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.
I am leading a quiet life in Mike’s Place every day watching the champs of the Dante Billiard Parlor and the French pinball addicts. I am leading a quiet life on lower East Broadway. I am an American. I was an American boy. I read the American Boy Magazine and became a boy scout in the suburbs. I thought I was Tom Sawyer catching crayfish in the Bronx River and imagining the Mississippi. I had a baseball mit and an American Flyer bike. I delivered the Woman’s Home Companion at five in the afternoon or the Herald Trib at five in the morning. I still can hear the paper thump on lost porches. I had an unhappy childhood. I saw Lindberg land. I looked homeward and saw no angel. I got caught stealing pencils from the Five and Ten Cent Store the same month I made Eagle Scout. I chopped trees for the CCC and sat on them. I landed in Normandy in a rowboat that turned over. I have seen the educated armies on the beach at Dover. I have seen Egyptian pilots in purple clouds shopkeepers rolling up their blinds at midday potato salad and dandelions at anarchist picnics. I am reading ‘Lorna Doone’ and a life of John Most terror of the industrialist a bomb on his desk at all times. I have seen the garbagemen parade in the Columbus Day Parade behind the glib farting trumpeters. I have not been out to the Cloisters in a long time nor to the Tuileries but I still keep thinking of going. I have seen the garbagemen parade when it was snowing. I have eaten hotdogs in ballparks. I have heard the Gettysburg Address and the Ginsberg Address. I like it here and I won’t go back where I came from. I too have ridden boxcars boxcars boxcars. I have travelled among unknown men. I have been in Asia with Noah in the Ark. I was in India when Rome was built. I have been in the Manger with an Ass. I have seen the Eternal Distributor from a White Hill in South San Francisco and the Laughing Woman at Loona Park outside the Fun House in a great rainstorm still laughing. I have heard the sound of revelry by night. I have wandered lonely as a crowd. I am leading a quiet life outside of Mike’s Place every day watching the world walk by in its curious shoes. I once started out to walk around the world but ended up in Brooklyn. That Bridge was too much for me. I have engaged in silence exile and cunning. I flew too near the sun and my wax wings fell off. I am looking for my Old Man whom I never knew. I am looking for the Lost Leader with whom I flew. Young men should be explorers. Home is where one starts from. But Mother never told me there’d be scenes like this. Womb-weary I rest I have travelled. I have seen goof city. I have seen the mass mess. I have heard Kid Ory cry. I have heard a trombone preach. I have heard Debussy strained thru a sheet. I have slept in a hundred islands where books were trees. I have heard the birds that sound like bells. I have worn grey flannel trousers and walked upon the beach of hell. I have dwelt in a hundred cities where trees were books. What subways what taxis what cafes! What women with blind breasts limbs lost among skyscrapers! I have seen the statues of heroes at carrefours. Danton weeping at a metro entrance Columbus in Barcelona pointing Westward up the Ramblas toward the American Express Lincoln in his stony chair And a great Stone Face in North Dakota. I know that Columbus did not invent America. I have heard a hundred housebroken Ezra Pounds. They should all be freed. It is long since I was a herdsman. I am leading a quiet life in Mike’s Place every day reading the Classified columns. I have read the Reader’s Digest from cover to cover and noted the close identification of the United States and the Promised Land where every coin is marked In God We Trust but the dollar bills do not have it being gods unto themselves. I read the Want Ads daily looking for a stone a leaf an unfound door. I hear America singing in the Yellow Pages. One could never tell the soul has its rages. I read the papers every day and hear humanity amiss in the sad plethora of print. I see where Walden Pond has been drained to make an amusement park. I see they’re making Melville eat his whale. I see another war is coming but I won’t be there to fight it. I have read the writing on the outhouse wall. I helped Kilroy write it. I marched up fifth Avenue blowing on a bugle in a tight platoon but hurried back to the Casbah looking for my dog. I see a similarity between dogs and me. Dogs are the true observers walking up and down the world thru the Molloy country. I have walked down alleys too narrow for Chryslers. I have seen a hundred horseless milkwagons in a vacant lot in Astoria. Ben Shahn never painted them but they’re there askew in Astoria. I have heard the junkman’s obbligato. I have ridden superhighways and believed the billboard’s promises Crossed the Jersey Flats and seen the Cities of the Plain And wallowed in the wilds of Westchester with its roving bands of natives in stationwagons. I have seen them. I am the man. I was there. I suffered somewhat. I am an American. I have a passport. I did not suffer in public. And I’m too young to die. I am a selfmade man. And I have plans for the future. I am in line for a top job. I may be moving on to Detroit. I am only temporarily a tie salesman. I am a good Joe. I am an open book to my boss. I am a complete mystery to my closest friends. I am leading a quiet life in Mike’s Place every day contemplating my navel. I am a part of the body’s long madness. I have wandered in various nightwoods. I have leaned in drunken doorways. I have written wild stories without punctuation. I am the man. I was there. I suffered somewhat. I have sat in an uneasy chair. I am a tear of the sun. I am a hill where poets run. I invented the alphabet after watching the flight of cranes who made letters with their legs. I am a lake upon a plain. I am a word in a tree. I am a hill to poetry. I am a raid on the inarticulate. I have dreamt that all my teeth fell out but my tongue lived to tell the tale. For I am a still of poetry. I am a bank of song. I am a playerpiano in an abandoned casino on a seaside esplanade in a dense fog still playing. I see a similarity between the Laughing Woman and myself. I have heard the sound of summer in the rain. I have seen girls on boardwalks have complicated sensations. I understand their hesitations. I am a gatherer of fruit. I have seen how kisses cause euphoria. I have risked enchantment. I have seen the Virgin in an appletree at Chartres and Saint Joan burn at the Bella Union. I have seen giraffes in junglejims their necks like love wound around the iron circumstances of the world. I have seen the Venus Aphrodite armless in her drafty corridor. I have heard a siren sing at One Fifth Avenue. I have seen the White Goddess dancing in the Rue des Beaux Arts on the Fourteenth of July and the Beautiful Dame Without Mercy picking her nose in Chumley’s. She did not speak English. She had yellow hair and a hoarse voice and no bird sang. I am leading a quiet life in Mike’s Place every day watching the pocket pool players making the minestrone scene wolfing the macaronis and I have read somewhere the Meaning of Existence yet have forgotten just exactly where. But I am the man And I’ll be there. And I may cause the lips of those who are asleep to speak. And I may make my notebooks into sheaves of grass. And I may write my own eponymous epitaph instructing the horsemen to pass.
From A Coney Island of the Mind. Copyright © 1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.