Naomi Shihab Nye, is a poet, songwriter, and novelist. She was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She began composing her first poem at the age of six and has published or contributed to over 30 volumes.
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Famous Naomi Shihab Nye Poems
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.
A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him,
the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.
What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.
A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.
the rat with pointed teeth
makes his long way back
to the bowl of peaches.
He stands on the dining room table
sinking his tooth
drinking the pulp
of each fruity turned-up face
knowing you will read
this message and scream.
It is his only text,
to take and take in darkness,
to be gone before you awaken
and your giant feet
start creaking the floor.
Where is the mother of the rat?
The father, the shredded nest,
which breath were we taking
when the rat was born,
when he lifted his shivering snout
to rafter and rivet and stone?
I gave him the names of the devil,
seared and screeching names,
I would not enter those rooms
without a stick to guide me,
I leaned on the light, shuddering,
and the moist earth under the house,
the trailing tails of clouds,
said he was in the closet,
the drawer of candles,
his nose was a wick.
How would we live together
with our sad shoes and hideouts,
our lock on the door
and his delicate fingered paws
that could clutch and grip,
his blank slate of fur
and the pillow where we press our faces?
The bed that was a boat is sinking.
And the shores of morning loom up
lined with little shadows,
things we never wanted to be, or meet,
and all the rats are waving hello.
The Traveling Onion
“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an
object of worship —why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion
entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook
When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
Arabs in Finland
Their language rolls out,
soft carpet in front of them.
Strolling slowly beneath trees,
men in white shirts,
belts, baggy trousers,
women in scarves,
glinting cigarettes in the dusk.
What they left to be here, in the cold country,
where winter lasts forever,
haunts them in the dark –
golden hue of souk in sunlight,
gentle calling through streets that said, brother,
sit with me a minute, on the small stool
with the steaming glass of tea. Sit with me.
We belong together.
The Story, Around The Corner
is not turning the way you thought
it would turn, gently, in a little spiral loop,
the way a child draws the tail of a pig.
What came out of your mouth,
a riff of common talk.
As a sudden weather shift on a beach,
sky looming mountains of cloud
in a way you cannot predict
or guide, the story shuffles elements, darkens,
takes its own side. And it is strange.
Far more complicated than a few phrases
pieced together around a kitchen table
on a July morning in Dallas, say,
a city you don’t live in, where people
might shop forever or throw a thousand stories
away. You who carried or told a tiny bit of it
aren’t sure. Is this what we wanted?
Stories wandering out,
having their own free lives?
Maybe they are planning something bad.
A scrap or cell of talk you barely remember
is growing into a weird body with many demands.
One day soon it will stumble up the walk and knock,
knock hard, and you will have to answer the door.
The Turtle Shrine Near Chittagong
Humps of shell emerge from dark water.
Believers toss hunks of bread,
hoping the fat reptilian heads
will loom forth from the murk
and eat. Meaning: you have been
I stood, breathing the stench of mud
and rotten dough, and could not feel
encouraged. Climbed the pilgrim hill
where prayers in tissue radiant tubes
were looped to a tree. Caught in
their light, a hope washed over me
small as the hope of stumbling feet
but did not hold long enough
to get me down.
Rickshas crowded the field,
announced by tinny bells.
The friend beside me, whose bread
floated and bobbed,
grew grim. They’re full, I told him.
But they always eat mine.
That night I told the man I love most
he came from hell. It was also
his birthday. We gulped lobster
over a white tablecloth in a country
where waves erase whole villages, annually,
and don’t even make our front page.
Waiters forded the lulling currents
of heat. Later, my mosquito net
All night, I was pitching something,
crumbs or crusts, into that bottomless pool
where the spaces between our worlds take root.
He would forgive me tomorrow.
But I wanted a mouth to rise up
from the dark, a hand,
any declarable body part, to swallow
or say, This is water, that is land.
Valentine for Ernest Mann
You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.
Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the off sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.
One Way or Another
She is gone, where did she go?
He can’t imagine how the house will feel
when he enters it, moving room to room.
Now that the wait is over, a larger pause
will blanket the roof, softness settling
slowly down. By which window or door
may future days enter? And what about minor
questions called out, to which there was always
that lilting reply?
Once with my scarf knotted over my mouth
I lumbered into a storm of snow up the long hill
and did not know where I was going except to the top of it.
In those days we went out like that.
Even children went out like that.
Someone was crying hard at home again,
raging blizzard of sobs.
I dragged the sled by its rope,
which we normally did not do
when snow was coming down so hard,
pulling my brother whom I called by our secret name
as if we could be other people under the skin.
The snow bit into my face, prickling the rim
of the head where the hair starts coming out.
And it was a big one. It would come down and down
for days. People would dig their cars out like potatoes.
How are you doing back there? I shouted,
and he said Fine, I’m doing fine,
in the sunniest voice he could muster
and I think I should love him more today
for having used it.
At the top we turned and he slid down,
steering himself with the rope gripped in
his mittened hands. I stumbled behind
sinking deeply, shouting Ho! Look at him go!
as if we were having a good time.
Alone on the hill. That was the deepest
I ever went into the snow. Now I think of it
when I stare at paper or into silences
between human beings. The drifting
accumulation. A father goes months
without speaking to his son.
How there can be a place
so cold any movement saves you.
Ho! You bang your hands together,
stomp your feet. The father could die!
The son! Before the weather changes.
The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling
to say, “Until you speak Arabic,
you will not understand pain.”
Something to do with the back of the head,
an Arab carries sorrow in the back of the head,
that only language cracks, the thrum of stones
weeping, grating hinge on an old metal gate.
“Once you know,” he whispered, “you can
enter the room
whenever you need to. Music you heard
from a distance,
the slapped drum of a stranger’s wedding,
well up inside your skin, inside rain, a thousand
pulsing tongues. You are changed.”
Outside, the snow has finally stopped.
In a land where snow rarely falls,
we had felt our days grow white and still.
I thought pain had no tongue. Or every tongue
at once, supreme translator, sieve. I admit my
shame. To live on the brink of Arabic, tugging
its rich threads without understanding
how to weave the rug…I have no gift.
The sound, but not the sense.
I kept looking over his shoulder for someone else
to talk to, recalling my dying friend
who only scrawled
I can’t write. What good would any grammar
to her then? I touched his arm, held it hard,
which sometimes you don’t do in the Middle East,
and said, I’ll work on it, feeling sad
for his good strict heart, but later in the slick street
hailed a taxi by shouting Pain! and it stopped
in every language and opened its doors.
Negotiations with a Volcano
We will call you “Agua” like the rivers and cool jugs.
We will persuade the clouds to nestle around your neck
so you may sleep late.
We would be happy if you slept forever.
We will tend the slopes we plant, singing the songs
our grandfathers taught us before we inherited their fear.
We will try not to argue among ourselves.
When the widow demands extra flour, we will provide it,
remembering the smell of incense on the day of our Lord.
Please think of us as we are, tiny, with skins that burn easily.
Please notice how we have watered the shrubs around our houses
and transplanted the peppers into neat tin cans.
Forgive any anger we feel toward the earth,
when the rains do not come, or they come too much,
and swallow our corn.
It is not easy to be this small and live in your shadow.
Often while we are eating our evening meal
you cross our rooms like a thief,
touching first the radio and then the loom.
Later our dreams begin catching fire around the edges,
they burn like paper, we wake with our hands full of ash.
How can we live like this?
We need to wake and find our shelves intact,
our children slumbering in their quilts.
We need dreams the shape of lakes,
with mornings in them thick as fish.
Shade us while we cast and hook—
but nothing else, nothing else.
Many Asked Me Not to Forget Them
Where do you keep all these people?
The shoemaker with his rumpled cough.
The man who twisted straws into brooms.
My teacher, oh my teacher. I will always cry
when I think of my teacher.
The olive farmer who lost every inch of ground,
who sat with head in his hands
in his son’s living room for years after.
I tucked them into my drawer with cuff links and bow ties.
Touched them each evening before I slept.
Wished them happiness and peace.
Peace in the heart. No wonder we all got heart trouble.
But justice never smiled on us. Why didn’t it?
I tried to get Americans to think of them.
But they were too involved with their own affairs
to imagine ours. And you can’t blame them, really.
How much do I think of Africa? I always did feel sad
in the back of my mind for places I didn’t
have enough energy to worry about.
Lying While Birding
I see it
so they won’t keep telling you
where it is
“Syrian refugees go about their business in a refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan…”
Ropes on poles, jeans & shirts flapping in wind.
He sits on a giant bag of rice, head in hands.
Too much or too little, rips & bursts & furrows.
Something seared in a pan.
If you knew a mother, any mother, you would care
for mothers, yes? No.
What it is to be lonesome for stacked papers
on a desk, under glass globe,
brass vase with standing pencils,
How quickly urgencies of doing disappear.
And where is the child from the next apartment,
whose crying kept him awake
these last terrible months?
Where do you file this unknowing?