Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The collection from which this poem comes, Red Suitcase, is filled with global travels and the curiosity and richness engendered by life’s journeys. Poet and literary critic Alicia Ostriker has written that “Naomi Shihab Nye is at home in this worlda world that includes the Middle East and Texas, men and women, childhood, parenthood and old age, the pain of war and exile.” She brings a particularly accepting and peaceful vision to her poetry that transcends political difference and transforms singular lives into global communities. “Sincerely,” as its title suggests, offers an epistolary method and a truth-seeking heart for this important undertaking. Nye’s favorite motif of travel is explored in new ways. As the speaker reflects upon the entire letter-writing phenomenon, she says, “Think of the waves and wires/ this envelope must cross. The mountains and muddles.” It seems almost a miracle that people worldwide can connect in this way.

An important consideration for Naomi Shihab Nye is that letters (and her poem about letters) can be used to enhance global and personal understanding. Often people are consumed by their own lives—their children, their jobs, or as Nye says, “the flood of comings-and-goings.” While they may not think they have the time or interest to learn about other cultures, letters provide the perfect opportunity. While letter writing may appear to be a simple act, there exists another layer of meaning beneath the words. One of Nye’s earlier collections of poetry about ethnic diversity, acceptance, and peace is entitled Words Under the Words (1995), and “Sincerely,” too, shows an emphasis on subtext, on the lives behind the words. These range from the speaker’s busy professional literary life to the lonely life of her friend living “on the cliff so long,/ staring off to sea dreaming what lies/ on the other side.” The island dweller believes that big U.S. cities are “what is happening.” The poet’s vision, however, casts doubt on the assumption that Western ways are the “right” or only ways. Never one to coerce her readers, Nye considerately packs a suitcase big enough for everyone and says, “Come along.” If readers welcome new vistas and experiences, they will find her a sensitive and compassionate guide.