Poetry Friday: The Small Room Between Sentences

h1 May 30th, 2008 by jules

I finally got my library copy of Naomi Shihab Nye’s newest book, Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose (Greenwillow; February 2008), and it was really worth the wait. (Eisha’s Poetry Friday post on Nye two weeks ago held me in good stead, though.) I’m still reading, but I wanted to share some poems and prose from it, and when I asked Naomi if I could do so—share some poems in their entirety—she gave me the go-ahead. Yes, this moment of beauty is brought to you by Naomi Shihab Nye, and I extend warm thanks to her.

Honeybee, thus far, has been a rewarding read, and I suspect that reading it again later is only going to unveil even more layers, more threads, more insights. In the introduction, she explains her fascination with bees in college and discusses the “bee woes” of today — “many reports said {in 2007} at least one third of the honeybees in the United States had mysteriously vanished.” She collected theories, she tells us, and became “obsessed…This is what happens in life. Something takes over your mind for a while and you see other things through a new filter, in a changed light. I call my friends ‘honeybee’ now, which I don’t recall doing before. If I see a lone bee hovering in a flower, I wish it well.”

Nye uses these bees—their communication, their work, their lives—to thread together themes of war; how we are “trained to work for success” (though “failures, mistakes, or disasters,” she adds, “may lead us in intriguing new directions . . . How many writers or artists have said they stumbled into their favorite works when something else they were trying to create didn’t succeed?”); environmentalism; the political atmosphere we live in today; family and parenthood; memories; creative ventures and writing (there’s a poem entitled “How Do I Know When a Poem Is Finished?”); friendship; and much more. She writes of connections between people — and missed connections, the moments when “everyone disappears to one another.” I am in love with this stanza from “Invisible”:

Sometimes, walking in the city,
I felt suddenly thirsty,
each storefront sparkling,
women at stoplights,
the glossy shine of their lips.
I wanted to enter restaurants with them
where the clink of words made business sound real.
Each time they swallowed, a waiter tensed,
moved towards them with the pitcher.
I wanted the small room between sentences,
the dark and wonderful room.
When they rose, waiter with towel
folded on arm standing expectantly by.
I wanted to feel that moment when
everyone disappears to one another,
she steps out swinging her pocketbook,
his hands return to his trousers
and the new tablecloth appears,
shaken free of its folds.

She writes of our hurried lives: “why are we rushing around so much? The common phrase ‘I can’t’ wait’ has always troubled me. Does it mean you want your life to pass more swiftly? This or that future moment will surely be better than the current moment, right?” In her short prose piece, “We Are the People,” she writes:

We Are the People always going somewhere else. What is this peculiar attribute of our households, our days, our nations? We will not be here long enough to get tired of it. Does this make us less responsible? It’s that relationship you have with a towel when the towel belongs to a hotel.

. . . I know people who, the minute they get into their homes, tell you where they are going next.

I am one of them.

This is nothing to be proud of.

Nye decides to conduct a do-nothing experiment, and the results are both striking and moving, yet she manages to throw some humor in there, too. Later, she writes:

Watch us humans as we enter our rooms, remove our shoes and watches, and stretch out on the bed with a single good book. It’s the honey of the mind time. Light shines through our little jars.

Speaking of humor, there’s a heapin’ dose of it in a lot of the writing (there’s one fabulous prose entry about how she and a friend in high school walked through a stranger’s home, ooh‘ing and aah‘ing over all their art, thinking they had entered a local museum housed in an old mansion), all written from the point-of-view of Naomi-the-adult, making this a great read for adults. But older teens—particularly poetry-lovers, needless to say—will enjoy this as well. And these short prose entries? What a wonderful gateway to the book for those teens who think they don’t like poetry. Give ‘em this, show them the prose pieces—incisive, funny, and thought-provoking, at turns—and let them stumble upon the compelling poetry. They’ll be converted to poetry in no time, my friends.

A clunkier writer could easily mangle the weaving-together of these bee themes, but Nye handles it expertly. As she always does. Again, I’m still reading, still savoring, but—since I have permission to share a poem or two in its entirety—I’ll share a couple here. It’s really hard to pick and I just know there’s another exquisite poem around the corner, to-be-read, that I haven’t shaken hands with yet, but obviously this theme of our hurried lives and the swift passing of time is striking a chord with me now, so I’ll choose the following two.

Happy Poetry Friday to one and all. The Poetry Friday round-up today is at Wild Rose Reader with the honorable Ms. Magliaro.

“The Problem of Muchness” and “To One Now Grown” from HONEYBEE: POEMS & SHORT PROSE. Copyright © 2008 Naomi Shihab Nye. Published by Greenwillow Books. Reproduced by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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14 comments to “Poetry Friday: The Small Room Between Sentences”

  1. Her writing really has to be savored and read again and again — I’m so impressed with the layers of meaning and depth to her poetry — it’s like painting, really. Gorgeous.


  2. This is one of my most favorite books of poetry — thanks for the great post!


  3. “Light shines through our little jars.” That makes me ridiculously happy. Is that not a perfect description of what a poem is/does?


  4. Thanks, all. TadMack, good analogy there.

    Sara, for a few minutes, the title of this post was “Light Shining Through Little Jars.” Then, I changed it to “The Honey of the Mind Time.” Then, I re-discovered “the small room between sentences” poem and was wow’ed all over again.

    One thing I meant to include in the post: I think the cover, in terms of art and design, is just dandy. But it makes the book look, to me, like a middle-grade one, when it is most certainly a book with sophisticated themes — an older-teen/adult title. I hope that won’t turn some teens away from the book is my point.

    Otherwise, thus far, it’s nearly flawless. And that final poem just about floored me. I keep reading it over and and over and over…I think I’ll hang it on the wall in my wee girls’ room for when I have those moments, those answering-urgency-with-urgency moments.


  5. What a wonderful post. I love the last poem–I want to cut out the last 3 lines and carry them everywhere.


  6. Kelly, yeah. We were typing at the same time. I had just gone back and added something about that last poem in my comment. It came to me at just the right time. It’s like a new prayer for me.


  7. You know I love her. This book is fabulous. Thanks for sharing it this Friday.


  8. I am so swooning over these poems! I must get this book! Thank you so much for sharing these tidbits and your thoughts.


  9. DANG, can that woman ever turn a phrase. I’m going to hear “honey of the mind time” every time I settle in with a book from now on.


  10. I just started reading this a few nights ago, and it’s wonderful to enjoy the leisure Nye promotes by dipping in and dipping out of poems and prose. I hope teachers and librarians who know teens who love Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees (soon to e a movie) will put this book into their hands, too. Thanks for the great review which is sending me back there.


  11. Jules,

    I’m just getting around to reading the Poetry Friday posts on Sunday morning.

    Naomi Shihab Nye is definitely one of my favorite poets. Thanks for this outstanding post. I’m going to order a copy of this book.


  12. [...] mentioned ol’ WCW was a coincidence.   I picked up  Honeybee based on a review over at 7-Imp (one of my favorite sources of in-depth reviews – and interviews!) – go check out their review (the [...]


  13. hey thanks for this.


  14. Well I think this is all so very intreasting but I am a poet myself. When writing I am calm and seren but when interupted and i forget the next line I become furious. Now everything is wrong but the thought of growing up again is not that far gone.


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