ORIGINAL

Valentine for Ernest Mann by 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 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 off sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

“Valentine for Ernest Mann” is about many things—appreciating the small things in life, finding beauty where others might not, accepting sweet, small kinds of love. What really strikes me about this poem, however, is the idea of giving and treating words as a gift. There is little more plentiful in our lives than words: we use them at the grocery store, with our loved ones, as monologues in our heads; we see them in others’ eyes and the shapes of clouds. It can be strange to think of such a ubiquitous thing as something that can be given or taken. But words do not fall willy-nilly from thin air. They are plucked, deliberately or thoughtlessly, arranged into clumps with as much power to hurt as they have to heal. The idea of giving words does not have to apply only to grand gestures like valentines or birthday presents. Gift giving implies goodwill and thoughtfulness; it implies an acknowledgement of another’s personhood. Just as Naomi Shihab Nye implores us to live in a way that lets us find poems, I would have us live in a way that all words are gifts—gifts chosen deliberately, carefully, and never with the intent to harm.

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