book Fuel

reviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 20 ~ January, 1999

In the interest of fairness, I should begin by admitting that I’ve been a Naomi Shihab Nye fan since I was old enough to read. I grew up in San Antonio, where Nye lives, and I took a poetry class with her when I was about seven. (I remember being the youngest person in the class by a long shot, and I remember writing a poem shaped like an hourglass, and I remember her laugh and her braid.) I own an LP of folk music and children’s songs, written and performed by Nye, printed with a photograph of her holding a guinea hen. (It’s autographed, “For Rachel, with love, Naomi and the chicken.”)

In more recent years I’ve read and enjoyed several books of her poetry. I look to Nye for the inspiration one seeks in a hometown poet: someone who came from where I came from, who’s doing great things. Proof that great things can stem from somewhere near my roots. I have high expectations of Naomi Shihab Nye. So I fully expected to enjoy Fuel, her latest collection of poems from BOA Editions (1998).

Fuel blew me away. It was so good I spread the initial reading of it out into two days, so I could stop and savor, knowing there was more to read. I haven’t done that with a new book of poems since Marge Piercy’s What are Big Girls Made Of? came out in 1997. Don’t even bother finishing this review: hie thee to a bookstore, and get Fuel now.

Did you buy it? Good. Now that you’ve gotten yourself a copy, and have returned to this review just for the fun of it, I can try to explain what’s so good about this book.

Nye doesn’t pull punches. She’s graceful, but she’s fierce, like the best black belts I know. The book begins with a poem entitled “Muchas Gracias por Todo:”

This plane has landed thanks to God and his mercy.
That’s what they say in Jordan when the plane sets down.
What do they say in our country? Don’t stand up until we tell you.
Stay in your seats. Things may have shifted.

With these two couplets you’re firmly lodged inside Nye’s point of view. The difference between the Arab perspective and the American perspective has appeared. The difference between the Arab perspective, and what most Americans think is the Arab perspective, has appeared alongside it. “Stay in your seats. Don’t stand up until we tell you” takes on at least two meanings; suddenly inside the words we’ve all heard a flight attendant intone there’s social commentary. Don’t stand up, Arabs. “Stay in your seats. Things may have shifted.” Having just visited the Middle East, I doubt there is a better way to encapsulate the Middle Eastern experience. Things may have shifted.

Nye makes the feminist slogan “the personal is political” real. Her Arab-American heritage is part and parcel of her poetry: if you want to hear what she has to say, you have to accept the Arab voice she speaks in. It’s unsettling, particularly for a liberal American Jew who wants to consider herself fair to both sides in the complicated saga of Israel and Palestine. The poems dealing with the Arab experience are among her strongest, and they’re hard for me to read. They discomfort me. But I come back to them again and again because there is a truth in them and because they do not blame. (As Nye wrote in a much earlier poem, “Jerusalem,” “I’m not interested in/ who suffered the most./ I’m interested in/ people getting over it.”)

But not all of the poems in Fuel deal with the Arab experience. There is a poem about how a woman on an airplane asked Nye to hold her baby, and returned an hour later having showered and changed her clothes in the airplane lavatory. There is a poem called “Eye Test,” in which the letters on an eye chart ache (“We are so tired of meaning nothing”) to speak.

There are wonderful poems in the voices of children, which must stem from Nye’s years teaching poetry to children and being a poet-in-the-schools. “One Boy Told Me” includes lines like:

Don’t ever say “purpose” again,
let’s throw the word out.
Don’t talk big to me.
I’m carrying my box of faces.
If I want to change faces I will.
Yesterday’s faded
but tomorrow’s in BOLDFACE.

The genius of these lines is not their quirky logic; for all I know, a boy did say them to her. Or a girl. Or several children in several voices at several times. What impresses me is that Nye caught the underlying importance of these childish phrasings and hung on to them until they could be reinvented in the poem.

“Boy and Mom at the Nutcracker Ballet” is also wonderful, funny, a little sad, like eavesdropping on the title couple in a theater.

Fuel also holds beautiful poems about San Antonio. “Feather” is about “Mrs. Esquivel of the waving plants,” who is walking up the street from Sanitary Tortilla with her pink mesh shopping bag. There are poems about Alaska and about traveling in Japan. There is a poem about Nye’s immigrant uncle’s favorite coffee shop.

What draws these diverse topics together is their calm, understated locution. W’ei T’ai has written, “Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.” Fuel could be a textbook, a primer, for how to live out W’ei T’ai’s injunction. Nye presents the things, the voices, the coincidences of the world around us. The feeling behind them is all the more palpable for not being explicitly spoken.

On a most personal level, I think I am in love with Fuel because it broke a (brief, but frustrating) dry spell. I was a dozen poems into the book when I had to close it to write the first draft of something new. I wrote a second new poem on the second day of my reading. (I almost wish I had stretched the book out over a week, given myself limited packets of Nye every morning, to see if the creative streak would have continued). The quiet intensity of Nye’s diction, the sharpness of her eye, pushed me into writing for the first time in a week. It appears that my oldest poetry teacher can still push me, even from a thousand miles and many years away.

Nye is one of those writers who makes me want to read, and makes me want to live, and makes me want to write. What more can I say? Fuel is exactly what it claims to be: something to take in and to consume, something that will impel you forward.

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Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at