Thursday, January 07, 2010

Morning Exchange (Pre-Coffee)

From: Ben
Sent: Wednesday, January 06, 2010 1:40 PM
To: Leah; Joseph; Bob; Selinger, Eric
Subject: Shihab Nye poem

What do you all think of this poem? I think I like it, but I kind of get confused in the middle. And not sure if the title makes sense to me. Even still, I think I like it. I do miss the poetry discussions, for sure. I keep looking for a summer seminar for 2010, but nothing's going to be as good. Let me know...and Happy New Year!


By Naomi Shihab Nye

I have made so many mistakes

you might think I would sit down

Here when it rains

the streets fill up like rivers

A woman swirls away in her Italian car

and the whole city mourns

They say she could sing

till something that might not have happened

had a chance again

You know, that gift we give

one another

How can we help someone else

want to live?

The man who sprays trees

stands beneath his hose

bathing in poison

He says a mask gets in his way

Here the roses stay on the branch

till sun steams their petals

like blackened collars

I miss the evenings

we walked among train tracks

reading messages in the weeds

even the strangest parts of ourselves

growing dear

A child awakens crying for candles

Those little tiny skinny ones he says

meaning incense sticks

He wants to clutch them in his bed

I have slept so many times

you might think I would really be awake

by now


Dear Ben,


The last stanza clues me in that I should take what came before it as a sort of dreamy mood piece, or at least that’s how it strikes me this morning.

Like a late-60s Dylan song (or Eliot’s “Preludes”), this gives us some glimpses of “here,” or at least what “here” is like through the speaker’s eyes. She introduces herself (someone who’s made so many mistakes, but who keeps standing, looking around); her gaze and her interest go out those around her, and we get her sense of what the community (“we”) around her contains—and we get a little hint of her back story, of a time when “we” would interpret just the sort of elusive signs that the poem offers us, together. Then to the child, then back to herself, w/ a repetition & variation of the opening stanza. She’s not a mistake-maker, or not that alone; at the end, she’s a sleeper who isn’t quite awake, but who’s seen, and offered us, a bunch of sights that might well wake us up to something.

Speaking of which, I’m going to get some coffee. More later, maybe, when it’s started to kick in. But you get the idea: I’d treat this as a mood-piece, and one that gives us a character to inhabit who has a bit of an emotional arc across the series of stanzas, although not a terribly clear-cut or dramatic one. And I’d look for the lines & phrases where the poem seems to describe its own moods & methods, its interest in capturing and inviting us to consider “the strangest parts of ourselves.”


Laura Vivanco said...

You may well think I'm being too literal in my response to this, but I wonder if the bit about

Here when it rains
the streets fill up like rivers
A woman swirls away in her Italian car
and the whole city mourns
They say she could sing

refers to San Antonio, where the poet lives. Apparently "Violent flooding has always been a threat in San Antonio" and

The 1990 death of a popular singer, Cassandra Rodriguez, 20, in floodwaters of San Pedro Creek at the Five Points intersection downtown also drew attention to the city's flood dangers. A $1.4 million jury award helped prompt the city to upgrade that intersection and improve its rescue capabilities. (Huddleston)

My impression, judging by the image of the rose destroyed by the sun, the singer drowned by flooding, and the man spraying trees who is being poisoned, is that what they have in common is that "Here" (in San Antonio? in the world in general?) there is a disregard for human life, and people are exposed to unnecessary risk. So the gifts (of nature? like the singing and the roses and the tree?) are destroyed.

The poet seems to appreciate even the weeds (but the man poisoning himself by spraying the tree presumably wouldn't). Perhaps in trying to suppress things with poison, he's killing the "strangest parts of" himself?

Could the incense be used for mourning?

E. M. Selinger said...

Fascinating! I think you're right about the source of that bit about the singer, although I suspect that the poem means to be mysterious about it, as it does about the other scenes. Rereading it, a few days later, the lines about "reading messages in the weeds / even the strangest parts of ourselves / growing dear" strike me even more strongly as the keynote of the poem. It gives us some "weeds," metaphorically speaking, and invites us to read messages in them, cherishing their (and our own) strangeness. Maybe the "mask" fits in as well--the man who refuses it bathes in poison, so perhaps there's a preference in the poem for the indirect, the "masked," throughout?

Not my favorite poem, or even my favorite kind of poem, but enjoyable.