Aside from epic poetry, such as Beowulf and Paradise Lost, I have three poets whose work I really love. Of those, Naomi Shihab Nye may be my favorite. A Palestinian-American, Nye grew up in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and San Antonio (Texas). Because of this diverse background, she brings a unique perspective to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the topic of American-Arab interaction and understanding. Many of her poems deal with the themes of cultural difference, war (esp. in Palestine and Iraq), violence vs. the domestic, and reconciliation. Nye challenges her readers to believe in shared humanity despite conflict and cultural and religious division.
The following is one of my favorite of her poems. Hebron glass, which the poem references, is handblown and painted by Palestinians. It is often used to make goblets, or other cups, and is some of the most beautiful glasswork I have ever seen.
The Small Vases From Hebron
By Naomi Shihab Nye
Tip their mouths open to the sky.
the deep green with fluted handle,
pitcher the size of two thumbs,
tiny lip and graceful waist.
Here we place the smallest flower
which could have lived invisibly
in loose soil beside the road,
sprig of succulent rosemary,
They grow deeper in the center of the table.
Here we entrust the small life,
thread, fragment, breath.
And it bends. It waits all day.
As the bread cools and the children
open their gray copybooks
to shape the letter that looks like
a chimney rising out of a house.
And what do the headlines say?
Nothing of the smaller petal
perfectly arranged inside the larger petal
or the way tinted glass filters light.
Men and boys, praying when they died,
fall out of their skins.
The whole alphabet of living,
heads and tails of words,
sentences, the way they said,
“Ya’Allah!” when astonished,
or “ya’ani” for “I mean”—
a crushed glass under the feet
But the child of Hebron sleeps
with the thud of her brothers falling
and the long sorrow of the color red.
(poem used with author's permission)