Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Solstice,” by Kathryn Stripling Byer

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Like the other poems featured this month, “Solstice” is unrhymed and unmetered free verse, in this case organized into eight four-line stanzas called quatrains. In keeping with the poem’s conversational diction and tone, line breaks are conventional, occurring at places we’d pause to take a breath. “Solstice” is a narrative poem, one that tells a story or focuses more on the events being described than on the speaker’s feelings and reactions to those events. Here, the dramatic situation is of a speaker in New York in winter, telling her rosary and recalling the previous night’s telephone call with an older woman, a friend maybe, or the speaker’s mother, aunt, or sister.
One reason for the quatrains, I think, is to help organize and compartmentalize the different experiences represented in the poem. It opens with a memory I take to be the speaker’s, of seeing an old woman on the subway. I want to make the case for the idea that the “you” in stanzas 1-3 is what is commonly called the “first-person you” or the “second-person I;” that is, the speaker is at this point referring to herself as “you.” I had to read the poem a few times to decide this, because the “you” in later stanzas so clearly refers to another person—the woman the speaker talks with on the telephone. But if you look, you’ll see that stanzas 1-3 take place in New York and describe things that only someone in New York—the speaker—could have seen: the subway, the “no coffee left in the pot,” and the dark apartment. Taking place in the now of the poem, the day after the phone call, things the speaker would have no way of knowing unless they happened to her.
It could be confusing, though, to use “you” to mean “I” in one part of the poem and to mean another person in another part, and organization of the material into stanzas is one way the poet manages this. I also think the stanzas are another kind of light against the darkness, what Frost has said a poem makes: “a momentary stay against confusion” (from his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes”). The forces of light and order bulwark against the forces of darkness and disorder in this poem, and organizing the flow of information into stanzas is one way to allow form to triumph over chaos.
“Solstice” opens with the speaker at home on the longest, darkest night of the year. It’s a bleak scene; the coffee is cold, and the windowpane is dark, and yet outside, “the lights of New York / gleam like candles, burning till dawn / for the souls of the lost.” Those lights are a beacon of hope or anticipation of the solstice, the point at which the light will begin to lengthen and the world to turn from winter to incipient spring. The speaker recalls something sad she saw on the subway, an old woman mumbling the words “Mi Corazon, / mi corazon di soledad,” or “my heart, my heart of solitude.” As she remembers this, or perhaps in response to having remembered it, the speaker prays, “Mother of Letting Go, // Mother of Dust, Holy Mother of Mothers’ Hearts.” The repetition of the word “mother” is striking, and one source of my belief that the person we meet later on the telephone is a mother herself, perhaps even the speaker’s.
The references to the holy Mother remind the speaker of a phone conversation the night before, in which the other person talked about her feeling of personal connection to Mary. This is the point, in stanza 4, that the verb tense of the poem shifts to past. We find ourselves foursquare in memory and listening in on that telephone conversation: the you here “stammered” and “spoke” while the speaker, on her end, “stared” at a Nativity Scene in her apartment. The other person’s fear of being dismissed as nostalgic is why I presume her to be older, and her identification with Mary-the-real-life-mother, as opposed to Mary-the-religious-icon, is why I presume her to be a woman. When she talks about that connection, it is the human elements—Mary’s blood seeping into the straw, her trembling hand—that matter most. In contrast, the speaker sees in the crèche before her “a virgin in wooden robes,” and I get the sense that she marvels at but does not fully share the other woman’s ability to apprehend the human in that scene.
In stanza 6, the dramatic situation intensifies. Up to this point, sentences have been long and complex, extending across lines and even stanzas, but stanza 6 opens with a two-word sentence: “Then silence.” That breaks an established pattern of long sentences and so grabs our attention. Its period creates a mid-line caesura or pause that literally stops the poem, creating and enacting the silence being described. At this point I felt like I was there, on the line, holding my breath for what would come next. The speaker wonders if the connection has failed until she hears the sound of a match being struck for a cigarette. That match, like the city lights and guttering candle of previous stanzas, prefigures the rush of light that will illuminate the end of the poem, and I love that it is delivered to us aurally rather than visually. Light is everywhere in this poem, but it is rendered brighter by means of a technique artists call chiaroscuro, or contrast—the use of shade to show light and of light to show shade.
Our own winter solstice will happen soon, and these days leading up to December 21 do seem awfully short and dark. I’m a sucker for candles in the darkness, small potent antidotes to the forces of night and despair, and in winter usually light votives at dusk. Part of me dismisses this as nostalgia and a foolish child’s charm. But I still light the candles. I love “Solstice” for its acknowledgement that these gestures—like some religious rituals and beliefs, like some poems—may seem empty and foolish but still serve some deep human need. I also love the poem’s vivid insistence that these gestures can fill a real room with heat and light, and can, if only for a moment, banish the kind of despair that makes a solitude of the human heart.
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  • Kelly Cherry January 3, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    Gone too soon.

    Reply
  • Kelly Cherry January 3, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    Gone too soon.

    Reply
  • Meryl Natchez December 18, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    Lovely ending–perfect poem for this time of year.

    Reply
  • Meryl Natchez December 18, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    Lovely ending–perfect poem for this time of year.

    Reply
  • Kristyn Appleby December 17, 2017 at 11:48 am

    As always Rebecca, you chose pieces of writing that go directly to the heart of the reader. “Mother of Letting Go. Mother of Dust. Holy Mother of Mothers’ Hearts.” A new mantra to quell, perhaps, the unease I feel in my own heart these days. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Kristyn Appleby December 17, 2017 at 11:48 am

    As always Rebecca, you chose pieces of writing that go directly to the heart of the reader. “Mother of Letting Go. Mother of Dust. Holy Mother of Mothers’ Hearts.” A new mantra to quell, perhaps, the unease I feel in my own heart these days. Thank you.

    Reply