Today I want to highlight poems from a couple of my favorite women writers. I ran across them first when I was teaching poetry to tenth graders. The poetry in the textbooks was primarily written by the same demographic you find in any genre… dead white guys. Oh, sure, they would toss in a little Silvia Plath or Emily Dickinson. But rarely did you find a living writer among the offerings. So, off I went, in search of some new voices and faces and perspectives.
The first, Naomi Shihab Nye, was born in Saith Louis, Missouri to a to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She has lived in Ramallah in Palestine, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. Did I mention I was teaching in Texas? The following poem shows how she draws on that personal history in her poetry.
“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,”
my father would say. And he’d prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.
In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.
True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.
Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn’t have one.
After that, my father told me who he was,
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
Once I said, “When we die, we give it back?”
He said that’s what a true Arab would say.
Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a toy truck on the front page.
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.
I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?
Originally published in Yellow Glove by Naomi Shihab Nye, published by Breitenbush Books. Copyright © 1986 by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Another favorite is Sandra Cisneros, who was born in Chicago and spent part of her childhood in Mexico. Straddling American and Mexican cultures gives her poetry a unique chicana accent. Oddly enough, Ms. Cisneros wound up in San Antonio, too!
My cousins and I,
we don’t marry.
We’re too old
by Mexican standards.
And the relatives
have long suspected
we can’t anymore
My cousins and I,
we’re all old
maids at thirty.
Who won’t dress children,
and never saints–
though we undress them.
they’ve given up on us.
No longer nudge–You’re next.
What happened in your childhood?
What left you all mean teens?
Who hurt you, honey?
But we’ve studied
marriages too long–
Senora Pumpkin Shell–
lessons that served us well.
from the 1994 poetry collection, Loose Woman