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.
From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Copyright © 1995. Reprinted with permission of Far Corner Books, Portland, OR.
Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like Glory, like light—
over the seven days of your body?
And wasn’t that good?
Them at your hips—
isn’t this what God felt when he pressed together
the first Beloved: Everything.
Fever. Vapor. Atman. Pulsus. Finally,
a sin worth hurting for. Finally, a sweet, a
You are mine.
It is hard not to have faith in this:
from the blue-brown clay of night
these two potters crushed and smoothed you
into being—grind, then curve—built your form up—
atlas of bone, fields of muscle,
one breast a fig tree, the other a nightingale,
both Morning and Evening.
O, the beautiful making they do—
of trigger and carve, suffering and stars—
Aren’t they, too, the dark carpenters
of your small church? Have they not burned
on the altar of your belly, eaten the bread
of your thighs, broke you to wine, to ichor,
to nectareous feast?
Haven’t they riveted your wrists, haven’t they
had you at your knees?
And when these hands touched your throat,
showed you how to take the apple and the rib,
how to slip a thumb into your mouth and taste it all,
didn’t you sing out their ninety-nine names—
Zahir, Aleph, Hands-time-seven,
Sphinx, Leonids, locomotura,
Rubidium, August, and September—
And when you cried out, O, Prometheans,
didn’t they bring fire?
These hands, if not gods, then why
when you have come to me, and I have returned you
to that from which you came—bright mud, mineral-salt—
why then do you whisper O, my Hecatonchire. My Centimani.
My hundred-handed one?
I often don’t know what to do. Or if I want to.
Dawn has long broken while I still drag my feet in the mud inside my head, hope for coffee, make a B-flat moan. To prepare the plunge into action. Or not.
Maybe I want to cast only a passing shadow. Feel like my mother’s “Thank God” when she took off her corset.
But I am worried there’s something I ought to be doing. Afraid I’ll die without having done anything. “Realized” myself, you call it, but wouldn’t that just mean limited myself? A cement mixer stuck in one motion, even if it helps build a house?
So I delude myself into thinking I’m doing something when thinking. Or when descending into the night with the cat and dreams of the cat.
You say, no doing without sweat of the face, thorns and thistles, and bringing forth children.
Should I look, instead of worrying about fine distinctions that escape my eyes? Listen, instead of fretting about the size of my ears? But can I cultivate my garden without becoming a cabbage head?
The hand gets ready to write. Could we not call this manual labor? Or a stage in the Great Work of rendering the corporeal cat incorporeal while giving her body to the bodiless word? Even if it‘s from despairing of my own body?
You say, my writing is so slow it’s more like gravitational condensation. Or dust gathering on the cleaning supplies.
It’s true I’m dawdling as if I had time to watch the formation of geological layers. Though night already seeps through my brittle bones.
I certainly don’t know what to do to end my days “gracefully.” But the body dies all through our life, thousands of cells every second.
So everything should be very clear.
Originally published in Seedings. Copyright © 2016 by Rosmarie Waldrop. Used with the permission of the author.