Trying to Remember Something

naomi-shihab-nyeI once drove 200 miles over bumpy back roads to get to the place where poet Naomi Shihab Nye was speaking, and it was worth every pothole. 

This was at Smith College some five or six years ago.

That day she told those of us in her audience that everyone should all make time for the writing of poetry because doing so keeps a person  ‘in a very distinct relationship with language.’

Her relationship with language seems so natural I sometimes feel like she’s standing right beside me when I read her. Take the poem “The Art of Disappearing”:

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

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.

I thought of this poem on waking today with the pressing jobs of the week all crowding in shouting “Pick ME first!”  “No, I’M the important one!” I really take to heart that line about thinking of yourself as a leaf and knowing you could tumble any second. I like that a lot.

The poet told us that a young man once came up to her after a talk and said “Here’s my address, write me a poem.” And so she wrote him this one, called  “A 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.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us we’ll find peace of mind too. Peace of mind and maybe even poems. I’m all for trying to do that.