Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Rain”

Although I liked a lot of the poems in Naomi Shihab Nye's Words Under the Woods, it's only 157 pages long, so I thought I would just cite one more poem, one that seemed particularly poignant to me after 30 years of teaching and provides ample evidence that William Stafford was right on when he was quoted on the back cover as saying, "In the current literary scene one of the most heartening influences is the work of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life."

Rain

A teacher asked Paul

what he would remember

from third grade, and he sat

a long time before writing

“this year sumbody tutched me

on the sholder”

and turned his paper in.

Later she showed it to me

as an example of her wasted life.

The words he wrote were large
as houses in a landscape.

He wanted to go inside them

and live, he could fill in

the windows of “o” and “d”

and be safe while outside

birds building nests in drainpipes
knew nothing of the coming rain.

I taught high school, not the third grade, but I can still identify with the poem, even if I can't identify with the teacher who saw Paul's paper as an "example of her wasted life." Hopefully, she was the "sumbody" that touched Paul on the shoulder providing him with the feeling that someone cared for him, though she seems too out of touch to have been the one that did that.

As a converted caseworker, it was precisely students like Paul who inspired me to turn to teaching in hopes that I could help people before they ended up on welfare. As it turned out, that was a lot harder to do than I ever imagined, and I failed a lot more than I succeeded in helping them to succeed. While that failure makes it easy to believe that I "wasted" my life trying to help students like Paul succeed, there are more important things than "book learning." The most important thing you can do as a teacher is to make students feel good about themselves, no matter what skills they may or may not have.

Having been a caseworker and been married to a caseworker for 17 years, I was always aware that some of my students lived unimaginably hard lives, ranging from abuse to neglect, never knowing what was coming next in their lives. Before they can move on they need to feel safe, not like "birds building nests in drainpipes."

The Anti-Trump

It's either been too cold, too wet, or too cold and wet to get out birding recently, so I've finally used up all the pictures I've taken. Hopefully, I'll get out shortly, but until I do I either have to write about the many books I've read recently but haven't had the ambition to organize my notes into a rational statement or read some new poetry books and comment on them.

For now I decided to do the latter and began by reading Naomi Shihab Nye's Words under the Words: Selected Poems. published in 1995. I actually commented on Nye's Fuel in 2002 but had almost forgotten about her in the intervening years. Luckily, I was reminded of her poetry recently, for it seems like a perfect antidote to the constant barrage of Trump news that has filled my Facebook page and my news feeds.

Tell, me can you imagine Trump, or his supporters, for that matter, ever reading, much less writing, a poem called "Kindness."

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Colombia

For better or worse, I've never lost all the things Nye mentions in the first stanza, though I suspect losing my faith in the American Dream after serving in Vietnam probably made me kinder, and less self-centered, than I might otherwise have ever become. I know it inspired me to become a caseworker instead of a banker or businessman which, in turn, forced me to see just "how desolate the landscape can be." Afraid I would end up staring "out the window forever," I left casework to become a teacher where it seemed more likely that I could actually help people.

I've never seen where an "Indian in a white poncho/lies dead by the side of the road," but I'm still haunted by fellow officers who died in Vietnam pursuing their dreams. Though I'm not sure seeing those bodies made me kinder, I do know it made me realize just how precarious life really is, that there are never any assurances that things will "turn out for the best."

I've certainly experienced my share of sorrow, and at times felt overwhelmed by it and empathized with the sorrow of others who haven't been as lucky as I've been. The Buddha had it right when he said, “What is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering and sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering.”

The Buddha's answer to that suffering was "compassion," or, in Nye's words, "Kindness." I suspect some of us are going to need all the kindness we can muster to get through the next four years and a President who tries to bully and belittle anyone who opposes his ideas. Though I've already managed to fly off the handle at some Trump supporters, I would consider myself a better person if I could manage to empathize with them while still standing up for what I believe in myself. After all, kindness would seem to demand that we treat all people, and not just those who agree with us, the best we can.

Naomi Shihab Nye ‘s World View

By nature and as a result of fighting in the Vietnam War against an enemy who was not my true enemy, but who was the enemy, or at least the imagined enemy, of someone in my government who may well have been my true enemy, at least if “true enemy” is defined as someone who is trying to get you killed, I am not very political. I do vote semi-regularly, or at least I vote semi-regularly against those who I do not want to vote for, but I do so with little faith that my vote will have much effect or will, indeed, insure that the person I would never vote for will not get elected. Witness the election, or rather, non-election, of our present president.

Still, I cannot help but care about the world and the people who live in that world, and the Middle East is certainly one of many places on the earth that needs everyone’s good will if it is ever to transcend the hatred that has engulfed it. Though I seriously doubt that there is much I can do that will affect the situation there, including writing a weblog that, realistically, affects very few people’s thoughts at all, much less influences their political thought, I wish all of the people there the wisdom to overcome the problems that threaten to destroy them all. Philosophically, I support Meryl Yourish’s campaign to ensure that there will never be another holocaust, but I also suffer for the Palestinians who must endure an unending war. To do less, seems to me to be less than fully human.

That said, I find Nye’s poems on the Middle East even more moving than her domestic poems discussed yesterday. As the American daughter of a Palestinian immigrant and an American wife, she offers insights into the Middle East that seem particularly relevant in these troubled times. It is impossible from the poems themselves to determine if Nye is a Christian or a Muslim, but it is quite clear that she is a loving, caring person with great insight into the complexities that await all who venture into this area.

The poem “Half-and-Half” is a great place to start looking at her insights since she is certainly half-and-half herself, as perhaps we are all half-and-half:

Half-and-Half

You can't be, says a Palestinian Christian
on the first feast day after Ramadan.
So, half-and-half and half-and-half.
He sells glass. He knows about broken bits,
chips. If you love Jesus you can't love
anyone else. Says he.

At his stall of blue pitchers on the Via Dolorosa,
he's sweeping. The rubbed stones
feel holy. Dusting of powdered sugar
across face, of date-stuffed' mamool.

This morning we lit the slim white candles
which bend over at the waist by noon.
For once the priests weren't fighting
in the church for the best spots to stand.
As a boy, my father listened to them fight.
This is partly why he prays in no language
but his own. Why I press my lips
to every exception.

A woman opens a window -- here and here and here
placing a vase of blue flowers,
on an orange cloth. I follow her.
She is making a soup from what she had left
in the bowl, the shriveled garlic and bent bean.
She is leaving nothing out.

Which of us doesn’t know about “broken bits, chips?” Whose life is whole? Certainly anyone who works with glass would know about them. If you love Jesus, you have to love someone else, don’t you? Isn’t that the essence of Jesus? Are the priests who are “fighting in the church for the best spots” really fighting for Jesus, or are they half-and-half? How many Christians can manage more than half-and-half? And is soup, the ultimate comfort food, anything but half-and-half, “leaving nothing out.” Most of us live our lives “from what has been left in the bowl.”

As a lover of books, I find “Ducks,” with its discussion of the Iraqi reverence for books particularly moving:


Ducks

We thought of ourselves as people of culture.
How long will it be till others see us that way again?
Iraqi friend

In her first home each book had a light around it.
The voices of distant countries
floated in through open windows,
entering her soup and her mirror.
They slept with her in the same thick bed.

Someday she would go there.
Her voice, among all those voices.
In Iraq a book never had one owner – it had ten.
Lucky books, to be held often
and gently, by so many hands.

Later in American libraries she felt sad
for books no one ever checked out.

She lived in a country house beside a pond
and kept ducks, two male, one female.
She worried over the difficult relations of triangles.
One of the ducks often seemed depressed.
But not the same one.

During the war between her two countries
she watched the ducks more than usual.
She stayed quiet with the ducks.
Some days they huddled among reeds
or floated together.

She could not call her family in Basra
which had grown farther away than ever
nor could they call her. For nearly a year

she would not know who was alive,
who was dead.

The ducks were building a nest.

I wonder if the light around the books was real, just as a work of art is often illuminated in our country, or if it is a virtual light, as in a “holy” work? Rather reminds me of the light around spiritual objects in a Morris Graves painting. And again, the image of the soup. Too bad I don’t like soup better than I do; it’s hard to keep the proper symbolism in mind when you don’t react to soup, that stuff made from leftovers, as most people do, isn’t it? Still, it is a comforting image.

How delightful to think that “a book never had one owner – it had ten.” Does a book ever really belong to anyone once written? Still, it’s delightful to see the respect which books, and knowledge, were held by some people. It is a startling contrast to America where books have become so common that they are no longer esteemed. It makes one wonder why books are not checked out more often from American libraries, and whether it is the best books, the poetry books, books only a librarian can love, that are left on the shelves in the local library.

How sad to watch the three ducks build a nest while you are torn between your two countries and your family that is now part of both countries. Obviously, one duck must have been as lonely as the person from Iraq, a duck caught up in a traditional three-some, where one party is doomed to be left out.

The final poem here is a poet’s poem, one tied to the very meaning and power of words:

Darling

1.

I break this toast for the ghost of bread in Lebanon.
The split stone the toppled doorway.

Someone's kettle has been crushed.
Someone's sister has a gash above her right eye.

And now our tea has trouble being sweet.
A strawberry softens, turns musty,

overnight each apple grows a bruise.
I tie both shoes on Lebanon's feet.

All day the sky in Texas that has seen no rain since June
is raining Lebanese mountains, Lebanese trees.

What if the air grew damp with the names of mothers?
The clear-belled voices of first graders

pinned to the map of Lebanon like a shield?
When I visited the camp of the opposition

near the lonely Golan, looking northward toward
Syria and Lebanon, a vine was springing pinkly from a tin can

and a woman with generous hips like my mother's
said, "Follow me."

2.

Someone was there. Someone not there now
was standing. In the wrong place
with a small moon-shaped scar on his cheek
and a boy by the hand.
Who had just drunk water, sharing the glass.
Not thinking about it deeply
though they might have, had they known.
Someone grown, and someone not grown.
Who imagined they had different amounts of time left.
This guessing-game ends with our hands in the air,
becoming air.
One who was there is not there, for no reason.
Two who were there.

It was almost too big to see.

3.

Our friend from Turkey says language is so delicate
he likens it to a darling.

We will take this word in our arms.
It will be small and breathing.
We will not wish to scare it.
Pressing lips to the edge of each syllable.
Nothing else will save us now.
The word "together" wants to live in every house.


The first section is dominated by images of the narrator’s discontent that flows from her memories of Lebanon. Although her life is not ruined, nothing seems to go quite right. The tea tastes sour, the strawberry goes bad, and the apple is bruised.

The second section takes us back to that visit to Lebanon and the bad memories that is the cause for her summer of discontent in Texas, and although it’s never quite clear, it seems that someone who had shared her life for a short while has been killed, “someone not there now.” Of course, it’s also the narrator who is not there now.

The third section is the critical one, though, the one where the precious word “together,” almost a prayer rather than a word, a “darling” word because it is such a fragile word in Lebanon. And yet, it is such a precious idea that it, and it alone can probably “save us.”

We, as a nation, are blessed by the constant infusion of talent from abroad, talent that in the long run helps us to realize our true potential. We need to do more to foster these younger poets who can help us to understand ourselves and the problems our society faces more clearly.

There's a good set of links at The Academy of American Poets

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.