The House in the Heart

by Naomi Shihab Nye
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708

“The House in the Heart” is a free-verse poem with lines and stanzas of irregular length. The poem is written in the first person, with no particular distinction being made between the author and the one speaking; thus it takes on a confessional or private tone. The opening statement presents the problem of the poem—how to get through the day (and life) when one feels spiritually and emotionally empty. One does not know the specific occasion for this feeling of emptiness. It seems to exist almost like a form of weather, a depression that moves in like the “dark rain” outside. The speaker makes chamomile tea and watches the “little flowers” as they float in hot water. The chamomile flowers are desiccated and dead, inanimate, something the water uses. She says, “the water/ paint[s] itself yellow,” while the flowers merely “float and bob”—a projection of her own feelings.

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The speaker seems detached from life as the cars outside go “somewhere,” but she does not venture to guess where. She feels no connection with them. Looking for some way to escape her depression, she makes the odd statement, “This is my favorite story,” then talks about a “man with a secret jungle growing/ in his brain” who “says chocolate/ can make him happy.” At this point, it is not clear whether her “favorite story” refers back to the cars swishing past or ahead to the man with the jungle in his brain. One is curious as to why either should be a “favorite story,” especially since there is no real feeling of enjoyment here; perhaps she is simply trying to cheer herself up as one would distract and cheer a child by telling a story. Whatever the “favorite story” is, the reader does not get to hear it because when she imagines how much chocolate it would take to overcome her gloomy feelings, she says it would have to be “a bar/ heavy as a brick.” The heaviness of the image conveys the heaviness of her mood. In an afterthought that is oddly amusing, given the melancholy tone of the poem, she adds that this chocolate bar would also have to have almonds. Then, she says, she would begin to whisper about “the house in the heart.”

This “house in the heart” is a literal image of the chambers of a human heart, the “moth-wing ceilings” suggesting the heart’s flutter and beat and the “cat-lip doors” its opening and closing valves. At the same time, the heart is a symbol of emotion. When one imagines the “penny-size rooms” of the heart, it becomes an image of diminution of feeling, small in size and in value.

At this point, at the center of the poem, there is a short, four-line stanza in which she tries to confront and accept the situation. Up to this point, she has been imagining some solution in making tea or eating chocolate—actions to satisfy the body. Now she rejects the importance of the body and says, “it’s a porch, that’s all.” Her frustration is summed up in the words, “but I don’t know/ what to do about it.”

The wording at the beginning of the next stanza parallels that in the beginning of the poem as she returns to the problem of how to deal with the emptiness she feels. Common objects, such as the tea strainer she uses daily, seem unfamiliar. Some unhappy event has taken away the comfort and meaning of ordinary daily life so that her body is nothing but an envelope carrying messages she cannot remember.

She looks out the window at the darkness and bad weather, reflecting that the streetlights “will stay on late” in the unusual darkness. The poem ends with an image of the “house in the heart” in which there is “no one home.” Love, emotion, maybe someone who once lived there—all are gone. One still does not know exactly what happened to bring things to this state, but the heart is an empty house, and the speaker is painfully aware of that emptiness. The word “cries” in the next-to-the-last line and the repetition of the words “no one home” end the poem on a note of mourning.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

The form of the poem is open and improvisational: Line and stanza breaks are used to emphasize and to control the pace of the poem. The third stanza is a pivotal one, and the rest of the poem is organized around the resignation in that stanza.

Naomi Shihab Nye uses a fragmentary statement punctuated with a dash in the first stanza to give a questioning, inconclusive feeling to the poem. In general, punctuation and line breaks give a somewhat rambling feeling to the language, as if thoughts come slowly and with difficulty. When the speaker says, “With almonds,” the two words come as an afterthought, simulating the speaker’s meandering thoughts. Punctuation in the fourth stanza, which also ends with a dash, similarly contributes to this feeling.

Dramatic metaphors and startling images are extremely important in this poem, particularly the extended metaphor of the house as a heart and the body as its porch. Images of the “moth-wing ceilings” and “cat-lip doors” of the heart are beautiful and fantastic, yet slightly morbid.

Other objects and actions in the poem work metaphorically as outward signs of inner feelings. The act of brewing tea, the rain at the window, and the cars going by outside are used to externalize the speaker’s state of mind. As her house feels strange to her and isolated by rain, darkness, and cold weather, so, too, her feelings are cut off by some sort of emotional bad weather. The frozen palm fronds outside suggest a death or loss. The dried flowers of the chamomile, the imagined bar of chocolate, and the idea of herself as an envelope containing no message she can remember all externalize her feelings dramatically. This is particularly important in a poem where the writer gives little specific information about any events that led to the poem and where the poem focuses on some pivotal moment extracted from some larger picture. Nye is particularly adept at such vivid capsule dramas, full of concrete detail and action, economical in development. One can only infer a world outside the focus of the poem—for the moment, the poem is the world. The repetition of “no one home, no one home” at the end simulates the ghostlike echo in an empty house and dramatizes the emptiness expressed by the speaker.

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