Kathryn Stripling Byer

 The ways gender has woven itself into my life are so complicated that I'm not sure I know how to talk about them. Maybe that's one reason why I write poetry. I can come at it through other voices, through story and image. I listen to my grown daughter a lot on this issue, too, and her experience has been just as fraught with anger and fear as it has been for me. The physical and the emotional issue of it. I would like to be able to say that being a conciousness inside a female body has been empowering, illuminating, celebratory, but I can't always. We are all embodied in one or the other gender (or trans-gendered) and either way we deal with the limitations of it. And yet without our embodiment, how could we experience the physical world? As Flannery O'Connor said, "Our limitations are our gateways to reality." Georgia O"Keeffe's words in the interview near the end of her life, about coming back as an eagle, have stayed with me for years. To sing. Through and beyond. I grew up wanting to be like my father, thinking him strong and commanding. He wanted for me education and career. And yet over the years my women's voices have been the ones speaking most powerfully to me, and speaking more pointedly about their physical experiences as women.



Long Black Veil

She walks these hills in a long black veil,
She visits my grave while the night winds wail….

She could never herself weep
above any man’s grave for so many
bad nights, unmindful of hailstones
and wind wailings. Where’s the woman

who would? Still, she wonders who
wrote this song, who set it roaming.
She’s glad to be done with her own
bad nights drawing her out

where the wind can whip
even the slightest of lacy threads
wild at the edge of a shawl. She
had thought it was flesh to flesh

she wanted, long as the nights lasted.
That was before she pulled back
from the heat of him seeking her own
and saw limbs thrashing outside

like nothing that she could recall
ever hearing a woman sing.
No wailing romance in that vision,
only the locust leaves hammered

by lightning to quick-silver
tongue-shapes that silenced her.
How dare a woman walk out
into such revelation, much less

set it throbbing to music
that’s even now winding itself round her,
length after length of it, her hand
reaching out for the door handle?



O'Keeffe's Orchid

On a Santa Fe street,
I stand looking through glass
at it, poster-sized,
recalling the critic
who said this was a painting
by a woman who wanted to have a baby.

Myself, I see
a soprano’s pink uvula,
lavender depths
that promise a chamber of pure sound,
a resonance beyond Traviata’s doomed courtesan.

In Felllini’s movie,
E la Nave Va,
the diva whose ashes her lover
must scatter reveals
how she lifted her high
C, imagining a conch shell
through which her voice spiraled
and spiraled toward something to
which there is no end.

O’Keeffe’s dead.
I can’t ask her who’s right
but who cares?

Near the end of her life
when a journalist asked
how she wanted
to come back,
she smiled like a child.

As an eagle, she said.
She would sing
with a voice very clear
and very high
as she soared beyond
what she’d created,
her canyons
and cow skulls,
into the blue
of her unblinking sky.



From Shelton Laurel Diary


Who can bear it?
Thus I write each morning,
as if asking might give
some relief to waiting,

waiting, knowing that
we must, we women
left as women always
let themselves be. None

can keep us from it,
least of all ourselves, not
knowing what to do
next. Fear resides

in empty chairs and
empty beds. No fire within
the hearth within an empty
house with none

to feed or hover
over with a blanket or
a bone! Not even hound
to scold. We wait

because at least we wait
among what’s left
of us, our beads and thimbles.
Quilts. Our widow’s weeds.

Out there beyond the last
ridge, what waits?
Neighbors who do not
wage war against the other,

hack their neighbor’s children
like a spring field waiting
to be hoed? Where streams
do not hide pocket watches

smashed and tossed aside,
or bones that slowly shed
their flesh? Who of us
has gone that far away?

And if she has, she’s not come
back to tell us how
a woman might live there,
bereft of all she’s known.


My body under cold
quilts, all bone. I touch hip
and ribs. I try to want a man’s
palm here atop my belly
where a child might coil,
a tiny grub of flesh.
I try to want a child. I touch
my nipples, wondering
how milk swells, how
a woman lets herself be used
thus. Emptied out
like feed sacks unto
mouths and more mouths,
like earth itself, a trough
at which the hungry feed
till sated; then they sleep
not as I sleep, if I sleep
at all. I know you do not
sleep wherever you lie
this night, Brother. Were you
not the one who once declared
The well-fed sleep warm?
Not like us, whose ribs push
hard against our cold skin
underneath a cold quilt
made by long-dead hands.


Shelton Laurel, NC, where tensions between Confederate and Union leaning families ran high, was the scene of a massacre during the Civil War. Fifteen men, aged 15 to 60, were rounded up and executed by their neighbors.

First published in Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond to War. Fulcrum, Publishers.



Kathryn Stripling Byer lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, where she is completing her term as the first woman Poet Laureate of the state. Her first book, the Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, was published in the AWP Award Series, and she has published another four, with LSU Press, including Wildwood Flower, which received the Academy of American Poets Lamont prize for the best second book during a given year. She blogs at kathrynstriplinglingbyer.blogspot.com and nclaureate.blogspot.com.