Voices for a More Perfect Union: Thoughts on Transfer by Naomi Shihab Nye. BOA Editions, Ltd. 2011
I don’t know about you, but I have found myself picking up one book, starting, setting it down, picking up another, starting, going back to the first book, starting a third, going back to the second and so forth as Covid Life has evolved. This dynamic has produced a (distinct/peculiar)/ has manifested in a sort of heteroglossia in my mind. Coming from the Greek hetero– “different” and glōssa “tongue, language”
One of the different languages in my mind is that of Naomi Shihab Nye, our Young People’s Poet Laureate – particularly, her collection called Transfer. In this collection of poems, Nye invites us into what feels like to me a sliding mirrors conversation/reflection with and about her father, Aziz Shihab, a Palestinian immigrant to the United States. Aziz, who once greeted everyone with, “Hello, my friend!”, had recently died as Nye crafted this harvest of memoir and longing tinged with hope. Nye and her father had hoped to write a book together, but as she shares in the introduction, he kept sending “monologues by email and fax” and not answering questions (11). In this book-length poetic elegy, we hear the voice of her father in dialogue with the world through the voice of his daughter. She charts his path of exile from Palestine, through the journey of his death, and the unfolding relationship of father and daughter from life’s palpable presence to death’s absent presence. Naomi’s voice, Aziz’s voice, and the voices of our country suffering from a virus that knows no exile, no borders, no occupation of a single homeland, populate the heteroglossia of my mind. Is the virus COVID-19? Yes. Is it structural racism? Yes. Is it our grotesque prioritizing of profits over people and the planet? Yes.
The daughter’s lament is for her father but the poignancy of the moments offered capture for me our current lament as a country as well. In “I Hate It, I Love It”, Nye presents an exchange between her father and his friend, Dan, owner of the Manhattan Café whose people were from Greece. Aziz asks Dan,
why humans are so mean to one another.
But don’t you love this country? he’d say
and I’d say, Sure I do, I hate it, I love it.
I hate it. I love it. I hate the deadly virus being called a hoax; I hate the killing of individuals because of the color of their skin; I hate fossil fuel subsidies begetting a warming world. I love the San Antonio Food Bank being flooded with volunteers. I love Young Ambitious Activists demanding change in our police department. I love San Antonio Parks and Recreation planting trees at educational institutions that are incorporating compassion into the way they do things – creating a greener and more thoughtful community.
In “Comfort”, Nye reminds us that “There’s a FORT in comfort” and that “Sometimes hiding inside a word can help…” I pause considering which words do we hide in now. Which words can we take comfort in now that it is clear that “We the People” has yet to include all of us? Nye helps us answer this question by blending her voice with her father’s:
When you said, What else can I do?
else became a country of hope.
And I realize that else can be a word in which to take a bit of respite, that comfort of hiding for a moment to regain strength, to generate hope. Else – a simple adverb (not even one of the heavy lifters like nouns or verbs!) that carries suitcases packed with “in addition to, besides, as in anything else you need?” and “difference, instead, as in isn’t there anyone else you know?” and finally, “used to introduce the second of two alternatives, as in we must love one another or else die” to paraphrase a line from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.” What else can I do? Listen closely. Give generously. Rest deeply—to sustain the listening and giving that can move us toward healing. Nye closes “Comfort” with an image of a man pacing-wading at the edge of the Red Sea. The poet asks of the man:
was he carrying?
Was he carrying else with him? Maybe. Nye’s question takes me not to else but to the words offered to me through decades of Catholic schooling: Faith, Hope, and Love, and the Greatest of These is Love. This man carries love with him – or else – as the water swallows his feet in the pink and gold dawn. Right here, right there else becomes the country of hope. Hope is right where it has always been – between faith and love. This trinity, these three dimensions in one reality, is perhaps the word we carry with us as we wade in the waters of COVID, march in the streets with Black Lives Matter, and vote against those who deny the changes in our climate.
In “What Will Happen”, Nye commands:
Wrap a few words around your waist—persistence,
resilience—where some wear passports.
Persistence. Resilience. These are fed by what else? That dense trifold of faith-hope-love: that we shall grow accustomed to the physical loss of our loved ones and they to us; that we shall overcome our propensity for cruelty to each other and our planet; and that we shall become we-the-people who form a more perfect union.
Sitting in the Manhattan Café, Aziz asks his friend Dan, “Why are we so mean to each other?” This ancient question reveals hope lapping at the edge of the speaker’s heart or else there would be no reason to ask it. Considering my own response to that question, the one thing I know is that I want to be more like Aziz Shihab. I want to greet the world each day as Texas, from the Caddo teyshas or friend. I want to risk expanding the heteroglossia in my mind by greeting each person I meet with “Hello my friend!” Who would we be if we too graced each encounter with such a welcome? A more perfect union.
Mary Lynne Gasaway Hill, Ph.D., FRSA, is a professor in the English Literature and Language Department who has the opportunity to work with creative, innovative, and transformative students at St. Mary’s University. She has been reading eclectically during COVID, ranging from poetry British murder mysteries to political theory 🌻 (sunflower emoji)