How To Stay Human with Naomi Shihab Nye, by Jay Wittenberg
In perusing my treasured archives of Water~Stone, I found in the Fall 2003, Volume 6 issue a CNF piece worth revisiting, written by Naomi Shihab Nye. This notable writer was mentioned in a recent talk given by Hamline’s distinguished visiting poet, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who found much inspiration from Nye early in her career.
The piece I refer to, titled “Someone I Love,” holds a poetic sensibility. It flows, with its concrete imagery, its nuanced tone of emotion, understated in its suggestion at first, and then becoming more apparent, even volatile.
The essay begins, “Someone I love so much cut down my primrose patch.” And so the journey unfolds. I read of the careful tending, I see the buoyant primroses, crimson and gold, offering their fragile “bonnets.” I imagine what the flowers, by their instinct, could remember, even deprived of the sun. I see the push mower Nye describes, like the one I use, the un-sharpened rotary, slightly rusted, blunt, in its methods of butchery. From Nye’s words, and the feelings pent up into them, I get the sense of the inexplicable things humans can do.
I gaze at the details Nye paints with her words. I witness the “Dutchman’s Pipe,” the clasping jasmine, and the cacti, that watched the destruction in silence. Nye writes of “wanting to feel tied to the earth again, as I always do when I get home…” I watch as she lets the garden hose fall from her hands when her eyes meet the terrible discovery. I feel her “cold stun of fury,” and her question: “how could anyone?” Nye writes, “this is the pain this year deserves.”’ The event evokes a memory of her father, and how he had responded to a similar circumstance. Her anger is tempered, for the moment, but with the next morning she erupts.
This is the human way, isn’t it? In this case I feel she is quite justified. I myself have felt anger at the rabbits for their wholesale destruction of everything, but I have less cause.
We express ourselves and deal with our anger, even with our rage. But I sense something more here.
This piece, beyond its rich description and straightforward force, digs deeper and reveals to me an element of the primal, just beneath the skin, that feels very close to the truth about humans. This ‘someone’ didn’t remember “flower things like that.” This piece could not help but make me think of the entire state of our union, and the mindset of so many Americans.
And should we ask what will be erased, cut down, maimed, or effaced today? And what if, in our response, as Nye writes, we choose the unthinkable? Can you guess what that is? Nye asks at the end, if the love did not exist: “who might I become?”
What if this horticultural incident happened again and again? Do we become desensitized in this, our most desensitized age?
Do we cover the primula vulgaris with heavy wire, or erect a barrier tall enough to state its purpose? Nye chose to “stay human,” because of love. To make a poem about this was a healthy choice for her, I think, and perhaps a lesson for all of us, to take the unthinkable and make it into art that might possibly redeem. In today’s political climate, it’s a tall order, but one perhaps it is our duty to consider. What are primroses known for? I found they meant ‘happiness,’ ‘satisfaction,’ and ‘I can’t live without you.’ All very fitting.
I assume the primroses came back up again, and perhaps after being so savagely mauled, they produced another, even stronger crop, of bloom. We hope so, for the poet’s sake, and perhaps for the sake of the perpetrator, as well.
Author: J. Wittenberg
WSR Editorial Board Member, Vol. 21
J. Wittenberg lives in Saint Paul.