Nye, Naomi Shihab: The Wandering Woman Poet

Naomi Shihab Nye calls herself a wandering poet, travelling to over thirty countries to teach writing workshops. Naturally, she gets great grist for her poetry mill as a byproduct. Here’s a poem of hers with an intriguing title.

You Are Your Own State Department

Each day I miss Japanese precision. Trying to arrange things

   the way they would. I miss the call to prayer

at Sharjah, the large collective pause. Or

the shy strawberry vendor with rickety wooden cart,

single small lightbulb pointed at a mound of berries.

   In one of China’s great cities, before dawn.

      Forever I miss my Arab father’s way with mint leaves

    floating in a cup of sugared tea—his delicate hands

arranging rinsed figs on a plate. What have we here?

    said the wolf in the children’s story

stumbling upon people doing kind, small things.

    Is this small monster one of us?

When your country does not feel cozy, what do you do?

       Teresa walks more now, to feel closer to her

ground. If destination within two miles, she must

    hike or take the bus. Carries apples,

          extra bottles of chilled water to give away.

Kim makes one positive move a day for someone else.

I’m reading letters the ancestors wrote after arriving

       in the land of freedom, words in perfect English script. . .

describing gifts they gave one another for Christmas.

     Even the listing seems oddly civilized,

these 1906 Germans. . . hand-stitched embroideries for dresser

tops. Bow ties. Slippers, parlor croquet, gold ring, “pretty


How they comforted themselves! A giant roast

     made them feel more at home.

            Posthumous medals of honor for

     coming, continuing—could we do that?

And where would we go?

         My father’s hope for Palestine

stitching my bones, “no one wakes up and

        dreams of fighting around the house”—

somebody soon the steady eyes of children in Gaza,

     yearning for a little extra electricity

to cool their lemons and cantaloupes, will be known.


    We talked for two hours via Google Chat,

they did not complain once. Discussing stories,

       books, families, a character who does

                 what you might do.

Meanwhile secret diplomats are what we must be,

   as a girl in Qatar once assured me,

       each day slipping its blank visa into our hands.

I like the range of countries covered here, like a state department must do. I love the ending – the idea of a new day being a blank visa we can stamp with the countries we visit and our actions.

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z 2023.

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1 Response

  1. Gorgeous poem. Great choice!

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