19 pages • 38 minutes readNaomi Shihab Nye
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“The Words Under the Words” is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye and the title poem of her collection Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Far Corner Books, 1995). It begins with a dedication to her grandmother—“for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem”—who had recently died at the age of 106 when Nye wrote the poem. The piece is a variation of a blazon, a type of poem that venerates a beloved person by separately praising different parts of them. The speaker describes how her grandmother’s faith shaped her life and helped her to sustain hope and love in the face of war, social unrest, and the loss of her family members to death and displacement. It is both a personal poem and a political poem, shining a spotlight on the lives of normal Palestinians who have been affected by war. It is one of many works Shihab Nye has written about her extended family from the Middle East, including a children’s picture book, Sitti’s Secrets (Aladdin Picture Books 1994), based on her experiences living with her grandmother as an adolescent. Shihab Nye’s book of poems, The Words Under the Words, displays a photo of her grandmother on the cover.
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Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri on March 12, 1952, and lived there until she was 14. Her mother was a Swiss-German Montessori school teacher and her father was a refugee from Palestine.
She encountered poetry early when she watched Carl Sandburg read a poem on television, an experience she says stuck with her from then on. She began writing poetry at the age of six.
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When Nye was 14, the family lived a year in the West Bank in Palestine, caring for her grandmother, who became an important influence in her life. She eventually wrote several books—a novel, children’s book, and poetry collection—in this setting.
Her family resettled in San Antonio, Texas in 1967 just before the Six-Day War. In high-school Nye was editor of her school’s literary magazine.
After graduating from Trinity University with a B.A. in English and World Religions, Nye taught through the Texas Commission on the Arts. She continues to work mainly with children, but also teaches creative writing at Texas State University. She says some of her strongest influences are W.S. Merwin, Lucille Clifton, Kate Barnes, Jane Mayhell, and William Stafford, with whom she studied poetry.
The highly accomplished Nye is a poet, songwriter, novelist, essayist, editor of various anthologies, and an educator and spokesperson for peace. Her books include 13 collections of adult poetry, seven books of children’s poetry, and three novels. She is also credited as being the editor of six poetry collections.
Naomi Shihab, Nye. “The Words Under the Words.” 1995. Poetry Foundation.
The poem opens with an acknowledgement, “for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem.” “Sitti” is the Arabic word for grandmother. The poem is openly autobiographical.
In the first stanza, the speaker describes her grandmother’s hands and what they could do: “recognize grapes, / the damp shine of a goat’s new skin” (Lines 1-2). She says the hands “followed” (Line 3) her when she was sick and helped her when she had a fever by “covering [her] head like cool prayers” (Line 5).
In stanza two, the speaker moves from describing her grandmother’s hands to describing her grandmother’s “days” (Line 6) and what she would do each day as part of her routine, such as “slow baking” (Line 7) bread. She describes her grandmother waiting for the bread to bake as she watches a “strange car / circle the streets” (Lines 8-9), and wonders if it is “her son, / lost to America” (Lines 9-10). Instead the cars usually contain “tourists, / who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines” (Lines 10-11). The grandmother in this poem knows she won’t get a letter from her distant family very often, but when one does arrive, she treats it like “a miracle” (Line 14). Someone who is able, reads the letter “again and again / in the dim evening light” (Lines 15-16).
In the third stanza, the speaker describes her grandmother’s voice, which “says nothing can surprise her” (Line 17). The grandmother tells people to “Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby.” (Line 18) The speaker focuses again on voices, this time those of her and her family: “our voices are short / and would get lost on the journey” (Lines 20-21) to get to the grandmother. The grandmother uses her voice to say “Farewell to the husband’s coat, / the ones she has loved and nourished, / who fly from her like seeds into a deep sky.” (Lines 22-24) Presumably the ones “who fly from her” (Line 24) include the speaker’s own father who is “lost to America”, (Line 10) as well as those who have passed away. The speaker expresses this in the next line, “They will plant themselves. We will all die” (Line 25).
In the fourth and final stanza, the speaker focuses on her “grandmother’s eyes” (Line 26), which “say Allah is everywhere, even in death” (Line 26). When her grandmother speaks about seemingly everyday things, like “the orchard and the new olive press” (Line 27), she is invoking Allah, the Arabic word for God. She is also thinking about Allah when she tells the stories of “Joha” (Line 28), who is the character in Arabic folktales who has “foolish wisdoms” (Line 28).
The poem ends with a quote, “Answer, if you hear the words under the words—” (Line 30). This means that underneath the words for ordinary things, there is another word—God or Allah. If you don’t think of it this way though, “it is just a world with a lot of rough edges, / difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones” (Lines 31-32).
By Naomi Shihab Nye