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Mediterranean Blue
Naomi Shihab Nye
Read this week’s poem here:  https://poets.org/poem/mediterranean-blue
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week. This week, I’ve chosen a poem by a contemporary poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. Jackie O’Ryan will read the poem, then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee father and an American mother. Now based in San Antonio, Texas, she is one of America’s best-known poets, the recipient of countless awards and fellowships. Her poetry highlights the experience of women, of Arab-Americans, of her Mexican American neighbors in San Antonio, of Muslims, and of refugees and immigrants. She has written poetry and prose for children and young adults as well. Nye has also devoted considerable energy to sharing the voices of other poets, editing anthologies that bring poets from around the world to an English-speaking audience.
Nye has said: “to counteract negative images conveyed by blazing headlines, writers must steadily transmit simple stories closer to heart and more common to everyday life. Then we will be doing our job.”  This poem, “Mediterranean Blue,” written in 2019, is a perfect example of that approach.
Back in 2013, the Italian island of Lampedusa made headlines when a ship carrying more than 500 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea in North Africa, sank just off the coast. 366 people died. The death toll was higher partly because the boat was so overcrowded, partly because those on board did not know how to swim. One survivor said, "I'd never been in a body of water before. I was trying to stay afloat by splashing my hands like a dog."
Many of us may not realize that this influx of migrants is ongoing. On one day, September 20 of this year, 26 migrant boats landed at Lampedusa in 24 hours, bringing 263 asylum seekers to Italy. At the island’s intake center for refugees, over a thousand people are crowded into a facility designed for 192.
This is some of the context for this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. The words “Mediterranean Blue” evoke a beautiful color—we are used to seeing these words on a paint tube or a crayon, perhaps. But here, our attention is immediately drawn to the sea crossed by refugees like those wrecked off the coast of Lampedusa. The poem is as much about Nye’s own experience as it is about theirs: “If you are a child of a refugee, you do not / sleep easily when they are crossing the sea / on small rafts and you know they can’t swim.” She thinks of her own father, and the deep sorrow that is part of the refugee experience: Though he cast aside everything he knew, “tried to be happy, make a new life,” there was something in him “always paddling home,” clinging to things that reminded him of where he began, as a drowning person holds on to whatever is floating in the water. Leaving home has internal consequences as well as external ones.
Only in the second part of the poem does Nye speak directly to the reader about the experience of modern-day refugees. “They are the bravest people on earth right now,” she says; “don’t dare look down on them.” Nye reminds us who these people are—people like us, “each mind a universe,” filled with detail and with memory, and with “love for a humble place” – love for their home. They have let go of all that to risk the sea in which they can’t swim. How could we not “reach out a hand,” if we can?
I think part of what makes this poem so compelling is that Nye unapologetically involves herself and her own story in a poem about refugees crossing the Mediterranean today. Looking at them, she sees her own father, and she recognizes the humanity of each of these people, the value of their individual experience, their memory. For me, this poem is a reminder that compassion doesn’t come automatically: it’s something we need to work at and to foster in ourselves, by intentionally recognizing ourselves and our own immigrant histories in the headlines around us.
For Nye, this active compassion is an essential part of the poet’s task. I want to let Nye conclude our reflection today – this is part of an interview with the poet from 2015, in which she talks about the poet’s civic responsibility.



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