NAOMI SHIHAB Nye has had both the good fortune, and the bad luck, to have lived in interesting times and places. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1952 to a Palestinian father and an American mother; she grew up in (the now notorious ) St Louis suburb of Ferguson, in Jerusalem, and in San Antonio, Texas, where she currently resides.
Her appearance at this year’s Cúirt Festival is one of the bigger coups Dani Gill and her team have pulled off this year; you will see Paul Durcan and Colm Toibín again, indeed you have perhaps seen them before, but Naomi Shihab Nye’s reading is certain to be a revelation, one which will be spoken of in years to come, like Allen Ginsberg’s appearance in 1995.
From her early poems, such as ‘Lights from Other Windows’ (1980 ), it has been clear that Shihab Nye is a poet of rare free verse lyricism: “Driving west tonight, the city dissolves behind us./I keep feeling we’re going farther than we’re going,/a journey that started in the deep inkwell/out of which all our days are written.”
In her poems about her father’s stolen homeland, she proves herself a poet of the highest quality. Whereas so many political poems – especially those on subjects as emotional as Palestine – are about as artistic as a woman with mad, staring, eyes repeatedly banging a galvanised shed roof with a bit of lead pipe, Shihab Nye’s poems on the subject manage to speak plainly, to allow room for the nuance always present in any such situation – however apparently white and black – and, crucially, to retain their sense of humour.
Her poem ‘The Only Democracy in the Middle East’ is a skilfully savage assault on the world view of apologists for everything the Israeli government – any Israeli government, even that of the increasingly ludicrous Mr Netanyahu – does: “Please leave your home immediately/.Do not call it a home./This is our home not yours./Security demands it.”
The poem’s final lines speak to something I have long thought, that Israel is the child who having been horrendously, and unspeakably, bullied and persecuted himself, has unfortunately grown up to be one of those small bullies who picks on those he can: “We have suffered too much/hanks to everyone/but you are the only ones we can touch./Don’t give us any trouble.”
‘Parents of Murdered Palestinian Boy Donate His Organs to Israelis’ is a poem of profound compassion which contains within it the sort of thinking from which solutions will spring, as they eventually must. But perhaps my favourite lines by Naomi Shihab Nye are in the first stanza of ‘I Feel Sorry for Jesus’, in which she writes: “People won’t leave him alone./I know He said: wherever two or more/are gathered in my name…/but I’ll bet some days he regrets it.”
Shihab Nye’s Cúirt reading (with Kay Ryan ) at the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday April 23 at 8.30pm is an essential event for anyone with a serious interest in either poetry or Palestine. Get your ticket now via 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie, because this event may well sell out. She will also officially launch the annual Poems for Patience exhibition, in association with Cúirt, on April 24 at 11am in the Arts Corridor, University Hospital Galway.