This narrative poem uses a wide variety of images to help convey the speaker’s brief but powerful connection to the young girl. While she only took care of her for a few moments in ‘Wedding Cake,’ she acknowledges the encounter as one that’s going to stay with her, if not with the child, for a long time.
Explore Wedding Cake
‘Wedding Cake’ by Naomi Shihab Nye is a narrative poem that recalls a brief moment of contact between the speaker and a young child she watches.
The speaker is asked to watch a young girl at the beginning of the poem and takes care of her for an hour while her mother changes clothes and washes her hair in the bathroom. The mother returns before long, taking the child back. The speaker is somewhat distressed by this. She doesn’t want to give the child back and is already looking into the future and trying to remember what she experienced at this moment. She feels like the child’s secret guardian, someone who took care of her in an important moment but who no one will remember. This doesn’t stop her from feeling connected to her.
You can read the full poem here.
Once on a plane
a woman asked me to hold her baby
I figured it was safe,
our being on a plane and all.
and I had examined
each other’s necks.
We had cried a little.
In the first lines of ‘Wedding Cake,’ the speaker begins by describing a seemingly unimportant event. She was passed a baby, while on a plane, and asked to hold her. This simple action is an unusual topic or a poem but, as it progresses, it becomes clear why this moved the speaker and what the poet is trying to accomplish with these lines.
It didn’t take long, after holding the baby, to grow attached to her. The mother returned after an hour having changed her clothes and washed her hair. It’s clear that she needed a break (something that’s emphasized in later lines). Between the two of them, they cried a little and examined one another in a fascinated way.
I had a silver bracelet
and a watch.
Gold studs glittered
in the baby’s ears.
She wore a tiny white dress
leafed with layers
I read new new new.
My mother gets tired.
I’ll chew your hand.
The speaker adds specific details about her earrings and the child’s outfit. She resembles a wedding cake, something that’s emphasized through the use of a simile. Before readers even get to these lines, and the speaker’s declaration that she didn’t want to give the child back, it’s clear she’s become quickly attached. There are tiny details about the young girl that fascinate the speaker. To her, this child is a gift, something that she’s wanted. She’s “new” and has to be given back to a tired mother.
The baby left my skirt crumpled,
my lap aching.
Now I’m her secret guardian,
the little nub of dream
that rises slightly
She could slip the card into a pocket,
pull it out.
Already she knew the small finger
was funnier than the whole arm.
There are only a few things left behind after the mother takes the baby back. These include the wrinkled clothes and the speaker’s attachment. She’s bonded with the child so quickly that she feels like her “secret guardian” and as such, she should be consulted about the child’s future. She has questions about what’s going to happen to her next and emotionally returns to the image of the wedding cake “between two doilies of cloud.” This was a tender moment, one that’s not to be repeated.
Structure and Form
‘Wedding Cake’ by Naomi Shihab Nye is a forty-eight-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they don’t follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, despite this, readers can find a few literary devices as work, some of which help to unify the poem.
Throughout ‘Wedding Cake,’ Nye makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet includes especially vibrant descriptions in their writing. For example, “Gold studs glittered / in the baby’s ears” and “She wore a tiny white dress / leafed with layers / like a wedding cake.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the same consonant sound is repeated at the beginning of words. For example, “Gold” and “glittered” in line seventeen and “wore” and “white” in line nineteen.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines fifteen and sixteen.
The tone is descriptive and nostalgic. The speaker is looking back on a brief time in her life, one that lasted only an hour, but was filled with emotion. Even when she was still in the moment, she was thinking about the future and how she’d feel.
The speaker is a woman who is flying on a plane. She’s asked to hold a child and quickly becomes attached to her. Because of this fact, it seems like that she wants her own child and for some reason doesn’t have one.
The themes are motherhood and the future. The speaker is considering her own role in the world, and the implied fact that she doesn’t have a child. This is something at this moment that she feels acutely, and it’s like why she became so attached so quickly.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Wedding Cake’ should also consider reading some other Naomi Shihab Nye poems. For example:
- ‘Kindness’ – describes how people can practice kindness in their day-to-day lives and why they have to be kind to all.
- ‘Blood’ – speaks on the poet’s own sense of identity as a Palestinian- American growing up in-between the two cultures.
- ‘Supple Cord’ – expresses the link between two siblings as a “cord” that represents their unity.