The House in the Heart Themes
by Naomi Shihab Nye

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Nye’s poem is about dealing with grief or depression and the process of sustaining life when it seems that there is neither joy nor the will. One knows that the speaker is someone who in the past has brewed tea and has gone about her life full of “messages.” She lives in a house in a neighborhood somewhere and has believed the body to be “important.” What has gone wrong? One does not know, nor does one know how permanent this state is.

Presumably, people recover from grief and depression, but in the depths, it is hard to see past the moment and to imagine that things will ever be any better. If there is any hope in the poem, it is in a subdued feeling of amazement in the speaker’s voice. The opening lines are not a question but a statement—“it is possible,” the speaker says. No matter how empty one feels, it is possible to go through the motions of living, moving “through your own kitchen,” trying to make sense of life.

The poem may be dealing with a spiritual crisis, or it may be an existential statement about the loss of meaning in life. Images of absence and the image of the palm tree injured or killed by cold weather suggest that this is about a particular loss—the loss of love or the death of a loved one—in which case, “no one home” means that someone is actually missing from the speaker’s life, someone who occupied that place she calls the house in the heart.

Finally, however, one cannot know what circumstance gave rise to the poem, nor does one need to know. Like a piece of music that conveys a mood or state of mind, the poem uses concrete images to depict a state of profound depression. Though the speaker maintains an effort to go through the motions of life—making tea and looking out the window—the poem ends without any real comfort.