Book Review: 19 Varieties of Gazelle

(In honor of the sad fact that I start teaching next week, here is a book I got from school. Fortunately, it’s a lovely book.)

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19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East

by Naomi Shihab Nye

I don’t read enough poetry; most of what I do, I encounter at school, while teaching literature to my high school students. That’s where I’ve read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry before, as she is often collected in literature textbooks (Particularly in the last twenty years, as the call has gone out for diversity among authors, seeking more women and people of color to break up the Great Wall of Dead White Dudes), and it’s where I got this book. Teachers, take note: the teacher who was in your classroom before you probably had some neat stuff, especially books. Check your shelves and cabinets and desk drawers. Trust me.

I’m very glad I found this, and very glad I read it. It’s a beautiful book. Nye has the gift of using few words to say many things, and to create strong and tangible, poignant moods. I feel like I know her father from her poem about him and his fig tree, and what’s more, I feel like I know more about figs, and also about her because she grew up with that father and those figs. She has captured a clear and powerful picture of the Middle East, particularly Lebanon and Israel and the life of Palestinians, as the book’s poems are largely from the 90’s and early 2000’s. She has also shown what it’s like to be Arab-American, and to feel both connected and separated from life in the Middle East: she has this remarkable view, like an outsider with just enough of a connection through culture and heritage and language to see inside more clearly than an outsider normally can; just clearly enough for it to hurt, mostly, though she is also in awe of the people she feels she can almost, but not quite, understand. And then her ability to write poetry allows me to feel the same thing about her, and about her subjects at that additional remove; I feel for her feeling for them.

It’s an experience. These are beautiful words, and a good book. And, as always, it’s timely, even fifteen years later, because it seems the Middle East never changes.

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