Behind All Our Questions: Yet Another Reason Poems Are Good For Us
I don’t know about you, but I don’t always know what I’m feeling. Or I have a general idea, but I’m not sure I understand it, or know what to do about it, or if there is anything to do about it.
I think for our kids, especially as they grow older, this is a fairly constant condition: they’re trying to figure stuff out, and sometimes that stuff is pretty intense or complicated. And it doesn’t always help to have someone asking you what’s wrong because you don’t know what’s wrong and even if you do, you’re not sure you can put it into words or tell anyone.
Poetry doesn’t—shouldn’t, in my opinion—lecture, but it does have a way of reflecting the world back to us that reveals its/our deeper truth—whether that truth is beauty, joy, ugliness, grief or a confusing combination of all of the above!
I think the key to that mirror trick has to do with imagery: powerful poetry has a specificity about its imagery that goes right to the heart of things. It’s not easy to explain why an image can transport us this way, but somehow it does, and when that happens, when we can see and feel something so clearly, we feel seen as well. And understood, and hopefully, comforted.
So, this month I offer a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye for the older set. The Borges quote is a little heavy (and you should feel free to omit it), but I would say that most kids 11 and up can totally handle this poem, and that it will mean more and more to them as they get older. Shihab Nye has written and edited many poetry books for children, and I love how she never underestimates their emotional intelligence.
I think this is a great poem to talk about with your child, a way to get at some of those big questions and strong feelings that can be so hard to untangle. Notice the key images here: those palm trees, the split melon, and finally, that small hand, clenching and unclenching.
Making a Fist
BY NAOMI SHIHAB NYE
We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
—Jorge Luis Borges
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.”
Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.
Naomi Shihab Nye, “Making a Fist” from Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy’s the mother of two children who seem to enjoy poetry, for which she’s extremely grateful. Her first book, How I Got Lost So Close To Home, was published by Alice James Books and poems have appeared in a variety of anthologies and journals. She’s a former Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center at Mt. Holyoke College, where she looked at the impact of motherhood on the work of women poets. In addition to her life as a poet, Dryansky works for a land trust, teaches in at Hampshire College, leads workshops in the community and writes about what it’s like to navigate the territory of mother/poet/worker at her blog, Pokey Mama. Her second book, Grass Whistle, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2013.
[Photo credit: (ccl) Randen Pederson]