Friday, May 11, 2018

Poetry Friday: Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye

A little over a year ago, I posted this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye after hearing that she had been chosen to deliver the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture in 2018. Then I found out the location at which she would speak: Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. - my new home town!

Well, two weeks ago she delivered her talk to an enthusiastic crowd, and I attended with my good friend and fellow writer, Laura Kvasnosky.We both scribbled notes as she talked about the joys of writing poetry for children. Her lecture was most notable for its anecdotes about school visits and interactions with kids - I'm hoping Laura will write about it this week on our shared blog, Books Around the Table, so I won't go into specifics here. But I do want to repost this poem, my favorite of Nye's, titled "Two Countries.".As an Arab-American, Nye spoke passionately at WWU about her own two countries - Palestine and the United States - and about the need to be open-armed and generous-spirited about immigrants during this difficult period in America's history when intolerance and xenophobia are rearing their ugly heads.  Here is the poem I love, and I love it not only for its message (that we live in our own "skin," our bodies, but the world is larger, there are other travelers)  but for its technical precision - the abundant internal rhymes and near rhymes (step/swept/slept, known/nose/dome, rope/hope/road, own/alone) which make it both song and poem.

TWO COUNTRIES by Naomi Shihab Nye
Skin remembers how long the years grow
when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird, swirling onto a step,
swept away by someone who never saw
it was a feather. Skin ate, walked,
slept by itself, knew how to raise a
see-you-later hand. But skin felt
it was never seen, never known as
a land on the map, nose like a city,
hip like a city, gleaming dome of the mosque
and the hundred corridors of cinnamon and rope.
Skin had hope, that’s what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
And skin remembers—silk, spiny grass,
deep in the pocket that is skin’s secret own.
Even now, when skin is not alone,
it remembers being alone and thanks something larger
that there are travelers, that people go places
larger than themselves.

The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted today by the marvelous Jama Kim Rattigan over at her blog, Jama's Alphabet Soup. Head over there now to see what other people have posted.  And you might enjoy this interview of Nye at the On Being Project site.


  1. I love that you had the wonderful experience of seeing the lecture, too. I've read from others about it. Thanks for sharing the poem that does open the heart of immigrants for us who can only sympathize and hope for them, welcome them. Our times are shaky today, yet I am hoping for many to stand up to do the welcoming as we have before. Thanks, Julie.

  2. How wonderful that you were able to attend the lecture, Julie. Thanks for sharing Naomi's poem (new to me) -- nourishing food for thought, perfect regarding what is happening today.

  3. How wonderful you got to hear Nye speak. I'm just a little bit jealous. Okay, maybe more than a little bit. This poem of hers is new to me, but I can see why you love it. It's one to come back to again and again.

  4. That's so true, about skin - it wants to heal. I love the metaphor. Thanks for sharing this. I wish I could hear her speak!

  5. A powerful, rich poem of trying to open eyes, reach over and make connections–skin as persona and skin her metaphor for healing, beautiful, thanks Julie, and for the link too!

  6. These days we needs voices like Naomi Shihab Nye's broadcasted far and wide. What a wonderful experience for you to hear her speak, Julie! Thanks for sharing her poem.

  7. This spoke to me:

    ...feather lost from the tail
    of a bird, swirling onto a step

    I often take photos of random feathers I come across on the ground, or, a step. There's something magical but earthy about them.

  8. Lucky you, to get to hear her speak!