Illustration of flowers and a quote
Illustration: Polly Crossman


A poem for when you know it’s time to reappear

Ella Risbridger is on her way home. Maybe. But, for now, she’s in the middle and Naomi Shihab Nye’s Gate A-4 is just the poem for that

Added on

By Ella Risbridger on

By the time you read this, I’ll be on a plane.

I know what city I’m landing in, but I don’t know where I’m going after that, and I don’t know where I’ll be when you read this.

I’ll be somewhere above Iraq, I think, if I’ve worked out the time differences and distances correctly. Could be Turkey; could be the Black Sea. I’ll be somewhere, anyway, between here and there. I’ll be somewhere in the middle.

I wanted to pick a poem about airports, because that’s what airports are for: that in-the-middle-feeling. I love it. I love airports. I love the feeling of inbetween-ness; of potential; of distance. I love the bit when you’re through passport control and you’ve dropped off your bag and you’re going somewhere, very soon, but not just yet: you’ve got time for a coffee and a little Lebanese biscuit from the kind of bakeries they don’t have in England. I do not want to quote Hugh Grant in Love, Actually here – not nearly close enough to Christmas – but you get the gist.

But most of the really good poetry about airports, I have found, is also really quite sad. (Please send me your favourite happy poems about airports.)

Fortunately, however, we have Naomi Shihab Nye. You might remember her poem about disappearing. I talked about it in this column last month, when disappearing was what I needed to do. It turns out: Naomi Shihab Nye also writes poems for when you need to reappear.

I love airports. I love the feeling of inbetween-ness; of potential; of distance

This week’s poem is called Gate A-4, and you can read it here: it’s a hopeful airport poem.This poem is a story, really, about trying and connection and possibility. And it’s about people, too.

No: it’s about women.

It’s about women, and it’s got snacks, and those are (you might have noticed) the kinds of poem I like best.

Really good snacks, too: Shihab Nye calls them “the best kind of cookies”. I agree. Maybe this is part of why I love this poem too: you’re bound to love a poem that talks about something you already love. Like airports, and these cookies.

(This is the recipe I like to make these poem-cookies. Maybe you could eat one while reading the poem: I believe they call that “multi-sensory”.)

It’s the story of a delayed plane, essentially. It’s not a very long poem, and it’s written very plainly, like someone telling you about the thing that happened at their gate. It’s a poem about a lovely thing that happens out of something difficult and frustrating- a woman upset about her plane being delayed- and I needed that, this week. Maybe you did too.

It is sad, too, in a way- “Well—one pauses these days,” the poet says, hearing a request for an Arabic-speaker to go urgently to the gate: we know what she means. Shihab Nye wrote a different, much sadder poem about what she means.

It’s called The Burn that one, and I thought about writing about it this week. It’s an airport poem too. They weren’t written together, as far as I know (they have different publication dates), but I feel like they work together, like two sides of the same coin. It is so good; it is so true. But it broke my heart. And I think we have all had enough broken hearts for a little while.

So I chose Gate A-4, instead, because sometimes we have to make space for “a sack of homemade mamool/cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and/ nuts”, and a “new best friend”.

A space for women accepting help from one another; for little girls handing out “apple juice from huge coolers”; for beautiful things happening in surprising ways in surprising places. For being surprised by goodness.

This poem is, I think, about the fact that we still have those things, too. We still have cookie recipes and women and old traditions. We still have the possibility of those things. It’s kind of about the possibility in everything, maybe. That’s what makes it such a good airport poem.

The thing about things being possible is that it gives you permission to try. It isn’t hopeless. None of this is hopeless. So try.

Try to reach out, try to accept, try to speak – even clumsily – the right words. Which, maybe, is all that writing a poem is.

Certainly it’s what writing feels like for me: I feel sometimes like I’m speaking a language clumsily and phonetically, and hoping it makes sense to you, and hoping that you understand. This poem makes me believe that we can all understand. It makes me believe it’s worth trying.  

It makes me believe it’s worthwhile to get on a plane and come back and look around; and it makes me believe that wherever I end up – wherever I’m going, and wherever I am – there will be something good there, too.

As Naomi Shihab Nye says, in a line I might take for my own personal motto:

“This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”


Sign up

Love this? Sign up to receive our Today in 3 email, delivering the latest stories straight to your inbox every morning, plus all The Pool has to offer. You can manage your email subscription preferences at My Profile at any time

Illustration: Polly Crossman
Tagged in:
My life in poems

Tap below to add to your homescreen

Love The Pool? Support us and sign up to get your favourite stories straight to your inbox