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  • Anthem for Aziz
  • Norbert Hirschhorn (bio)
Transfer. Naomi Shihab Nye. BOA Editions, Ltd. 121 pages; cloth, $23.00; paper, $16.00.

The inmost spirit of at bottom...the voice of pain—and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry, is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.

—Ted Hughes

The back cover holds the first telling clue to an understanding of this book. A picture of the poet, age 8, and her father taken a photo booth shows them looking into the mirror. His fleshy hands and face embrace and protect her; her face is lit up with delight and surprise at what she sees. Transfer is about the loss of this father, Aziz Shihab—Palestinian, American—and his people's loss of Palestine. Aziz Shihab was a journalist and author of two memoirs (Does the Land Remember Me? [2007] and A Taste of Palestine [1993]). He was an exuberant man, greeting everyone as a friend (sometimes to the embarrassment of his children), singing loudly in the shower in two languages. His daughter recounts in the introduction her frustration at not having a dialogue with her father while he was alive. After his death, through this collection, she becomes his "anthem." The whole book is a eulogy to the man. "Missing him contains moments so intense I don't know how I will continue." An interview with the two may be seen on YouTube, conducted just months before his death from kidney and heart failure.

Aziz Shihab (1927-2007), expelled from his Jerusalem home in 1948, left Palestine in 1950 to study journalism in the U.S. He married an American, and Naomi was born in 1952. She grew up in a home that privileged "clear attention to language." She describes herself as a "wandering poet," one who goes all over the world to bring stories and poetry about peace, humanity, and the Palestinian cause to poetry workshops and to school children and their teachers. It is a mission her father engaged in, speaking to anyone or any group that would listen: Jews, Evangelicals, Muslims, people in shops and diners. "We were born to wander, to grieve / lost lineage, what we did to one another, / on a planet so wide open for doing."

In the poem "Scared, Scarred, Sacred," the poet remembers the time her father explained the need for a bus transfer. After his death, she finds stacks of pink transfer tags in his drawer, pulled off suitcases used on long flights. (An impressionistic image of a tag dominates the front cover.)

All your life you were flying back to    your lost life....You kept the key, as Palestinians do.You kept the doorknocker.And now you are homeless for real.Fire ate your body, you became as big as    the sky.

The poet is surely playing upon the other, sinister meaning of "transfer": the euphemism that Israeli leaders used in the late 1940s to describe the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from their land and homes.

In a sequence of eleven poems ("Just Call Me Aziz"), Nye uses titles taken verbatim from his notebooks and composes poems written to the titles (she says they "emerged"), but in her father's voice. The voice is direct, generous, and unsophisticated. "Why was someone else's need for a house / greater than our need for our own homes / we were already living in?" Here, however, is the nub of the Israeli-Palestinian (Jewish-Arab) conflict. Was it ever possible for a people afflicted over centuries by expulsions, pogroms, and a final genocide to find a safe haven, a homeland, without displacing some other population? That displacement is ongoing. For Palestinians, Nye writes, "it was like a person who had died in another country / and we never had been able to wash the body."

Yet Aziz was not a bitter man. He hoped for peace; he prayed for and expected peace. In her eulogy at the end of the book ("Wavelength"), Nye repeats "his endless stubborn hope—someday there will be justice for Palestinians and Israelis living, somehow, the cousins, or brother and sisters, they always were...