Jul. 5, 2002

Making a Fist

by Naomi Shihab Nye

(RealAudio) | How to listen

"Making a Fist," by Naomi Shihab Nye from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Far Corner).

Making a Fist

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
clenching and opening one small hand.

On this day in 1776, John Dunlap printed five hundred copies of the Declaration of Independence. Once the Declaration had been approved on July 4th, a draft was carried to John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer whose newspaper covered the activities of the Continental Congress. He set up the Declaration that afternoon in Caslon type and spent all that night and the next day running the press. He placed himself in harm's way by putting his name at the bottom; if the Revolution failed, he would be hanged along with the rest. As soon as the ink dried, the copies were bundled up and carried to the thirteen colonies on horseback. Today there are twenty-five known copies of his broadside, most in public collections. In 1989 a man found an unsigned copy stuffed behind the canvas of a painting he had purchased at a flea market. It was sold in an online auction for over eight million dollars.

It's the birthday of George Borrow, born in Dumpling Green, Norfolk (1803). He grew up in East Anglia and spent most of his time with the Gypsies there, listening to their stories and learning their language. Eventually they gave him the title Lavengro, or "wordmaster." As an adult, he walked all over the Britain Isles and throughout Europe, looking for Romany people wherever he went. In middle age he settled in Norwich, wrote Zincali (1841), an account of the Gypsies in Spain, and compiled a dictionary of Romany.

On this day in 1687, Newton's Principia -"The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"-was published. Edmund Halley went to Cambridge in 1684 to ask Newton about planetary orbits, the subject of hot scientific debate at the time. He found that Newton had come almost casually to the conclusion that orbits must be elliptical, and had long since set his work on the subject aside. He urged Newton to complete and publish his proofs. In the Principia, Newton described gravitational force in mathematical terms. Every particle was attracted to every other particle, with more force if the particles were bigger or closer, and less if they were smaller or farther apart. He showed that this principle governed the orbits of planets, the movement of the tides, and the falling of apples. The members of the Royal Society would have financed the publication themselves, but they had just lost money publishing a large, ambitious history of fish. Halley paid for it out of his own pocket. The edition sold out, but not many who bought the book read it, and fewer understood it. Newton had a nervous breakdown in 1692, set aside his investigations, and took a position at the Mint, where he pursued counterfeiters with great energy. His work is regarded as the greatest achievement by a single human mind in recorded history.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show