Poetry Sunday: “New Year’s Eve,” by Kathryn Stripling Byer

New Year’s Eve

We kneel at the hearth, blowing hard
to make wet wood kindle. Rain ends this old year
of drought in my father’s fields littered with cornstalks
like corpses he would not plow under.
“The last days,” he likes to say,
quoting Isaiah, “Behold, they shall be as stubble.”

Why were we spared? On our mountainside
blackberries fatter than thumbs stained our fingernails.
Peaches squeezed out of their skins
and dripped into the lush weeds and crabgrass.
Now winter squash lie on our pantry shelves,
nine left, like polished skulls hoarded in African huts
for good fortune. Tonight I am greedy for more

as I wait for the fire, reading seed catalogs
till I’m drunk on their promises. Hercules Butternut.
Silver Queen corn. And a strawberry red as the sun
going down in my father’s flat country
where he counts the last minutes, asking why
bother to take up the plow again, all it comes down
to is this, an old man with his stories
of good crops and bad crops,
one summer no rain and next a flood
ripping out every last seeding.

One fire catches, crackling like cornstalks
last August when a wildfire swept over his dry acres.
smoke hovered all day,
as if Georgia lay under siege again.
“Sherman’s come back,” joked my father,
but nobody laughed. Were we thinking
the same thing, that next time
not only the cornfields will burn
but the flesh on our bodies?
And after the big fire,
the long winter nights with no sunrise,
not even the seeds in the ground safe.
Not even the earthworms.

A firecracker startles me.
Sirens. You pop the champagne cork
and hold up a glass.
“To the Harvest,” you say,
“To zucchini and pumpkin and cabbage.”
I stop you: “To earthworms.”
You laugh. And we drink
to the earthworms asleep in our garden.


From The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest (Press 53 2013), published with permission of the press.


Kathryn Stripling Byer grew up in southwest Georgia and graduated from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. She received an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she studied with Allen Tate, Fred Chappell, and Robert Watson. Her books of poetry include Catching Light (Louisiana State University Press, 2002); Black Shawl (1998); Wildwood Flower (1992), the 1992 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets; and The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest (1986), published in the Associated Writing Programs award series, reissued by Press 53, and available here. Byer received writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council and was poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. She died June 5, 2017. [from Academy of American Poets website, here] Her obituary appears here.

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