Naomi Shihab Nye’s Poetry

All by Naomi Shihab Nye, 2003 Featured Poet

Making a Fist

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
Watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
The borders we must cross separately,
Stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
Still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
Clenching and opening one small hand.


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.

The Man Who Makes Brooms

So you come with these maps in your head
and I come with voices chiding me to
“Speak for my people”
and we march around like guardians of memory
till we find the man on the short stool
who makes brooms.

Thumb over thumb, straw over straw,
he will not look at us.
In his stony corner there is barely room
For baskets and thread,
much less the weight of our faces
staring at him from the street.
What he has lost or not lost is his secret.

You say he is like all the men,
The man who sells pistachios,
The man who rolls the rugs.
Older now, you find holiness in anything
that continues, dream after dream.
I say he is like nobody,
the pink seam he weaves
across the flat golden face of this broom
is its own shrine, and forget about the tears.

In the village the unlces will raise their kefiyahs
from dominoes to say, no brooms in America?
And the girls who stop to sweep the courtyard
will stop for moment and cock their heads.
It is a little song, this thumb over thumb,
But sometimes when you wait years
for the air to break open
and sense to fall out,
it may be the only one.


“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,”
my father would say. And he’d prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.

In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.
True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.

Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn’t have one.
After that, my father told me who he was,
“Shihab”–“shooting star”–
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
Once I said, “When we die, we give it back?”
He said that’s what a true Arab would say.

Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page.
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.

I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?

A Poem at the End and the Beginning

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength enough
to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
at the end of the century
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

The Last Day of August

A man in a lawn chair
with a book on his lap
realizes pears are falling
from the tree right beside him.
Each makes a round,
full sound in the grass.
Perhaps the stem takes an hour
to loosen and let go.
This man who has recently written words
to his father forty years in the birthing:
I was always afraid of you,
When would you explode next?
has sudden reverence for the pears.
If a dark bruise rises,
if ants inhabit the juicy crack,
or the body remains firm, unscarred,
remains secret till tomorrow . . .
By then the letter to his father
may be lying open on a table.
We gather pears in baskets, sacks.
What will we do with everything
that has been given us? Ginger pears, pear pies,
fingers weighing flesh.
Which will be perfect under the skin?
It is hard not to love the pile of peelings
growing on the counter next to the knife.


You can’t be, says a Palestinian Christian
on the first feast after Ramadan.
So, half-and-half and half-and-half.
He sells glass. He knows about broken bits,
chips. If you love Jesus you can’t love
anyone else. Says he.
At his stall of blue pitchers on the Via Dolorosa
he’s sweeping. The rubbed stones
feel holy. Dusting of powdered sugar
across faces of date-stuffed mamool.
This morning we lit the slim candles
which bend over at the waist by noon.
For once the priests weren’t fighting
in church for the best spots to stand.
As a boy, my father listened to them fight.
This is partly why he prays in no language
but his own. Why I press my lips
to every exception.
A woman opens a window — here and here
and here —
placing a vase of blue flowers
on an orange cloth. I follow her.
she is making soup from what she had left
in the bowl, the shriveled garlic and bent bean.
She is leaving nothing out.