Travel Alarm

Travel Alarm

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by Naomi Shihab Nye
An early chapbook by Texas's most beloved poet, now an international literary figure.


An early chapbook by Texas's most beloved poet, now an international literary figure.

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Wings Press
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Travel Alarm

By Naomi Shihab Nye

Wings Press

Copyright © 2010 Naomi Shihab Nye
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60940-107-8


    For The 500th Dead Palestinian, Ibtisam Bozieh

    Little sister Ibtisam,
    our sleep flounders, our sleep tugs
    the cord of your name.
    Dead at 13, for staring through
    the window into a gun barrel
    which did not know you wanted to be
    a doctor.

    I would smooth your life in my hands,
    pull you back. Had I stayed in your land
    I might have been dead too,
    for something simple like staring
    or shouting what was true
    and getting kicked out of school.
    I wandered stony afternoons
    owning all their vastness.

    Now I would give them to you,
    guiltily, you, not me.
    Throwing this ragged grief into the street,
    scissoring news stories free from the page
    but they live on my desk with letters, not cries.

    How do we carry the endless surprise
    of all our deaths? Becoming doctors
    for one another, Arab, Jew,
    instead of guarding tumors of pain
    as if they hold us upright?

    People in other countries speak easily
    of being early, late.
    Some will live to be eighty.
    Some who never saw it
    will not forget your face.

    Wind and the Sleeping Breath of Men


    From far away
    from the far away inside each life
    the island a minor disruption

    all night
    shearing off corners
    scattering the palm's dried wings
    as it regains the whole sky

    telling the wild story
    you who arranged your desks
    papers in left and righthand corners
    bow down


    All day the men took air into their bodies
    and traded it back

    The men and women took air into their bodies
    growing great parachutes over their heads

    and the children gulping whole lungs full
    saying they weren't hungry
    breathed the same air as a neighbor dutifully sweeping

    at the top of the mountain
    we were breathing air that used to drift
    around the bottom of the mountain

    resting inside the rustled hush of bamboo
    I wanted to trade something
    larger than what I had taken


    Nothing worse for the person
    who can't slee
    than to lie beside
    heavy sleepers

    First you envy
    then worry about them
    every hair in their nostrils
    growing more delicate

    each inhalation a small balcony
    from which you wave goodbye
    to your lives passing
    in the thousand streets
    beyond reach


    Once we announced them
    from the back seat:
    huge hand-painted ochre letters
    on a shack with a crooked door.

    Stop the car! I used to shout.
    But I had shouted it so often
    for doughnut stands and riverboats,
    libraries, Italian grocers,
    that we passed on by,
    I would never know what that tasted like.

    Down the block we could have had

    I used to think of them
    when I was at school.

    Now in St. Louis I feel wounded
    by apartment buildings,
    boards slapped over windows,
    I want to pitch a tent
    in any burned-out lot
    begging blades of grass to remember us
    between the ashes.

    I don't expect to see
    but suddenly,
    the sharp orange spark gone out of them,
    softly, softly they sing
    though the door gapes,
    though the roof touches the ground.

    I would eat and eat the sweet lost grease
    in the lot studded with coils from demolished heaters.

    What gets swallowed by ice and sun,
    each hope discovering its tender edge,
    family businesses that didn't make it,
    the Chinese couple selling dozens of salt shakers
    in their yard. And the worlds we come to,
    far from our first ground: now I live in Texas
    where the road offers
    and I whirl by, biting down on this
    terrible delicious air.

Those Whom We Do Not Know/Gulf War 1991

"To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know ... is something still greater and more beautiful ..."

Pablo Neruda


    Because our country has entered
    into war, we can have
    no pleasant pauses anymore —

    instead, the nervous turning
    one side to another,
    each corner crowded by the far
    but utterly particular
    voices of the dead,

    of trees, fish, children,
    calling, calling,
    wearing the colorful plastic shoes
    so beloved in the Middle East,
    bleeding from the skull,
    the sweet hollow along the neck.

    I forget why. It's been changed.
    For whatever it was
    we will crush the vendor
    who stacked sesame rings
    on a tray
    inside the steady gaze
    of stones.
    He will lose his balance
    after years of perfect balance.
    Catch him! Inside every slee
    he keeps falling.


    I support all people on earth
    who have bodies like and unlike my body,
    skins and moles and old scars,
    secret and public hair,
    crooked toes. I support
    those who have done nothing large,
    sifter of lentils, sifter of wisdoms,
    speak. If we have killed no one
    in the name of anything bad or good
    may light feed our leafiest veins.


    What we learned left us.
    None of it held.

    Now the words ignite.
    Slogans knot around necks
    till faces bulge.

    Windows of sand, doorways,
    sense of shifting
    each time you blink —

    that dune? Used to be
    a house. And the desert
    soaking up echoes —

    those whom we did not know
    think they know us now.

    Living With Mistakes

    They won't wear boots.
    They march ahead of us
    into our rooms, dripping.

    Give them a chair.
    Where they sit,
    the fabric will be wet
    for days.
    We have to talk about
    everything else
    in their presence.

    What She Was Doing at Home

    "School was like a ship they
    sent you away upon."

    Michael Burkard

    The baby was there — unfair.
    I knew whatever she was doing
    had fluted edges, a cinnamon center.
    I knew she placed snipped rounds of waxed paper
    between layers of cookies in the tin.

    And I was missing it,
    missing everything.
    As far away as the monkey
    in a rocket.

    After school, when I tried to swim back
    into her day, she had left it already.
    She was washing up on the shores of dinner,
    wearing a cool rag pressed between her eyes.


    It's been sleeping under the bed
    for twenty years.

    Once I let it out every day.
    Neighbors picked up bits of music
    wedged into grass.

    I stroked the resiny hairs of bow.
    All my tutors, lunatics, but my mother
    left us alone.

    Sometimes a sonata
    broke in the middle —
    I stitched it together
    slowly, slowly.

    Graceful shoulders,
    elegant neck —
    what do you know now
    that you didn't know then?


    Each morning from the dim secrecy
    of the school kitchen, that single scent
    sweetens the day — rectangles already baking,
    legions of bread on long silver trays.
    Like history, it won't stop happening.
    Bread spreading its succulent flesh
    whatever we learn or unlearn
    in the room with faded snapping maps.

    Once the map flipped up so hard
    Greenland caught me on the jaw
    and I had to go to the health room.

    Lying on the small cot,
    closing my eyes under the icebag,
    I could smell the bread better from there.

    Sometimes it seemed so obvious.
    I should have been a slab of butter,
    the knife that cuts, the door
    to the oven.

    Last Song For the Mend-It Sho


    Today some buildings were blown up,
    rounded shoulders, the shoulders
    of women no one has touched for a long time.

    Men and women watched from their offices
    then went back to filing papers.
    A drinking fountain hummed.

    I translate this from the deep love
    I feel for old buildings.
    I translate this from my scream.


    The rosebushes held on so tightly
    we could not get them out.
    Under the sign that promised
    to stitch things together,
    the thorny weathered MEND-IT,
    fading fast now, fading hard,

    Jim heaved his shovel,
    filigrees of blood on his arms.
    We were loosening dirt
    around the heavy central roots,
    trespassing, trying to save
    at least the roses
    before bulldozers came,
    before the land was shaved
    and the Mexican men and women
    who tend with such a gracious bending
    disappeared. They were already gone
    and their roses would not let go.
    We bit hard on the sweetness,
    snipping, in all our names,
    the last lavish orange heads,
    our teeth pressed tightly together.


    This looks like a good place
    to build something ugly.
    Let's do it. A snack
    shop. Let's erase
    the board. Who can build
    faster? You could fit
    a hundred cars here.
    It's only a house
    some guy lived in
    fifty years. And it's so
    convenient to downtown.
    That old theater nobody goes to
    anymore who cares if it's
    the last theater like that
    in the United States?
    Knock it out so we can build
    a bank that goes bankrupt
    in two years. Don't hang on.


    Some days I can't lift
    the glint of worry.
    We go around together.
    Soon we will take on
    each other's names.
    Already we bathe
    in the river of lost shoes.
    I fall into photographs.
    Someone lives inside

    those windows. Someone buys
    the last world-famous
    golden lemon cake in Honolulu.

    If you tasted it,
    tell me.

    The Burning House

    One night my grandmother and I
    left her small apartment stuffed
    with folded paper bags
    and walked a block to find
    the corner blazing

    behind the firemen
    a knot of huddled neighbors
    my grandmother's sheer
    speckled dress flaring
    in and out of her legs
    so she had to hold it down
    with one hand

    with the other gripped mine
    as the roof
    then the second story
    then the first story
    flames through every window
    the tall white house we'd passed
    a hundred times on the street where
    little happened that was green
    or glad

    under the city's shadow
    the darkness between sentences

    where? the family? what?

    wind clanking a chain on a fence
    till the firemen gave u
    and stood beside us on their trucks
    wiping their faces
    we did not know the people who had lived there
    in the last real house
    so old it had gas lanterns they said
    on the block of gloomy apartments
    once there had been houses like that everywhere

    there it goes my grandmother said
    as if she had been waiting
    for it to go

    not even crying
    so I stomped my foot
    for both of us

    why can't they stop it?

    shouting louder till
    a fireman turned his sooty gaze
    slowly raking the coals
    a child who didn't know
    how something reaches a point
    and passes it
    he looked me up and down
    then looked away

    later there would be nothing
    in that spot to say house
    no mark of women or cloth or food
    no pincushion no hammer

    my grandmother still filled
    with stories would drop into
    a two-year silence
    before she died
    there were no last words
    but sometimes
    far back in her eyes the flaming
    layers peeling away
    one by one

    even the trees of her first small town
    curling their leaves
    their shade their hopeful rustle
    the rest of us standing
    at a distance


Excerpted from Travel Alarm by Naomi Shihab Nye. Copyright © 2010 Naomi Shihab Nye. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

This book was originally published in 1993 as a limited edition chapbook. Since that time, Naomi Shihab Nye has become a truly international figure, a poet beloved on several continents, a chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, and a true friend to this and other independent presses. For more information, you can go to:

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