Naomi Shihab Nye: Cultural Details, Common Ground

   There are many reasons why Naomi Shihab Nye is at the top of my list of favorite poets. Nye, the author of several books of poetry, manages to speak to a wide array of ages and nationalities while maintaining the clarity of her own unique voice. A child of vastly different worlds — United States and the middle east — Nye demonstrates the vital importance of strong cultural details in her poetry, in addition to communicating universal messages. These accessible themes include the struggle of acceptance, the subtleties of marriage, and the sometimes frightening insecurities of cultural and familial identity. Doing all this, she writes her verses with a soft and subtle pen, building each image carefully, and concluding each piece with a final haunting line.
   An especially poignant example of Nye's heritage is the poem, "For Mohammed on the Mountain," written in three parts and published in her 1995 book of poems, Words Under the Words. The first line of part one, "Uncle Mohammed, you mystery, you distant faceless face," speaks volumes of the speaker's struggle to reconnect with her heritage. However, the last lines, "And I wanted to know have you look at me... / a small offspring who did not find you in the least bit / nuts," shows the depths of the poet's mature voice. Though she yearns to plug in to the world of her uncle, she also understands an unbreakable familial connection despite distance, and the sometimes dark humor found in every family's quintessential "black sheep."
   The second installment of the poem speaks to the estrangement of brothers, and the pain felt with time lost across a generation. Nye's first stanza, beginning, "I wonder how much news you know," and continuing to list earth-shattering events in one family's history, demonstrates the uncle's long held and purposeful distance from his siblings. As Nye develops this image, she continues with the second stanza, which focuses on one brother, the poet's father, who seemingly struggles to maintain his fraternal bond through his consistent cultural identity. "Believe me, Uncle," she writes, "my father is closer to you / than the brothers who never left." Here, she renders the guilt of emigration and westernization into a heartfelt plea of acceptance through simple action. These statements by Nye, though specific to a Middle Eastern/American struggle, address a universal familial pain.
   The last, most powerful line of this section (as all masterful poets pack a punch with a careful last line), summarizes the complexity of the disconnect, of physical and emotional separation, of blood and cultural ties. Nye asks, "Oh , Uncle, forgive me, how long is your beard?" and at once quantifies, with the length of facial hair, one man's isolation from his family and from the world.
   Nye also succeeds at developing a striking picture of her own marriage, and thus the push and pull of commitment, love, and periods of transition. In the poem, "Kansas," also published in Words Under the Words, the poet invites the reader into a quiet moment between herself and her husband, in which the two are moving across the state together. In this one-stanza piece, Nye strikes a chord with the first few lines as she effortlessly describes the casual rapport between long-time lovers and companions, and subtly introduces the conflict faced by a young couple adjusting to a new environment. She writes, "we're talking about / all our regrets, the ones we didn't marry, / who married each other, who aren't happy, / who should have married us." In these few simple lines, Nye depicts the seamless, familiar, and perhaps monotonous conversation of a married couple's road trip. However, while the mood of the piece quickly shifts in the next few lines in which her husband is, "taking the wrong road," Nye carefully weaves the conflict of an unfamiliar place to both husband and wife, of fears of the unknown, of starting anew and gaining footing on another's once-tread ground.
   All is not lost, the reader quickly discovers, as the speaker comforts the husband, saying, "It's alright." She admits, "My voice amazes me," as it does the reader, to witness the quiet strength quickly conquering the complex anxieties that developed only in the short span of the previous twenty lines. She continues, "coming out of the silence, / a lit spoon, / here, / swallow this." Nye manages, in the last four lines of only eleven words, to astonish, and to symbolize the medicinal nature of love and the stopping power of courage. In a creative writing class in college, I had the opportunity to write a mock-poem of this piece in order to further understand Nye's singular writing style. I would recommend this approach to any poet, as the technique allows the writer to discover how the particular themes in the primary piece apply to their own history and writing style. Below, you can see both Nye's piece and my own.
   "Kansas," along with, "For Mohammed on the Mountain," and many others, demonstrate this poet's haunting use of one-word lines, sometimes frightening emotional honesty, and mature restrained technique. Always leaving a reader with their own questions, Nye commands us, "Know you could tumble any second. / Then decide what to do with your time."
For Mohammed on the Mountain

By Naomi Shihab Nye
Uncle Mohammed, you mystery, you distant secretive face,

lately you travel across the ocean and tap me on my shoulder

and say “See?” And I think I know what you are talking about,

though we have never talked, though you have never traveled anywhere

in twenty-five years, or anywhere anyone knows about.

Since my childhood, you were the one I cared for,

you of all the uncles, the elder brother of the family.

I’d pump my father, “But why did he go to the mountain?

What happened to him?” and my father, in his usual quiet way,

would shrug and say, “Who knows?”

All I knew was you packed up, you moved to the mountain,

you would not come down.
This fascinated me: How does he get food? Who does he talk to?

What does he do all day?

In grade school my friends had uncles who rode motorcycles,

who cooked steaks outdoors or paid for movies 
preferred you, in all your silence.

In my mind you were like a god, living close to clouds,

fearless and strong, with no one to sing you to sleep.

And I wanted to know you, to touch hands, to have you look at me

and recognize your blood, a small offspring

who did not find you in the least bit
I wonder how much news you know. That Naomi, your sister

for whom I was partially named, Is dead.

That one brother shot himself “by mistake”—

that your brothers Izzat and Mufli have twenty-two children
already marrying each other.

That my father edits one of the largest newspapers in America

but keeps an Arabic inscription above his door, Ahlan Wa Sahlan,

a door you will never enter.
We came to your country, Uncle, we lived there a year

among sheep and stones, camels and fragrant oils,

and you would not come down to see us.

I think that hurt my father, though he never said so.

It hurt me, scanning the mountains for sight of your hut,

quizzing the relative and learning nothing.

Are you angry with us? Do you think my father forgot you

when he packed his satchel and boarded the ship?

Believe me, Uncle, my father is closer to you

than the brothers who never left. When he tends plants,

he walks slowly. His steps sing of the hills.

And when he stirs the thick coffee and grinds the cardamom seed

you think he feels like an American?

You think he forgets to call to prayer?
Oh Uncle, forgive me, how long is your beard?
Maybe you had other reasons.

Maybe you didn’t go up the mountain because you were angry.

This is what I am learning, the voice I hear when I wake at 3 a.m.

It says, Teach me how little I need to live

and I can’t tell if it is me talking, or you,

or the walls of the room. How little, how little,

and the world jokes and says, how much.

Money, events, ambitions, plans, oh Uncle,

I have made myself a quiet place in the swirl.

I think you would like it.

Yesterday I learned how many shavings of wood the knife discards

to leave one smoothly whittled spoon.

Today I read angles of light through the window,

first they touch the floor, then the bed,

till everything is luminous, curtains flung wide.

As for friends, they are fewer and dearer,

and the ones who remain seem also to be climbing mountains

in various ways, though we dreams we will meet at the top.

Will you be there?

Gazing out over valleys and olive orchards,

telling us sit, sit

you expected us all along.
By Naomi Shihab Nye
Driving across the center of Kansas
at midnight, we’re talking about
all our regrets, the ones we didn’t marry,
who married each other, who aren’t happy,
who should have married us.
Ah, it’s a tough world, you say,
taking the wrong road.
Signposts appear and vanish, ghostly,
I’m not aware it’s the wrong road,
I don’t live here,
this is the flattest night in the world
and I just arrived.
Grain elevators startle us,
dark monuments
rimmed by light.
Later you pull over
and put your head on the wheel.
I’m lost, you moan. I have no idea where we are.
I pat your arm.
It’s alright, I say.
Surely there’s a turn-off up here somewhere.
My voice amazes me,
coming out of the silence,
a lit spoon,
swallow this.
Up North
By Lauren F. Carlson
Hiking through overhanging trees
too early, you’re telling me about
your father, how he came to love
your mother, what he studied in college,
where he lives now.
But, he’s old now, you say,
snapping your walking stick.
Hidden birds flap and take off,
cooing twice for good measure.
I don’t know how this hurts you,
I’m too young now. Here,
I scratch my knees and complain about mosquitoes.
Soft wind carries us,
drying sweat we forced in the action.
Later you draw in the sand
and forget I’m there.
Saying nothing, and skipping
stones into the past.
I stay, close enough to feel
your warmth in silence. Surely,
we’ll pass this thing together.
Our strength amazes me,
coming from nowhere,
a new ancient rock.
break it open.

Works by Naomi Shihab Nye

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.