A Harvest of Words: Contemporary South Dakota Poetry provides a variegated mosaic of the distant yet still familiar world of South Dakota through the resonant voices of fourteen of its poets. The poetry selections come from recognizable figures such as Patrick Hicks (who also edited the anthology), Jeanne Emmons, David Allan Evans, Jim Reese, and others. Many of the poems feel akin to Leslie Marmon Silko’s notions regarding the fundamental nature of stories in crafting identity. In “The Spelling Lesson,” Hicks describes the experience of learning to spell his own name. He explains, “Letters were made of stories, / not the other way around” (77). To him, stories are embedded in every strand of our existence, in the things we know, the things we want to know, and the space that separates the two. It investigates the effects of social conflicts and heritage in order to ascertain what people are and what they can become.
Jim Reese’s poem “Five-Year-Old Daughter” shows how relationships and identity are grounded in asking questions and receiving answers, even when the answer is “I have no idea” or “I’m not sure.” The poem raises the sorts of questions one might hear at the kiddie table at a family dinner, ranging from “Do I sound like a bird?” and “How are spatulas made?” to “Daddy, did you know that grandma’s mom died? How come?” and “Am I going to die?” (153). Whether serious or silly (and I won’t say which ones are which), these questions probe the depth of our mortality and identity in a way that any reader can recognize; these are the kinds of questions we’ve been asking ourselves every day since birth. By asking those questions and accepting the answers, we find and even create our notions of ourselves.
This kind of exploration of self continues in the works of Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, one of three Native American poets featured in the collection (the other two are Elizabeth Cook-Lynn and Virginia Driving Hawk). In “Lakota Poet,” Whirlwind Soldier juxtaposes Anglo-European poetic conventions with her own Native American literary background and heritage to demonstrate that the hegemony existing between the Euroamerican written tradition and the Lakota oral tradition is merely a construct. One is not better than the other; they are different but equally valid modes of expression, and neither one is dependent on the other’s approval for existence: “This Lakota poet has / a literary tradition, / philosophy / oratory, drama / music and / oral tradition, / And don’t need validation” (40). “Lakota Poet” functions as a veritable kick against the pricks, a declaration of who Native Americans are and have always been. [End Page 362]
A Harvest of Words provides a rare and nourishing bounty intended for a variety of poetic tastes. The voices are rich and thoughtful and confident, inviting the outsider (us) to share in their varied experiences and the stories of heritage and identity, as well as to investigate our own stories.