Read an Excerpt
By Naomi Shihab Nye
Wings PressCopyright © 2010 Naomi Shihab Nye
All rights reserved.
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
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
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
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
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
Once we announced them
from the back seat:
SERVING THE HOT DOG WITH DIGNITY!
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
BRAINS 25 DRIVE IN.
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
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
T N T BARBECUE TERRIBLE DELICIOUS
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 ..."
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,
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
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
We have to talk about
in their presence.
What She Was Doing at Home
"School was like a ship they
sent you away upon."
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,
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
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,
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
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
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.
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