Sunday, June 2, 2013

Humanity is the only Holy Land: On The Poetry Of Naomi Shihab Nye

It was my pleasure to introduce Walt Whitman Birthplace’s 2013-14 poet in residence, Palestinian-American author Naomi Shihab Nye, in West Hills LI this weekend. Despite flying in from San Francisco and putting on a full-length master class, Nye, drawing on a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of empathic charm and purposefulness — not to mention some terrific poetry — earned a rare standing ovation after her Saturday afternoon reading.

The setting — and the post as writer in residence at the Good Gray Poet’s birth home — was appropriate to Nye and her message.

Walt Whitman celebrated the twin-mantra of individuality and adhesive love, and saluted the people and nations of the world, expansively declaring  “Each of us inevitable/Each of us limitless/Each of us with his or her right upon the earth,/Each of us allowed the eternal purports of the earth/Each of us here as divinely as any is here…

Naomi Shihab Nye proves to be a true child of Whitman, a poet who says “We start out as little disconnected bits of dust” and offers herself — through her work — as a kind of Human Bridge, “brokering empathy among cultures and understanding among nations.”

Those are the words of critic Samina Najmi, of Fresno State. Offering a smile or smiling back when smiled at. Whether it is making eye contact with someone at a cross-walk, or bonding with a baby she’s been asked to hold on an airplane; whether it is between pointing out the connections and commonalities between cultures or between individuals; Nye’s act of bridging puts into practice Walt’s dictum. She points the way for us to live a larger life than that offered through the mere exercise of consumption and self-interest.
To be fully individual and yet adhere to others.

How does she do this? Through what Najmi aptly describes as an Aesthetics of Smallness, focusing on kindness in a sometimes harsh and lonely world, brokering empathy, and invoking people to use our time well.

    ”I want to be famous to shuffling men
    who smile while crossing streets,
    sticky children in grocery lines,
    famous as the one who smiled back.”

Nye’s poetry, says Najmi, stresses human connections through attention to the small and ordinary — as opposed to the aesthetics of the sublime and the grandiose, or the  aesthetics of sensationalism, which underlies the ideology of headline news. These, as we all well know, are Mammon’s children.
Nye’s choice is a 21st century restatement of Walt’s adhesiveness — a connectedness and a universality recognizable in lifelong family associations and in momentary interactions, and in the workings of the natural world around us, right down to “the small toad that lives in cool mud at the base of the zinnias.”

Najmi calls it for what it is — a poetry which “articulates a countersublime of universal human connectivity for our times.”

At the heart of Nye’s ethos is a deep, deep human issue — Kindness, and how to BE kind in the world which confronts us. “I am looking for the human who admits his flaws/Who shocks the adversary/By being kinder not stronger,” she writes.

Nye’s is not the off-handed or easy kindness of someone in their comfort zone, someone who has not felt pain — it is a call to kindness among people who have suffered. “Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth,” she writes.

Nye’s prescription is to learn to swim in the eyes of kindness when they gaze in your direction, as she notes in a poem about a boy who “did not want to see the deep pools of his kind teacher’s eyes and fall into them. He didn’t know how to swim.”  

 “Pain and anguish are everywhere anyway. Might as well put them to good use,” she shrugs. “If we aren’t fragile, we don’t deserve the world.”

Through the natural act of kindness despite pain, she suggests, we may truly restore our capacity to hope. “Skin has hope, that’s what skin does. Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.” 

Naomi Shihab Nye is a writer who wears her poetry, like her heart, on her sleeve. Intensely observant poetry which confronts us with inescapable recognitions of human connectedness.

Poetry, which she insists is a best mechanism for the exercise of Whitman‘s adhesiveness, because it “slows us down — it teaches us to cherish small details.

For the readers of a poem, they are offered the opportunity to  drop their troubles “into the lap of the storyteller,” were they become someone else’s troubles.

And for those of us who write poetry, the people who ‘hear the words under the words‘? Nye tells us quite clearly — we are obliged to answer those words.  “Otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges, difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.”

In the end, Nye urges each of us to exercise our curiosity, cherish our connections, use our time wisely and outrace the loneliness which surrounds us — like the boy in another of her poems who believes that if he roller skates fast enough loneliness can’t catch up with him.

    A victory! To leave your loneliness
    panting behind you on some street corner
    while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
    pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
    no matter how slowly they fell.”

The darkness around us is deep, says William Stafford — a mentor to Nye, and former poet in residence at the Whitman Birthplace. How is it we dare to even contemplate defiance such as this?

Because skin has hope.

Because Humanity is the only Holy Land. And our best revenge.

Because the exercise of adhesiveness can overcome terrible loneliness in a society that pushes us toward obsessive self-absorption in the name of individuality.

Because the best kind of famous is the kind where, if a sticky child in a grocery line or a shuffling old man at a crosswalk smiles at you, you smile back.

Naomi Shihab Nye is the award winning Palestinian American author and/or editor of more than 30 volumes. A self-described “wandering poet,” she has spent 37 years traveling the country and the world to lead writing workshops and inspiring students of all ages. Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio. Drawing on her family heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas, and her experiences traveling in Asia, Europe, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and the Middle East, Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity.