Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners
Naomi Shihab Nye’s new collection of poetry offers inspiration and solace. Nye was nominated for the National Book Award (for 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East) and has earned many other awards. She writes for children and adults; her free verse is easily accessible. Her father was a refugee from Palestine, her mother was an American of European descent. She was born in Missouri, and spent her teen years in Texas and Jerusalem. Nye characterizes herself as an inveterate wanderer, whose writing offers hope that people of various backgrounds and cultures can find their common humanity.
In the introduction to her new poetry collection, Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners, Nye shares the idea that all the voices that were ever spoken are still there, floating around in the ether, and that we should really try to learn to listen more carefully, more deeply. Then we can find inspiration to help us through the confusion of living.
This is a book filled with empathy and hope. It pays attention to the smallest whispers, and takes wisdom from poets, artists, musicians, and others of the past and present, as well as from streets all over the world, from the ordinary people in them, and the plants, animals and objects that most of us find easy to ignore. She urges us to tune into the real world, instead of scrolling through the electronic messages that seem to obsess us so much. “My entire childhood did not involve a single deletion,” she writes.
In this collection, which can be enjoyed by adults and young people alike, the poet listens to messages from “A Lonely Cup of Coffee,” “Lost People,” “Mountains,” a frog (in the poem “Standing Back”), a painting (in “Sheep by the Sea, a painting by Rosa Bonheur—1869”), and individuals famous or famous only to those who know them, many of them young people.
A girl from Gaza asks about infinity. A grade school bully in the narrator’s past “seemed like a person who sprang from a forest, growling” but stops bothering her after she asks him politely at a Church Christmas party, “Would you like some cake?”
Another girl is addressed in the poem “To Jamyla Bolden of Ferguson, Missouri.”
“Fifty years before you did your homework in Ferguson
we did our homework in Ferguson, thinking life was fair.
If we didn’t do our homework we might get a U—Unsatisfactory.
Your dad says you didn’t even get to see the rest of the world yet.
I’ve seen too much of the world and don’t know
how to absorb this—a girls shot through a wall—U! U! U!”
(Jamyla, a nine-year-old, was killed by a random bullet that went through the wall of her home while she was on her mother’s bed, doing homework.)
There are poems for or inspired by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, Grace Paley, Lucille Clifton, Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, and many other writers. Some of these poems quote the writers, as well other well-known people, and the little epiphanies shared from these sources can be as interesting as the poems themselves. The book includes a little biographical information on each of these individuals.
Nye writes in free verse, and many of her poems seem rather prosy, almost prosaic, but all of them are accessible and express an honest wonder, and the wish for a kinder world. Although the work included here doesn’t shy away from tough subjects, on the whole this collection offers a hopeful vision, a humane vision, that is much needed in the world right now. Maybe the world has always been much in need of this kind of vision.
Nye writes most touchingly of the young. When she writes for an infant who is surely a relation (the epigraph of “I Vote for You” reads: “for Connor James Nye”), we see the world through a very small person’s perspective, and it is a kind world, a world the way we wish it could be for everyone.
“You smile at everyone . . .
“When you startle at a loud sound, await the power of softness
to settle you down. There is no other power in your world.
Hunger, interest, kicking, joy—carry us there.
If your eyes fall heavily closed, sweet rescue in the doing.
What we might remember if we tried much harder.
In your dream no one is a refugee.
Everyone has clean sheets.”