by Nona Blyth Cloud
The United States is a nation of borrowers. What we borrow is stuff from other cultures: words, food, music, clothing – whatever catches our eyes and ears. Then we put our own spin on it, or combine something from one culture with something else from another part of the world – American fusion. It’s one of our great strengths as a country, although there have always been groups that seek to post ‘Keep Out’ signs to protect the ‘purity’ of America – whatever their fantasy of the ‘Good Old Days’ might be.
If one of these groups were ever to succeed in building a 7,600-mile barrier around – and above and below – the shared-border states of America, and then they could pull up all the drawbridges (sacrificing Alaska, Guantanamo, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and a number of other islands), the country would undoubtedly wither into a new Dark Ages.
Some of the best work in contemporary American poetry is coming from emigrants, refugees and their children, who synthesize the cultures they straddle, and re-define what ‘American’ means. We are far too interconnected with the rest of the world for isolationism to work, so let’s embrace and celebrate the many gifts of these Americans.
One of my favorites is Naomi Shihab Nye (1952 — ), born in St.Louis, Missouri. Daughter of a father who came to America as a Palestinian refugee, and a born-in-America mother. “I grew up in St. Louis in a tiny house full of large music – Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson singing majestically on the stereo, my German-American mother fingering ‘The Lost Chord’ on the piano as golden light sank through trees, my Palestinian father trilling in Arabic in the shower each dawn.”
During her teens, Shihab Nye lived in Ramallah in Palestine, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she later received her BA in English and world religions from Trinity University.
Her poetry vibrates with life – when she reads it, her enthusiasm is irresistible.
ONE BOY TOLD ME
Music lives inside my legs.
It’s coming out when I talk.
I’m going to send my valentines
to people you don’t even know.
Oatmeal cookies make my throat gallop.
Grown-ups keep their feet on the ground
when they swing. I hate that.
Look at those 2 o’s with a smash in the middle—
that spells good-bye.
Don’t ever say “purpose” again,
let’s throw the word out.
Don’t talk big to me.
I’m carrying my box of faces.
If I want to change faces I will.
but tomorrow’s in boldface.
When I grow up my old names
will live in the house
where we live now.
I’ll come and visit them.
Only one of my eyes is tired.
The other eye and my body aren’t.
Is it true all metal was liquid first?
Does that mean if we bought our car earlier
they could have served it
in a cup?
There’s a stopper in my arm
that’s not going to let me grow any bigger.
I’ll be like this always, small.
And I will be deep water too.
Wait. Just wait. How deep is the river?
Would it cover the tallest man with his hands in the air?
Your head is a souvenir.
When you were in New York I could see you
in real life walking in my mind.
I’ll invite a bee to live in your shoe.
What if you found your shoe
full of honey?
What if the clock said 6:92
instead of 6:30? Would you be scared?
My tongue is the car wash
for the spoon.
Can noodles swim?
My toes are dictionaries.
Do you need any words?
From now on I’ll only drink white milk
on January 26.
What does minus mean?
I never want to minus you.
Just think — no one has ever seen
inside this peanut before!
It is hard being a person.
I do and don’t love you—
isn’t that happiness?
Defining and understanding one’s self is a lifetime process. When the two sides of your family are from vastly different cultures, it adds to the difficulty of self-discovery but it’s also an opportunity for a unique world-view.
“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,”
my father would say. And he’d prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.
In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.
True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.
Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn’t have one.
After that, my father told me who he was,
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
Once I said, “When we die, we give it back?”
He said that’s what a true Arab would say.
Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page.
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.
I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?
The battle for acceptance of religious differences has been a long and often bloody one. Our Founding Fathers thought religious tolerance was so important that they made it the very first thing in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
DIFFERENT WAYS TO PRAY
There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
fuse them to the sky.
There were the men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain,
because there was also happiness.
Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.
While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.
There were those who didn’t care about praying.
The young ones. The ones who had been to America.
They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.
Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.
They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,
for the twig, the round moon,
to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.
And occasionally there would be one
who did none of this,
the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,
who beat everyone at dominoes,
insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,
and was famous for his laugh.
Naomi Shibab Nye has a very different definition of Fame.
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
“During the Gulf War, I remember two little third grade girls saying to me – after I read them some poems by writers in Iraq – ‘You know, we never thought about there being children in Iraq before.’ And I thought, ‘Well those poems did their job, because now they’ll think about everything a little bit differently.’”
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems really do their job.
Sources and Further Reading
- “One Boy Told Me’ from Fuel © 1998 by Naomi Shihab Nye, BOA Editions, Ltd
- “Blood” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye, Far Corner Books
- “Different Ways to Pray” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye, Far Corner Books – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/48595
- “Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye, Far Corner Books – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47993
- Poetry Foundation – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/naomi-shihab-nye
- Academy of America Poets – https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/naomi-shihab-nye
- PoemHunter – http://www.poemhunter.com/naomi-shihab-nye/biography/
- PBS Poetry Everywhere – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/poetryeverywhere/nye.html
- Different Ways to Pray, Breitenbush (Portland, OR), 1980.
- On the Edge of the Sky, Iguana Press (Madison, WI), 1981.
- Hugging the Jukebox, Dutton (New York, NY), 1982.
- Yellow Glove, Breitenbush (Portland, OR), 1986.
- Invisible, Trilobite (Denton, TX), 1987.
- Mint(prose; also see below), State Street Press (Brockport, NY), 1991.
- Red Suitcase, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1994.
- Words under the Words: Selected Poems, Far Corner Books (Portland, OR), 1995.
- Fuel, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1998.
- Mint Snowball (prose; includes selections previously published in Mint), Anhinga Press (Tallahassee, FL), 2001.
- You and Yours, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 2005.
Poetry for Children
- (Editor) This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from around the World,Four Winds Press (New York, NY), 1992.
- (Editor) The Tree Is Older Than You Are: Poems and Stories from Mexico,Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.
- (Editor, with Paul Janeczko) I Feel a Little Jumpy around You: A Book of Her Poems and His Poems Collected in Pairs,Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
- (With others) The Space between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East,Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998, published as The Flag of Childhood: Poems from the Middle East, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2002.
- (Selector) What Have You Lost?(young-adult poetry), with photographs by husband, Michael Nye, Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 1999.
- (Selector) Salting the Ocean: 100 Poems by Young Poets,illustrated by Ashley Bryan, Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 2000.
- Come with Me: Poems for a Journey,with images by Dan Yaccarino, Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 2000.
- Nineteen Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East,Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 2002.
- Is This Forever, or What? Poems and Paintings from Texas,Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 2004.
- Sweet Sifter in Time: Poems for Girls,illustrated by Terre Maher, Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 2005.
- Sitti’s Secrets,illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.
- Benito’s Dream Bottle,illustrated by Yu Cha Pak, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.
- Lullaby Raft,illustrated by Vivienne Flesher, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.
- Baby Radar,illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 2003.
- Never in a Hurry (essays; for young adults), University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1996.
- Habibi (novel; for young adults), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
- Chapbooks Tattooed Feet, 1977, and Eye-to-Eye, 1978.
- Recordings include Rutabaga-Roo (songs), Flying Cat (San Antonio, TX), 1979; Lullaby Raft, Flying Cat (San Antonio, TX), 1981; and The Spoken Page (poetry reading), International Poetry Forum (Pittsburgh, PA), 1988.
- Crayon Heart
- Traditional Palestinian embroidery motif
- Olives on plate
- Cat asleep on old fence
- Photo of Naomi Shihab Nye
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud