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Words Under The Words: The Poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye

While we were in college, my then-girlfriend, now wife, Danielle, introduced me to the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye. Though I was not reared on poetry or the merits of prose, most of it soaring far above my head (sorry, Bill Shakespeare), I was readily drawn into the world and words of Mrs. Nye. I know next to nothing about iambic pentameter, free verse, or the various types of rhyme patterns, but hers was unlike any poetry I had ever experienced, tender, graceful, plain-spoken, humorous and utterly human.

The first poem of hers I read – rather Danielle read to me from a class assignment – was titled “The Traveling Onion”. She then read “Famous”. I was hooked. Finding a copy recently of one of her newer collections, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, I have found great pleasure in reading a few excerpts at bedtime, sometimes aloud to Danielle, before nodding off for the night.

Nye, a resident of San Antonio, TX and of Palestinian descent, so richly communicates the richness of her ancestry that it is hard to conceive of any world culture failing to make peace with one another all these millenia, explosions, and deaths later. Our planet would be a safer, more sane, more peaceful place were it not for the stubborn, thick-headed, childish governments of the world. Nye never sinks to pointing fingers, but with the humility of a painter, she instead uses language to draw pictures describing the everyday beauty of the individual. Governments and so-called leaders will not spare this world its peace; only the individual choosing to love and honor his neighbor offers that sort of hope. Nye shows that, though we are made to believe we are all so vastly different, in actuality the cultures of the world have more beauty in a common humanity than any newscast would ever bother to convey.

An elderly Palestinian man in worn coat and tie reaches up to pluck a fig from his backyard tree with such joy that one must smile from half a world away at the very thought of the sky and the soil and Yahweh finding pleasant agreement in the scene. An onion lies peeling on the drainboard, limp, translucent and divided, providing an object lesson in the humility of the small, forgotten things of earth. These are the types of moments Nye is profoundly adept at depicting, and I am grateful to be reminded of my own simple place in the turning of the earth, my own richness in the world, my own silk in the woven tapestry.

A few years ago Danielle went to visit her sister in Florida. I elected to stay home. She left me with a writing assignment for the week: to write a song based on Nye’s poem, “The Traveling Onion”. I wrote, then, what amounted to the comparison of a career in music to that of the translucence of an onion, tears, flavor, subtle texture and all. The song, of the same title, will be included on my newest and forthcoming album, due out this spring.

“Answer if you hear the words under the words — otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges, difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.” (from “Words Under The Words”)


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