About a Poem: Elizabeth Namgyel on Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Art of Disappearing”

Elizabeth Namgyel reviews Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem: “The Art of Disappearing”

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel
18 November 2010

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 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.

For me, “The Art of Disappearing” awakens a deep and personal experience of renunciation. I hesitate to use the word “renunciation” because on the spiritual path we often immediately misunderstand it as a command to give up the richness and enjoyment of our world.

But Naomi Shihab Nye helps us understand renunciation as the falling away of fantasies, which happens naturally when we have something bigger to attend to, “something too important to forget.” What this something is, she doesn’t define. The power in her words seems to lie in what she doesn’t say. She leaves it to us to recognize and feel touched by our own experience, something impossible to put words to.

An acclaimed poet and songwriter, Nye was born in 1952 to a Palestinian father and American mother and grew up in Jerusalem; St. Louis, Missouri; and San Antonio, Texas—where she now lives with her family. Nye is known for poems that attest to our shared humanity, and there is something moving, urgent, and lonely about her expression of renunciation in this selection from her anthology, Words Under the Words.

She points out that renunciation is not a rejection: “It’s not that [we] don’t love them anymore.” It’s just that our focus has changed; we have decided not to live in fantasy. We’re no longer interested in joining the party where we feel a need to assert who we are, who we want to be, or how we want others to see us.

It’s not that something spectacular can’t take place at a party. When we give up our fantasies, something spectacular can take place anywhere at any time. Life, after all, is spectacular and amazing all the time, whether we notice it or not. I see this poem as encouragement to notice that, and to engage life in a fuller way.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel has been a student of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche for almost forty years. Founder of the non-profit The Middle Way Initiative, she is also the host and creator of the Open Question podcast and the author of The Power of an Open Question and The Logic of Faith.