March 8 San Francisco as an improbable poem – – Naomi Shihab Nye

Friday, March 8, 2019  “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.”

“poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping.”

Last night (March 8, 2016), I sent a friend who lives in San Francisco a NYT piece “In San Francisco and Rooting for a Tech Comeuppance” and asked how it read to her.  {n.b., that friend just returned to her home from my city after 3 days of coaching people learning to live with Michigan’s resent anti-gerrymandering law (n.b., “just returned” = March 6, 2019).  She told me Detroit was damn cold laced with vitality and real people.

She responded:

“SF is ground zero for the clash between young, affluent techies and San Francisco’s famously diverse communities. The Airbnb controversy epitomized the conflict as rental properties are taken off the market in favor of higher-priced, short-term Airbnb rentals…which only serves to further exacerbate the lack of affordability. The article has a lot of truth to it.”

I wrote back:  “I only know SF as it has evolved from what I read (with one exception).  2 Decembers ago The American Experience producers of “Thomas Edison” flew me to SF for a couple hours on camera as a talking head.   I stayed in boutique hotel a couple miles due east of USF.  I was confused by the neighborhood.  It felt as if it had been a neighborhood with close to the ground long rooted people.  Didn’t feel much that way now.  I looked for a place to eat with plain earthy people and waitstaff and food.  Took two days to find one.  That said, your few lines confirm my take.  SF has long been shaped by its fixed, relatively small, perimeter which, like a piston’s cylinder cycle, generates power by compression.   Feels, though, like it’s gotten out of hand.”

The metaphor of San Francisco as like an engine’s piston,  whose fixed cylinder wall and the tight fit with its cylinder, makes high compression possible.  The compression generates the power that makes the engine do its work.  But what happens when the pressure overloads the strength of the cylinder wall?  Boom!, like the 19th century river steam boats whose high pressure engine drivers sometimes raced each other down or up the river by hammering a shim into the pressure release valve to build more compression and greater speed.  Quite a few of those high pressure boilers blew up as did the famous Mozelle a few hundred yards out from Cincinnati’s wharf (c. 1838) and spewed tiny body parts all over Cincinnati’s harbor streets and out over the river.  [for a short historical account see:]  All this led me to ruminate about the power of anger in the wake of the 2018 mid-term blue wave sweep.  And that led me to look for a good poem about anger for today.

But while looking for an anger poem, I found this previously-unread masterpiece.  It was love at first site.  For you too, I hope.  In an angry time, gracefully crafted tenderness and wit can be like fresh clean air in the lungs.

Have a blest weekend.

john sj

p.s.  Brilliant sun in my town today.  Daylight Savings time is just around the corner.  Left-over piles of snow here and there to whet our appetites for daffodils and crocuses.


Today’s Post  “Valentine for Ernest Mann”
Naomi Shihab Nye

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

Naomi Shihab Nye
b. March 12, 1952 (age 66)

This entry was posted in Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.