Poets Online Archive

Question and Answer 

March 2000

"Making a Fist" by Naomi Shihab Nye from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, tells of a child's question and a parent's answer. It is an answer that remains with the child into adulthood. "How do you know if you are going to die?" she asks. "When you can no longer make a fist," is the reply.

The explanations that were given by adults to questions we asked as a child, sometimes come back to us in adulthood when we are asked those same questions by our own children. The lies we were told. The truth that was avoided. The simple answers to large questions. Who is to say that "making a fist" might not be the way to tell that you still have life within you.

For the current prompt, begin with an adult's answer to a child's question. Then carry that answer into the adult world and examine its meaning.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.

No Answers

"Where are you?" or sometimes,
simply "Why?" were the only questions
caught between the rages of my stepfather
and the pitiful silences of my childlike mother.
There were no adults to ask, but the preacher
said there was a God, and he had a son who
sounded to my small ears like a nice adult.
I prayed to them both and strained my ears
far into the night to hear what preacher said
we should all hear if we weren't sinners
. . . answers to our prayers.
I listened through the tears of my mother
and the abuse of my stepfather and even
went out to the hills and tried to hear what
the plants and animals might have to say
and in the stillness, there were no answers.
But I learned that my imagination could
fashion conversations in which the words
came into my mind in comforting ways.
I learned that I was the only answer and
that, "Why?" had no place in God's
vocabulary. I learned that words were
only as important as the truth they held, and
that truth had little to do with being written.
I learned to listen only to words which
fell to earth with a loud ring or rushed
at you like the ocean tides and demanded
recognition, and I learned that my
imagination was my only bell and the
tides of my mind would always seek
the truth. And I grew to be an adult
with no real answers for children so I
had none. Because when it is dark
and society produces a small sacrifice
I still ask God, "Why?"

Karen A. Kimbell


Worlds Without End

"Teacher says the world was made
    by the stars colliding.
I thought you said, God did it."
Mama never missed a beat,
"Some people think one way --
    we have ours."

Two worlds
    banging against each other
set at rest by Mama's words --
rising again like bread dough
    in the oven of my years --
Was Mama's way the right one?
Is there such a thing as God?

"But Grandma,"
    young Sean asks
    New Year's Eve 2000.
"What if the world
   does come to an end?

Not missing a beat, I say,
"Then I'll see you in heaven."

Cherise Wyneken

A First Confession

Is this what Judgment Day will feel like?
This journey must be what is: long-suffering.
"Will there be audience?"
Mama's monotone answer doesn't soothe;
"There's no privacy in wrong."
And the rustic, cedar-colored doors
which creak miserably, yet upon opening
reveal such opulence and warmth;
there ... Father John sits upon his throne.
My lip just has to quiver;
brows closely knit together.
Sister Ann, with rosary slapping her sides;
habit skirt fanning oily, incensed air, rushes me,
hurriedly to my lot; apportioned to me
by familial passing on and down.
Must I be part of my father's, my mother's sins?
Oh to not be included in something so seemingly
sinister ... I feel the heavy burden of guilt.
Beckoning to me, and I search for mama,
as eyes sting with dredged salt.
"Bless me Father, for I have sinned"
and the control of my voice quakes;
as his hand comes down to bless;
orchestrating them to 'squeeze shut'.
Sins bellow loudly, quickly,
with passion, remorse? Maybe it is remorse,
that takes my cries an octave higher.
I am forgiven;
forgiven so quickly by this somber, dark cloaked man.
The incense smells sickeningly heavier,
stinging my nostrils.  I dare not cough.
My eyes open; search quickly for mama;
find her kneeling, piously; smiling with Madonna-like charm.

It's then I knew forgiveness doesn't take that long;
but it's in the asking that I'd have to be strong.

Connie E. Goulden

Teacher's Edition

I believed what she told me.
She was the teacher.
She must know.
Her book must have the answers
to all the questions she asks.

The poems were read.
Questions asked and answers
given and rejected like someone
looking through produce in a store.
Some answers seemed fine to me,
but they were set aside.

I wanted so much to say the right thing.
Have the answer.
When someone was correct, she lit up
Yes!   Exactly!    Excellent!
I wanted to turn back time and still remember
so that I could say the right thing.

The day I came to her room after school
and she was gone, I had to open the book.
I looked at the assigned reading.
I read the questions and answers.

The next day when she asked us,
I could not raise my hand.

Lianna Wright

All the Questions Are About Dying

Say that there is a girl in the backseat and say
she is five. Say she has been sleeping for a while
on the floor of the big Chevy. It is 1954.
Her sister is in the front, her legs look like a doll's,
like they won't bend at the knees. Her brother
is asleep in a canvas crib. Say she wakes up
and forgets where she is but then remembers
and climbs back up to the seat and leans forward
into her mother's hair. Say she has a question
about death. These questions are always about death.
It is her grandfather who is dead, and she is just about
to ask if he's coming back. She already knows the answer
but she needs to hear the lie again, for some reason
she needs to hear the way her mother's voice narrows
and drops into the lie as she says    yes.

                                               Say it is later. 40 years or so.

She is in a car again, and there is a dead cat in
a red cardboard box beside her on the seat. She is going
to show it to her children and then dig a hole in the back garden
that they will mark with stones. She is going to show them
the truth, and then bury it. Even then they won't believe her.

Mary DeBow


In our abandoned garden plot
my brothers helped me
dig a deep hole in the stubborn clay
and cover it with boards
to make a secret place to hide.

When our hideout filled with water
and we left for higher ground,
I schemed on our back porch
to make that tunnel spacious,
pretending it into a cave-of-many-rooms;
to hold my wild ideas
that came and went
- as child-dreams often do.

I built the visions for my gracious friends to hear.
Enthralled, they always asked for more.

Still, some doubt appeared to sit beside me
on my porch.
Could living in a dream-world be a lie?
My catechism-structured guilt
was shaming me.
I must confess this daily play:
"Father, forgive me; I have sinned,
by telling lies at least ten time a day."
Did I hear him laugh behind his screen?
Why did he not ask,
"What is it that you have done to truth?"
Instead: "Resolve to make up no more lies
so you can go in Peace!"

Sadly, I went home, my task in hand;
and over my benighted garden dream
ruthlessly I cried,

... But not forgotten.
Now,  MY baby daughter's free
to say - or pray - in the night:
"Mommy, let's pretend it's day!"

Catherine M. LeGault

Mommy Why

The queasy trees sang a grim song,
And their leaves kissed my supple skin.
I turned to her with tears in my eyes,
And all I said was, "Mommy, why?"
A dark gray cloud had passed over
And I knew the rain would come soon
And as I stared at the darkened sky
All I said was, "Mommy, why?"
"Because God loves us,
Because he wants us with him."
That's not what I wanted to hear
Death took Great Gran, I must be next,
I crumble down in fear.

Amanda Blount


mama where does love go when it dies?
with that question the tears falling from her eyes
on that cold winters day suddenly stopped
like an april shower no longer able to rail
against the sun
she lay down the knitting yarn and pulled me to her lap
i looked at her swollen eyes and cut lip
the result of some evil force that had taken control of my daddy's mind
and soul
the day before
"it was the devil made him do it"
my mama would say and i could feel the anger for some yet unseen evil
racing through every nerve in my being
why didn't daddy "whup him" first
i said, a child's logic
he's stronger than a lot of good men
she replied ;
every sunday from that day
found me on the front row of oak grove baptist church; a front line
soldier against
that evil devil,
until yesterday
as my ex wife and i left
that little courthouse and our wedding vows behind
i heard my little boy say
daddy do you know where love goes
when it dies?

Ray Cutshaw

Three Teaspoons

How wonderfully ordered
the liquid precision
of measuring spoons
and longing that order
I begged my grandmother
to show me over and over.

In the kitchen sink
the tiny spoons measured
the slow trickle of water
and grandmother's hand,
wrinkled and marked, but steady
poured from one spoon,
filling another.  "How full is full?"
"Three teaspoons fill a tablespoon."

Through the years
it never changed,
fluids filled the spoons,
a bit slower and a little shaky
as the trickle became a drip, drip
into the IV lines.

Digital readout, electronic measure
as labored breath, silent moans
ordered life into heartbeats,
slowing, slowing into darkness,
and I whisper: "How full is full?"
"Three teaspoons fill a tablespoon."

James M. Thompson


"Why, Daddy?"
"Because why?
"Because I said so,
that's why."
The answer to
the easy way out,
the words that
were not supposed to
come out of my mouth.
"Dad, why do I have to...."
"Because I said so,
that's why,"
"But, why . . . ?"
The refuge of the
frazzled parent,
too busy to sit
and argue
with a four-year old.

Tim Mooney

If I'm Not There

"Does the world go on without me?" she asked.
My silence must have shouted affirmation.

Uncontrollable sobs shook her shoulders.
Holding the letter and the photo of her friend

on a float in the parade in her hometown
while she was spending a year in Scotland

was too much for the nine-year-old
homesick soul of my daughter to endure.

To learn in the same day that the universe extended
beyond her grasp and that she was not

necessary to its inexorable spin had a shattering
resonance that I continue to hear.

Will the world go on without me
If I'm not there?

Susan Sapnar