If you know me, you know my poet’s heart. Inspired by other writers’ blogs, I’ve decided to christen Wednesdays to be Poetry Wednesdays (shut up, if you have a better name, send it to me!). On this day each week I’ll post a favorite (oh, god, so many!) by a new (or old, familiar) writer, or perhaps (gasp!) share one of my own.
On this inaugural day, here’s one by a favorite poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. For years I shared this one with my students…I always hoped it resonated with them as much as it did me.
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to the 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 the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
from Words Under Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye,
1995, Far Corner Books
Whenever I read this poem, I think of my mother, who continues to inspire me every day. She has spent a lifetime with a quiet, strong voice, guiding and nurturing everyone around her, famous for the things she did reflexively — 20 years later, my high school friends still rave about her Friday night pizza open houses — and for the things she did courageously.
I remember the moment I learned that my mother was a person outside of her role as mother or wife. God, I was so old! How could I have never seen it before? Looking back, it is not strange at all to me now that this moment of discovery was linked to poetry. I don’t know what she has written, but my mother has always been a poet. For her, for her fame, for that moment I saw clearly, I wrote this poem:
The sudden stranger chopping garlic
wears my mother’s soft body
and doesn’t pause in her cooking
to acknowledge the careless remark,
while I stare, frozen, slack-jawed,
red pen still marking scribbled
eighth grade compositions.
She is my mother
(I check to make sure)
this familiar figure who,
through giving birth to four children,
gave up another kind of life. She
uses the torn, tomato-stained apron
to wipe the comment away from her hands
along with olive oil and garlic peels —
my mother’s hands, the ones
that taught me how to make meatballs,
I watch her move on to salad greens
while sipping ice-water, shrewdly
choosing crisp arugula over iceberg,
sprinkling parsley and oregano
as the writer does with verbs and nouns,
precisely, each selected
for taste and clarity. I wait for her
to finish the thought somehow but
her words hang in the air,
stirred by the overhead fan,
spinning in echoes over me, her daughter —
I’ve always wanted to write poetry, said my mother,
and every steel girder in my life’s framework
crumbles like the blue cheese
she has now tossed among
the red peppers and mushrooms,
its singularity lost forever when
mixed in a scarred wooden salad bowl.
Remember: you are famous to somebody.
And, Mom. You do write poetry. You always have.