Hear the Words under the Words


Gogo Korogiannou, "Olive Tree"

Spiritual Sunday

I’m trying not to overreact to the anti-Muslim sentiment blowing through the United States at the moment. I keep telling myself that there is a core decency to Americans and that most are not stampeded into hysterical hatred by demagogic political and religious leaders. Although the United States has not always welcomed immigrants and people of other faiths, it has generally proved an open enough society that most have come to see this as home.  Many former Africans, Irish, Italians Chinese, Haitians and Mexicans, many Jews, Mormons, Catholics and Buddhists, have all come to feel that they belong here.  Hopefully Muslims will one day feel this way as well.

In the spirit of opening ourselves to the wisdom of other faiths while acknowledging that we are still in the holy month of Ramadan, I share the following poem by American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, sent to me by reader Farida Bag. Nye is the daughter of a Palestinian father and American mother and author of the collection Different Ways to Pray. The Joha that she mentions is a comic figure in Arab lore:

My grandmother’s eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death.
When she talks of the orchard and the new olive press,
when she tells the stories of Joha and his foolish wisdoms,
He is her first thought, what she really thinks of is His name.
“Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,
difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.”

Goodness knows, our pockets often feel full of stones these days as we trudge through life, bruising our shins on the world’s rough edges.  We may feel encouraged to keep going if we remember that Allah–or whatever name we choose to ascribe to the holiness that undergirds creation–is everywhere.


The artist’s work can be found at www.gogokorogiannou.com/portfolio/scapes/olive-tree.

This entry was posted in Nye (Naomi Shihab) and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Blade Lawless
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    “[T]he words under the words” is a fine expression, Robin, but I think that your own phrase, “the holiness that undergirds creation,” is even better.

  2. Barbara
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    She is one of my favorite poets. Another poem from the same source is about the costs of not listening to ourselves underneath the world’s words:

    Missing the Boat

    It is not so much that the boat passed

    and you failed to notice it.

    It is more like the boat stopping

    directly outside your bedroom window,

    the captain blowing the signal-horn,

    the band playing a rousing march.

    The boat shouted, waving bright flags,

    its silver hull blinding in the sunlight.

    But you had this idea you were going by train.

    You kept checking the time-table,

    digging for tracks.

    And the boat got tired of you,

    so tired it pulled up the anchor

    and raised the ramp.

    The boat bobbed into the distance,

    shrinking like a toy–

    at which point you probably realized

    you had always loved the sea.

    Naomi Shihab Nye Different Ways to Pray- Breitenbush Publications, 1980

  3. farida
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    Robin, I just wanted to add the first verse(?) of the poem The Words Under the Words, because I love how stone is first mentioned as a location of prayer and then later, in the last verse you post, it is the ‘weight’ in your pockets.

    There was the method of kneeling,
    a fine method, if you lived in a country
    where stones were smooth.
    The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
    hidden corners where knee fit rock.
    Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
    small calcium words uttered in sequence,
    as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
    fuse them to the sky.

    I also reflected on Blade’s mention of your words “the holiness that undergirds creation” and it seems to be echoed in the “weathered rib bones” … and also thinking of the ‘lightness’ of the word ‘holiness’ and the more dense word ‘undergirds’

    I’ve been thinking, since I read the poem Prayers of Steel, of the ways in which faith is ‘languaged’ in these very tangible elements, tough elements…. stone, steel etc. And I thought of it as our attempts to try to root the ephemeral into something we can hold onto or for those with strong faith to try and give almost visceral expression to the importance and reality of faith in one’s life. I don’t know. Although I do know that stones, tablets etc feature in Islam as well as the Christian and Jewish faiths.

    On the issue of the disagreements between faiths or our wariness of each other’s intent, there is a question in the poem In Jerusalem by Mahmoud Darwish:

    “I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
    do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
    Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?”

    Again the stone… and finally in Lucille Clifton’s poem “far memory”, even though the subject matter is so different from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, the first two lines reminded me of The Words Under the Words in the echo of the words ‘stones’ and ‘pockets’, and of course prayer. From “far memory”:

    my knees recall the pockets
    worn into the stone floor,
    my hands, tracing against
    the wall their original name, remember
    the cold brush of brick, and the smell
    of the brick powdery and wet
    and the light finding its way in
    through the high bars.

    I love the poem Barbara posted. I love poems that speak to people (particularly women) listening to “the voice within”, or perhaps rather, poems that call on each of us to have the courage to live our lives in a way that befits or honours our souls. I think the following poem is also about that, but more forceful (rightly so) in its expression of the necessity to listen to ourselves:

    it was a dream

    by Lucille Clifton

    in which my greater self
    rose up before me
    accusing me of my life
    with her extra finger
    whirling in a gyre of rage
    at what my days had come to.
    i pleaded with her, could i do,
    oh what could i have done?
    and she twisted her wild hair
    and sparked her wild eyes
    and screamed as long as
    i could hear her
    This. This. This.

    Robin, thank you for these posts related to the month of Ramadan. I really have appreciated them. We are in the final stretch and hopefully all goes well…

  4. Susan
    Posted August 30, 2010 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing the additional poetry. They’ve been a pleasure to read.

  5. Robin Bates
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Good Clifton poem, by the way. She has another one where she tries to convince herself that something is not her fault. But she felt so much that she was responsible for combatting injustice in the world that she never rested easy. She certainly didn’t miss any boats that honked outside her window.

    Since I ran only a fragment of the Nye poem that Farida sent me, I thought I should run the whole thing. Here it is. Farida picks up on the stone motif that runs through the collection:

    The Words Under the Words

    By Naomi Shihab Nye

    for Sitti Khadra, north of Jerusalem

    My grandmother’s hands recognize grapes,
    the damp shine of a goat’s new skin.
    When I was sick they followed me,
    I woke from the long fever to find them
    covering my head like cool prayers.

    My grandmother’s days are made of bread,
    a round pat-pat and the slow baking.
    She waits by the oven watching a strange car
    circle the streets. Maybe it holds her son,
    lost to America. More often, tourists,
    who kneel and weep at mysterious shrines.
    She knows how often mail arrives,
    how rarely there is a letter.
    When one comes, she announces it, a miracle,
    listening to it read again and again
    in the dim evening light.

    My grandmother’s voice says nothing can surprise her.
    Take her the shotgun wound and the crippled baby.
    She knows the spaces we travel through,
    the messages we cannot send—our voices are short
    and would get lost on the journey.
    Farewell to the husband’s coat,
    the ones she has loved and nourished,
    who fly from her like seeds into a deep sky.
    They will plant themselves. We will all die.

    My grandmother’s eyes say Allah is everywhere, even in death.
    When she talks of the orchard and the new olive press,
    when she tells the stories of Joha and his foolish wisdoms,
    He is her first thought, what she really thinks of is His name.
    “Answer, if you hear the words under the words—
    otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,
    difficult to get through, and our pockets full of stones.”

One Trackback

  1. By Finding a Place Where Hate Won’t Grow on September 29, 2011 at 1:02 am

    […] a previous post on Nye about how she explores the wisdom of her Palestinian grandmother, go here. This entry was posted in Nye (Naomi Shihab) and tagged "Jerusalem", Islam, Naomi Shihab Nye, […]


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete