Written by Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, the poem below is launched in a childish tone, but closes in a distinctly mature voice. For me, this combination of child/adult voices is what makes the poem interesting, what makes it work. Otherwise, the piece stands the risk of being another doe-eyed “barrio” poem.
But it is not. It is a rather masterful poem representative of Nye’s highly respected and abundant body of work.
Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change
Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
I’ve watched one for three years, she says,
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.
Peter isn’t sure. He saw an abandoned track
near Sabinas, Mexico, and says a track without a train
is a changed track. The metal wasn’t shiny anymore.
The wood was split and some of the ties were gone.
Every Tuesday on Morales Street
butchers crack the necks of a hundred hens.
The widow in the tilted house
spices her soup with cinnamon.
Ask her what doesn’t change.
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.
The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.
When I got my master’s degree in Liberal Studies from the CUNY Grad Center, my area of concentration was Modernity, and it seems to me that Nye’s poem grapples with the challenges of modernity in so many ways as to be a veritable case study.
The train and its tracks, the steam engine on wheels, the Iron Horse, is the icon of the Industrial Revolution, the bringer of change, the harbinger of global capitalism, the disrupter, the devourer of distances. Suddenly, people could be “whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is,” wrote Thoreau in “Walden.” Yet here, in Nye’s poem, the railroad is proposed as the thing that does not change. Roselva knows this empirically, because she has “watched one for three years.” Peter’s doubts are empirically based as well, on observations he made in Sabinas, Mexico. The charm of the poem is in seeing the neighborhood children (around ten years old?) trying to make sense of their world. But the adult perspective of the narrator introduces the butchers on Morales Street and the widow spicing her soup with cinnamon, and with these comes death: of a hundred chickens, of one husband. Is death the name of the thing that doesn’t change? Is that why we should ask the widow? Even stars die, and roses, and cats. Even these children trying to make sense of their world live in the valley of the shadow of death.
The last four lines are a riddle: What are the different things that the train’s horn carries away as it fades?
This is a trope of contemporary poetry. The enigmatic poem fades away with an unanswered and unanswerable question. The poet hesitates to commit to a fixed position.
What the poem says, however, is that the train’s wail is ancient; the icon of the new has become, in the contemporary world, something ancient–something for which we already feel nostalgia. Far from taking something different with it every time, the wail actually evokes memories–Nye’s train whistle is her madeleine soaked in tisane, from which Morales Street springs into being.
Contemporary poets don’t want to appear sentimental, as if feeling were a crime. If, in the last verse paragraph, “when” were changed to “before” and “takes” to “brings,” the poem would conclude without being enigmatic. Instead, it would merit the praise that Dr. Johnson heaped on Gray’s “Elegy”: “The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.” Nye could have done that by changing two words, but she chose the path of least resistance.
Two images in particular got my attention: the butchers on Morales Street and “the cat who knew me.” The killing of the hens is brutal, but my mouth watered for fresh chicken instead of frozen. And the cat who knew me is not the same as the cat that I knew; it’s a special cat. There are other images as well that linger: soup spiced with cinnamon, the rose oxidized. You might think there’s nothing new about any of this, but have you read it said exactly this way before? I haven’t. It’s just these things that make poetry poetry–not fancy word play and not a retreat into the enigmatic.
Here is William Cowper on his pet Tiney, a “wild Jack-hare,” “surliest of his kind,” who literally would bite the hand that fed him, and on Puss, Cowper’s old cat:
Eight years and five round-rolling moons
He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out his idle noons,
And ev’ry night at play.
I kept him for his humour’s sake,
For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.
But now, beneath this walnut-shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
‘Till gentler Puss shall come.
He, still more aged, feels the shocks
From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney’s box,
Must soon partake his grave.
How many times must we be told that the grave awaits us all? And yet, it doesn’t hurt to be told again with wit and charm, with Tiney and Puss as our stand-ins. Contemporary poets don’t want to tell us hoary truths. They seem possessed with an anxiety that everything has already been said. It’s true that everything has already been said–everything had already been said before Shakespeare said it but not in just the way he said it. If Nye is saying that death is the name of the thing that never changes–or maybe it could be called change or loss–she is saying nothing new, but Morales Street is new; Roselva and Peter and the widow are all new. Loss and memory are the sources of lyric poetry. There is nothing wrong with saying it again and saying it differently. Why not also say it affectingly?
Contemporary critical theory values (I should say “valorizes,” but the word annoys me, like “privilege” as a verb) the indeterminate ending. There are critics who would praise the ending of Nye’s poem for its restraint and delicacy, seeing how the thoughts fade away like the fading of the whistle. But for my money (to use an expression as crass as my commonplace mind), this ending is just a tic of fashionable poetics. And fashion is the enemy of style. It is the enemy of art.
I am disappointed that Nye, who writes affectingly, abdicates at the end. To some it isn’t abdication but true art; it challenges the reader rather than comforting the reader with an image of Old Puss in the box with Tiney. But is it really so comforting to think of Old Puss in the grave with Tiney?
If I had a subtler mind, I would be able to see that the train whistle at the end of Nye’s poem both brings and takes. By reviving the narrator’s memory of her losses, the train takes away once more the things she loved and lost. Memory, in other words, is an infamous cheat. Having solved the riddle, I can now enjoy the spectacle of the poet hurling herself from the city walls and can enter Thebes and meet my fate. But always at my back I hear my students’ tortured wailing clear: “If that’s what the poet meant, why didn’t she say it?”
In this case, notwithstanding my awesome subtlety in riddling the sphinx, I find the wail justified. Nye does not say that memory is an infamous cheat; that’s something I learned from life and from other poems. But if the poem challenged us to find an answer and we came up with this oh-so-interesting interpretation, hasn’t the poet done an outstanding job?
The answer is no. Nor has the inventive critic done an outstanding job. As a critic, my job is to point out that Nye, who has written affectingly, at the end of her poem punted. She falls back on a cheap trick. Poets need critics who call them out for the good and bad of what they write.
Listen, I’m not opposed to mystery. I adore real mystery and deplore fake mystery, and contemporary poetry is littered with the latter. I’d like to rip it out, root and branch, and the root of it is a misunderstanding of “make it new.” But explaining that misunderstanding takes more space than a comment, and I have already taken too much space.
First of all, thank you for taking the time to explore and respond to this poem in such detail. I am certainly glad it sparked such a reaction, be it ultimately positive or negative. Poetry is meant to work both ways, no?
About the mystery, I have to say that I am a supporter. Both in narrative and in poetry actually. I like the wondering feeling I guess. But that is just a matter of tastes, and I am probably part of the minority on this.
I do agree that the poem is lazy though, and am glad you picked that up, too.