“just beautiful life, mint flourishing in a tin can,
schoolgirl in a fresh dress with a ruffle, mom and dad
staring from the windows–can you see us?
Can you see any of us at all?”
Naomi Shihab Nye
“Oh, Say Can You See”*
Her street composed in leaves,
each one a song from a jukebox (Remember?),
its catalogue of poems singing sibilant cities–
St. Louis, Jerusalem, San Antonio.
Song of a father tending a fig tree, a year,
a hundred years, a fig tree song, branches bowing
heavy to the ground from which it grew.
Song of a husband in a pork pie hat,
his camera and tape recorder–complements
to his wife’s notebook of penciled poems,
their conjoined voices louder than the thunk
of a dark-of-night ax against the trunk
of a fig tree, olive tree, louder than the scream
of bombs descending, scattering homes,
song quiet as the night after, prayer rugs
rolled up like a scroll.
Street of no one dies today, no slow march
of drum and dented cornet. Street so fragile,
one must be careful walking. Street of
olive vendors, almonds and walnuts.
Street of house keys left under the doormat.
Song of the street when she was seventeen
waking in the night to shape words on a page,
each word a stranger waving hello from
a pickup truck window. A shop filled with words,
treasures on a shelf, too many to decide,
come back tomorrow, next week, next month,
still here, dusted and hopeful.
Turtle song, snail crossing, slow, slower,
stop, look, listen, street of stories, street winding
too long to grow up. Street of happy things
refusing to match. Song of words you know,
words you made up, words to fit the right ears.
Song of hello, its endless loop against goodbye.
Street of a boy’s lost parrot, his song
“Where are you? Come home” echoing
down the alley. Street of hands folded,
steeple of prayer. Song of the
mailbox door opening.
Street of church bells chiming their song
of noon, no one hungry turned away.
Street of pita bread and white cheese,
green and black olives, inside jokes with God.
Song of her grandmother, 106, rising
from her death bed like the loaves of bread
baked for her daughter, her granddaughter,
then climbing to the roof of her house,
all streets branching out from this trunk.
Naomi, does a place, a street, its song
ever leave you?
The song I hear, 4:00 a.m.
at my writing table, cup of medium-roast
Columbia coffee, two squares of
dark chocolate, and Lucy, our shepherd
dog, stretched out across my feet,
Katrina asleep only three rooms away.
The song I heard, fall semester, 1977,
beginning my (Who knew?) forty-two-year
career teaching writing and literature,
poetry, at Hardin-Simmons.
We lived in a 100-year-old house of
“sweet spirits” my mother-in-law said,
Trina’s and my two-year-old twin sons
romping through the rooms of thirty-three
almost floor-to-ten-foot-ceiling windows.
My house of light.
My wife and sons.
Naomi was scheduled to be the Hardin-Simmons University Lawrence Clayton Poets & Writers Speaker Series poet in April, but due to precautions against the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, Naomi’s appearance on campus has been rescheduled for next spring, April 16, 2021.
*Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Oh, Say Can You See.” Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners. Greenwillow Books, 2018, pp. 111-12.
I also invite you to study Naomi’s 1995 poetry collection Words Under The Words: Selected Poems, The Eighth Mountain Press: A Far Corner Book, and also Naomi’s collection of literary nonfiction essays Never In A Hurry: Essays on People and Places, U of South Carolina P, 1996.