Lifesaving Poems: Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘The Art of Disappearing’


The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone is telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

Naomi Shihab Nye, from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Far Corner Books, 1995)

I am indebted to Molly Larson Cook of the Skylark Writing Studio blog for introducing me to this poem. Having read my various posts about being in attendance at Things, Molly suggested the poem would resonate with me.

This is an understatement. It was more like being run over by the proverbial truck.

Darkly comic, icily observed, and with just the right amount of living detail (‘Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate’: brilliant!), the poem captures what it is like to negotiate the public demands of ‘being a writer’, albeit on a small scale.

Its settings are the private, interior world of landscape and memory (‘Trees. The monastery bell at twilight’) out of which poems come, and the more insistent world of small talk (‘Tell them you have a new project’) and paper plates. In its slow motion traversing between these two states the poem reminds me of Tranströmer, whose phrase ‘face coated with clay’ (from ‘Alone) is a good summary of the awkwardness engendered by the effort of keeping up appearances.

The poem appears to end with the worst kind of strategy for a poem, that of passing on advice: ‘Walk around feeling like a leaf./ Know you could tumble any second./ Then decide what to do with your time.’ The openendedness of the final line, however, keeps the dream of the poem alive. No resolution has taken place. We are free to make whatever choice we want. To attend the party, and, once there, give ourselves away. Or remember what really matters, prisoners of time that we are.

Lifesaving Poems

If you liked this, why not try Marin Sorescu’s ‘With Only One Life’ or Mandy Coe’s ‘Let’s Celebrate’


  1. Thank you. I needed to hear that! – Am enjoying all your posts, as usual.


    On 22/07/2014 06:00, “Musings of an itinerant lawyer” wrote:

    > Anthony Wilson posted: ” The Art of Disappearing When they say Don’t I know > you? say no. When they invite you to the party remember what parties are like > before answering. Someone is telling you in a loud voice they once wrote a > poem. ” >


  2. A wonderful poem, Anthony, thanks, which I didn’t know, though I’ve read other poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. It is so apt for me at the moment. I’m reminded of Stephen Covey’s words ‘the good is the enemy of the best’ – describing how easy it is to let ourselves be distracted, for good reason, but not the best reason.


    1. Hi Mandy
      Thanks so much for your comment -those are wise words indeed. I should write them down.
      Where’s my notebook now?
      Hope all is well and great to hear from you


  3. Anthony…I’m delighted to see Naomi’s poem here and honored to be mentioned. I so enjoyed your comments on the poem, as well as those of other who commented here. Your posts are a gift that I share with many other poet friends across the U.S. The words do indeed save us…
    As ever, Molly


  4. Superbly real poem! Loved your commentary, AW. So refreshing, both! I am going to track this poet down instanta!


  5. Came to this while searching for Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey.” Nye’s poem is a real bonus. Both poems hit close to home, reminding us to remember who we are and to value our time. “Lifesaving Poems” indeed. Blessings.


  6. Is the poet’s heart two sizes too small?
    Because saying no is ok. Isn’t it?
    Does the poet, the rock star and the blogger owe respects to an audience that hasn’t paid for an admission ticket today?
    Why must we be a blessing unto each other in every manner and way?
    Who said so? Or made the suggestion?
    Isn’t it ok to be a bitch? Now and then.


  7. Thank you so much for introducing me to this poem. I get welled up when I think of the odds of finding this poem other than from your collection. I check your blog almost everyday.

    Liked by 1 person

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