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

Stanza 1 begins in medias res, in the middle of things, with letters and notes set aflame and quickly consumed. In dramatic terms, this sets the scene for the rest of the poem, telling us the speaker is burning letters that, for her, represent “the old year.” In a few short lines, several startling images appear. Letters do not merely burn but “swallow themselves;” notes “sizzle” like another fragile, delicate thing, “moth wings,” and in my favorite image of the poem, “marry the air.” I love that figure for its sound, the rhyme of the first syllable of “marry” with “air,” and also for its sense, a sublimation that converts a solid into a gaseous state, and hence into more fuel for the fire. It makes me think of photosynthesis weaving air and light into wood, and how fire both reverses and reinforces that process.

“So much of any year is flammable” begins the second stanza, which echoes in “year” the sounds of “marry” and “air,” and continues and expands the fire imagery of the first stanza. Here, it is grocery lists and unfinished poems that burn, then something larger and more abstract: the “flame of days.” It’s not a full rhyme, but the assonance between “flame” and “days” is strong. “Days” recalls the title as we consider that a year is made of days, and both burn in this poem. The stanza concludes with “so little is stone,” a reminder that there is little of a year in our lives that does not burn, whether in the form of small fires we set ourselves or in the greater furnace of time. Notice how the “So much” that begins stanza 3 is balanced and completed by the “so little” that concludes it. What is the tone of “so little is a stone?” To me it is mixed. There is regret that so little survives the fire, so little lasts of any given year. But, on the other hand, who wants to be a stone?

The mixed tone begs the question of how the speaker feels about all this—is there, ultimately, a sense of loss from “burning the old year?” No, on the contrary, the poem tells us that the absence left behind by the flames is one that “shouts” and “celebrates.” It also “leaves a space,” a phrase that reminds me of these famous lines by Masahide: “Barn burnt down / Now I can see the moon.” The burning is an exuberant act, and it reminds me again of my friend jumping over the bonfire to celebrate Nowruz. It enables what happens next, a new start. “I begin again with the smallest numbers,” the speaker says, slant rhyme contributing the music to sing of this simple act. What is meant by “smallest numbers?” I think they represent the new days of the year and also a determination to go back to the beginning, to elemental zero, a clean slate and place from which to rebuild.

The syntax of the last stanza, with its medial caesura, mimics the actions being described: a “quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves.” “Shuffle” is onomatopoeic of the action it names—that is, it drag-slides like a balletic glissade or the movement hands make when shuffling cards or papers. “[L]osses and leaves” is alliterative and includes the only word— “leaves”—repeated in the poem. Used as a verb in stanza 3, it describes what happens when fire consumes something: it “leaves” an absence. Seeing it again in line 13, this time used as a noun and placed at the end of the line, makes me pay special attention to the word. On one level, I think what is happening is a reordering (shuffling) of priorities or of how we view things: a loss can leave a space for something new and wondrous, like Masahide’s moon. “Leaves” also evokes pages of a book or pieces of paper, like what was burned in the first stanza, and might also refer to another traditional symbol of the dying year—autumn leaves.

In any event, being able to recast losses as gains brings the speaker to her final and central revelation: the notion that it is not what she did that rankles (communicated by another onomatopoeic word, “crackles”) into the new year after she has burned the old one, but instead “the things I didn’t do.” Perhaps she means resolutions made the year before and not kept. Or perhaps, the regret we always feel for what didn’t happen, what we did not say or do. In life, what we do is end-stopped as the past tense, finished. What we fail to do is potential, a continuity, an enjambed line looking for its completion in the next line of the poem of our life. How interesting that the line that expresses this concept, line 14, is enjambed and the only non-end-stopped line in the poem! Did the author plan this? Maybe not consciously, but it is, like those words whose sounds echo each other within and across lines, part of what makes the machine of this poem hum.

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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!