- Nebraska Poetry: A Sesquicentennial Anthology ed. by Daniel Simon
Daniel Simon's collection of poems by eighty-three Nebraskans over 150 years of statehood is an impressive resource. Organized in chronological order by each poet's birth date, the collection extends from Orasmus Charles Dake (b. 1832), the first professor of English literature at the University of Nebraska, to Kelly Weber (b. 1992), a 2014 graduate of Wayne State College. This organization invites awareness of the historical sweep of Nebraska poetic progression. The first forty pages mix canonical Nebraska writers from early statehood (Willa Cather; John Neihardt, state poet laureate in perpetuity) with recently rediscovered writers such as Margaret Haughawout. The middle 150 pages showcase forty-one Nebraska poets born since 1930, including state poets William Kloefkorn and Twyla Hansen and US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. The final sixty pages feature twenty-four poets born since 1958, starting with Native American poet Allison Adelle Hedge Coke and including recent prize winners such as Stacey Waite and Matt Mason. Each poet is introduced by a biographical paragraph and represented by one to three poems.
Simon has selected poems that present enduring Nebraska themes. For instance, several poems have "Nebraska" in their title and are clear attempts to capture an essence of the state's land and [End Page 479] people. That essence differs when the poet is Lenora Castillo writing about her immigrant parents ("La Nebraska") or Don Welch imagining the state as a century-earlier Russian settler ("Nebraska") or Kelly Madigan finding "Nebraska" to be "a place where a person can heal, / or choose not to heal" (235). Simon's selections encourage readers to explore such thematic variations.
I was intrigued, for instance, at how the "woman of the Plains" is both repeated and recast throughout the volume. While a traditional image of the long-suffering pioneer is represented (as in "Prairie Women" from Helene Margaret), the collection foregrounds the complexities of Plains womanhood. Consider Kathleen West's "Farm Wife" ("A woman learns that it's more than wind and sun / that makes her weatherworn" ) or Navajo Nation poet laureate Laura Tohe's "The Platte":
She would be my daughter the Moonshell River
tonight she has caught the full moonand holds it inside(20)
or Erin Belieu's cross-generational memory:
Her thin bouquet of corn
flowers remains the brightest thinghe'd ever see. I have her ringnow, a silver band so littleit won't budge over the knuckleon my pinky.(243)
Through the collection's central images, readers are invited to ponder the depths in Nebraska experience. In his introduction, Simon identifies the four themes he used in selecting the poems—Land, Time, Language, and Community. These themes are well represented. For example, the centuries-old annual sandhill crane migration is reconsidered in Roy Scheele's "Tell Me Again," Michael Skau's "Cranes," and Twyla Hansen's "Sandhill Cranes," and there are related animal encounter poems such as Stephen Behrendt's [End Page 480] remarkable "Coyote." Similarly, the tension between speaking and silence is a repeated theme, as in Shirley Buettner's "Only the Doe Remains Voiceless," James Emanuel's "Black Poet on the Firing Range," and Stacey Waite's "In Nebraska."
Equally intriguing are themes suggested by the poets themselves. Part of Simon's editorial methodology was to ask poets to identify Nebraska poems that had influenced them. The anthology thus functions as a partial account of poetic mentorship across the decades. Not surprisingly, one of the emerging themes is teaching. Sometimes this is explicit, as in Margaret Haughawout's "At a Teacher's College," Hilda Raz's "Fast Car on Nebraska I-80: Visiting Teacher," or Matt Mason's "Pencils." But equally often the teaching context seems indirect, as in Susan Strayer Deal's "Elegy":
The boy who losthis father on Fridayis an empty desk.I imagine himpeeling back his grieflike a piece of fruit.(151)
Many poems include footnotes of appreciation from a later poet. Strayer Deal's poems were...