i say patron saint of the gap in my mother’s front teeth

From the dirt beneath a grandmother’s nails to a certain slant of light, Jess Rizkallah so gorgeously captures the tangible and intangible aspects of our lives that anchor and protect us.

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“when they ask who i pray to”

i say patron saint of the gap in my mother’s front teeth

i say patron saint of the long-last gap in my teeth, who took it back
but left me with a whistle. a reminder of the resemblance
i let myself forget.

i say patron saint of my grandfather’s forehead,
who whispers about the heart on fire
under formaldehyde & earth.

patron saint of my sister’s bitten nails that never catch dirt when she lays
flowers at the base of a stone that took five months to arrive because
no one else came around.

saint of the lemon tree his father put there
saint of the ripest tomatoes
saint of the shrapneled kitchen tile their baby feet slapped
saint of the blue peaks by the ocean where we began
saint of the way we say what again
and again as plea, as demand.

i know there are saints of light not written about.
saints of walking sticks falling against floors not holy.
the saint of the self as god when god has done enough
to be reshelved and left dusty

when they ask me, i say patron saint of teta’s hands.
small hands that beaded and embroidered
and kneaded and carried and learned the alphabet.
a for apple. b for box. c for candle.
d for dog. d for death. d for dirt
under the nails. a hard day’s work a        picture frame
and his cold wedding band.       this is how we compete
with the silence that wants to take us.

from the magic my body becomes

she will use the book as a shield

Yesterday I posted a poem by William Stafford and today I offer four poems by one of his biggest fans (and one of my absolute favorite poets), Naomi Shihab Nye. I first encountered her at the age of 11 when my mom bought me Nye’s young adult book, Habibi, about an Arab-American adolescent girl who moves to Jerusalem sometime in the 90s. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I re-encountered Nye on the poetry shelves of a used bookstore and fell in love with her verse.

Born to a Palestinian father and an American mother, Nye writes poetry, essays and novels that use accessible, specific images to ask large questions of the world–of culture, travel, war, of what binds us all together and tears us all apart…  She is quite the vagabond, but has spent spent much of her life in Texas, which she also writes about often. As an Arab-American, I feel very strong ties to many of her poems, but I think her poems can be widely appreciated because of her knack for capturing the  human experience. I would post them all, but four is already pushing it:

Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things from Fuel

She is holding the book close to her body,
carrying it home on the cracked sidewalk,
down the tangled hill.
If a dog runs at her again, she will use the book as a shield.

She looked hard among the long lines
of books to find this one.
When they start talking about money,
when the day contains such long and hot places,
she will go inside.
An orange bed is waiting.
Story without corners.
She will have two families.
They will eat at different hours.

She is carrying a book past the fire station
and the five-and-dime.
What this town has not given her
the book will provide; a sheep,
a wilderness of new solutions.
The book has already lived through its troubles.
The book has a calm cover, straight spine.

When the step returns to itself
as the best place for sitting,
and the old men up and down the street
are latching their clippers.

She will not be alone
She will have a book to open
and open and open
Her life starts here.

Eye Test from Fuel

The D is desperate.
The B wants to take a vacation,
live on a billboard, be broad and brave.
The E is mad at the R for upstaging him.
The little c wants to be a big C if possible,
and the P pauses long between thoughts.

How much better to be a story, story.
Can you read me?

We have to live on this white board
together like a neighborhood.
We would rather be the tail of a cloud,
one letter becoming another,
or lost in a boy’s pocket
shapeless as lint
the same boy who squints to read us
believing we convey a secret message.
Be his friend
We are so tired of meaning nothing.

Arabic Coffee–from Yellow Glove

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.

Famous from Hugging the Jukebox

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 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 is 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.