Poetry Friday: Making a Fist

h1 May 16th, 2008 by eisha

This poem was my introduction to Naomi Shihab Nye. I don’t even remember how or when I came across it, but it has stayed with me forever after:

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

little fistClick here to read the final stanza, and to hear Nye herself give a reading of it.

I think this poem really showcases Nye’s economy of language. This poem is stripped of any unnecessary details: where they were going and why, what was really wrong with the poor kid… The line “My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin” is all we need. Ten words, and I know exactly the kind of pain she’s in, and why she thought she was dying.

And then there’s the quiet power of the last line: “I who did not die, who am still living…” The last stanza acknowledges life’s hardships, but puts them in perspective when measured against the strength of a child’s fist.

* * *

The fine femmes at Two Writing Teachers are rounding up for this week’s Poetry Friday. Head on over and see what they got.

17 comments to “Poetry Friday: Making a Fist”

  1. Fine Femmes… I like that.

    Thanks for including a Nye poem. I love her work!

  2. Oh, so good. I can’t believe I hadn’t read that one before now. When you’re sick or injured, there’s always that dreadful moment of being transported to care, but no one ever writes about that. Except Nye, brilliant soul, of course.

  3. This one really resonated – the idea of myself still in the backseat with all my doubts, opening and closing my fist, just to be sure — beautifully put.

  4. Thanks, Eisha. A little bit of Nye is always good for the soul. And I don’t know if I’m familiar with that one.

    I have her new Honeybee on hold for me at the library. I can’t wait to pick it up.

  5. Naomi Shihab Nye.
    She just gives me a flip-flop in my stomach. Every time…

  6. Thanks for introducing me to this poem. That picture of the little hand opening and closing, just to be sure, will stay with me.

  7. Eisha,

    I love this poem. I have several of Nye’s poetry books–but I can’t recall ever reading this poem before. One of my absolute favorite poems is Nye’s “Valentine for Ernest Mann.”

  8. First time reading this poem. It’s genius. Thanks!

  9. Eisha, this was the first NSN poem I ever read, too–back in a writing class that I took a number of years after college. It was in an anthology that I still like–thumbing (in vain) through Amazon for the title just now, I see she also has a book of essays I’d like to read: “Never in a Hurry.”

  10. This is a NSN poem I’d not read before, and reading it (and hearing her read it) felt like a gift. Thank you.

  11. Wow, I wonder how I came across it, if it’s new to all of you. I think it might have been a lit anthology textbook in college, maybe?

  12. […] Eisha […]

  13. She gets right to the heart of it doesn’t she? Her mother’s strange confidence combined with her (still) opening and closing small fist… wow. Encourages us all.

  14. […] Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose (Greenwillow; February 2008), and it was really worth the wait. (Eisha’s Poetry Friday post on Nye two weeks ago held me in good stead, though.) I’m still reading, but I wanted to share some […]


  16. This is really good. WHere can I find a critical analysis of it?

  17. wow i really like this poem it touched me

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