Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Every Meeting a Shiny Maybe: A Review of Transfer by Naomi Shihab Nye

Editor's Note: This is one in an occasional series of reviews of recent books by poets who will be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival, 2012. Reserve free tickets to Naomi Shihab Nye's reading March 25 here.

by Joseph Ross

Our ability to remember those who have died might be among our most human traits. Remembering is how we maintain our relationships. It’s how we hold onto those we love beyond this life. We recall their faces, their words, and their loves. This remembering is the essential voice of Naomi Shihab Nye’s Transfer. As you might expect from this hardworking and gifted poet, the remembering voice in this book sings beautifully.

Transfer is a book-length elegy. It recalls the life of Aziz Shihab, the poet’s father. Aziz Shihab was a journalist by profession, and so knew the world of writing and the world of asking questions. These tender poems bring to life his loves, his stories, and his lands—his birthplace of Palestine and his adopted home in America. “I Don’t Know,” one of the book’s early poems, serves as a kind of invocation and hope for where the book will go. She hopes: “The man he was can hear the daughter I am.”

In section two of Transfer, Naomi Shihab Nye does a remarkable thing: she uses titles from her father’s notebooks as titles for the section’s eleven poems. She creatively forges a kind of conversation, a dialogue between her father’s writing and her own. The results are stunning. The section opens with “Everything in Our World Did Not Seem To Fit,” which describes the expulsion of the Palestinians from Jerusalem, a loss that will mark her father’s life from that day forward. From there, we move with him to Kansas City through the various difficulties that move entails.

At one moment, the poems break our hearts and in the next, they cause us to break into laughter. In “Is Misery Near Kansas, I Asked,” Shihab Nye writes in her father’s optimistic voice:

Finding my way was a pleasure
Every meeting a shiny maybe.

This nice lady has something to tell us.
Hello friend!
We have so much to talk about!

“Where Are You Now?” recalls her father’s storytelling skills, as well as one of the difficult days during his final illness:

I position my head on the pillow
where you told your last folktale,
mixing donkey, camel, mouse

journey, kitchen, trees,
so the story grew jumbled,
uncharacteristically long.

These tender moments provide the pulse of this book. The poems are at their finest when Shihab Nye marries the sorrow of personal loss with the injustices inherent in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. “Hello, Palestine” opens:

In the hours after you died,
all the pain went out of your face.
Whole governments relaxed
in your jaw line.
How long had you been away
from the place you loved best?
Every minute was too much.

One of the book’s most moving poems recalls the poet’s internal pleading, a reality anyone who has grieved knows well. In “Chicho Brothers Fruit & Vegetable #2” she writes:

6 lemons for $1.00 said the sign.
I was thinking of you.
Absentmindedly I threw 13 lemons into a bag.
At the checkout the woman said, How many lemons?
I said, 6.
It was obvious there were more than that.
She stared at me hard.
Startled, I laughed.
They watch me closely at Chicho’s now,
---cilantro, garlic, broccoli.
Come back, come back.

Among Naomi Shihab Nye’s many talents as a poet is her ability to touch the common points of our human experience. She gives voice to the painful unpredictability that is mourning, but renders it in a beautiful voice. While Transfer specifically honors her father’s life, it also honors the full humanity of her readers.


Joseph Ross is the author of Meeting Bone Man, forthcoming in April, 2012. Twice-nominated for a Pushcart Prize, his poems appear in such anthologies as Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality, Full Moon on K Street, and Poetic Voices Without Borders 1 and 2. He is co-editor of Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture. Ross directs the Writing Center at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and writes regularly at

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