Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review of Naomi Shihab Nye's 19 Varieties of Gazelle

19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East
Shortly into my reading of Naomi Shihab Nye's 19 Varieties of Gazelle, I was distracted by a sudden, severe wind outside that came with no warning and sent me scrambling for the basement. Ten minutes and a power outage later, the wind had died, leaving only a gentle fall of rain and several stunned people surveying the neighborhood damage. The only damage to my yard was the toppling of my privacy fence. Later, when I resumed my reading, I kept a wary eye on the window, somehow superstitiously convinced that the poems would usher in another wind. I turned a page, and my eyes froze on the first line of "Prayer in my Boot," which read, "For the wind no one expected."

It took me till the end of the book to realize there was not going to be another wind; the "fence" of suspicion and mistrust had fallen, and that is all Nye is aiming for. She achieves this without a violent wind. Granted, there is a force behind her voice, a zealous desire for peace, as might be expected in someone familiar with Middle East bloodshed. But she does not stand on a soapbox and shout slogans. Her voice is a calm one, both sad and optimistic, disapproving and gentle. She peels away the politics and places on maps, and gives us a Palestine in the form of coffee, almonds, figs, fruit, and tea with mint. These small bites feed us a meal of humanity more filling than protest and political platform. Nameless are many of the people in her poems -- fittingly so, for they become, as in "Olive Jar," our friends and family -- our fathers' "preference for shoes" and our grandmothers' "love for sweaters."

This edition of 19 Varieties of Gazelle was printed after the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Nye's concern for the reputation of her people is evident in the glimpses she offers of everyday Palestinian life, an everyday life that involves both tragedy and life-savoring simplicity. It is the combination of the two that burns into our mind haunting images such as the little girl killed by the gun "which did not know [she] wanted to be a doctor."

While such scenes are effective in their disturbance, the hidden strength of these poems lies largely in the minor details. As Nye states in her introduction, "Through the immense grief in the wake of [9-11], we grasped on to the details to stay afloat. For some reason, I kept remembering a gentle Egyptian basket-seller on the streets of Cairo, and an elegant Arab man, an expert on brocade in the Old city of Jerusalem, who gave us twice the amount of cloth we paid for." Through her poems we learn that these details keep us rooted in the seemingly insignificant things that make us human.

These snapshots of humanity appear repeatedly in the cultural code of Arab hospitality. The first stanza of "Red Brocade" sums up this theme:

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is
wher he's come from
where he's headed.
That way, he'll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you'll be
such good friends
you don't care.
One cannot help but feel Nye is speaking for herself when the poem concludes: I refuse to be claimed. / Your plate is waiting. / we will snip fresh mint / into your tea. Nye, as server, wishes the reader to be a sort of blank slate, or better yet, a guest with an empty stomach. She wishes the reader to lay aside all preconceived ideas and let the host serve fresh mint -- new ideas, refreshing truths about the Arab culture. In the poem "19 Varieties of Gazelle," she writes that the gazelle "soared like history above an empty page." Nye, distrusting written history, desires to erase old ideas and begin anew.

Nye's final poem titled "Postscript" gives a cynical commentary on the tendency of the press to pervert spoken words. "Write it down," she concludes, "Always write it down. / Say it slowly. Say it / the way you learned words. Say it / as if the words count." She makes certain that she is heard; she makes certain that the reader will understand her, will leave her table feeling full.

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