‘Blood’ by Naomi Shihab Nye is a five stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The lines are written in free verse. This means that there is no rhyme scheme or metrical pattern present. This poem is intensely narrative, the fact that there is no rhyme/rhythm scheme makes that narrative all the more believable.
It is clear from context clues that ‘Blood’ comes from the poet’s own life. The difficulties faced by the family in ‘Blood’ also mirror those in the poet’s own life. She is a Palestinian-American who was born in St. Louis, Missouri. In ‘Blood’ Nye faces trouble reconciling the two sides of her identity, she is Palestinian, Arab, and American. Naomi Shihab Nye speaks about her poetry and her upbringing here.
Summary of Blood
The poem begins with the speaker telling a few stories from her youth. These were moments in which her father declared what a “true Arab” is. They always occurred in conjunction with proverb-like sayings or happenings. There were humorous moments in other’s homes, strange encounters at their own doorstep, and terrible events that defied explanation.
The latter is what the second half of the poem focuses on. Something occurred that shocked Nye and her family. She turned to her father for answers as she always did, and he didn’t have any. She then went out into the countryside of her American home and asked the sheep and cows and sky what she should think, do, and what kind of person she should become.
You can also read the full poem here.
Analysis of Blood
“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,”(…)while the host with the swatter stared.
In the first lines of ‘Blood’ the speaker, who is generally considered to be the poet herself, begins by relaying an incident with her father. This is something that has happened more than once, and always at someone else’s house. Her father, after seeing a fly in the room, would catch it “instantly” in his hands. He would tell the host,
“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands”
This quick statement, then the capture of the fly, would always shock the host. They “stared” while holding their fly swatter, ready to act, but too late to do anything.
The first four lines read like a proverb, a short saying, in this case, attached to a story, that speaks to a truth. Or at least what someone believes is a generalized truth. There is a lot of humour in this brief story. But also a lot of imagery. This continues into the next stanzas as Nye’s poignant choice of words crafts a variety of scenes and images.
In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.(…)I changed these to fit the occasion.
In the next three lines of ‘Blood’ the speaker starts by describing something that happens to everyone, or at least those in the same community she is in. Their “palms peeled like snakes.” This is another vibrant image that is at once amusing and deeply human. She also presents another belief that all “True Arabs” trusted in. It is that,
[…] watermelon could heal fifty ways.
Used twice, the phrase “True Arab” is interesting to contemplate. It connects directly with the larger theme of identity. The speaker is presenting things, true or not, that she is supposed to believe in. Nye does not state whether or not she does, but simply that these ultimatum-like ways of existing around her. If she wants to be Arab, she needs to be this way.
The last line of this stanza states that she “changed” these sayings to fit different occasions. This also says something interesting about her identity. She does not subscribe to what they are saying completely, she is willing to adapt to new situations.
Years before, a girl knocked,wanted to see the Arab.(…)Once I said, “When we die, we give it back?”He said that’s what a true Arab would say.
In the third stanza of ‘Blood’ Nye recalls another incident that drew attention to her heritage and identity as Arab. She was at home when a girl knocked on the door asking “to see the Arab.” Nye replies that they “didn’t have one.”
The next lines are another recollection, this time of a tender moment with her father. Perhaps after this incident occurred, her father took her to the side and gave her a word to consider him as. This is part of his identity, beyond being Arab. “Shibab” was the word he shared, it meant “shooting star.” A reader will notice that this is Nye’s middle name.
The name is a “good” one that was “borrowed from the sky.” This touched Nye, and she asked if our names, when we die, return to where they came. Her father appeared to approve of this and tell her that, “thats’s what a true Arab would say.”
Today the headlines clot in my blood.A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page.(…)I wave the flag of stone and seed,table mat stitched in blue.
It is in the fourth stanza of ‘Blood’ the tone and mood of Blood change. Something happens, there is an event in the ”headlines” that alter the speaker’s world. It becomes a “clot” in her blood. This is an interesting way of describing how physical her reaction to this event was. It changed her internally, and eventually forced her to question her notion of identity.
The tragedy is vaguely described in the next lines. It has a “terrible root.” It comes from somewhere deep inside the community, somewhere that her identity does touch but now she must contend with. It is “too big” for her and her family members to deal with or understand. She asks in the fourth line,
[…] What flag can we wave?
Now that this event has happened, she does not know, American or Palestinian, who is she? Which country is she supposed to pledge her allegiance to or care most about in her heart.
As an answer to this impossible question, she says that she waved “the flag of stone and seed / table mat stitched in blue.”
I call my father, we talk around the news.It is too much for him,(…)Where can the crying heart graze?What does a true Arab do now?
In stanza five of Blood, now that the tragedy has passed, whatever it may have been, the speaker goes to her father to talk about it. Together they are still unable to come up with the words to describe it. Her father can speak in two languages and neither of them “can reach it.” This attests to the depth that this incident penetrated. It was a shock to her family and to her larger community.
When her family did not have the answers for her, or a way for her to cope with the events, she went into the country. This is another kind of solace that she has access to as an American citizen. She wants to speak with the
To plead with the air:
When she gets there, and she is able to express her fears openly she asks the world who is “civilized” and how that designation is given. She also wants to think about “the crying heart” and where it can find comfort and safety. She describes it as “graz[ing],” like one of the sheep or cows she searched for. Finally, she needs to ask the most poignant question of all,
What does a true Arab do now?
Her world does not have an answer for her. The father she always turned to, and who always knew what an Arab would do in every situation, can not explain what comes next. It becomes necessary for her to question her own identity and the rules she lives by. Perhaps there is an answer in the countryside somewhere, but the poem stops after this last question. It is left to hang in the air, unanswered.