Book Review: Transfer by Naomi Shihab Nye
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions
reviewed by: Mike Walker
The argument is often made that poetry holds great social value beyond its aesthetic merits, that it can teach useful lessons and communicate in difficult emotional regions where plain prose would be lost or even give over to a physical fight. Some of these defenses of poetry certainly are launched in fear that beside more popular forms of literature like the novel, poetry suffers for shelf space and sales in the bookstore. Perhaps it also suffers a similar lack of attention in the classroom and elsewhere, but is the argument valid? Can poetry in a unique sense communicate where other forms of fiction or nonfiction cannot so readily? Naomi Shihab Nye would make a strong argument that in fact it can and, in some instances, poetry may be the best mechanism of breaking down walls of distrust and fear.
Nye is an Arab-American and her poetry in this volume, as its title even suggests, is mainly concerned with the Arab diaspora’s experience and the current views of the Middle East in the United States in a time when Americans fear terrorism at the hands of Muslim extremists and have been engaged in two long wars in Islamic, Arab, nations. Other Arab-American, Arab, and Islamic poets are of course presenting work concerned with the crucial intersections of faith, politics, culture and war, but what makes Nye very special and worthwhile in this book is her constant focus on her own experience and the personal journey she’s undertaken. Beyond the emphasis on the Middle East, she has a more personal focus on her own father and his journey to America. She doesn’t insist, pretend, nor even suggest that her experiences are appropriate stand-ins for a short course in Arab-American relations but instead presents them as the experiences of just one woman who happens also to be a great writer. She never comes forward and says “I am here to tell you all about my world, which you may be unfamiliar with or confused about, so listen” but instead portends that “I am here, a woman from this other place, well-travelled in this other place, and I would like to tell you about my gathered views of there—and of here, also”. Born of a Palestinian father and American mother, she doesn’t claim ever to represent every Arab, every Arab-American, or anyone else, yet she has to know that she brings the voice and weight of tremendous, unique, experience to us all the same.
where is the name no one answered to
gone off to live by itself
beneath the pine trees separating the houses
without a friend or a bed
without a father to tell it stories
how hard was the path it walked on
all those years belonging to none
of our struggles drifting under
the calendar page elusive as
residue when someone said
how have you been it was
strangely that name that tried
This is Nye’s poem “Dusk” and it intones as well as any the experience she desires to share, to convey. There is a constant feeling in Nye’s poems of names not answered, of clues and fleeting traits or ideas made manifest but not stable elements enough to remain with us very long: ghosts, always ghosts. There is that feeling you get if you’ve ever travelled in less-developed parts of the world—Africa, southeast Asia—where air travel only brings you in so far, then it is boats and unsure bridges and cars from the 1970s the rest of the way. The feeling of travel being an ordeal but also an honor. The feeling of the horizon being endless and all your kinfolk being spread over a vast globe. Some you have the fondest memories of yet know you won’t see again. As for myself, I am no expert on the Middle East or Islam or Arab historiography, but I’ve studied the Islamic art and architecture in some depth and from that can attest that by tradition, most Islamic—especially Arab—cultures are ornate in their arts. This opulence, this ornate fashion of art comes across in Nye’s poems: some are decently long, complex, and grand in their images while others are crafted of only a few slight words yet perfect in their ability to convey a consummate point. Her poem “Mall Aquarium, Dubai” is a good example:
In how many worlds are we invisible?
Blue glitter, flickering fins,
fish barely notice us,
as we blur and jostle the edges of their vision.
She did not need more on a page to bring to us what she experienced; she said it all perfectly in a scant few words. That’s it, that’s all. I have not see this aquarium—I think I may have read about it, and apparently it’s very large, very grand—but I don’t need exact details, honestly, as I have a good impression of Nye walking past it, perhaps a shopping bag and her purse in hand, looking over her shoulder and seeing a fish not quite looking back. It is in such a moment when she decides this is worthy of a poem. Like many established poets, Nye has taught poetry and creative writing and sometimes I feel teaching is itself the best instructor of economy in poetry: via editing the work of others, teachers understandably learn how to edit themselves. If this is in fact the case with Nye, it certainly shows. Her work is always on-point, just as long as it needs to be but no more extensive, and yet, the shorter works in this book never feels truncated, either.
Nye’s mastery of length is matched by a studied mastery of form, plus an expected yet refreshing expertise in description. This book is, at least in name, about her father and about the transfers between nation to nation, culture to culture, and father to daughter, yet via extension is about everyone who left one land for another. This is a key aspect to the book, as her style of writing, while personal, doesn’t seem overly focused on her family or herself in a way that excludes its universal applications. That is to say, when Nye writes about the Middle East, about experience, it is lush and poetic but the personal aspects of it do not detract from its overall address to a larger arena. There is no doubt in my mind that Nye’s father is present in these pages, but the idea of this book as a tribute to him has not prevented the book from also reaching into topics that are very apt and very complex. Nye’s writing is mordant, precise, yet like the very best of non-fiction, it makes itself personal in tenor without being explicit in persona. It is not hard to envision the places and problems Nye details as being ones any Muslim-American encounters or that anyone from Middle East may ponder in relating one culture to another. When Nye declares in her poem “Member of the Tribe” that she cannot speak of Afghanistan, she cannot explain it though she tries her best to explain the intense tribal connections present in Iraq which often have confounded our fighting forces there, you sense that Nye is the real thing. You know she’s been asked before, countless times, as a writer and public intellectual to offer her thoughts on the Middle East and she knows just whereof she should speak and where she would rather leave questions unanswered.
There is a great book entitled Exotics at Home by the anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo which concerns how anthropology—and especially Margaret Mead’s work—helped shaped the American view of “the other” and how we look at ethnicity in terms of society, culture and even corporate marketing. I was re-reading this book when I started reading Nye’s Transfer and the non-fiction work was a great help in approaching her poetry because Nye is really about the same topic: her work seeks to explain how we view the Arab other, the Islamic other. She explores this territory, as I stated above, in a way that is both personal and also universal, but always in a manner of humble humanity. Her core interest is not only in explaining herself, her family, what it means to be mixed of American and Arab origins alike, but how the real material of a place differs from its abbreviated explanations furnished on the nightly news. Her poetry asks a question she never quite makes plain, but always is latently unspoken though apparent: how do we know, as in really know, a place and a culture? To write about issues that are very painful, or at least very frustrating, a poet can either immerse herself in the ordeal or remove herself as an anthropologist or historian would do, although from reading di Leonardo’s book I know that the anthropologist or other social scientist is not always so successful in this regard, either.
Another poet whom I much admire, Victoria Chang, had written about the Holocaust and done so via the process of removal: however strong her empathy and moving her poetry, we know she, as a young Asian-American no more than about thirty years old, was not there. Her parents or grandparents, also, not there. Yet she has analogs for empathy with the Holocaust experience. Nye on the other hand, was there when she speaks of the Middle East. She trots around the shopping mall in Dubai, obviously a wealthy, posh, and beautiful man-made place but one not so very far from places where the very most basic of needs go unmet. We have seen writers, including poets adept and talented like Matthew Shenoda, reduce the Middle East to the trite and expected tents, camels, pyramids, et cetera. We have read the novels and seen the movies scripted from the nearly ten years of two American wars in the region. The artists and journalists have not for a moment lost any time on bringing us the Middle East, the Arab plight, the complicated questions at hand, but too often we get the same images over and over again, and they fail to be inclusive of the great diversity of the region. Not here, though, not with Nye.
I would recommend Nye’s book to anyone who enjoys contemporary poetry—not only are her topics timely and pithy, her poetics are overall top-notch and there’s a lot to love about her style of writing. She not only finds the perfect balance between personal narrative and universal experience, but she also conveys a sense of chaotic vastness, a feeling of looking out across tarmac, across sand, airplanes leaving for other cities, people you may never meet again. She brings that feeling of walking through a crowded bazaar or airport terminal in a hurry yet with the yearning to stay a bit longer, even if to only look at something in a shop window for a minute more. She sees so much—how many Americans are as well-traveled as her and with her benefit of a nuanced cultural understanding of place?—yet she also seems in so many instances in this book to run off the page before all can be said. I would especially recommend this book to any graduate student or young policy planner or area specialist trying to learn more about Middle Eastern culture and polity, to read it before bed like a tonic just after reading more dry and static non-fiction works on the same topic. Nye brings the solace of human understanding to these complex considerations. Listen to an album by the great Algerian songstress Warda or one by the contemporary Turkish pop star Gülben Ergen while reading this, surround yourself with the intricacy of the Middle East. “I don’t know if my father can hear me. But it is important to pretend he can.” Thus opens this book, and Nye’s personal journey recorded here. I believe he hears her, and I understand the importance in any case of pretending he can. In another poem, the aforementioned “Member of the Tribe” she tells us that “tribes are like tape recorders” and probably they are, but so is this book: lovely, introspective, personal yet universal—through it all, you feel as you have shared in a valid and honest record of a family and an extended culture.