Naomi Shihab Nye Essay - Critical Essays


Naomi Shihab Nye, like earlier American poets Walt Whitman and Sandburg before her, celebrates diverse people and their cultures. Considering herself a nomad, Nye travels to discover new ideas and acquire experiences that enrich her poetry, much of which contains autobiographical elements based on her perceptions of places and people. Her innate curiosity and sense of wonder cause Nye to undergo adventures spontaneously and delight in her discoveries and encounters with unpredictable strangers and unfamiliar locales. Her knowledge of history grounds her poetry with facts and enables her to present often overlooked perspectives and events. Today, the global village requires an inclusiveness that Nye affirms by describing indigenous and immigrant Americans as well as Pakistani, Japanese, Indian, and Central and South American people. While her poetic voice embraces, her content connects—with the earth, with all others. Her method depends on imagery, metaphor, and story.

Nye explores human attempts to grasp meaning and create a meaningful life. Describing ways people do this, she points out the beauty inherent in such everyday activities as Texas ladies shopping for peaches, or an Arab man making brooms “Thumb over thumb.” Her poems demonstrate that heightened consciousness promotes new levels of awareness. They also show the meaningfulness of stories. They document people’s conscious connections with others and the universality of cares, grief and joy, and behaviors. Her free-verse lyrics are full of images describing the ordinary perceived as extraordinary. Poetic stories become metaphors defining human lives.

During the early twenty-first century, Nye intensified her poetic pleas for peace and conveyed antiwar messages through emotional imagery and blunt statements. Having experienced warfare in the Middle East, she expressed disillusion, anger, and frustration with some political leaders’ choices that perpetuate hostilities and affect vulnerable populations. She protests injustices and does not conceal her emotions when outraged. Nye’s poems seek stability instead of chaos and exploitation. Her emphasis on examining and presenting multicultural topics links readers despite their differences. She expresses value for people’s uniqueness and urges them to share their insights. Perspective is a constant theme as she asks readers to be aware of and consider differing points of view. Nye identifies with others, listening and comprehending their worries. She views truth as the means to awaken and revitalize people broken by various burdens and losses. She creates poems that honor nature and humanity to expand readers’ appreciation of their global community and how their actions or apathy affect distant people and environments. Nye’s poems exemplify her literary characteristics of friendliness, helpfulness, and compassion, which invite readers to trust and respect her voice.

Different Ways to Pray

Different Ways to Pray, her first major collection following several chapbooks, explores the different ways people achieve self-awareness and revere the world. Poems document the new level of thinking and responding that results from getting to know oneself. “Otto’s Place” recounts the sense of completeness and satisfaction achieved as the speaker experiences a physical connection between her body and the earth. “The Whole Self,” a poem reminiscent of Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” analyzes the perceiver of actions and laments the accompanying loss of spontaneity. Recognizing there is no going back, the speaker exhorts herself to “Dance! The whole self was a current, a fragile cargo,/ a raft someone was paddling through the jungle,/and I was there, waving, and I would be there at the other end.”

“Different Ways to Pray” catalogs particular approaches: Whether one prays or is prayed for, kneeling, sitting, talking “with God as . . . with goats,” what is central to prayer is a sense of connectedness. Other connections are celebrated. “Kindness” describes a state of being in which a person, having experienced loss, finds comfort in giving. Giving in “Coming into Cuzco” is personified in a young woman who “handed me one perfect pink rose,/ because we had noticed each other, and that was all.” In so doing, the young woman refreshed a tired and bewildered spirit. Another kind of connection occurs in “Walking Down Blanco Road at Midnight,” where “a folding into the self . . . occurs/ when the lights are small on the horizon/ and no light is shining into the face.” This collection ends with the poem “Words Under the Words,” directed to the poet’s Palestinian grandmother and expressing the hope that the spirit beneath words can be felt even if inadequately delivered, a hope, the poem implies, reflecting the prayerful hope of all people.

Hugging the Jukebox

Hugging the Jukebox continues earlier themes while placing particular focus on stories. The title poem, “Hugging the Jukebox,” reveals a young boy sent to live with his grandparents on a Caribbean island. At age six, he sings with great passion and with a large voice all the songs on the jukebox. Hugging the box and belting out songs, he leaves grandparents amazed and tourists spellbound. “For Lost and Found Brothers” celebrates the influence of people, known and unknown, and their stories, told and untold. The theme of this poem—stories of people feeling lost and the underlying connection of all people—develops motifs of the importance of stories and of the interconnectedness of all people, even of people yet unknown to one another.

Other poems reveal the way ordinary tasks assume significance. In “At the Seven-Mile Ranch, Comstock, Texas,” the speaker, through solitary work on the ranch, becomes conversant with the land as if it were a friend: “The land walking beside you is your oldest friend,/ pleasantly silent, like already you’ve told the best stories.” “Daily” demonstrates that ordinary tasks become sacred when accomplished with care and attention. With folding clothes, addressing an envelope, people’s “hands are churches that worship the world.” In “The Trashpickers, Madison Street,” trashpickers “murmur in a language soft as rags,” and with their recovery of items from the trash, the discarded are reborn.

Yellow Glove

In Yellow Glove, metaphors for the experience of people’s lives abound. In the title piece, “Yellow Glove,” a child frets about a yellow glove identified by adults as valuable that is lost in a muddy,...

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