I must preface my thoughts on this book with these thoughts: I feel that in holding 19 Varieties of Gazelle in my hands, I am holding a piece of Naomi Shihab Nye’s heart. It is a heart that beats similarly to my own, pulsing with similar beliefs. For this reason, I feel strongly about this work — where it dazzled me, and where it did not. I must also admit that I am deeply skeptical of political poetry, a trait exacerbated by the contemporary barrage of bad political poems.
Robert Archambeau recently noted that far too few poets criticize each other authentically, that we in essence talk around one another because we inhabit a small community in which nobody wants to offend someone who might one day be reviewing your own work. I propose a very different reason — that poetry at its best is an inherently intimate form. Therefore neither do I want to tread on Naomi’s heart, nor do I want to gloss over the work with absent-minded approbation. Instead, I hope to impart some of the only real thing I own: my experience, and my reflection upon it.
This work attracted me in part, perhaps subconsciously, due to the recent strife in the Middle East, and my desire to come to terms with it. More consciously, I was attracted to the work because I am searching for larger themes in my own work. I feel I have learned how to say things well, and am now looking for what to say. Or, more importantly, how to say the thing that matters that might already be lodged somewhere inside me in such a way that I can be proud of it.
In her introduction, Naomi makes it clear that this work is a response to the September 11th attacks, which prompted in her a deep, almost haunting, desire to represent her Arabic people in a more accurate light than that cast by mainstream media. Michael Wells recently pointed out, in response to my post about the New Sincerity movement, that a reaction to September 11th is unlikely to create a lasting impact on trends in art. Furthermore, both he and I have both seen more than our share of very bad poems written in response to September 11th. Naomi’s work, thankfully, is nothing like this.
That said, the book navigates close to two very dangerous straits: the language of didactic peace poems, and the language of sentimentalism. In my one-day lecture at Mt. St. Mary’s College on The Politics of Poetry, I tried to impress upon the undergraduate students the significant place art holds in the tradition of protest: that it can render a powerful experience out of any event, no matter how terrible, without telling the reader how to feel about it, and without telling the reader who to blame. I cited the amazing example of “You And I Are Disappearing” by Yusef Komunyakaa, about a girl engulfed in Napalm, and contrasted this with a young John Kerry’s speech to the House Foreign Relation Committee, which clearly tried to apportion blame and tell people how to feel in the vocabulary of political rhetoric. The effect of the contrast was powerful, and the point clear: art can transcend rhetoric by rendering the event most authentically, neither pulling any punches nor ramming any points home.
The most powerful poems in the book do this for me, but interestingly they are not necessarily the ones most overtly focused on the Middle East crisis. The stunning poem, “Spark”, is about Naomi’s relationship to gypsies; “Arabic” is about her relationship to the language she never fully learned; “Holy Land” focuses on her grandmother (rather than the obvious) and makes beautiful music of an intimate memory; “Staying Close” wins credibility with me instantly with its opening line which delights my poetic mind: “On your tree surprised lemons / wore small caps of snow”; and “A Single Slice Revealed Them” reads almost like a spare William Carlos Williams poem turned inward, not outward, to reveal more about ourselves.
Yet other poems admit in the language of modern news media, the language we have all gone numb to: innocent children killed, homes destroyed, politicians hedging their bets. Still others wax narrative, rather than lyrical, as Naomi seems to be attempting (perhaps striving) to let us in to her family so we will finally see Arabs in their full humanity. I think this particularly difficult passage to navigate in telling of momentous and personal subjects has much to do with the dangers of art therapy. While it is personally satisfying to tell the full narrative, to speak our thoughts plainly on subjects we care about — rarely does that in itself honor the reader enough to invite her in. Instead, we become prosaic in our narrative and lose the essential heat of the poem.
“Jerusalem”, for example, begins unnecessarily: “I’m not interested in / who suffered the most / I’m interested in / people getting over it.” Yet from here she goes on to show us (rather than overtly tell us) the real effects of this interest in a much more interesting way, using her father’s bald spot as a metaphor. This kind of (in this case totally unnecessary) on-the-nose declamation crops up elsewhere as well, undermining my confidence in her confidence in me as a reader. Furthermore, because these are things I, too, believe in strongly, I feel in some ways misrepresented by this sense that she is trying to tell people overtly how to feel. Art can do so much better than that, and it is true that in this book it often does.
Still, I can not help but compare it to the collection of Anna Akhmatova I read recently. Rather than describe the atrocities of the siege of Leningrad and Stalin’s Great Terror, Akhmatova instead focuses on her response and the responses of the people. In one stunning poem, she describes someone recognizing her in a crowd waiting outside Leningrad prison (as she did daily for seventeen months in hopes of seeing her son) who asked about the unthinkable suffering, “Can you describe this?” She describes how she saw, when she said yes to the woman, how a glimmer of a smile passed momentarily over “what had once been her face.” Devastating restraint — and a brilliant artistic choice, to show the results of atrocity on the faces, rather than atrocity itself. This single moment redefines for me the significance of the poet as one who can bring hope to the people that their experience will not be forgotten. Such hope would have been dashed if Akhmatova cast restraint to the wind, and began pleading with the reader for emotional appeal. Yet she did not. And I was and am still amazed. Like I am amazed with much of Komunyakaa’s work.
Some of the poems in 19 Varieties Of Gazelle also strike such a chord, and convince me. And apropos of the times, they convince me even more. The spirit of the work is something I can surely honor, and I was pleased to see that proceeds from the book go toward Seeds Of Peace — an endeavor, likewise, whose spirit I appreciate. In the end, I am changed by this book, and changed, too, by my meditations upon it. It helps me understand, not so much the Middle East, but the intricacies and challenges of writing from the heart on subjects so potent the act is fraught with danger when trying to render them into a poem. The craft of the work shines through, as does the cohesion. It has indeed made a memorable birthday present.