(Selected by Wendy Barker)
Editor’s Note: The poems “My Father and the Figtree,” “The Comfort of Wood” and “The Words Under the Words” are from Different Ways to Pray (Breitenbush Books, 1980). The poems “Daily,” “Rebellion Against the North Side” and “Famous” are from Hugging the Jukebox, (E.P. Dutton, 1982). The poems “Hello,” “Spruce Street, Berkeley” and “Breaking My Favorite Bowl” are from Yellow Glove (Breitenbush Books, 1986). “El Paso Sky” is from Mint (State Street Press Chapbooks, 1991). “From Here to There” is from Red Suitcase (BOA Editions, 1994). “A Single Slice Reveals Them” is from 19 Varieties of Gazelle (Greenwillow Books, 2002).
My Father and the Figtree
For other fruits my father was indifferent.
He’d point at the cherry tree and say,
“See those? I wish they were figs.”
In the evenings he sat by my bed
weaving folktales like vivid little scarves.
They always involved a figtree.
Even when it didn’t fit, he’d stick it in.
Once Joha was walking down the road and he saw a figtree.
Or, he tied his camel to a figtree and went to sleep.
Or, later when they caught and arrested him,
his pockets were full of figs.
At age six I ate a dried fig and shrugged.
“That’s not what I’m talking about!” he said,
“I’m talking about a figtree straight from the earth—
gift of Allah!—on a branch so heavy it touches the ground.
I’m talking about picking the largest fattest sweetest fig
in the world and putting it in my mouth.”
(Here he’d stop and close his eyes.)
Years passed, we lived in many houses, none had figtrees.
We had lima beans, zucchini, parsley, beets.
“Plant one!” my mother said, but my father never did.
He tended the garden half-heartedly, forgot to water,
let the okra get too big.
“What a dreamer he is. Look how many things he starts
and doesn’t finish.”
The last time he moved, I got a phone call.
My father, in Arabic, chanting a song I’d never heard.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Wait till you see!”
He took me out back to the new yard.
There, in the middle of Dallas, Texas,
a tree with the largest, fattest, sweetest figs in the world.
“It’s a figtree song!” he said,
plucking his fruits like ripe tokens,
of a world that was always his own.
The Comfort of Wood
I come to this table tired
I come empty as a cup
a fruit bowl with no bananas
I come with my varied resources
dragging behing me
a cat’s wet tail
I come to this table with no song
no definite opinion like garlic or onion
flavoring the stew
The table is sitting where it always sits
in front of each chair
I found the table at a store called
“The Hand and the Heart”
I was not looking for tables
The table sat in the center of the room
leaves like wings folded at its sides
a single drawer with a runner that stuck
Now I am learning the comfort of wood
as I place my head on the table
as I fold my hands over the scars
The Words Under the Words
(For Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem)
My grandmother’s hands recognize
the damp shine of a goat’s new skin.
When I was sick they followed me,
I woke from the long fever to find them
covering my head like cool prayers.
My grandmother’s days are made of bread,
a round pat-pat and the slow baking.
She waits by the oven watching a strange car
circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son,
lost to America. More often, tourists,
who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines.
She knows how often mail arrives,
how rarely there is a letter.
When one comes, she announces it, a miracle,
listening to it read again and again
in the dim evening light.
My grandmother’s voice says nothing can surprise her.
Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby.
She knows the spaces we travel through,
the messages we cannot send—our voices are short
and would get lost on the journey.
Farewell to the husband’s coat,
the ones she has loved and nourished,
who fly from her like seeds into a deep sky.
They will plant themselves. We will all die.
My grandmother’s eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death.
When she talks of the orchard and the new olive press,
when she tells the stories of Joha and his foolish wisdoms,
He is her first thought, what she really thinks of is His name.
“Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,
difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.”
These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips
These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares
These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
This rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl
This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out
This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of the sky
This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it
The days are nouns: touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world
Rebellion Against the North Side
There will be no monograms on our skulls.
You who are training your daughters to check for the words
“Calvin Klein” before they look to see if there are pockets
are giving them no hands to put in those pockets.
You are giving them eyes that will find nothing solid in stones.
No comfort in rough land, nameless sheep trails.
No answers from things which do not speak.
Since when do children sketch dreams with price tags attached?
Don’t tell me they were born this way.
We were all born like empty fields.
What we are now shows what has been planted.
Will you remind them there were people
who hemmed their days with thick-spun wool
and wore them till they fell apart?
Think of darkness hugging the houses,
caring nothing for the material of our pajamas.
Think of the delicate mesh of neckbones
when you clasp the golden chains.
These words the world rains back and forth
are temporary as clouds.
Clouds? Tell your children to look up.
The sky is the only store worth shopping in
for anything as long as a life.
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 smiles 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.
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.
Spruce Street, Berkeley
If a street is named for a tree,
it is right that flowers
bloom purple and feel like cats,
that people are leaves drifting
downhill in morning fog.
Everyone came outside to see
the moon setting like a perfect
orange mouth tipped up to heaven.
Now the cars sleep against curbs.
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.
Breaking My Favorite Bowl
and split into four pieces
on the floor.
Two large pieces, two small ones.
I could glue them back,
but what would I use them for?
Forgive me when I answer you
in a voice so swollen
it won’t fit your ears.
I’m thinking about apples and histories,
the hands I broke off
my mother’s praying statue
when I was four—
how she tearfully repaired them,
but the hairline cracks
in the wrists
were all she said
she could see—
the unannounced blur
of something passing
out of a life.
El Paso Sky
When it’s no good on earth I look up. When the cups on my table all have chips around the edges and I can’t get that feeling of what to do next, I press my eyes into the skinny pink stripe melting under the blue rumple that rolls and rolls and the dark corner growing over the mountains. I say to myself, It’s happening without you. If I had the biggest arms in the world, I couldn’t hug that. When I think of the people who are dead now, who weren’t dead just a little while ago, and how easy it would have been to pick up the phone and talk to them by dialing a number—I look at the sky. It’s all one piece now.
From Here to There
Everything needs readiness,
gladiolus spear placed in
Before you begin,
before you let yourself move
from here to there,
you attend to little things,
a cat’s mouth open and crying,
a thin parade of ants
along the sill.
Something in the way we are made
wants order. Wants three pillows
lined across the head of the bed,
wants porches swept and shades raised.
Before we begin. Before we head into
those secret rooms no one else
has cleaned for years,
where memories rest in heaps,
and have only to be touched lightly
A Single Slice Reveals Them
An apple on the table
hides its seeds
under seamless skin.
But we talk and talk
to let somebody
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Cite 21.00 Text:My Father and the fig tree by Naomi Shihab Nye
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Though I purchased most of Naomi’s works, I keep re-reading whatever I come across again and again and can’t get enough of them. Having met her through a video conference I can hardly wait for an opportunity to meet her personally and enjoy listening to her as she speaks. Her speech is poetry flowing dans les ondes!
How deep these simple lines reach, finding wisdom in sadness. limitation, attention! Now I want to be famous like the buttonhole that never forgets what it can do. Thank you!
“Try to praise the mutilated world,” advises Adam Zagajewski. Naomi Shahib Nye does it better than almost anyone.
Thanks for publishing her work.
Thank you for this wonderful selection of Naomi’s poems. As ever, her luminous work lifts the heart!
Thank you so much for these lovely new poems from Naomi. Her poem “Kindness” lives on the wall over my desk, and I turn to it again and again.
Thank you for your wonderful poems, especially My Father and the Figtree.
Please enjoy photos of my fig tree and figs.
The last photo shows fig tree touching the ground,
meeting heaven and earth,
as your father would have loved.
BlesSings for the “largest fattest sweetest fig” on a branch
so “heavy it touches the ground”.
How refreshing, to read poems that are so beautiful and full of meaning.
“When it’s no good on earth I look up.” And I also look to Naomi to voice the profound within the ordinary. She just keeps getting better. Thanks, Persimmon Tree.
I am dealing with nesting mice, and am living the ambivalence “Hello” exquisitely encompasses. She is one of the few poets of whom I could honestly say I admire almost every one of her poems I have read. She has a talent for touching the humanity in all things.
I love Naomi’s kind heart and ability to see so much in the ordinary. Wonderful poems, all.
Exquisite poems — thanks Persimmon Tree.
Such beautiful poems! Seemingly simple, but they say so much. I love the idea of wanting to be famous as “the one who smiled back.”