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?