Kathryn Stripling Byer’s ‘Girl in the Midst of the Harvest’
Girl in the Midst of the Harvest
by Kathryn Stripling Byer
Press 53, $14.95, 92 pp.
In Kathryn Stripling Byer’s first full-length collection of poetry, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, originally published by Texas Tech Press in 1986 and reprinted by Press 53, we are given the groundwork of a poet’s stunning career. Byer’s poetry roots itself not only in place, but identity, concerned with what we inherit and what we carry forward through our lives from the well we are first given. In the opening quote from Rilke in the first section of the collection, this is made clear: “Who is not rich, with summer nearly done, / will never find a self that is her own.” I’ve been a fan of Byer’s work for quite some time. With each of her books I am transported home, immediately aware of my heritage and how it shapes who I am. The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest is no different. This is the beauty of Byer’s work: to remind us that we began somewhere, even if that place is rife with struggle and hard labor.
Every section of this collection is a journey of discovery that builds to a striking moment of connection. In the first section, Byer takes us through cornfields, the gathering of pecans, getting advice from elders, and rebuilding a family home. Each of these scenes offers a sense of place and identity. In “Cornwalking,” the cornstalks whisper to the speaker, reminding her why she lost herself among them, “kicking up dirt / for the smell of it.” At the end of the poem she hears the wind singing through the corn: “We are growing everywhere. / What is the world but our song?,” a reflection not only of the earth itself but of the speaker growing up in this landscape. “Daughter” takes this idea further. Here, the speaker gathers pecans, her mother allowing her to go slow and dream. She listens to people talk about lost love while she grows into adulthood and the “telephone wires festooned over the fields / hummed with messages.” Whatever is lost, she still carries within her the lives of her family: “What / they lost is not lost. Here I am. / When I look up, the future’s a field for me.” Herein lies the title of the collection: “I am the girl in the midst of the harvest. // I am the harvest.”
How do we manage to harvest lost moments, to piece together the fragments of other lives and their environments to construct a tale of who we are? In “The Carpenter,” the speaker rebuilds a grandfather’s house.
Each day I quit
and each day I start over again,
using buckets of glue if I must, and
a patience I hardly knew I had inherited.
The carpenter not only pieces together a physical structure, but one of memory and emotion. While rebuilding, he pieces together who he is through the “teacups and crockery” of his grandmother’s kitchen, the “big kettle” on the stove, and the “earthenware churn.” While he reminds himself what the house looked like and where everything was placed, he creates a map by which to see his own life: “dreaming / the night sky unfolds like a blueprint. I learn / to read.” It will not be perfect, this house; recreations rarely match the original exactly, but it begins to give him a sense of identity:
The hinges will creak as I open the front door
and call out my grandfather’s name.
In the silence that answers, I step
slowly over the threshold,
believing that each board supports me.
The search for identity is a powerful theme in this book. The two long poems in the collection, “Search Party” (which comprises the second section) and “I Inherit the Light of My Grandmother’s House,” reflect the work involved in piecing together the past. Both poems take us through the search for identity through either the life or home of a relative. In the first section of “Search Party,” we follow the speaker’s grandmother through the memories of her own mother. This part could just as well be spoken by the speaker or any of us as we search for ourselves through the past. “You set out / to find her. You carry your dust / to her dust. On this journey no maps / chart the landscape.” Just as in “The Carpenter,” the blueprint or map for this work must be created by the worker, not anyone else. Questions of identity pop up throughout “Search Party” (“You could be anyone’s daughter. Who /are you?”) and as the poem progresses, a story of strength emerges: “Have words ever made my life easier, / the thread I knot stronger?” and “The way out is always through narrow doors / sky opens up in the trees. / Know those doors are never shut.” Later, in “I Inherit the Light of My Grandmother’s House,” the final poem in the collection, we visit the grandmother’s house after it is reduced to ashes. “I sift through those ashes / as if she has left something for me,” states the speaker, and indeed, she has. The speaker rebuilds her grandmother’s house through memory
And listen! The cornfields are rustling
like water. The summer
is only beginning, the day that’s before her
no dream. Can’t she smell the magnolias,
hear mourning doves call from the river?
She open her eyes
and sits up,
wide-awake among what she has lost.
Byer reminds us throughout this book that what we lose is never lost. We may lose belongings or houses to fire, we may lose people who are dear to us, we may even move away from our homes, but those places exist in us forever. These poems are a call to preserve what makes us human and gives us a sense of identity. We can never forget the places we’re from; we constantly rebuild them throughout our lives, wanting to get back. These poems are a reminder that we should hold fast to what is ours or it will be lost.