The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
“Famous” was first published in Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Far Corner Books in 1995.
The stylistic construction of “Famous” gives the poem its ruminating, conversational tone. The stanzas vary from single lines to quartets, a seeming lack of structure that makes the images described seem almost spontaneous, imagined on the spot, the voice unhurried and thoughtful. But in actuality, each relationship described is carefully chosen to represent the miscellany of the meaning of fame.
At its most basic level, the poem is about fame. But Nye treats fame as a construct of perspective: the result of imbalances of power, fear, unrequited love, and tragedy. The fame of an object to the subject may not exist in reverse, and the notoriety of both may not exist at all outside of their isolated relationship. Fame only lives when there is someone or something for which to be famous. The bent photograph, bent because it is handled and looked at so often, is famous to its owner; but the subject may not even be aware of its existence. The dress shoe is famous to the floor, but the earth will never know it.
The poem shifts its handle on the subject of fame in the second to last stanza. No longer is the author discussing others’ relationships, but her own desires regarding fame. Again, her use of the term “fame” differs from the typical colloquial usage: she doesn’t want to be famous for any particularly unusual or extraordinary feats, but for her ability to use the tools she has been given, to do what she is meant to do. She wants to be famous to “shuffling men” and “sticky children” simply because she smiled back; because she recognized that it was within her power to be kind, and so she was.
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri to a Palestinian father and American mother. She spent her high school years in Palestine, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she ultimately earned her BA in English and World Religions from Trinity University. Her experience of multiple cultures has influenced much of her work, including many books and poetry collections, several of which are for children. Her poems and short stories have appeared in journals throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle and Far East.