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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“New Year’s Eve” is unrhymed and unmetered free verse, organized into five stanzas of 6, 7, 10, 13, and 8 lines. In keeping with the poem’s conversational diction and tone, line breaks are conventional, occurring at places we’d naturally pause to take a breath. This is a narrative poem, one that tells a story or focuses more on the events being described than on the speaker’s feelings in reaction to those events. As such, it allows for the passage of time rather than arresting us in one dramatic moment. Here, the speaker recounts the story of one New Year’s Eve spent with her aging father at his farm in Georgia.

The stanza structure helps to organize and compartmentalize the different experiences presented in the poem. It opens with a memory of the speaker “kneeling at the hearth” with her father to kindle a fire on the last day of the year, a time that reminds the father of biblical end of days. It’s been a hard year, one of drought,” and the result is a bleak scene of dormant fields littered with cornstalks in the rain that has finally come. The “stubble” in the fields reminds the speaker of lines from Isiah 47:14: “Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame: there shall not be a coal to warm at, nor fire to sit before it.” Commentators interpret this passage as communicating utter devastation of the sinful city of Babylon following God’s judgment, a metaphor for divine omnipotence and the futility of human resistance. [See https://biblehub.com/commentaries/isaiah/47-14.htm.]

Stanza two turns to an inner reflection, the speaker wondering why she and her father, unlike the families in Babylon, were “spared.” Images of lush plenty contrast dramatically with the bleakness of the fallow fields: fat, juicy blackberries, dripping peaches, and plump winter squash lining pantry shelves. The contrast sharpens the images, enhancing them into a sensual cornucopia of harvest largesse. I especially enjoyed “blackberries fatter than thumbs stained our fingernails” for the way it captures the unusually large size and rich color of those berries. Another image compares the swollen, ripe winter squash to “polished skulls,” using oxymoron, a figure of speech sometimes called a “violent yoking of opposites” which connects apparently contradictory terms. In visual art a similar technique called chiaroscuro (Italian for “contrast”) uses shade to show light and light to more clearly show shade.

Thinking about the rich fruits of the last harvest in stanza 3 literally makes the speaker hungry and “greedy for more,” so she sits and reads seed catalogs, planning the farm’s next garden. What a wonderful metaphor for what we do on New Year’s Eve, looking forward to and planning our next year’s harvest of days! It’s an activity that intoxicates (“till I’m drunk on their promises”) the speaker the same way champagne intoxicates us on the holiday. With wonderful precision we are given the names of two varieties of seed she hopes to plant—Hercules butternut squash and Silver Queen corn—then the image of a strawberry “red as the sun.” These luscious particulars give way to more general expressions of drought and flood, famine and plenty, and her father’s existential despair—“why / bother to take up the plow again?”

In stanza 4, the fire at the hearth finally catches to offer a metaphorical light against the darkness, and when it first comes to us, it is as a sound or auditory image in the word “crackling.” Together with those vivid, particular examples of the fruits of harvest, the warm flames make a bulwark against privation and destruction; against fire, storm, and famine. Initially threatening, the flames remind the speaker of a wildfire that once consumed her father’s acres, and these lines, read in the days following the worst wildfire in California history, had much resonance for me. The Camp Fire burned for more than a week, killing at least 90 people and reducing 10,000 structures and homes to low piles of sifting, smoking ash. The town of Paradise was erased. Nothing was safe there, “not even the seeds in the ground [were] safe. / Not even the earthworms.” A hundred miles south of the fire, we in the Bay Area found ourselves in a postapocalyptic landscape of scorched air and masked sky, the sun transformed into a weird orange lunar lozenge. At ground zero, Paradise fire evacuees huddled in tents and prayed for the rain that finally, blessedly, came.

We are still on the knife edge at the beginning of stanza 4. The fire does finally ignite, but the speaker remains uneasy—will it bring warmth and light? Or more destruction? Will the poem end in the despair that can come from looking at the big picture, the understanding that times of good and times of evil are equally probable in any given year? In the last stanza, an intrusion from the world interrupts the cycle of reflection and doubt. From outside the room the speaker hears the sounds of a “firecracker” and a “siren,” echoed inside the room by the pop of a champagne cork. The noise “startles” the speaker—and us—out of her musings and back into the room with her father, and the poem concludes with a toast, that universal gesture fusing remembrance and hope. The father’s toast is to “the harvest” and its particulars, “zucchini and pumpkin and cabbage.” The speaker amends it with “To the earthworms,” adding a necessary component of any garden, the creatures that aerate and contribute nutrients to the soil. Her impulse is to extend gratitude beyond the fruits of the harvest, also including its tiny, under-sung agents. The poem closes in a room filled with light, warmth, laughter, hope, and immense gratitude—not a bad place to be at the end of the old year and the start of the new. Happy New Year, readers!

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