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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’