Naomi Shihab Nye ‘s Fuel

Naoomi Shihab Nye’s Fuel provides a pleasant contrast to A.R.Ammons The Selected Poems. Not only are Nye’s poems about human relationships, rather than man’s relationship to nature, but they also rely on concrete details to convey their message, rather than metaphysical arguments.

“Bill’s Beans” for William Stafford is the second poem in Fuel, but you don’t completely understand it’s significance until much later in the book when it is alluded to in the poem “Fuel,” which of course is also the title of this volume of poetry.

Bill's Beans
for William Stafford

Under the leaves, they're long and cutting.
I pull a perfect question mark and two lean twins,
feeling the magnetic snap of stem, the ripened weight
At the end of a day, the earth smells thirsty.
He left his brown hat, his shovel, and his pen.
I don't know how deep bean roots go.
We could experiment.
He left the sky over Oregon and the fluent trees.
He gave us our lives that were hiding under our feet,
saying, You know what to do.
So we'll take these beans
back into the house and steam them
We'll eat them one by one with our fingers,
the clean click and freshness
We'll thank him forever for our breath,
and the brevity of bean.

Although the beans are obviously symbolic of Stafford’s contribution to Nye’s life, they are also very real beans. When they are picked we hear them snap and smell the soil they are grounded in. But they also suggest the magic beans that Jack received, the ones that reached up to the “sky” over Oregon. More specifically, Stafford seems to have given the narrator the very “lives that were hiding under our feet.” They may be magical beans, but they are magical because they granted what was already there.

Stafford’s role as teacher is made much clearer in “Fuel” when his teaching is contrasted with a teacher who was obviously more interested in maintaining control than she was in teaching her students:

Fuel

Even at this late date, sometimes I have to look up
the word "receive." I received his deep
and interested gaze.

A bean plant flourishes under the rain of sweet words
Tell what you think-I'm listening

The story ruffled its twenty leaves.

*

Once my teacher set me on a high stool
for laughing. She thought the eyes
of my classmates would whittle me to size.
But they said otherwise.

We'd Laugh too if we knew how.

I pinned my gaze out the window
on a ripe line of sky.

That's where I was going.

This apparently simple poem says quite a lot about good teaching versus bad teaching in very few words. The first teacher’s “deep and interested gaze” is beautifully contrasted with “the eyes/ of my classmates would whittle me to size” and “I pinned my gaze out the window.” The real dunce here, of course, is the grade school teacher who thinks laughter and joy aren't a vital part of learning. Stafford was a good teacher because he was willing to really listen to his students, not just lecture them.

Another of my favorite poems because of its reliance on concrete details is “My Friend’s Divorce:”

My Friend’s Divorce

I want her
to dig up
every plant
in her garden
the pansies
the pentas
roses
ranunculus
thyme and lilies
the thing nobody knows
the name of
unwind the morning glories
from the wire windows
of the fence
take the blooming
and the almost-blooming
and the dormant
especially the dormant
and then
and then
plant them in her new yard
on the other side
of town
and see how
they breathe

What a beautiful, concrete way of showing the beauty that the ex-husband has lost through the divorce. Better yet, it seems as if all this beauty is likely to thrive much better across town, away from the ex-husband.

Could there be any better revenge than to thrive beautifully after a divorce?

What a pleasant way to describe a divorce and deal with all the bitterness and recrimination in a concrete way rather than to focus on all the inner hostility and resentment that is implied rather than stated.

3 thoughts on “Naomi Shihab Nye ‘s Fuel

  1. In “Bills Beans” the line that says…
    “He gave us our lives that were hiding under our feet” could show the beginning of Nye’s life as a poet. Refering to “A Valentine for Earnest Mann” where poems are told to be all around you..Where in the bottoms of our shoes they are hiding and we need to live in a way that lets us find them.

  2. Have you found “snow”? I’m trying to use it next week in a lesson connected to “Ethan FRome”. Could you email it to me? Thanks! Maggie

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