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Poem of the week: Making a Fist by Naomi Shihab Nye

Our columnist William Sieghart in his 'Poetry Pharmacy'
Our columnist William Sieghart in his 'Poetry Pharmacy'

William Sieghart’s poetry pharmacy prescribes the perfect words to help you through your problems. This week: feelings of parental inadequacy

There is a feeling of safety that comes with being a child in the back seat of the car. There you are, in a small box with the people who love you most, contained and cared for. At that age, your parents are all-knowing beings with the answer to every question – and, you genuinely believe, the power to pull over and leave you by the side of the road if you won’t stop your squabbling and be quiet.

In this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, she remembers her own absolute credulity in the face of her mother’s certainty. She was afraid, and ill, but none of that was enough to make her question her mother’s wisdom. Now, as an adult, she smiles to think of that day.

So do I. Because I know, as I’m sure she does, that her mother had no idea what she was talking about, but she would have said anything in that car to comfort her sick, despairing daughter.

Being an adult means coming to terms with the fact that you will never be the omniscient being you once believed your own parents to be, and reconciling yourself to the certainty that you will never truly stop bluffing. Perhaps you now have children chattering in the back seat, asking you questions to which there are no answers. Perhaps you pretend to know those answers anyway; perhaps you even feel guilty about that.

But as this poem shows us, parenting isn’t about how much you know. The precise medical answer to her question would have been of little comfort to the young Naomi. No, her mother’s triumph was not in the accuracy of her answer, but in making her frightened daughter feel better, and in giving her the illusion of control. There are times when the right thing to say in the moment is not the most accurate.

Making a Fist by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

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 travelling 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.

The Poetry Pharmacy Returns is published by Particular (£12.99)