Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Naomi Shihab Nye: Poet Without Boundaries

Nye at a book signing. Yahoo photo. 
Poetry soothes the soul. So I was glad that my cousin Kathy Curro, who led me to Mary Oliver when I lived in Ukraine, led me to another poet. Oliver remains one of my favorite poets, along with the likes of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died a few months ago and whose poems, transcendent and profound, I've been reading. Dig deep, and Heaney will be there.   

Now I am reading Naomi Shihab Nye, thanks to Kathy.  Nye is a Palestinian-American born in the US in 1952.  As a child, she spent some time with a grandmother in Palestine, her father's mother, an experience that infuses her writing. "She waits by the oven watching a strange car circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son, lost to America."  The lost son, Nye's father, tells his daughter who he is, that his name, "Shihab," means shooting star, "a good name, borrowed from the sky," she says in the poem "Blood." 

Nye has lived in San Antonio, Texas, for a long time and calls it home.  She's published dozens of books of poetry for adults and children, novels and songs.

Her sensibilities are international, transnational, tuned into identity and awareness of self and others. 
Poetry teaches with words strung together like pearls.  Nye's poetry is like that, necklaces of beauty that accessorize  our ordinary lives.

In Words Under the Words (1995), a compilation of her poems, she writes about her heritage, the American southwest, her travels all over the world. I like the poems about her father, and those in which she remembers her Palestinian grandmother, watching her bake bread, doing the tasks of daily living, praying to Allah.  "My grandmother's voice says nothing can surprise her." 

I also like her poems about hope and meaning, like the poem "Kindness," which Kathy pointed out. We've all experienced sorrow and kindness, and we know in our gut that kindness can keep us going when nothing else will do. Kindness has provided comfort since my brother's sudden death. Nye helps us understand. 

Nye's poems are evocative.  I feel the words at times, the emotions that flow around the words, "the words under the words."  
for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem
My grandmother’s hands recognize grapes,   
the damp shine of a goat’s new skin.   
When I was sick they followed me,
I woke from the long fever to find them   
covering my head like cool prayers.
My grandmother’s days are made of bread,   
a round pat-pat and the slow baking.
She waits by the oven watching a strange car   
circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son,   
lost to America. More often, tourists,   
who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines.   
She knows how often mail arrives,
how rarely there is a letter.
When one comes, she announces it, a miracle,   
listening to it read again and again
in the dim evening light.
My grandmother’s voice says nothing can surprise her.
Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby.   
She knows the spaces we travel through,   
the messages we cannot send—our voices are short   
and would get lost on the journey.
Farewell to the husband’s coat,
the ones she has loved and nourished,
who fly from her like seeds into a deep sky.   
They will plant themselves. We will all die.
My grandmother’s eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death.   
When she talks of the orchard and the new olive press,   
when she tells the stories of Joha and his foolish wisdoms,   
He is her first thought, what she really thinks of is His name.
“Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,   
difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.” 
Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995). Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
     purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

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