Famous Like Naomi Shihab Nye

by Po, Editor-in-Chief
__________________________________________________________________________________________

NATIONAL POETRY MONTH
4/2 - Richard Siken Tells Me We'll Never Get Used To It, by Po, EIC
4/3 - William Carlos Williams: This Is Just To Say, by Layah, CD
4/4 - We Are All Writers On the Same Dreadful Typewriter 
as Allen Ginsberg, by Jenny, EE
4/5 - Pablo Neruda and the Quest for Surrender, by Elie, ME
4/6 - Let's Shake the Dust, Anis Mojgani, by Layah, CD
4/11 - Terrence Hayes, Kanye West, and How to Get Through Winter, 
by Elie, ME
4/12 - Sylvia Plath Died Before I Had Time, by Po, EIC 
4/16 - Billy Corgan Blinks With Fists, by Jenny, EE 
4/17 - Andrea Gibson Just Takes Me, by Po, EIC 
4/18 - Famous Like Naomi Shihab Nye by Po, EIC

Right now, at this very moment, I know absolutely nothing about Naomi Shihab Nye.

I don’t know if this is allowed or not. I don’t know if this is okay or not. Should I really be writing a piece about a poet about whom I know literally nothing? I guess I’m really asking the eternal question when it comes to art in any form: does the artist matter, or does the work stand alone? Can the work of an artist stand without any background significance, without the forces of intersectionality of heritage and era and gender and race and class and any other number of constantly tilting planes we’re all ever-so-precariously balancing on?

I guess my answer is: I’m going to let it, though I should know better.

I looked up Nye for you. And when I did, I was almost embarrassed that I didn’t know about her. Prolific and influential, Nye comes from a mixed Palestinian and American background. She has not only published poetry but also children’s fiction and essays, and along the way found time to edit a bunch of anthologies. She’s a voice for Arab-Americans, “international in scope and focus” (Jane Tanner, The Dictionary of Literary Biography). She’s done a lot, this woman. But I can’t seem to care about that at all compared to her poems. If you do, you can read about her right here.

I heard of Nye from another writer. Someone who contributes to this magazine, actually, who probably doesn’t know that I read a poem of Nye’s on one of her personal blogs and then just…kept reading. Read the poems that said so much to me over and over again.

Do we all do that? Listen to poems like songs, on repeat? Or is it just me?

I’m really asking.

*  *  *

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

-“The Art of Disappearing”

That was the first poem I read of hers. The Art of Disappearing. When they invite you to the party, remember what parties are like before answering.

Oh, I thought to myself. Oh.

Someone else understands.

Tell them you have a new project. It will never be finished.

Oh, I thought. Yes. This project called my life.

It’s not that I don’t love you anymore. I’m just trying to remember something too important to forget.

*  *  *

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

-“So Much Happiness”

I read this and it seemed impossible.

It still seems impossible, sometimes. Because so often we focus on a happiness external. But I worked on becoming enlightened and last year I broke through and though I don’t have it, yet, and never have – suddenly I understood.

Since there is no place large enough to contain so much happiness, you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you into everything you touch.

I understood. And I wanted it. I remember the wanting, the feeling of air in my chest, the energy that was surrounding me wherever I went.

I actually wanted to let go of my misery.

Imagine that.

*  *  *

Letters swallow themselves in seconds. 
Notes friends tied to the doorknob, 
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable, 
lists of vegetables, partial poems. 
Orange swirling flame of days, 
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t, 
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space. 
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves, 
only the things I didn’t do 
crackle after the blazing dies.

-“Burning the Old Year”

One New Year’s I wrote down: Yes, I do plan on buying into this commercialized consent to scrape the last year off like a layer of skin, to restart my life clean. Nye understands this notion, this unshakeable need to keep starting over. Where there was something and suddenly isn’t, an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.

I usually read this poem for the sense of freedom, of possibility. But sometimes it hurts, too. The impermanence. What we let become impermanent.

So much of every year is flammable.

*  *  *

It’s late but everything comes next.
-“Jerusalem”

I could not leave you,
or find anyone I loved more
-“San Antonio”

If I write a letter,
how will I make it long enough?

There is a place to stand
where you can see so many lights
you forget you are one of them.
-“Spruce Street, Berkeley”

Nye also knows about my identification with cities, neighborhoods, streets. The way I can never write about New York – If I write a letter, how will I make it long enough? There’s a spiritual concept about prayer, about how if we prayed to a higher power completely and totally and truthfully, we would never be able to stop. I guess everything is spiritual to me. Places, people, poetry. Nothing ever stops. And how I hate it that all my friends seem to need sleep when I don’t, when I’m most alive. It’s late but everything comes next.

New York, I left you, but I couldn’t find anyone I loved more.

I wanted a place where I could remember I was one of the lights.

*  *  *

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence, 
which knew it would inherit the earth 
before anybody said so. 

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds 
watching him from the birdhouse. 

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek. 

The idea you carry close to your bosom 
is famous to your bosom. 

The boot is famous to the earth, 
more famous than the dress shoe, 
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it 
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured. 

I want to be famous to shuffling men 
who smile while crossing streets, 
sticky children in grocery lines, 
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, 
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, 
but because it never forgot what it could do.

-“Famous”

I guess the reason I don’t care about Nye’s work politically and culturally is because poetry doesn’t need to have a message in order for it to be true.

I don’t want to be famous. I want to be rich, yes. That I will admit to, openly and freely. It makes things easier. But famous? Fame counts on others to define itself.

I want to define myself.

I want to never forget what I can do.

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SOME THINGS ABOUT US

LANDFILLS is a grassroots literary, arts and culture online collective based in Chicago. All work is original, except the featured images that accompany text posts (which are blatantly stolen from tumblr.com). Complaints should be directed to Po via Twitter.
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