In Naomi Shihab Nye‘s first volume of poems, Different Ways to Pray (Breitenbush Books, 1980), she writes, “My grandfather told me I had a choice./Up or down, he said. Up or down./He never mentioned east or west.” A compiling of life’s choices, and the decision to fulfill them all, comprise a sort of ars poetica for Nye. This restless strain, seeking to encompass more than the poet sees around her, runs through Nye’s words and those of her speakers, across continents and generations. She calls herself a “wandering poet,” and, growing up in St. Louis, Jerusalem and San Antonio, she has spread her own roots wide. Nye writes with a deep affection for people and places, while always remaining conscious of the social, spatial, and personal rifts that tear us apart, and keeping an eye toward the volcano in whose shadow we all live, telling it soothingly, “We would be happy if you slept forever.” William Stafford has said that Nye’s poems “combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight,” while the The Grand Rapids Press adds, “When she exhales, the world becomes different. Better.”
Naomi Shihab Nye says the primary source of her poetry has always been “local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.” Since 1980, she has put her hand to more than twenty books, including poetry, anthology, novels and children’s literature. Her book 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (Greenwillow Press, 2002) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her work has afforded her many further honors including the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, Guggenheim and Lannan Fellowships, appearances on PBS’ NOW with Bill Moyers and poetry specials, and feature in National Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac. Nye continues to reach ever younger and broader audiences with such collections asThe Tree is Older than You Are: A Bilingual Gathering of Poems & Stories from Mexico (Simon & Schuster, 1998), andA Maze Me: Poems for Girls (Greenwillow Press, 2005). She currently lives in San Antonio with her family.
Poetry Center Reading:
Muchas Gracias Por Todo
This plane has landed thanks to God and his mercy.
That’s what they say in Jordan when the plane sets down.
What do they say in our country? Don’t stand up till we tell you.
Stay in your seats. Things may have shifted.
This river has not disappeared thanks to that one big storm
when the water was almost finished.
We used to say thanks to the springs
but the springs dried up so we changed it.
This rumor tells no truth thanks to people.
This river walk used to be better when no one came.
What about the grapes? Thanks to the grapes
we have more than one story to tell.
Thanks to a soft place in the middle of the evening.
Thanks to three secret hours before dawn.
These deer are seldom seen because of their shyness.
If you see one you count yourselves among the lucky on the earth.
Your eyes get quieter.
These deer have nothing to say to us.
Thanks to the fan, we are still breathing.
Thanks to the small toad that lives in cool mud at the base of the zinnias.
I am partial to poems about
little ruinations, explosions of minor joy,
light falling on the heads of gentle elders.
Also the way pampas grasses look toward
the end of summer, shining, shaggy,
the quietude of their patient sway.
Cakes in a window do something for me too.
Even the doilies where cakes once sat
marked with small stains, crumbs of sugar…
can you see my proclivity for the words
“small” and “little,” a diminutive tendency
in a world given often to the sprawling and huge?
You could try a pebble, a miniature box.
People with the patience for origami—well,
I am not one,
but I like to see what they fold.
Toddlers in grocery carts
swinging plump legs make me pause–
how difficult not to touch them.
If you send something about a mound of lentils,
I will be intrigued. The general potency and power
of humankind, however, is hard for me to get my mind
around. Watch that girl guard her empty sack
after the muffin is gone, puffing it, listening to
its breath. Consider the blue velvet hair band
dropped in a puddle at the water park
or the small yellow shovel we found half-buried
on the beach
at Kailua that we carried with us six months
to every place
there were waves.
From YOU AND YOURS (BOA Editions, 2005)
For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15
There is no stray bullet, sirs.
No bullet like a worried cat
crouching under a bush,
no half-hairless puppy bullet
dodging midnight streets.
The bullet could not be a pecan
plunking the tin roof,
not hardly, no fluff of pollen
on October’s breath,
no humble pebble at our feet.
So don’t gentle it, please.
We live among stray thoughts,
tasks abandoned midstream.
Our fickle hearts are fat
with stray devotions, we feel at home
among bits and pieces,
all the wandering ways of words.
But this bullet had no innocence, did not
wish anyone well, you can’t tell us otherwise
by naming it mildly, this bullet was never the friend
of life, should not be granted immunity
by soft saying—friendly fire, straying death-eye,
why have we given the wrong weight to what we do?
Mohammed, Mohammed, deserves the truth.
This bullet had no secret happy hopes,
it was not singing to itself with eyes closed
under the bridge.
Cross that Line
Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.
He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
Remind us again,
What countries may we
What lines should we all
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?
Available as a Broadside