Separation Wall

Naomi Shihab Nye
September 19, 2019
Photo: Nikola Ivan Andjelic

In her poetry collection The Tiny Journalist (BOA Editions, 2019), Naomi Shihab Nye draws on the Facebook posts of 13-year-old Palestinian journalist Janna Jihad Ayyad and on her own Palestinian family’s history to construct a textured portrait of life under occupation. “Separation Wall”—from  that collection—names the restrictive infrastructure of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. As the poem unfolds, Nye collaborates with the expansiveness of childhood creativity. What begins as “sour” separation—the twoness of apartheid, from the Afrikaans “apartness”—transforms into a more vast twoness: life as it is and life as it could be. By the poem’s end, the wall is not only an instrument of segregation, but also a catalyst for the imagination.

– Claire Schwartz

Separation Wall 

When the milk is sour, 
it separates. 

The next time you stop speaking, 
ask yourself why you were born. 

They say they are scared of us.
The nuclear bomb is scared of the cucumber.

When my mother asks me to slice cucumbers, 
I feel like a normal person with fantastic dilemmas: 

Do I make rounds or sticks? Shall I trim the seeds? 
I ask my grandmother if there was ever a time 

she felt like a normal person every day, 
not in danger, and she thinks for as long 

as it takes a sun to set and says, Yes. 
I always feel like a normal person. 

They just don’t see me as one. 
We would like the babies not to find out about 

the failures waiting for them. I would like 
them to believe on the other side of the wall 

is a circus that just hasn’t opened yet. Our friends, 
learning how to juggle, to walk on tall poles. 

Naomi Shihab Nye is Young People’s Poet Laureate (Poetry Foundation) of the nation, and the editor of poems for the Sunday New York Times Magazine.