“Poetry allows us to cherish what we’re given. Whether it be a heartbreak, a second chance, a soft morning mist, a moment or . . . an onion, poetry, with its impossible-seeming combination of soft lens and precision, brings to our awareness that which might otherwise go unseen, unrecognized, un-cherished. Poetry opens us to life, to surprise, to shadow, to beauty, to insight.”
~ Naomi Shihab Nye
Happy to join my Poetry Friday friends today in celebrating Naomi Shihab Nye, who was just named the 2019-2021 Young People’s Poet Laureate. An award winning poet, essayist, novelist, songwriter, educator, editor, and anthologist, Naomi calls herself “a wandering poet,” and is the first Arab American to earn this honor.
For the past 40+ years she’s traveled all over the country and the world leading workshops and inspiring students of all ages, using her own writing “to attest to our shared humanity.” She is currently Professor in Creative Writing-Poetry at Texas State University, and makes her home in San Antonio.
Naomi is a natural born poet; she wrote her first poem at age six. As Young People’s Poet Laureate, she will work to bring poetry to geographically underserved or rural communities. With her sensitivity, insight, cultural awareness, compassion and enormous heart, she is the seer and sage we need right now to show us how words can heal, unify, delight, and enlighten.
I first began reading Naomi’s work in earnest back in 2008, when I served as a Cybils final round poetry judge, and we selected Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose (Greenwillow Books, 2008) as the winner. I became a forever fan, and continue to marvel at her ability to lend “a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects.” She is both international and internal, specific and universal, profound but always accessible.
But in the end, it all came down to food (are you surprised?). 🙂
Savor “Sifter,” with its masterful metaphor and exploration of adolescent identity; then ingest “The Traveling Onion,” a praise poem for “all small forgotten miracles,” and finally, top it off with a hot cup of “Arabic Coffee,” for a satisfying taste of family, heritage, egalitarian discourse, community, and affirmation.
When our English teacher gave
our first writing assignment of the year,
Become a kitchen implement
in 2 descriptive paragraphs, I did not think
butcher knife or frying pan.
I thought immediately
of soft flour showering through the little holes
of the sifter and the sifter’s pleasing circular
swishing sound, and wrote it down.
Rhoda became a teaspoon,
Roberto a funnel,
Jim a muffin tin
and Forrest a soup pot.
We read our paragraphs out loud.
Abby was a blender. Everyone laughed
and acted giddy but the more we thought about it,
we were all everything in the whole kitchen,
drawers and drainers,
singing teapot and grapefruit spoon
with serrated edges, we were all the
empty cup, the tray.
This, said our teacher, is the beauty of metaphor.
It opens doors.
What I could not know then
was how being a sifter
would help me all year long.
When bad days came
I would close my eyes and feel them passing
through the tiny holes.
When good days came
I would try to contain them gently
the way flour remains
in the sifter until you turn the handle.
Time, time. I was a sweet sifter in time
and no one ever knew.
THE TRAVELING ONION
“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an object of worship — why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook
When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
It was never too strong for us:
make it blacker, Papa,
thick in the bottom,
tell again how the years will gather
in small white cups,
how luck lives in a spot of grounds.
Leaning over the stove, he let it
boil to the top, and down again.
Two times. No sugar in his pot.
And the place where men and women
break off from one another
was not present in that room.
The hundred disappointments,
fire swallowing olive-wood beads
at the warehouse, and the dreams
tucked like pocket handkerchiefs
into each day, took their places
on the table, near the half-empty
dish of corn. And none was
more important than the others,
and all were guests. When
he carried the tray into the room,
high and balanced in his hands,
it was an offering to all of them,
stay, be seated, follow the talk
wherever it goes. The coffee was
the center of the flower.
Like clothes on a line saying
You will live long enough to wear me,
a motion of faith. There is this,
and there is more.
We all know these things — sifter, onion, coffee — within the personal context of our lives. Yet, through Naomi’s revelatory lens, they blossom with fresh meaning, even take on cosmic significance.
I swoon whenever I read “Sifter.” I would choose to become one too (perhaps after the singing teapot). 🙂 Isn’t one of the biggest life lessons learning how to hold on when we need to, while letting other things go? Focus on the positive and believe in what is good.
Many poets have written about onions. Ancient, layered, versatile, essential, its circular shape represents eternity. We do take onions for granted — they aren’t flashy or demand attention. But what would we do without them? The onion’s purpose and flavor are not diminished in its smaller, divided form. I think of all the unsung heroes whose names we’ll never know, who made sacrifices on our behalf. No one is insignificant. We all count for something.
“Arabic Coffee” reminds me of the importance of open, vigorous dialog, where all voices are equal and no subject is off the table. I like that in the narrator’s home, “none was more important than the others, and all were guests.” Coffee facilitated conversation, communication, connection. The host is generous, welcoming, and hospitable. There is also the sense that those gathered find strength in their shared heritage. The dark Arabic coffee (no sugar needed) will never be too strong for those who have already endured so much.
What are your thoughts after reading these poems? What kitchen implement are you? 🙂
Enjoy this video of Naomi reading “Arabic Coffee”:
Gifted teacher, poet, and champion chocolate cake maker Mary Lee Hahn is hosting this week’s Naomi Shihab Nye celebration at A Year of Reading. Pop over to read more poems written or inspired by our new Young People’s Poet Laureate. Enjoy your weekend!
“It is really hard to be lonely very long in a world of words. Even if you don’t have friends somewhere, you still have language, and it will find you and wrap its little syllables around you and suddenly there will be a story to live in.” ~ NSN
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