Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 26: Taste and See “Salaam Epigrams,” and Naomi Shihab Nye

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 26: Taste and See “Salaam Epigrams,” and Naomi Shihab Nye

Responsorial Psalm (from Psalm 34)

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

Glorify the LORD with me,
let us together extol his name.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
and your faces may not blush with shame.
When the poor one called out, the LORD heard,
and from all his distress he saved him.

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Thus begins the responsorial psalm, which celebrates the sensual abundance of creation, of the raw pleasure of eating. It is a momentary return to the Garden of Eden. It inspired Denise Levertov to write her own poem on the matter, rejecting Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us” by saying: “The world is / not with us enough / O taste and see // the subway Bible poster said, / meaning The Lord, meaning / if anything all that lives / to the imagination’s tongue, // grief, mercy, language, / tangerine, weather, to / breathe them, bite, / savor, chew, swallow, transform // into our flesh our / deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince, / living in the orchard and being // hungry, and plucking / the fruit.

Today’s gospel returns us to the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Forgiving Father, and the Irritated Obedient Son, but what strikes me now about the story is the extravagance of the father (as Father Tom Fanta said in his homily, the foolishness of the father) in killing the fatted calf for his prodigal progeny. It’s an image of a doting God, a God who’s not rational, but overflows with compassion and love. Just yesterday I saw images of the Palestinian hunger striker, Mohammad Al-Qiq, greeted by his father in his hospital bed, with a hundred kisses. Al-Qiq is no prodigal, but I was struck by the unembarrassed showering of love from father to son, and it reminded me of my dad. I’m happy when such synchronicities offer themselves, because today’s poem, “Salaam Epigrams,” is a poem grounded in the wellspring of abundance and peace (“O well overflowing”). It was inspired by a work of calligraphic art by Nihad Dukhan, but moved into a sort of ode to our daughter Leila—that comet of becoming. It’s paired with Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” an anecdote about helping an elderly Palestinian woman in the airport who could not understand what had happened to the flight, a parable of care and the possibilities of abundance, the abundance of mamool.

Salaam Epigrams (from Sand Opera)
            —for Leila


You trail a comet’s tail.
Everything you do quotes you.
O well overflowing, tell.
Broken vessel you, don’t heal.
Stream of grief: blessing.


You awaken in the wake
of a sentence half-written,

the missing past tense
cordoned by comma.


Star jiggered from sky
to green ground, you
beeline toward its bloom.


Apostrophe of a womb—
fetal you—and the line you will become.

“Gate A-4” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been detained four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”  Well – one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the Flight Agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem?  We told her the flight was going to be late, and she did this.”  I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “You’re fine, you’ll get there, who’s picking you up? Let’s call him.” We called her son, I spoke with him in English, saying I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane.

She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for fun. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her?

This all took up two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies – little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts – from her bag – and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo – we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend – by now we were holding hands – had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate – once the crying of confusion stopped – seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Reprinted from HONEYBEE, Greenwillow Books, 2008 and TENDER SPOT (UK) Bloodaxe Books, 2nd Edition, 2015

--Naomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a “wandering poet.” She has spent 40 years traveling the country and the world to lead writing workshops and inspiring students of all ages. Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio. Drawing on her Palestinian-American heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas, and her experiences traveling in Asia, Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the Middle East, Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity. Naomi Shihab Nye is the author and/or editor of more than 30 volumes. Her books of poetry include 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East , A Maze Me: Poems for GirlsRed SuitcaseWords Under the WordsFuel, and You & Yours (a best-selling poetry book of 2006). She is also the author of Mint SnowballNever in a HurryI’ll Ask You Three Times, Are you Okay? Tales of Driving and Being Driven(essays); Habibi and Going Going (novels for young readers); Baby RadarSitti's Secrets, and Famous(picture books) and There Is No Long Distance Now (a collection of very short stories). Other works include several prize-winning poetry anthologies for young readers, including Time You Let Me InThis Same SkyThe Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems & Paintings from the Middle EastWhat Have You Lost?, and Transfer. Her collection of poems for young adults entitled Honeybee won the 2008 Arab American Book Award in the Children’s/Young Adult category. Her new novel for children, The Turtle of Oman, was chosen both a Best Book of 2014 by The Horn Book and a 2015 Notable Children's Book by the American Library Association. The Turtle of Oman was also awarded the 2015 Middle East Book Award for Youth Literature. 

1 comment:

Maureen said...

"Gate A-4" may be one of Nye's most well-known and beloved pieces. And it's easy to imagine the scene - how the focus becomes the cookies and the sharing, and the laughter at everyone being covered in confectioner's sugar.

Ma’amoul Means Filled in Arabic

after Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘Gate A-4’

In the world I want to live in
we’ll have our choice of fillings—

pistachios or maybe walnuts
and Medjool dates, apricot jam

and almonds, golden plump raisins
in place of quince. I’ll use orange

blossom water and clarified butter;
you, cool sweet creamy milk. Your

cousins back in Lebanon will send
mahlab to season your dough, and

my Iraqi aunts insist on coconut
grated into essence of rose. Cookies

formed both in hand and in mold,
perfect as crescents or rounded

and domed — we’ll all have a taste
to see but one sweet difference

that pinch of powdered sugar can be.