Poetry Sunday: “Burning the Old Year,” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Burning the Old Year

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.


Naomi Shihab Nye, “Burning the Old Year,” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Far Corner Books 1995). Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Reprinted with the permission of the author and available here.



Naomi Shihab Nye was born on March 12, 1952, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. During her high school years, she lived in Ramallah in Palestine, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she later received her B.A. in English and world religions from Trinity University. Nye is the author of numerous books of poems, including Transfer (BOA Editions 2011); You and Yours (BOA Editions 2005), which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award; 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (Greenwillow Books 2002), a collection of new and selected poems about the Middle East; Fuel (BOA Editions 1998); Red Suitcase (BOA Editions 1994); and Hugging the Jukebox (Far Corner Books 1982). She is also the author of several books of poetry and fiction for children, including Habibi (Simon Pulse 1997), for which she received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award in 1998.

Nye gives voice to her experience as an Arab-American through poems about heritage and peace that overflow with a humanitarian spirit. About her work, the poet William Stafford has said: “Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.” Her poems and short stories have appeared in various journals and reviews throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle and Far East. She has traveled to the Middle East and Asia for the United States Information Agency three times, promoting international goodwill through the arts. Nye’s honors include awards from the International Poetry Forum and the Texas Institute of Letters; the Carity Randall Prize; and four Pushcart Prizes. She has been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Witter Bynner Fellow. In 1988, she received the Academy of American Poets’ Lavan Award, judged by W.S. Merwin. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2010 to 2015. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas. [See www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/naomi-shihab-nye]

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  • Meryl Natchez January 1, 2018 at 1:15 pm

    “Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
    an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space…”

    A beautiful rendering of the experience of loss. Thanks for great choices this year, Becky!