Daily Archives: 22 September 2014

Naomi Shihab Nye’s 19 Varieties of Gazelle

Naomi Shihab Nye, 19 Varieties of Gazelle (Greenwillow Books 2002)


Naomi Shihab Nye put this book together soon after the destruction of the World Trade Centre in September 2001.  Most of the poems had been published previously, but the rise in anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiment in her native USA called out for a book celebrating her Palestinian heritage and offering a perspective on conflict in south-west Asia (I’m learning to stop calling it the Middle East) rooted in that heritage.  She says in the introduction that her Palestinian grandmother who had died eight years earlier

swarmed into my consciousness, poking my sleep, saying, ‘It’s your job. Speak for me too. Say how much I hate it. Say this is not who we are.’

‘If grandmothers and children were in charge of the world,’ she writes, ‘there would never be any wars.’

The current news from Gaza, Iraq,  Syria, Nigeria and the sometimes vicious responses it elicits make this quiet Palestinian–American poet’s voice even more timely. From ‘Jerusalem’:

I'm not interested in
who suffered the most.
I'm interested in
people getting over it.

As with a lot of poems celebrating heritage, there is a lot of food and drink in these pages: olives, falafels, oranges and endless cups of coffee and tea, embodying the great Arab tradition of hospitality. From ‘The Tray’:

Even on a sorrowing day
the little white cups without handle
would appear
filled with steaming hot tea
in a circle on the tray,
and whatever we were able
to say or not say,
the tray would be passed

There are poems about violence and war, grieving for the killed and bereaved and yearning for peace rather than dwelling on the horrors. ‘All Things Not Considered’, for example, lists some appalling casualties of conflict – what would be called collateral damage in more abstract discourse – but it ends:

The curl of a baby's graceful ear.
The calm of a bucket
waiting for water.

Orchards of old Arab men
who knew each tree.

Jewish and Arab women
standing silently together.

Generations of black.
Are people the only holy land?

For me, the poems work as a reminder of the humanity of people involved in the conflicts reported in the headlines. And while they may have an intention of that kind in the background, they are much more particular than that. Many of the poems are filled with affection for the poet’s father and for her uncles, grandmother and people she meets on visits to Arab country.

You can read more about Naomi Shihab Nye on the Poetry Foundation web site.