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Grace Paley
Kathryn Petruccelli © 2008

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-3742-99064
96 Pages; $20
Publication Date: 03-18-2008
Date Reviewed: 09-15-2008

Index: General Fiction  Poetry

Reading Grace Paley's final poetry collection, 'Fidelity', leaves one feeling something akin to walking through a dicey neighborhood in the midst of urban renewal — hope and despair, the romantic and the run-down reside side by side. On page after page, they coexist in straightforward musings as only Paley could deliver them.

Some poems have titles, but many go untitled. Like punctuation other than line breaks and spacing, they are just extra clutter she has no use for. Here is a poem from the first section of the book:

Anti-Love Poem

Sometimes you don't want to love the person you love
you turn your face away from that face
whose eyes lips might make you give up anger
forget insult steal sadness of not wanting
to love turn away then turn away at breakfast
in the evening don't lift your eyes from the paper
to see that face in all its seriousness a
sweetness of concentration he holds his book
in his hand the hard-knuckled winter wood-
scarred fingers turn away that's all you can
do old as you are to save yourself from love

Surely every poet writes about love and death, death and love. In these poems, Paley doesn't just know her time is limited in the way we all know, abstractly, the fact of our own mortality, but knows it in a real way that carries imminent consequences: 'Fidelity' was published posthumously in March of this year. Paley succumbed to breast cancer in August of 2007 at the age of 84. To steal a phrase from her poem “Sisters” “the word dead is correct/but inappropriate.”

She writes often about friends and family who are failing or already gone in verse that is tender, unsentimental and frequently run through with an off-handed humor: “the reproductive/ and recreational organs /of many of my older friends/ have been declared redundant dangerous/to the hardworking body” (from “Many”).

In one untitled piece she interrupts herself midway to pen the lines, “In any event I am/ already old and therefore a little ashamed/ to have written this poem full/ of complaints against mortality...”

Her observations of and encounters with strangers zoom in with the same compassionate eye she affords those close to her. Poems like “Bravery on Tenth Street,” with the focus of a frail older couple walking along the street, “I Met a Woman on the Plane,” about her conversation with a mother who lost a child, and the untitled poem that begins “the very little girl looked at her grandfather” are all testimonials to her careful involvement with the subject matter about which she writes. From the final poem in the aforementioned list: “...a man she'd seen/ last week was bobbing his head and waving his/ arms and shouting go away and stop it and go/ to hell other words very loud no one came/...bye-bye she said she/ waved the man exhausted softly said bye-bye.”

It feels as if Paley is determined to get it right, and, clear in her understanding that such a thing is impossible, she plugs her ears to the sirens of fatalism and sidles up next to the reader, elbowing her and pointing. “Get a load of this!” her poems seem to say, marveling with infinite curiosity at this stubbornly broken world.


although we would prefer to talk
and talk it into psychological the-
or the prevalence of small genocides
or the recent disease floating
toward us from another continent we
must not while she speaks her eyes
frighten us she is only one person
she tells us her terrible news we
want to leave the room we may not
we must listen in this wrong world this
is what we must do we must bear it

A long-time political activist who worked for peace, Paley never stopped supporting causes she believed in or speaking out whether asked to or not.

In the poem “To the Vermont Arts Council on its Fortieth Birthday,” she is invited to speak and opens by recalling when she turned forty herself. She continues, talking about how soon after that birthday the country dived into the Vietnam War and she muses on what artists of all kinds made of that. Her poem ends this way: “...another/ American war with an unknown people/ thousands of miles away luckily/ Vermont the United States and the/ Arts Council is deep in poets most/ of us with big mouths (it is said) even/ the gentlest.”

Paley is her own best adjective — a name meaning at once compassionate, vibrant, irreverent, melancholy, someone with unerring chutspah.

If you were looking for lyric poems that roll in luxurious language and subtle metaphor, you chose the wrong book. Paley's poetry is closer to colloquial, rough around the edges and uninterested in the degree of craft that would buff the hard truth out of the meaning.

True, a handful of these poems don't quite come round to poetry and clunk off the tracks. But mostly they are charming and unexpected beauties, like the beloved across from you at the dinner table, too engrossed in what he or she wants to say to wipe the ketchup from the sides of their mouth.

Sadly, we can't all have an activist New York grandmother who writes poetry; but fortunately, we can borrow the legacy of Grace Paley.

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