A Distant Shore: What is in the Distance?

            Naomi Shihab Nye’s book of poems, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, discusses time and again the idea that the conflict that affects her people, the Palestinians, is unending, without any apparent solution.  On the other hand, she also discusses the idea that there are many components in Middle Eastern culture that serve to dispel this pessimism through beauty and happiness.  Occasionally, though, she shifts this focus to a much more pessimistic point of view, stating instead that this happiness is very impermanent, and that this conflict actually creates simplicity in thought that is positive in many ways.  In her poem A Definite Shore, Nye uses various characters as symbols of innocence, the idea of flatness as a symbol for the persistence of negative qualities of society, and the metaphor of water as a controlling power to characterize the simplicity that suffering causes.

Nye speaks of three characters, a young boy who is returning home from Sri Lanka, a bread seller in Aleppo and a Saudi woman (actually a group of women), who each face problematic situations that cause them to focus much more closely on certain factors in life.  Each of the characters mentioned are part of a group of travelers returning home.  Nye describes them as “we who calculate our luckiness, who worry that the pocket must be growing a hole” (102).  Traveling, they each face the danger that flying in an airplane brings, with each jerk of the plane due to turbulence making them thankful that they continue to survive.  Despite this, they consider themselves lucky for even being able to travel.  This sort of simplicity in thinking is rare, only being caused by the desire to be home that they feel, particularly the boy, and the constant threat of death.  Without this, their life has all kinds of problems, and they don’t have time to appreciate such things.  This leads to “the bread seller of Aleppo [who] wanted only to sell his bread” (102).  Being faced with a dangerous situation, the bread seller realizes what the most important part of his life is: his bread.  Living his normal life, there is too much to worry about for this to be apparent.  The Saudi women mentioned by Nye achieve this simplicity by declaring, “’we are oppressed, but not stupid’” (102).  While the message itself is important, the more interesting thing that Nye follows this up with is that they “had just that message in mind” (102).  While the situation being described has nothing to do directly with this realization, it does force them to isolate in their mind that which is most important to them.  They realize the true problem that they face, and that they must work towards solving it, but only through other problems.

The idea of flatness appears in A Distant Shore twice, both times representing salvation from a harmful situation, but the second further indirectly symbolizing the impermanence of solutions and the chronic dissatisfaction, even through times of happiness.  The first mention of the idea of flatness is in the sentence “I prayed for nothing but flat land” (103).  The inference from this is that the situation she currently faces is one where she is proceeding through hilly land that makes her very uncomfortable.  Thus, all she wants is to be free from it.  However, she later states that “a flat highway will only remind us of heat” (103).  Even if her prayer is answered, she will end up returning to her ordinary life and continue to desire that which she doesn’t have rather than being thankful for that which she does.  She’ll remember the “sleeping, the deliberate stones crossing this season, the arrogant river tumbling beneath” (103), all of which are completely unrelated problems that she still wants to be rid of, even though what was once her greatest concern has been negated.  Nye believes that this is human nature, and is the essential reason that suffering never ends.

Twice in A Definite Shore, Nye mentions water as a threatening power that causes suffering and wish people wish to overcome.  The first example of this is “the hungry Atlantic [which] pushes and pulls its waves across the earth” (102).  Flying over the ocean, this is the greatest threat that a traveler sees in the case of a plane crash.  At least they know that if they crash on land, on a definite shore, they will land in a certain place and be able to be found.  Crashing into the ocean, they would be lost, pulled away by the currents, left to die.  Thus, beyond simply wanting to land, the travelers wish for escape from this.  The second note of water is in the sentence “a flat highway will only remind us of… the arrogant river tumbling beneath” (103).  While water initially represents the present problem that forces its victims to believe in a certain desire, it now represents the distant problem that distracts a person once they have overcome a greater one.  The description of this river as “arrogant” goes to emphasize the position of a victim that the sufferer attempts to place themself in, to justify their mindset.  Seeing oneself as a conqueror of one problem promotes the ignoring of other problems and thankfulness for success, which is the exact opposite of what Nye attempts to say actually happens.  On the other hand, “arrogant” also serves to emphasize the meaninglessness of the problems that one adopts to replace a solved one.  The person makes a clear attempt to find the problems to worry about, rather than trying to be happy and grateful.  The person is hindering their own peace and success.

A Definite Shore uses a set of characters, the theme of flatness and the theme of water to emphasize dissatisfaction with solutions and the accompanying unending quality of suffering.  Nye clearly states this theory about dissatisfaction when she says, “They know the moment a wish is answered our hearts will open like sieves and everything fall through again” (103).  Alternatively, this idea of “everything [falling] through again” could reference the idea that the problem cannot be solved: that the solution will unravel itself as soon as it’s instituted.  The true solution to any problem is to be grateful for that which is already present, and recognize it as a sign of salvation rather than worrying about other, unrelated problems.


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