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Ok, Let’s jump right in with the title.

What does it look like to make a fist? Make one now!

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Yep, a fist is “clenching” the fingers to the palm of the hand.

How does it feel to make a fist? Tight? Clenched?

Maybe it depends on why you’re making it. Why would someone make a fist?

If they’re about to punch someone (anger)! Maybe if they’re donating blood or getting blood drawn (a nurse asks them to make a fist). Maybe they’re nervous (some people clench their fists when they’re anxious). Maybe when they’re excited (like – “yes!”). People also exchange “fist bumps” to congratulate each other. The first in the air is a sign of solidarity or power.

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Stanza 1: Analyzing Setting, Speaker & Characters, Situation & Conflict

With that introduction, let’s read the first stanza. But first, you could listen to Nye read the whole poem here.

Print the poem here.

Listen to the poem here.

Making a Fist

“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.

Naomi Shihab Nye, from Words Under the Words and The Poetry Foundation

Don’t worry about the quote, called an epigraph, now. Let’s start with the setting, since it’s in the first line. Where are we? Underline any clues.

Setting: the road north of Tampico (a city in Mexico). The speaker is in a car. There are palm trees “swirling” by. Is she in a desert? Well, possibly… but the “drum in the desert” that’s mentioned is kind of a metaphor, too. We’ll address it in a bit…

What about the speaker? What do we know about her? Any other characters mentioned? (I know this is poetry, not a story, but characters are still relevant!)

She’s reflecting back on a memory of when she was seven. She felt sick: “I felt the life sliding out of me” (what do you think that means?) She sees a “sickening pattern” and says “my stomach was a melon split wide…” (we’ll get to that metaphor in a bit, too!)

No other characters are mentioned, but she’s laying in the car, and she’s seven, so probably there is someone else driving.

(Are there any words you have questions about at this point? Take a moment or two to clarify or at least note any new words – try to use the context and make guesses about words instead of using the dictionary for now.)

One last question before we move on. This first stanza gives us the situation of the poem, sets the scene, and gives us a problem or conflict, as many first stanzas often do. What do you feel at this point as you read? What do you picture (images)? What do either of those tell you about the problem?

For me, I feel that “sickening,” “swirling” feeling that I’ve felt in the back of a hot car, kind of carsick. The drum “harder and harder to hear” is an sound image of fading away, weakening. The stomach as a melon “split” I can relate to — that “split” pain in the gut when you feel sick to your stomach. A bit unsteady, uneasy. And this is a little girl. All of it must by scary; she says “for the first time” she felt this feeling. She probably feels weak and isn’t sure what’s happening. Anything else to add? Trust your own reactions! If you need to, read it again and let the feeling sort of wash over you.

I forgot to mention sound. Where do you notice repetition of sound? What effects does that create? I especially notice the “s” and “p” sounds in the last two lines. Can you find them all? To me, it almost sounds like “swirling,” being dizzy and confused and the “life sliding out.” The sound mirrors what’s happening in the poem. Also, there’s a slight rhyme with “seven” and “melon.” Any other observations about sound? I think in this poem, sound really helps set the scene, helps us picture and hear and feel what the speaker feels.

Stanza 2: Dialogue, Form

Ok, on to the next stanza:

“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.”

What do you notice about this stanza? What’s happening?

The first thing I notice is the dialogue. There’s the question that’s been building up in the first stanza: Am I going to die? The second stanza starts with the speaker asking this question and ends with the mother giving an answer. That seems important. After all we know about how the speaker feels from the last stanza, she — very much like a child– says her fear directly. She “begs” her mother, desperately; she thinks she might die.

I love how balanced the form of this stanza is. The daughter gets 2 lines — including her question (line 1) and how she says it (I begged) (line 2); then we have a line that gives more detail about the situation — they had been traveling for days (she’s very tired!) (line 3); and then the mother gets one line about how she says the answer — with “strange confidence” (line 4), and then one line for her answer. “When you can no longer make a fist” (line 5). Do you see the wonderful balance of that? What is the effect of that balance, do you think? Take a moment to think of an answer — I’ll weigh in in a moment.

Going back to the mother’s “strange confidence.” Why is the confidence “strange”?

Maybe from the daughter’s point of view, the mother just knows the answer, no hesitation (as parents often seem to magically know answers that children struggle with). Her strange confidence also makes me think — maybe the mother has experienced that before; or she knows the daughter so well she doesn’t even hesitate. She knows how to answer — almost knows the daughter will ask before she does.

The balance of that stanza, to me, shows that the daughter and mother are equal, that the mother respects the daughter. The speaker’s experience takes up the same amount of space as the mother’s answer. Also, the balance makes me feel the mother’s calmness; she’s undisturbed by the daughter’s question. She knows the daughter is OK and just needs reassurance along the journey.

Do you see how the form of the poem can affect how we read it? If it were more chaotic, if it were broken apart or unbalanced, I might have a different interpretation. But there is no real worry, no panic here; even though the daughter thinks she might die, she is safe. It’s almost more of a wondering about life than a fear of dying.

What do you make of the mother’s answer: When you can no longer make a fist? Take a moment to think about it and about the situation in the poem so far. This seems like a very important line, considering that it’s the title. It’s also a little mysterious…

Stanza 3: Close Reading — Shifts, Metaphor & Mystery

And it’s appropriate to pause a moment here and reflect — because in the very next line, as we begin the final stanza, we have a huge shift — in time! Look — it’s “years later.”

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.

First take a moment to underline any words that are unfamiliar. Go back and read each line again with your underlined words, and write out guesses about meaning to the side. Look closely. For example “unanswerable.” Do you know “answer”? Then you can figure out the meaning of “unanswerable.” (not – able – to be answered).

This stanza, after that mysterious answer: When you can no longer make a fist” gets even more mysterious.

With poetic mystery, I like to start with general impressions. First, what do you notice most about the stanza?

For me, it’s “years later,” so it’s an adult speaker reflecting back. She “smiles,” so, like the calmness in stanza 2, this is a good, comforting memory, not one of fear or like “that time I almost died as a child!”

I notice language of travel that I like a lot: “journey” “borders” “stamped.”

I notice that the speaker goes back to reflecting, just about herself — the mother isn’t there. (It’s not like this memory is about the mother or their relationship — it’s really about herself and her own realizations.) She even says, “the borders we must cross separately.” Right now, I’m not sure what it means, but it says, “separately,” so I see how she’s just reflecting on her own, separate experience.

I notice a shift in the last three lines: It goes to present tense. She says, “am still living, still lying in the backseat.” This is metaphorical because she can’t literally still be lying in the backseat opening and closing her small hand!

And I notice my reaction to these last three lines — I get chills! I feel the feeling without being able to totally explain it. I feel — something about valuing that she’s still alive, valuing her own, private experience as both a child, separated in the backseat from her mother and now, having this memory that is solely hers in her mind. I feel the preciousness of looking back to that child opening and closing her little hand, so desperate to make sure she’s still alive.

It makes me think: on the deepest level, we are all separate, even from our mothers, perhaps one of the closest relationships many people have in life. We all must “cross the border” of life and death separately. The front and back seat in the car as well as the border of Tampico (Mexico and the US, maybe, since we know the poet is from the US) are kind of symbols or images of the idea of borders — and then that larger idea of life and death, and how we know we’re on one side or the other, comes into the poem.

Another metaphorical phrase is “lying behind all my questions.” In the poem, the child asks about life and death, but it seems the adult still has a lot of questions! She says “still lying behind all my questions.” These questions are ours for our whole lives, and even growing up doesn’t answer them all. And part of the poem is relishing, appreciating, smiling at “the first time” (remember from stanza 1?) that question comes up as a child. There’s a sense, to me, at the end of the poem that the speaker comes to an acceptance of still being on that journey, with all the questions, all the “unanswerable woes” (woes, meaning “problems,” “sorrows” “distresses”).

What else resonates with you at the end of the poem? What other deeper realizations about life and death, childhood and adulthood, questions of life, etc. come up for you with this poem? Any particular phrases or words that really resonate with you?

And lastly, back to the title: Making a Fist. The mother gives the child a wonderful touchstone for knowing one’s own existence. This one’s a little hard for me to explain, but I’ll make an attempt at what I see! We know we’re alive by looking at a hand, or our bodies in general, moving and still existing. So that action of making a fist gives the daughter something tangible, grounding to do and to see to know she’s alive. I love that the title is “Making” — the present participle — because it suggests that the speaker is still doing the action, still confronting the question of “I exist,” with a fond appreciation for this touchstone she learned as a child.

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