When I flip through my mental catalogue of most poignant days, moments, scenes…there are few that come to mind as quickly as one particular evening with Naomi Nye and a handful of other amazing people. Being one senior in a fairly sparse sampling of “creative writing” majors, I was fortunate enough to be invited to dinner with my Critical Theory professor, another English professor, two other theory students, and the visiting poet at the time – Naomi Nye. I had read her recent book,”19 Varieties of Gazelle”, in my poetry course prior to meeting her, and was rightfully impressed and moved by her work – but it was her presence and character that caught me off guard the most. Our small group of English-types gathered at Mizuna; a small vegetarian restaurant spattered in minuscule white lights with carefully selected folk music serenading all without impeding on the hushed, yet generally eager, conversations. Mizuna remains one of the most charmed man-made atmospheres I have encountered. It was only fitting, then, that this should be host to one of my most cherished dinners.
At once, Nye offered herself up to us generously, but with a startling humility that made her aura at once captivating but gentle and unassuming. People this gracious find themselves enchanted by most things; they are able to see the good – or even glory – in the most simplistic situations. Nye possess this skill…and anyone who knows this trait in others understands how magnetic it is to be near or witness. We shared ourselves with her candidly – the conversation pulsed with intellectual fervor and as I looked around the table, it was clear: we were all brimming with intensity, a sort of euphoric stupor on our faces. We explained how we were simultaneously enthralled and terrified by our studies at the moment. Our critical theory course, in particular, had us questioning external realities like never before, but we were still on the edge of the cliff of understanding – not sure what our next foothold might look like, or if it existed yet. Nye listened intently, and she herself was captivated by us it seemed. We had nervously anticipated an evening of entertaining a celebrated poet, but it was increasingly clear that she was celebrating us. This unexpected tone left us all a bit more empowered and inspired, I think. We talked of education, the peculiar ways that humans exhibit beauty and understanding, the nonsensical nature of war and violence – and how to live in such a world. Naomi was, and is, the opposite of violence in a number of ways. She exudes peace, she preaches peace, she passes it on to the people she encounters – and it is a driving force in her poetry. Conversation was met with main courses of equal stature: grilled field roast, herbed cous cous, sauteed summer vegetables, nectarine-fennel salad…white cheddar and apple salad with organic greens, carmelized walnuts, craisins, citrus-shallot vinaigrette…Pan seared tempeh and chimichurri with herbed pistachio quinoa, vegetables, and pecorino. We passed our dishes around the table constantly and shared our meals as openly as our stories.
I am unsure how many hours we stayed, but eventually I feared our time was nearly through, knowing that we’d have to put foot to floor and roll up the ‘crumpled skin of the day’, as Woolf would say. Although the evening did end, I know that all of us were emboldened, comforted, empowered by what had transpired. It arrived at the perfect time. As we grappled with the thin air in front of us that loomed in light of recent disheartening University Administration decisions… and the inevitable realities that awaited post-graduation (a world we knew was not comprised of communities like our own English Department), we felt armed with a new peace and humility that might be exactly what we needed, but least expected. As Nye read her poetry aloud the following evening, I met eyes with the individuals who dined with me the night before, and noticed similar, meaningful expressions on their faces. I can’t speak for everyone who shared in Nye’s visit, but I know that for myself, a ‘surrender’ was exactly what I needed to learn. It was a surrender to all that is right, rather than adopting or maintaining a bitterness for all that is wrong. It is the type of surrender we need more of: that confirmation that we will say ‘yes’ to the opera, and not just some of it, but all of it.
Every few months, I email Naomi when I think of her, and she always writes back, no matter how busy. I don’t know what to say often, nor do I have pressing news that she would want to hear necessarily, but re-connecting with her always confirms for me the importance of the surrender and the importance of responding to the world with grace. Nye reminds me that we can be strong but react in grace – we can speak up for ourselves, for others, and push against what we know is wrong without letting our anger debilitate our voices … despite the many challenges and absurdities of the world, we are better to exchange bitterness for humility and peace. Just as we insist peace from others, we must know how to exhibit peace ourselves. This is part of our responsibility to ourselves, to humankind, to the opera.
Lunch in Nablus City Park
When you lunch in a town
which has recently known war
under a calm slate sky mirroring none of it,
certain words feel impossible in the mouth.
Casualty: too casual, it must be changed.
A short man stacks mounds of pita bread
on each end of the table, muttering
something about more to come.
Plump birds landing on park benches
surely had their eyes closed recently,
must have seen nothing of weapons or blockades.
When the woman across from you whispers
I don’t think we can take it anymore
and you say there are people praying for her
in the mountains of Himalaya and she says
Lady, it is not enough, then what?
A plate of hummus, dish of tomato,
friends dipping bread—
I will not marry till there is true love, says one,
throwing back her cascade of perfumed hair.
He says the University of Texas seems remote to him
as Mars, and last month he stayed in his house
for 26 days. He will not leave, he refuses to leave.
In the market they are selling
men’s shoes with air vents, a beggar displays
the giant scab of leg he must drag from alley to alley,
and students argue about the best way to protest.
In summers, this cafe is full.
Today only our table sends laughter into the trees.
What cannot be answered checkers the tablecloth
between the squares of white and red.
Where do the souls of hills hide
when there is shooting in the valleys?
What makes a man with a gun seem bigger
than a man with almonds? How can there be war
and the next day eating, a man stacking plates
on the curl of his arm, a table of people
toasting one another in languages of grace:
For you who came so far;
For you who held out, wearing a black scarf
to signify grief;
For you who believe true love can find you
amidst this atlas of tears linking one town
to its own memory of mortar,
when it was still a dream to be built
and people moved here, believing,
and someone with sky and birds in his heart
said this would be a good place for a park.