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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

After featuring four longish narrative poems this month, I thought I’d close out the year with a brief lyric. And what better way than with a poem bearing this one’s apt and evocative title, “Burning the Old Year”? When I first read this poem, I assumed it was describing a New Year’s tradition, perhaps from Palestine. In most religions and cultures fire is a symbol of purification and transformation, as in a tradition celebrating the Persian New Year, Nowruz, that requires women to light, and then jump over, a blazing bonfire. I’ve also heard of a Russian New Year custom of writing one’s wishes, burning the paper, and then drinking the ashes in a glass of champagne. The “transparent scarlet paper” in today’s poem sounds a lot like joss paper, also known as ghost money, used in ‘burnt offerings’ in Chinese ancestral worship at funerals or for holidays. At my last birthday, we touched matches to tiny rolled-up squares of red tissue paper, then watched as they flew into the air as petals of ash that glowed, floated, then went dark before they fell.

But my Internet research turned up no evidence for burning letters or notes as part of a New Year ritual in Palestine or elsewhere in the Middle East. And in fact I found to my dismay that search terms including “Palestine” and “burning” yielded results that were beyond distressing to read. The recent history in Palestine of the burning of homes, villages, people, even children is horrific and tragic. In the end, I decided that what is being described in today’s poem is more of a personal than cultural ritual, but Nye speaks with such power and authority that she makes of it her own credible myth.

This poem is very brief—just 15 lines in four stanzas (five lines, four lines, then two tercets)—and is written in unrhymed, unmetered free verse. Line breaks are conventional, and in every case but one—the penultimate line—are end-stopped with commas or periods. Within this small space, there is a great deal of variety in terms of line length, from just three words in line 9 (“marry the air”) and seven in line 11 (“Where there was something and suddenly isn’t”). Stanzas 1-3 each contain two full sentences, while the last stanza contains just one full sentence parsed across three lines. Stanza 3 also enjoys the distinction of including the only truly enjambed and non-end-stopped line (14) of the poem. These things may seem random, but they clearly are not; through them the poem embodies a subconscious structure that contributes to its coherence without subtracting from its apparent—and welcoming—simplicity and intimacy. Like many great poems, this one has a surface transparency that makes it easy to wade in, but once penetrated reveals mystery and depth.

Another thing to notice is that until the very end of the poem, its “characters”—the figures that carry the poem’s action—are mostly nonhuman, even inanimate objects. And just look at what they do: letters “swallow,” notes “sizzle” and “marry,” lists “swirl” with flames, and absence “shouts.” It is not until line 12 that the speaker enters, as a first-person “I,” appearing twice; but then the poem concludes with another inanimate object or idea carrying the action in the words “blazing dies.” Giving agency and vigorous, vivid action to these objects and ideas is one of the sources of the power in this poem; it is as if everything around us has come alive before, or while, it is eaten by fire.

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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!