‘Supple Cord’ by Naomi Shihab Nye uses remarkably simple terms to express a similarly simple link between two siblings: a “cord.” This “cord” represents their unity, and the “connect[ion]” proved so strong that even after adult “separat[ion],” the narrator still holds it dear. This is, again, a simple method of expressing the idea that strong unions that are created in such vulnerable moments can be moving enough to remain a part of a person, even after ways “separate.” You can read the full poem, ‘Supple Cord,’ here.
Supper Cord Analysis
My brother, in his small white bed,
to signal I was still awake.
There are minimal details of the setting or character occurring in these first lines of ‘Supple Cord’. The reader, at this point, can only know from the lines that the narrator shared a room with her “brother” while he was in a “small white bed,” and the narrator “tugged” at the “end” of a “cord” “to signal [she] was still awake” to her sibling as he “held” the other “end.” In like manner to the minimal details of scenery and character, this “cord” is very minimal as well since it provides a very “small” link between these siblings. Still, this link was sufficient to keep the two “connect[ed]” to “one another” in a meaningful way.
The question could arise within the reader as to why the “brother” would have wanted to know that his sister was “still awake” in order to create the need for this “small” link. There is no information provided about what circumstance caused this need, and once again, this relates to the minimal quality of the information provided. Essentially, it did not matter what the reason was. It only mattered that this “cord” existed to “connect” them when both siblings wanted it enough to keep holding on to their “end[s].” They needed to know that the other was there, and “awake.” As long as they had that knowledge of “one another,” their world was as pure as the “white” color of the “brother[‘s]” “bed,” though the minuteness of the gesture indicates that their place in the world was as “small” as that same “bed.” If they had more sources of “comfort,” this “tugg[ing]” would not have mattered so drastically, which indicates that their world was primarily just the two of them.
We could have spoken,
could have sung
to one another,
even if we had been bickering
Just as the “connect[ion]” between the two siblings was noted as “small” by symbolism, this series of lines indicates, at first glance, that it is also fragile—“soft” and “little,” with “frayed ends.” However, this speaks to the strength of the relationship between the “brother” and sister that while it is a “soft” link, it is strong enough to withstand a bit of “fray” and “bickering.” This “soft[ness]” shows care shared between the two to provide the “comfort” that such a “small” “cord” achieved, and this is a link that was so strong that it did not require a word to be spoken or “sung.”
This familiarity and “comfort” by proximity and alertness could be a product of the “five years” the two “were in the same room,” and this time boosted the amount of strength that the two gained from this “connect[ion]” “in the dark.” Something in their lives was trying, “dark,” and they existed in it together in this united manner that gave them the strength to continue in it.
This gesture is so “small,” but so meaningful to these children, and it is reflected in the simplicity of the line structure in ‘Supple Cord’. These lines are given in such “small” doses that Lines 8 through 16 form a compound sentence. This means that nine lines are required for one sentence, and this mimics the “tugg[ing]” gesture of “comfort” between the two siblings—a “small” “tug” here, and another “tug” there to build strength, like small lines forming a coherent sentence.
When he fell asleep first
and his end of the cord
and we had such long and separate lives
These final lines indicate that the process of “tugg[ing]” in this manner meant as much to the narrator as it did to the “brother” since once “he fell asleep… and his end of the cord dropped to the floor,” she “missed him terribly.” Noticeable is that the “brother” seemed to always go to “sleep first,” which reveals that the narrator never let him be the one to experience the sadness of “miss[ing the other] terribly.” It was a burden she endured, and this speaks volumes to how much she cared for this “brother.”
Regardless, the feeling of loss proved a bit unreasonable since she still “could hear his even breath,” but a key element at work here is that the “brother” was not “awake” with her. This implies that she wanted the “brother” to be aware of her presence and alert to what was happening around him, as if the struggle of life they shared needed a conscious mind to offer “comfort.” In this, the reader can infer that the narrator preferred to share awareness to be at ease, which could be a general comment about an average person needing a companion who thinks, sees, and approaches life with open eyes. If such is the case, this poem has stepped away from the simple tale of a pair of children and into the nature of a person in struggle. To be “comfort[ed]” in the truest manner, awareness must be there, even for adults.
This tie into adulthood continues in the final two lines when the narrator notes that they “had such long and separate lives ahead.” Essentially, this comment does not feel like something a child would have made since that child would not have known what awaited them in the future. This adds a level of understanding to ‘Supple Cord’ since it becomes clear that the narrator is giving this information as a fond reminiscence that is supported by the use of past tense verbs, and this, in turn, boosts the level of desperation that befalls the situation with the “cord.” That “cord” was their “connection,” so after becoming “separate,” every bit of “connection” possible—even the memory of such a tiny gesture—would have been worthwhile, perhaps precious.
Since their “lives” became so “separate,” even this fragile “connect[ion]” matters because it references ties that will always unite them. Though they might “miss [each other] terribly,” they will always be joined because of this “frayed” “cord” and the link it represents. This boosts the level of strength that was noted in the “cord” in that it unites the two in “separate” years to the point where this narrator still holds the memory as a fond thing.
This can represent youthful ties, as well as ties forged in a mutual struggle. Overall, “separat[ion]” can be a sad concept, but it is not necessarily sufficient to break the “connect[ion].”
About Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952, and she is an American writer whose works include novels, songs, and poems. She attended Trinity University for her bachelor’s degree and has provided social commentary, particularly after September 11, 2001. In regard to her ancestry, her heritage includes Palestinian, Swiss, and German ties.