American Life in Poetry: Column 374


The following poem by Kathryn Stripling Byer is the second in a series of related poems called Southern Fictions. Despite all the protective barriers we put up between us and the world, there’s always a man with a wink that can rip right through. Byer has served as North Carolina’s Poet Laureate.

I still can’t get it right

I don’t know. I still can’t get it right,
the way those dirt roads cut across the flats
and led to shacks where hounds and muddy shoats
skulked roundabouts. Describing it sounds trite
as hell, the good old South I love to hate.
The truth? What’s that? How should I know?
I stayed inside too much. I learned to boast
of stupid things. I kept my ears shut tight,
as we kept doors locked, windows locked,
the curtains drawn. Now I know why.
The dark could hide things from us. Dark could see
what we could not. Sometimes those dirt roads shocked
me, where they ended up: I watched a dog die
in the ditch. The man who shot him winked at me.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2001 by Kathryn Stripling Byer from her most recent book of poems, Southern Fictions, Jacar Press, 2011. Descent, her new collection, is forthcoming from LSU Press. Reprinted by permission of Kathryn Stripling Byer and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2016 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.