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Archive for the ‘Naomi Shihab Nye’ Category

A few days ago I placed two poems of encouragement in a pretty park in northern Michigan. I was thinking about the cave rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team (just underway as I posted), but I was also thinking about all the dis’s in the world—the disheartened, the dispirited, the discouraged, the distracted—anyone in need of a boost, a push, a shot in the arm, a pep talk.

 

I myself am a lover of pep talks. Especially the poetry-style pep talks below.

 

poem is on sign, below the “O” of Information

 

Always Begin Where You Are

by Thomas Hornsby Ferril

 

Always begin right where you are

And work out from here:

If adrift, feel the feel of the oar in the oarlock first,

If saddling a horse let your right knee slug

The belly of the horse like an uppercut,

Then cinch his suck,

Then mount and ride away

To any dream deserving the sensible world.

 

The change from the title to the first line (“begin where you are” to “begin right where you are”) is encouragement itself. No need to position yourself, prepare or wait for the best time. Begin right where you are. In modern parlance, Just Do It.

 

But there’s a caveat. In poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril’s world you can’t just do any old dream that comes into your head. The images of rowing a boat and saddling a horse point towards pursuit of a realistic dream, a dream “deserving of the sensible world.” The Debbie Downer in me just loves that line. (I suspect I am not the only  Debbie Downer who loves a good pep talk.)

 

Ferril’s horse terminology was unfamiliar to me, so I looked it up. Cinch his suck, I discovered, has to do with tightening the saddle on a horse. Horses suck in air when the saddle is first put on, and once they run around and exhale, the saddle is too loose and has to be tightened.

 

Thomas Hornsby Ferril (1986-1988) was born in Denver and lived out his very long life there, eventually becoming poet laureate of his home state. His poems can be found in the Colorado capitol building, poem fragments engraved under each of eight murals in the rotunda.

 

Ferril published six volumes of poetry and a collection of essays. He worked as publicity director for the Great Western Sugar Company for forty years, and he and his wife published the Rocky Mountain Herald for over thirty years. His daughter Anne was an artist and illustrator.

 

Carl Sandburg was a friend of Ferril’s and frequent visitor to his house (now an historic landmark). Sandburg said Ferril’s poems were “terrifically and beautifully American.” Even so, Ferril was not well known outside of the Rocky Mountain region in his lifetime, and sadly that still seems the case today.

 

 

poem is on middle post of pavilion

 

Famous

by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

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.

 

Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous” is the antidote to fame, at least our current cultural obsession with it. At the risk of sounding like an old lady crabbing about Those Young People, it seems to me that too many young people seek fame as the only way to validate their lives. All you have to do is post a viral video on Instagram and ta-dah, you’re famous! But of course it isn’t so easy for most, and that creates a situation ripe for discouragement, what with all that anxiety about one’s place in the world and confusion about one’s purpose in life.

 

Maybe these lines could be handed out with every diploma:

 

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.

 

Reminds me of what the nuns used to tell us in grade school, that we each had a special talent and we were to use that talent to give honor and glory to God. Even if our only talent was sweeping a floor, we were to sweep the floor the very best we could. In doing even a lowly task well, we would achieve something good and holy.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye, a favorite of mine, has been featured more than once at Poem Elf. I’ll re-post her bio from previous posts.

Naomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis and identifies as an Arab-American. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother American. During high school she lived for some time with her grandmother in Jerusalem and in San Antonio.

She’s written several books of poetry, children’s books, songs and novels. She has traveled for the U.S. Information Agency on goodwill tours. Her anthology for teens, The Space Between Our Footsteps, is a beautiful collection of paintings and poems from the Middle East. After 9/11, she spoke out against terrorism and against prejudice, and in 2002 she published a book of new and old poems she had written about the Middle East.

In 2009, PeacebyPeace named her a Peace Hero. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it’s a wonderful appellation and something we can all aspire to be.

She’s won multiple literary awards, including four Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Antonio with her photographer husband and son.

You can hear her read here, a “found” poem. Her voice surprised me. I had expected a voice soft and gentle like her face, but she sounds more like your best pal in high school talking too loud the morning after you got drunk together. Gravelly and fun.

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The Travelling Onion

by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

“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,

disappear.

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It is right that tears fall, Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her ode to the onion. I love the onion as much as anyone, but I can’t take such a philosophical view of it. I dread the chop. The dice is worse. Mincing is torture. What with my dry sockets from thyroid eye disease, dismantling onions can feel like the knife is working at my eye rather than the onion. I’ve tried it all—biting on a wooden spoon, wearing goggles, refrigerating the onion, cuisinarting the heck out of it, rinsing after peeling. Nothing helps. (To my fellow sufferers: I’ve just learned, thanks to a youtube video of the inimitable Julia Child, that painless onion chopping is possible if the knife is sharp enough. A sharp knife reduces onion juice splatter and allows the chopper to chop faster than tears can form.)

 

Mulling over that same line–It is right that tears fall–I heard something familiar, something ecclesiastical. In the Catholic mass and in many other Christian church services, the priest (or minister) says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” The congregation responds, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” (Or in the newly translated Catholic mass, the less melodious, “It is right and just.”) I don’t think this is coincidental. Shihab Nye was, after all, a religious studies major in college, and in this particular poem, religious phrasing and imagery are around every corner, like an old chapel stuffed with icons and statues.

 

Beginning with the epigraph on the ancient worship of the onion, the poem elevates the lowly vegetable, injecting it with a spirituality most cooks do not. The speaker considers the miracle of the onion and wants to fall to her knees in a prayer of praise. As the onion is peeled apart and unlayered, it’s layered with more meaning, becomes a holy object. The crackly, pearly paper of its skin is like a sacred text, its inside a fleshy sacrifice split open by a knife. Then comes a shared meal, a communion of sorts, graced by a limp onion, a death of sorts, and the understanding of the onion’s core purpose, the sacrifice of one for the good of all:

 

its traditionally honorable career:

For the sake of others,

disappear.

 

As much as the poem identifies the onion’s honorable career, it describes another honorable career, that of the poet. What is the work of a poet but to find “all small forgotten miracles”? It’s one of the reasons I love Naomi Shihab Nye. She shines light on ordinary events and people and things to show readers the wonders of the world as it is.

 

I left “Travelling Onion” at the motherhouse of a religious order my niece is in. This is a teaching order and semi-cloistered. The sisters interact with the outside world as students, teachers and principals—but back at the convent they practice silence, sleep in cells, and keep to a strict schedule of prayer, communal meals, communal exercise, and housekeeping. These sisters wear the full habit, shoe-length gowns with oversized rosaries hanging from their belts, hair shorn under long veils, blue aprons for kitchen work, blue overcoats for the cold. Their contact with family is limited and most everything they do is regulated.

 

Like the onion, these sisters work quietly behind the scenes, unheralded, unknown to most. Their work of teaching and praying is all for the sake of others.

 

My niece and her grandmother

My niece and her grandmother

You’d think this kind of order would be dying out in this age of selfies and self-promotion, but the convent is busting at the seams with postulants. Whenever I’ve visited, I meet cheerful and well-spoken sisters who love to laugh. You won’t find young women of such poise and confidence outside the debate team at Wellesley College or re-runs of Xena: Warrior Princess.

 

(I just saw my niece at her sister’s wedding in Tallahassee where she walked down the aisle as a most striking bridesmaid. She was excited when I told her I had left a poem at the convent back in the spring, so here, Sister Marianna, this is for you!)

 

I’ve posted on Naomi Shihab Nye before, so I’ll just copy and paste the bio I wrote in a previous post.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 1.52.15 PMNaomi Shihab Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis and identifies as an Arab-American. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother American. During high school she lived for some time with her grandmother in Jerusalem and in San Antonio.

She’s written several books of poetry, children’s books, songs and novels. She has traveled for the U.S. Information Agency on goodwill tours. Her anthology for teens, The Space Between Our Footsteps, is a beautiful collection of paintings and poems from the Middle East. After 9/11, she spoke out against terrorism and against prejudice, and in 2002 she published a book of new and old poems she had written about the Middle East.

In 2009, PeacebyPeace named her a Peace Hero. I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it’s a wonderful appellation and something we can all aspire to be.

She’s won multiple literary awards, including four Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Antonio with her photographer husband and son.

You can hear her read here, a “found” poem. Her voice surprised me. I had expected a voice soft and gentle like her face, but she sounds more like your best pal in high school talking too loud the morning after you got drunk together. Gravelly and fun.

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