Noted Georgia author Terry Kay was the keynote speaker at the Tenth Annual Byron Herbert Reece Society meeting on June 1, 2013. His talk was so well received we want to share it with you. With the permission of Mr. Kay, and with all rights reserved to him, the remarks are reproduced here.
These remarks come with a warning label: I am a writer of fiction, an occupation that invites some suspicion regarding the value of honesty. Most writers of fiction are liars to one degree or another. Even when it’s pure and absolute truth they’re dealing with, they love to dance with it, waltzing it in so many circles it gets as dizzy as a drunk on a binge.
I tell you this because of the great affection I have for my brother, John, the one I call the Good Son. I do not want him held accountable for my words.
If you haven’t met John, you have missed being in the presence of a remarkable man, one given to kindness and righteousness and patience and forgiveness, and one who believes passionately in the uniqueness of Byron Herbert Reece.
In a book I wrote years ago, I said I once watched John – or the character modeled after him – walk out of sunlight into the shade, and I saw the sunlight bend to follow him.
Taken as metaphor, it’s the most accurate description I have ever written.
If you do not know him, I am pleased to reveal that he is an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church. But that is not his fault. It was a duty assigned to him from his birth, a duty instructed in his naming: John Wesley Kay.
For those who might be unfortunately uninformed, John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist movement.
And to answer Juliet’s question in her teasing of Romeo, THAT is what’s in a name. Once given, you must wear it.
My name, on the other hand, is Terry Winter Kay. According to my father, who was a farmer and a nurseryman, I was named for an apple tree called the Terry Winter.
It was giddy news to me. At the time, I did not know anyone else named for a tree, though in my newspaper days, writing about people from California, I did meet a young lady named Eucalyptus. But that is another story for another audience.
Still, I was mystified. On our nursery we did not sell the Terry Winter apple, and I asked my father why we didn’t.
“Son,” he answered earnestly, “it died of the blight.”
And there you have it: John Wesley – God. Terry Winter – rotten apple.
You have been warned.
I have a confession to make – something I have never told anyone. Not my wife. Not my brother. Not my children or grandchildren. No one has ever heard what I am about to tell you.
When I was 13 – in 1951 – I killed a man.
Yes, I did.
It happened this way:
I was plowing on a sloping strip of land near the pine tree stand, just above a narrow branch of spring water that ran through Blackgum Swamp into Beaverdam Creek. I think the crop was young cotton and I was doing a run-around – up one side, down the other – to throw soil against the feet of stalks.
I do not remember where my father or John was. Off in another place, doing another task, I am sure.
I know only that I was alone at the time.
It was mid-afternoon, hot and humid. The man came out of the pine tree stand, striding across the field. He had an ax raised above his head, swinging it wildly, and he was bellowing that he was going to kill me and then kill my family.
I did not know the man, but I knew he meant what he said. He was large. A madness was in his face.
But in the field where I plowed there were flint rocks that had broken apart from the plowing, leaving edges as sharp as a knife, and as the man came thundering up the hill, I reached down and picked up one that was the size of my fist, and I flung it toward him, striking him in the left eye. He dropped his ax and fell to the ground, squealing in pain. I ran to where he was and picked up his ax and slaughtered him. Then I unhitched the mule – Fanny, her name – and tied the trace chains to the man’s leg and drug him down to a sand-soft spot near the branch, and later, when it was safe to do so, I returned to that place with a shovel, and I buried him. I would say his bones remain there still.
That was in 1951. I was 13 years old, a puny farm boy.
That was also the year that I killed a bobcat with a homemade bow and arrow.
And it was the year my brother-in-law, Fred, trailed me in his car and clocked me running 60 miles an hour.
And the year I saw a Bigfoot robbing one of my rabbit boxes.
And the year I threw a no-hit baseball game against a sandlot team from Goldmine.
And the year I won a talent contest at Vanna Junior High School, dancing the shag with Emilee Ray.
It was a good year, 1951.
I share this with you because of this occasion – a gathering to acknowledge and celebrate the life and genius of Byron Herbert Reece – farmer and poet.
I share this with you because Byron Herbert Reece also killed a man who made threat against his family. He, too, took down a bobcat, and saw Bigfoot, and ran with the wind, and pitched a game of legend, and danced a dance with a lovely girl.
Byron Herbert Reece – Hub Reece – did all those things, or things like them, as he held to the handles of plows – the handles being very much in look and feel like that of a divining rod used by dowsers to zero in on buried pools of water.
And that is what he was: a diviner. Not of water, but of words, words buried under topsoil, words that he turned up in the furrows of a plow’s path, and then put to paper under lamplight.
But the truth is, there’s not much a plowman can do to break the monotony of plowing other than dream up some other life for himself, when the task calls only for a sharp plow point and a reliable mule.
Ask anyone who has been in that place, doing that duty.
Ask if they did some divining, some daydreaming.
Ask my brother. He has a sermon titled “Pulpit Behind the Plow,” for that is what the plow handles meant for him, and if you could have seen the way he stood behind them, you would have sworn those handles even had the look of a pulpit. Of course, his audience of one – sometimes two – was always turned away from him, and I doubt if he ever made a true conversion when his congregation’s understanding of English was limited to “Gee” and “Haw” and “Whoa,” though, with the mules we had, “Whoa” was often misunderstood. Sometimes when I see the logo of the Reece Society – the silhouette of a plowman leaning against a plow stock – I think I am seeing my brother, taking a rest.
The miles walked in a field – plowing miles – are different from the miles you walk on a treadmill or in an air-conditioned shopping mall or strolling sand beaches of the world’s oceans. Unless the mule is spirited, field miles – plowing miles – are walked in a plodding step, the kind of dragging-along gait that puts a man to sleep and leaves him doing daytime sleepwalking, and that’s when the dreams start up.
As you might have guessed, the man I killed was Goliath, the Philistine. In the 17th chapter of the Book of First Samuel, it suggests that David killed him twice – once with a rock from his slingshot and once with a sword. It was a story that fascinated me as a boy – perhaps because I was one of the younger children in a family of twelve. Slaying Goliath to protect my family was as heroic as I could possibly be.
But that is part of the plowman’s dream: being heroic. In a field, alone, divining stories with the handles of a plow, being heroic is easy. You simply borrow a moment from something you know about – even if it’s a speck of information – and you dress it up.
My bow and arrow episode came from a memorable Red Ryder comic book. Red had been captured by a gang of desperadoes and hand-tied to his saddle horn. They had Red, but they didn’t have Little Beaver, and Little Beaver could use a bow as well as William Tell. He shot a flint arrow into the saddle, inches from the saddle horn, allowing Red to saw through the rope and overcome the dozen or so villains that had him surrounded. I used to be Little Beaver. John, of course, was Red Ryder. He was also Batman to my Robin, Captain Marvel to my Captain Marvel, Jr., the Lone Ranger to my Tonto.
And I did know a boy in our community who said he once outran a car. He also slicked back his hair with Wildroot Cream Oil and bragged about it.
And I did see a man robbing one of my rabbit boxes on a dark morning. Maybe it was Bigfoot, but he looked a lot like a fellow who lived across the swamp.
And I did play in a no-hit baseball game against a rag-tag bunch of sassy boys from Goldmine ridge, but I didn’t do the pitching. John did. I was the catcher, and a no-hit pitcher is a lot more heroic than a no-hit catcher.
But I did win a Shag Dance with Emilee Ray. Truly. Doing the shag was almost as heroic as killing Goliath, and in those days, I had limber limbs.
I am not a student of the life of Bryon Herbert Reece. I am only an admirer. I do not know what pleased, or bothered, his dreams in fields of labor, and I cannot match any of his writing with that toil, but having followed a plow of my own, it would not surprise me that he conjured up dry bones dancing on a north Georgia mountainside, or a chariot of fire bound for heaven. When there are no distractions of consequence, it is easy to get involved in what is not there.
From my reading of his history, Reece had a lot of personalities stuffed into the slender frame of his body, and he had the moods to go along with them – anger, stubbornness, loneliness, sadness, restlessness. He had a powerful sense of the dramatic. He was curious and intense. All poetic moods. Moods that beg for speculation. Moods that invite theory and hypotheses.
Of course, there’s some enjoyment in the guesswork of it, but I do not believe anyone can be absolute about any writer’s source of information or inspiration. Still, I am up for the argument that much of what Reece wrote came from imaginary moments – the ghosts of his experiences materializing out of his own corn patch in his own Field of Dreams.
But I don’t buy into scholarly assumptions that every thought formed by Reece, or every line written by him was so profound that all else was inconsequential. Maybe he didn’t have the same sort of outlandish notions other farm boys had in the same age and circumstance, but I am confident he, too, dealt with idle fantasies that were edged in absurdity. I would guess that maybe he had a thought or two about a flirty girl, or about wrestling down a schoolyard bully, or of winning a trinket at a trickster’s table on a night at the county fair.
Dreaming does not always have to be the sort of solemn affair that scholars want to make of it.
But I do not want to be misunderstood. Byron Herbert Reece was certainly one of a kind, a writer gifted with a command of language – his language – and blessed also with an almost unruly passion for having his say.
It is only right that he is heaped in praise, and that scholars and school children, serious and causal readers, have a personal opinion of who he was and what his words meant. I have mine.
This is one of them: I believe Reece had secrets that writers enjoy having – a word, a line, a crafty suggestion – that is understood by one person only, though read and talked about by thousands. Poets are especially accomplished at having little insights tucked away in the disguise of words, their own needle in their own haystack. It’s what gives mystery to words that otherwise might come across as clever meandering.
I like the notion of secrets. I like believing that Reece buried them by the thousands in the words he wrote.
Yet, for me, nothing was more unique about Byron Herbert Reece than this: He heard the music of the Earth – music not only of fiddle and flute, or harp and harmonica, but music of the plaintive voice of his history, word-music from the hills of Scotland and Ireland, and from the Old Testament poets of the King James Bible, and from the troubadours of the Middle Ages, and from hymn books of one-room churches making joyful noise.
When he wrote his own words to accompany that music, he wasn’t stealing or plagiarizing; he was continuing. It was as though he had been anointed by celestial command as One Who Carries On. When you read his poems aloud, especially the ballads, you can feel the heartbeat of that ancient music on your tongue. Your soul stands up to dance, and – to steal a thought from an old friend –with Reece, you dance to the lyrics.
The music was in his history, but it was also in the ground that he worked. For those who have never followed the plow, you cannot know the sound the blade makes in its slicing of soil. It has a staccato rhythm – spits of a scraping, then silence, then the grinding of rock, then scraping. It is like a prolonged sigh, the humming of a lullaby. It is hypnotic and mesmerizing. The only counterpoint is the jangle of chains and the grunt of the mules and maybe the buzz of a horsefly.
And if you give it some liberty, you could say the middle-buster had its own music, as did the two-horse turner and the corn planter and the spring-tooth harrow and the fertilizer distributor.
A writer needs to hear that music – his music, her music – and it does not matter what he or she is writing, poetry or prose.
I do not know what sort of singing voice Byron Herbert Reece had. I’ve heard a recording of him speaking, as many of you might have, and from that I would suggest that as much as he favored classical music – choosing to die by it – he did not have a voice for the operas of Puccini or Verdi or any of the others. He was not Pavarotti. Yet, I am certain – in the deepest well of my certainty – that he sang the songs of his history – the ballads and the church songs – as he followed his plow or struck the ground with his hoe or splintered firewood with his ax.
Some hear their music from an iPod. Others hear it in a concert hall. Hub Reece heard it in fields carved from mountains. He might have planted corn or wheat or sorghum cane or potatoes, but he harvested words and fashioned them into symphonies.
He was in the perfect place for it. There is no better writing studio on Earth than a field for corn, or for cotton, or for anything else that could use a mule and a plow. But that’s a romantic notion for me – the mule and the plow, I mean. There’s more to it than that. It’s the growing of things that matters, whether you plant by mule or machine, by hoe or by helicopter. You have to keep up with the growing. It feeds both sinew and soul. I suspect it’s why Reece wanted to be home when he was in such places as Atlanta or Los Angeles. He had something of a poetic damnation to deal with: he lamented not having the time to write because of the burden of work, yet he had to have the burden of work to inspire the writing.
I’m glad my brother asked me to be here today. It sent me back to some of the poems and to the history that marked the time of Byron Herbert Reece, and those hours spent in reading renewed a sense of awe I have for great writing. When writers tell you, “I wish I had written that,” they’re as free with praise as they’ll ever be. I read “The Song of Sorrow” and I say that. I read “If Only Lovers” and I say that. I say, “I wish I had written those words.” The same with “Ballad of the Bones” and with “I Know a Valley Green with Corn.” I wish I had written those. And others. Many, many others.
But I am not a poet. I cannot dance the ballet of words. In truth, I can no longer do the shag. I can only fake a simple square dance if there’s a character that’s good at calling the steps.
Still, I feel a closeness to Byron Herbert Reece. Many years ago, during my time as a guest lecturer at Emory University, the late Floyd Watkins – an expert in southern literature – came into my office to tell me he had reasoned that I was one of only a dozen or so published writers left in America who grew up plowing a mule, and perhaps the only one left in Georgia. “Of course, there was Reece,” he said, “but that’s talking about a man in a different world.”
Of course, he was right, but I’m proud I have a fellowship of the farm with Reece, proud that I have known something of the divining rod of plow handles and of the mesmerizing music of the turning blade. To know that I can be resurrected by that magic and by that music, by the scent of water and grass, of soil bellied up and drying in the sun, is as grand as life has ever been for me.
We call Byron Herbert Reece a farmer-poet, separating the two words with a dash, but I have some trouble with hyphened words. I never know if the hyphen is meant to keep things apart, or to tie them together. With Reece, I think it means both, a little of this and a little of that, when this and that translate as a way of life uniquely experienced. He was a poet, yes, even when being a novelist. And a farmer, yes. But even he could not pry himself apart. A field dreamer, he was, and that is what we have gathered here to celebrate – his dreaming.
Walk around this place. See it. Listen to it. Dream it. Divine its history, for its history is, in great part, your history.
And, last, this: As a tribute to Byron Herbert Reece, I wrote a little rhyme about that – about being a field dreamer.
I till these fields where crops will be
With naught but dreams to walk with me.
Where men beat plowshares into swords
To fight the fight of ancient wars.
Yet, I am sure that what I dream
Is not as grand as it may seem,
For war must need a braver man
Than one who simply works the land.
And dreams do not repay the loan
That bought the seeds I have sown.
So I am left to walk this field
And take some thought about its yield.
I have no cause for bitterness
For mule and plow have taught me this:
What farmers and poets learn from Earth
Is how to grow the Universe.
Here, where we have gathered, is part of the Universe grown by Byron Herbert Reece – farmer and poet.
June 1, 2013