Book Review: ‘Transfer’ from Naomi Shihab Nye

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: May 20, 2012


By Naomi Shihab Nye

BOA Editions. 119 pp. $16

Naomi Shihab Nye is one of the most spirited voices in American poetry. The author, editor, and translator of more than 30 volumes, she is best known for her poetry collections Fuel (1998) and You and Yours (2005), and her award-winning anthology of international poems for young people This Same Sky (1992), which represents 129 poets from 68 countries. In her affirming introduction for that book, she writes, “Whenever someone suggests ‘how much is lost in translation!’ I want to say, ‘Perhaps — but how much is gained!’ ”

For all of Nye’s extensive writing, her new collection Transfer is her most powerful to date. This book-length elegy offers a passionate portrait of her father, writer and journalist Aziz Shihab. (“My father wanted us to write a book together,” she says in the introduction. “A ‘dialogue,’ he called it. But he kept sending me monologues by e-mail and fax.”) A bighearted Texan, and a self-described “wandering poet” born of a Palestinian father and American mother, Nye has written a book that charts three central journeys: the journey of her father’s life in exile in America, the journey of his death, and the ever-revelatory journey of Nye’s relationship with her father.

Nye does not resist being her father’s daughter (“the one person in my world absolutely on my wavelength, since I was little”), but neither does she shy away from her role as a storyteller and poet.

A poet Nye is, one without pretense, and Transfer continues her lifelong exploration of a poetics of smallness (poems unabashedly set in kitchens, gardens, grocery stores), but the writing here extends beyond. The metaphor here is transfer: not a destination, but an unsettled state of being. To explore this state in the person of her father, Nye brings in elegy, stories, documents, odes, translations, and history to reveal the forces and mysteries that shape a life. The poems take whatever forms they can to forge their own specific journeys.

The poem “Where Are You Now?” is an example of her many intimate and understated meditations. She writes:

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.

The powerful poem ends even more powerfully (power being an understated force in Nye), using heat imagery to convey what it feels like to listen to her father tell this jumbled story. Nye writes:

Oh Dad, you’ve been so brave,

to which you replied,

What else can I do?

and returned to the comforting

donkey, bucket of olives,

smoke curling up from the twig fire

over which anyone, a lost girl,

a wanderer, dying man,

could warm his hands.

Section two of Transfer uses lines from her father’s notebooks as titles for a suite of 11 poems. Voices and histories overlap to form a conversational bridge. The poem “Everything in Our World Did Not Seem To Fit” addresses how the loss of homeland means the loss of a home:

You don’t think what a little plot of land means

till someone takes it and you can’t go back.

Your feet still want to walk there.

Now you are drifting worse

than homeless dust, very lost feeling.

I cried even to think of our hallway,

cool stone passage inside the door.

Nothing would fit for years.

In “When One Is So Far from Home, Life Is a Mix of Fact and Fiction,” Nye (in her father’s voice) offers a defense of storytelling:

Maybe it’s our duty to be shaped

a hundred times by the same stories.

We think we’re telling them

but really they’re keeping us alive,

memory oxygen breathed out and in.

Most striking in Transfer is how Nye fuses her poetics of smallness with a broader historical purview. “Hello, Palestine” begins

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.

Beyond her father’s story, Nye also grafts in stories of other father figures, as in “Remembering William Stafford” — a man who, like Nye, had a poetic consciousness and an abiding, clear voice. In “Endure,” Nye’s homage to exiled Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, she writes: “he found a way to carry the cry of a lost goat and/ the cry of a people, without stumbling.”

Nye’s most powerful poems are less evocations of loss than embodiments of what Darwish calls “the presence of absence.” It is a subtle but significant distinction. Poem by poem, Nye gives voice to her father in what amounts to extensive acts of translation. She also privately mourns, but the book is pitched to speak to the living. What makes the poems so artful, and go further, is that they engage with what is there as much as what is not. In “Ringing” she writes:

I’m sorry you lost your father, people say

and I step outside to soak

in stripes of gray cloud.

Hard touches iron rail.

You needed it, I don’t.

The penultimate stanza of “Ringing” is this:

Maybe the right wind brings

a scent of smoldering twigs,

fresh water over stone.

Maybe tonight your laughter

carpets our rooms.

I keep finding you in ways you didn’t know

I noticed, or knew.

Thomas Devaney ( is a visiting assistant professor at Haverford College and editor of the e-journal ONandOnScreen, which features poems and videos.

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