The Question



 by Tom Pow



How do people live?

He was standing two in front of me

in W. H. Smith’s and what

he wanted to know was,

How do people live? He asked

the question as if someone

had given it to him as a gift –

his eyes shone with the wonder of it.

How do people live? He looked around

at us all, knowing the question to be

unanswerable, knowing that no one

had an option but to shake their heads

or to look down at their hands,

holding Heat magazine

or the day’s trivia or greeting cards

which laid claim to the most minor

matters concerning how people live.

Yet he must keep on asking the question –

though a couple of girls giggle,

a boy exhales testily

and a child begins to cry –

for it was never the same question

twice. Each time there was

a subtle difference to it.

How do people live? implied

something substantially different

to How do people live? It was

a question of weighting: one

suggested method, the other

a question of will. Clearly,

to him, it was all a mystery

and a miracle. And who was not

in the queue that morning

who did not feel something stir,

as that man, with the worn trench-coat

and the unkempt grey hair, asked

and asked again, How do people live?

How do people live nowadays?

This new inflection brought the question

close. How could it not, when each day

we saw the world burn, flags on fire,

hatred woven through the air? This question

had a smell. It was acrid –

gunpowder, dying seas, a last

sour gasp. The sound

was of languages falling silent;

children crying, a mother’s despair.


Then, like a ringmaster, he cracked

the whip of that first question again,

as if he had cleared the decks

of the clogging world and we heard

with a new clarity: How do people live?

The question deepened now.

He was rowing us out to the centre

of a loch, where the waters were so dark

as to be impenetrable. But it was the only question

worth asking, though asking it made life

seem chancy. How do people live?

Where was the next breath

coming from? We were climbers

on a cliff of blue ice. We’d slip.

Nothing surer. The space was terrifying.

We watched a lottery ticket float into it,

as worthless as everything, now

that all we wanted was to hold an answer

to us – it was all that could save us.

How do people live? There was no

David Attenborough to tell us

how to make huts, to invent fire,

to carve a hole in the ice. We were far out.

Unreachable. How do people live? What more

could he have done but ask the question –

though asking it gave no relief?


He nodded slightly in his shabby coat, then left us,

to invent fire, to carve a hole for himself in the ice.



From The Poem Goes To Prison – Poems chosen by readers at HMP Barlinnie, edited by Kate Hendry (Scottish Poetry Library 2010).

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