Light. Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Kathryn Stripling Byer's new collection of poems, Catching Light, is a three-sectioned book that works from a series of photographs entitled "Evelyn," as a kind of ekfrastic* scrapbook or album of Appalachian and universal character: a woman dealing with aging and her concept of self. *(ekfrastic, from Greek, ekfrasis: art from other art, as poems inspired by paintings or photographs.)
The first section, "In the Photograph Gallery," serves as prologue, consisting of a ten-part poem, wherein Byer gives us clues as to what she is doing as she takes us on this journey. In part 1, "I walk among photographs/ wondering who it is these people think/ I am."/ contains the poet's, and every woman's, dilemma: What is each woman as she goes from "hanging on to her mother's skirt" to the "little old lady," she herself becomes? In part 5, the persona steps outside herself, identifying with all who must dread what light sends back, "How many women/ have sat as I see myself/ sit in this car going/nowhere." By part 7 of the prologue, there is a resignation as well as a Dylanesque "rage against the dying of the light" when 'Evelyn' says,
What a clutter my days
have come down to…
and later in the same poem,
the whole of me
waiting to go up in one burst of late
afternoon torching everything.
The precision and economy of language in that last line are part of the delight in this volume.
The book's title describes what Byer does as artist: acting as camera catching the light, and stopping time in the special way peculiar to poetry, painting, and photography, and at the same time fleshing out her persona's, her Everywoman's anxiety.
More than anything Catching Light is a treatise on self-seeing (self-knowledge), catching and holding in the mind those things of being and growing old, about being and aging. It is the clarity of Byer's particular observing that help her album capture the soul-saving elements of a life anywhere. She has caught and captured light, the surface enemy of every woman. And, if there is any doubt about her mission of self-knowledge, she tells us in "Old," the first poem after the prologue (section 2,):
Now I worry the difference
between what I see
in this mirror and out
there. But what does it matter?
I look into both.
See the same woman's life all around me.
Catching Light is not death anxiety, letting go of the tight grip on life, or whining about losing one's youthful look in the mirror alone; it is the universal in the individual; it is, as she suggests in "Handiwork," giving up artificialities such as "lace as a way of ending/ things gracefully." The speaker, beginning to see lace everywhere, remembers sitting beside her mother who "…sat hooking circles/ of white thread"; now she rejects that tendency to blur the harsh ends and edges "…to prettify thresholds/ too suddenly come upon."
Just as it is the vowels that give the Appalachian accent, as well as any accent, its distinction, it is the physical details of the poems that give Catching Light its Appalachian flavor. If there is a weakness in this book, some might say it is in the predictability of some details: "stove's black belly," "wind whistling through the house," "seersucker dresses," "blossoming okra plants," "back roads/ "…going nowhere." One could argue that the insights gained using such details far outweigh any tedium. See for instance, the last few lines of "Letting," "Fallow," and especially the beginning of "Her Porch": "Here she would pour out her hair/ from her Sunday hat/ and sit rocking the sermon away." It is the necessary commonality of such details, in poem or photograph, that conjures mountain grandmother ghosts for male or female readers.
For me, section 3 is the most powerful. In poems such as "Wedding," "Nemesis," and "Sleepless," I feel, to paraphrase one of Byer's images, bound to blood. But it is "Dark Hour" that resonates in the heart of the collection, showing this to be more than a book about a woman- southern or mountain-lamenting lost youth.
In this poem, she writes as a woman alone at day's end, not having noticed the day disappear. She sees herself in the dark windows, eating one last morsel or two, and knows she is surrounded by ghostly reflections of herself-condemning, threatening, foreshadowing- the way she must go. She says, before the glass, "…my ghost faces back at me/ when I look straight through myself into darkness/ before I extinguish the lights."
In the last two poems of the book, there is such ironic symbolism in the okra about to be dumped onto a compost pile and the abandoned house that I laughed out loud reading:
kiss the ants in your loving
They'll have to leave,
taking the taste
of you elsewhere.
("Eve Sings to the Okra")
Why do I turn to look back?
Let the dark keep itself to itself.
Let this house keep.
It's not going anywhere.
In her observations of the photographs grows the speaker of Kay Byer's poems; such pieces as "Music Lessons," "Open Casket," and "Dark Hour," are the center of the book's ekfrasis. I had always assumed it was the goal of efrastic art, art made from other works of art, to send the viewer/reader back to the original for further consideration of the firsthand experience. But in Byer's collection we have 61 pages of poetry springing from photographs not included in the book. This way we have a collection that bids us not just look at the literal photos for comparison, which Byer admits generated the poems, but look back to that in us that holds what it sees, like the camera, like the memory, changing it as it holds, the way the camera changes the literal with framing, lighting effect, and filtration.
Perhaps our national culture lacks the wisdom that makes aging as venerable and bearable as it could be. Perhaps, too, those of us raised and living out our lives in the sub-nation of Appalachia see aging more honestly, more symbolically, more tinged with beauty. Kay Byer's new book would suggest- at least to this reviewer- how it may be so. This volume could easily be placed on the mantel beside the photo albums that we drag down when we want to see ourselves, without morbidity or self-righteousness, as we are and as we are becoming.
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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...