Indulging Language

Hugging the Juke Box By Naomi Shihab Nye E.P.Dutton; $5.95;63 pp.

SLIP A QUARTER into my jukebox. Chances are the music will be thin, but with my luck, the management will turn the volume up. Chords that were farfetched or tries-counting become velvety, even lash, and, if you hear the song more than once, you can bury yourself in it as you munch your french fries. You might believe whatever the song tells you-as you swim in the music and hug the jukebox.

By amplifying phrases, words, ideas, National Shihab Nye makes you do just that in her most recent collection of poems, Hugging the Jukebox. Some of the notes, at first might seem self-indulgent. Names which are not innately powerful, and whose connotations are simply act controlled or dealt with-not even dismissed-are assembled, implying verbs and actions-but the leaves these actions to be guessed. So, in "Martita and Luisa," the name "Martita," in a direct address, starts the action; then the name grows larger than the description, ending the first section of the poem and becoming the object of a bizarre pathetic fallacy. A fallacy that fails to attribute empathy, human qualities or emotional action to nature, but rather to a word, humanity's learned nature and poetry's substance.

The other half of the fallacy attributes to the words a power to conjure up images that verbs would evoke far more precisely-and assumes the audience will see some sort of universal meaning in a name like "San Francisco". In "West Side," Nye sets up a conflict in language, Spanish place names conflicting with Protestant names of men. The power in the poem does not come from the language quarrel, which exists only in the contrasting sounds, but from the risk that the names Nye uses will set into motion ideas that she never intended.

Since the names are completely unmodified, and the only motion, abstract or real, occurs when "names," the poem's subject, move around in weird physical ways, the conjuring becomes sloppy. Writing, "Domingo, Monico, Francisco, shining rivulets of sound." Nye plays with more than water in a desert. Since she has no control over the ideas these names evoke, the experiment fails-even if, by some coincidence, a reader jumps to the same ideas as Nye wants him to, the experiment misses as Art. A city cannot be reduced to a world because language can never be isolated from its meaning.

At the end of "West Side," which is more an indulgence of language that a description of a neighborhood, Nye urges: "Let the names be verses in a city that sings." The exuberance, unfortunately, has the sterile air of a failed experiment-the result of pushing a clever idea to the end of its rope instead of letting the idea soar where it will on its own emotional force.


SOMETIMES Nye dodges the fallacy, allowing meaning to creep in with the names and painting one side of the name instead of trying to reduce an ocean of meaning to an eyedropper. In "Clarence," she follows the thread of landscape as it spins out from the names of places. A Mayan hieroglyph means "sky", but not only sky-in the Guatemalan sky there also fly-or flew-quetzal birds, the source of ancient Indian folklore and mystery. Nye brings the bird naturally into her sky. She traces the connotations of each image down through the rest of the poem, so that the forward motion is the ideas rolling ahead on their own, not a poet who hovers in the background with careless language trying to move ideas around on her own.

Carrying the fallacy further than nouns, Nye plays tricks with the language that, because they are not isolated, create extravagant ideas. When she works with living, solid images, the frivolity works ideas. When she works with living, solid images, the frivolity works because it has momentum. In "The Sky" she writes:

From somewhere

a clam musical note arrives

You balance it on your tongue,

a single ripe grape

till your whole body glistens.

Even though the action in these lines as somewhat distorted, exaggerated, or abstract, the images can be felt and seen. Nye does not try to hide the words from their meaning, and she successfully moves from a small image to a large one-a wafting note based by the ears to the luminescence of the entire body-through physical detail.

It is much more difficult to image the darkness coming "home to hold your hand," as she write in "For Lost and Found Brothers." When the words are tied in closely with the actions they describe, the strange music is amplified. Nye's poems are of their strongest when they move along lines of thought that excited before the poem were written, or when the images carry the solidity and weight.

The poems are not self-indulgent, though-if anything, they indulge language and other human inventions. From folklore and wisdom to religions to the names of cities, Nyes continually moves from one or two small image to larger concepts. When she tries to move too quickly, the poems end anticlimactically, with a four or five line closing. Always, the message is that there is something bigger at the end of the reverie than what was there before, whether the poem started with rock or man or quetzal. It's easy to get carried away when dealing with large topics, and in Nye's recent collection, she falls into many of the pitfalls. But at least she hugs the jukebox.