Lights in the Windows
Years ago a girl handed me a note as I was leaving her proud town of Albany, Texas, a tiny, lovely place far in the west of our big state."I'm glad to know there is another poemist in the world," the note said. "I always knew we would find one another someday and our lights would cross."
Our lights would cross. That girl had not stood out to me, I realized, among the other upturned, interested faces in the classroom. How many other lights had I missed? I carried her smudged note for thousands of miles.
I was fascinated with the earliest poems I read and heard that gave insight into all the secret territories of the human spirit, our relationships with one another. Somehow those glimpses felt comforting, like looking through the lit windows of other people's homes at dusk, before they closed the curtains. How did other people live their lives? Just a sense of so many other worlds out there, beginning with the next house on my own street, gave me a great energy. How could anyone ever feel lonely? One of the first books I loved in my life was a thick, gray anthology edited by Helen Ferris, calledFavorite Poems Old and New. I still have my early edition, though it is coming a little loose at the spine. Rich, intelligent voices spoke to me each time I opened its covers. I found Rabindranath Tagore, Carl Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, living side-by-side. I imagined I was part of a much larger family.
To me the world of poetry is a house with thousands of glittering windows. Our words and images, land to land, era to era, shed light on one another. Our words dissolve the shadows we imagine fall between. "One night I dreamt of spring," writes Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghut, "and when I awoke/flowers covered my pillow." Isn't this where empathy begins? Other countries stop seeming quite so "foreign," or inanimate, or strange, when we listen to the intimate voices of their citizens. I can never understand it when teachers claim they are "uncomfortable" with poetry -- as if poetry demands they be anything other than responsive, curious human beings. If poetry comes out of the deepest places in the human soul and experience, shouldn't it be as important to learn about one another's poetry, country to country, as one another's weather or gross national products? It seems critical to me. It's another way to study geography!
For this reason I was always carrying poems I found from other countries into classrooms where I worked as a visiting writer. If American students are provincial about the literary histories of other places, imagining themselves to be the primary readers and writers on the planet, it is up to us to help enlighten them. When I first traveled to India and Bangladesh as a visiting writer for the Arts America program of the U.S. Information Agency, friends commented helpfully upon our departure, "Why do you suppose people over there will care about poetry? They can barely get enough to eat!" Stereotyping ran rampant among even my educated community. In India, poems were shared with us which were 7,000 years old. In Bangladesh, an impromptu poetry reading was called one evening and 2,000 enthusiastic listeners showed up. Could either of those things happen in the United States?
Anyone who feels poetry is an alien or ominous form should consider the style in which human beings think. "How do you think?" I ask my students."Do you think in complete, elaborate sentences? In fully developed paragraphs with careful footnotes? Or in flashes and bursts of images, snatches of lines leaping one to the next, descriptive fragments, sensory details?" Wethink in poetry. But some people pretend poetry is far away.
Probably some of us were taught so long and hard that poetry was a thing toanalyze that we lost our ability to find it delicious, to appreciate its taste, sometimes even when we couldn't completely apprehend itsmeaning. I love to offer students a poem now and then that I don't really understand. It presents them with the immediate opportunity of being smarter than I am. Believe me, they always take it. They always find an interesting way to look through its window. It presents us all with a renewed appetite for interpretation, one of the most vibrant and energetic parts of the poetry experience.
I'm reminded of a dear teacher I had in high school who refused to go on to the next poem in our antiquated textbook until we had all agreed on the same interpretive vision of each poem -- her vision. Wearily we raised our hands. Yes, yes, that poet was just about to jump off a cliff. Onward! If we can offer each other a cognizance of mystery through the poems we share, isn't that a greater gift? Won't a sense of inevitable mystery under pinningour intricate lives serve us better than the notion that we will each be given a neat set of blanks to fill in -- always?
Poems offer that mystery. Poems respect our ability to interpret and translate images and signs. Poems link seemingly disparate parts of experience -- this seems particularly critical at the frenzied end of the 20th century. I have yet to meet one person in all my travels who doesn't say they are too busy, they wish they had a little more time. If most of us have lost, as some poets suggest, our meaningful, deep relationships with the world of nature, poems help us to see and feel that world again, beyond our cities and double-locked doors. I have learned as much about nature from the poems of Mary Oliver as I have ever learned walking in the woods.
And since we now live in a world where activities in one person's woods have a direct relationship on countries far away -- the disappearing rain forests in southern Mexico and Hawaii and the changing weather everywhere, for example --we need to know one another. It is an imperative, not a luxury. What will we recognize? As the daughter of a Palestinian immigrant, steeped since early childhood in Palestinian folk tales, I found it critical the older I grew to read Israeli Jewish writers too. I had to know how many links we had. When Yehuda Amichai of Israel writes, "...the field needs it: wild peace...,"he is talking about the same fields my ancestors wept over for years. I have no doubt these cousins of the human race could learn to work in them together.
During the Gulf War, I carried poems from writers in Iraq into classrooms I was visiting. It seemed important to remember that there were real people in Iraq, real fears and hopes, real chimneys and children and shoes and bread. A friend warned me, "You won't get away with it," but the exact opposite response occurred. Teachers said, "Where can we get more of these?" Did it matter that a third grader said, "I wonder what those little children in Iraq are thinking about today. I wonder if they slept at all last night." It mattered to me. Did it matter that high school girls ended up discussing the coldness of media euphemisms -- "collateral damage" for innocent people dead, for example -- how the television made everything seem somehow cold and distant, but the poems written in a personal human voice made that so-called enemy feel very close?That was the job of poems, we decided. To give us a sense of others' lives close up. Poems could be a zoom lens in a world of wide-angle sweeps. And the teachers at Hockaday School in Dallas said, "Do a book for us, okay? Give us a lot of voices from everywhere -- we'll be waiting."
I love that the word anthology comes from the Greek for flower gathering. We walk through the garden -- one plant stands out to one person, one vine to another. There are possibilities of choice. So I got to work on This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems From Around the World (Four Winds Press/Macmillan, 1992). I wrote letters to all the poets and translators I knew in many countries. "Send me poems appropriate for younger readers, but also appealing to adults" -- I wanted a book that didn't condescend. I have avery slim appetite for the limericks and cutesy ditties some people toss out when you say "younger readers." Ever since second grade, when our ambitious, poetry-loving 75-year-old teacher had her entire class memorize William Blake'sSong of Innocence, I knew children were capable of more. She used to say, "If you don't understand something, just turn it over and over in your head like a lozenge or a lemon drop." We did that, and it worked. We were left with lovely phrases in our memories, to savor as we grew older. We were left with a sense that words had something to give us.
And the poems came flying in, some stitched together at the top, some on thick, old-country paper, some fully illustrated with 20-page autobiographies accompanying. One fellow from a remote island asked if I could please nominate him for the Nobel Prize. A poet in American Samoa thought she was supposed to pay the permissions fee to me. Some of the poems, of course, I'd already had and loved for years. Then I just had to track down their authors or translators for permissions. No slim feat. The only day in my life I ever drank a glass of wine at 10 in the morning was one of those permission days.
Finally my trusty mailman Mario pounded on my door with a handful of exotically stamped letters. "I can't stand it anymore," he said. "What are youdoing in there?" I love how Four Winds Press/Macmillan included some of the fabulous stamps as a detail in the front and back of the book. And I feel deeply lucky that my generous, wonderful editor Virginia Duncan and her excellent staff felt as enthusiastic about the book as I did. They even gave it a blue marking ribbon. Some teachers have said, "I thought you had to be the Bible to get a ribbon."
As will happen with collections, the poems ended up gathering themselves into sections that felt almost organic -- related to family, or words and silences, or losses, or human mysteries. The sky seemed to occur surprisingly often as a universal reference point, which gave us the title. I loved receiving the autobiographical notes almost as much as the poems. An example from Amanda Aizpuriete: "I'm raising 4 children and translating Emily Dickinson into Latvian in my spare time." Or a note on Shuntaro Tanikawa by one of his translators, Harold Wright: "He entered a poetry contest because he didn't want to study for his college entrance exams and went on to become one of Japan's best-known contemporary poets." When Al Mahmud of Bangladesh describes his early life with poetry -- "Poetry was...carefully collected bird's eggs/fragrant grass, the runaway calf of a sad-looking young farm wife,/ neat letters on secret writing pads in blue envelopes." -- he gives us a world we can touch and smell and share. When Benilda Santos of the Philippines describes the elaborate, loving way her little son said goodbye to her when he was in kindergarten and she left him at school, and the way he says goodbye to her now, years later -- "his standard reply's/a tight smile/an eyebrow's twitch'or sometimes/the slightest of nods./Nothing remains of the old goodbyes..." -- I cry every time because I am a mother now, and because I was also a daughter saying goodbye in both ways, and because human beings need to be reminded of themselves simply to see who we all are and how we fit together.
I am happy to say that the collection This Same Sky was picked by the American Library Association as a Notable Book, received numerous "Editor's Choice" awards, the Jane Addams Award for Social Justice, and was called one of the Best Books of the Year for teenagers by the New York Public Libraries. It went into a third printing within one year of publication. And I am still getting letters from students and teachers in small towns and big cities, saying "Thanks for making my family larger." This all makes me happy because it suggests a real appetite for poetry still thriving in our rushed, modern souls. It suggests the windows of the house are still open. One by one, in quiet corners, we will turn on a small light, read a poem, and feel our own soft wings spreading out into the dark. They will carry us. We have so many places to go.
Naomi Shihab Nye lives in San Antonio. Her most recent work is Sitti's Secrets (Four Winds Press/Macmillan, 1994).