Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 891
Grace Paley spent the early part of her career as a poet, and in the preface to Collected Stories, she noted that she had written poetry since she was a child. All the familiar elements and themes of her stories are present in her first volume of poetry: New York City streets and playgrounds, portraits of immigrant and working-class life, a strong Jewish identity, a political and feminist sensibility, and a sense of caring for family. Leaning Forward contains one new topic: the environment of Vermont, where Paley spent her summers and most of her last years. Her poems are not just an extension of her fiction, however. They are marked by a regular meter and all the delicacies of a subtle, brief conversation. Often she uses what is ostensibly a friend’s voice in her poems, as in “Words,” when she asks a question and then relays the answers given by two of her friends, but usually Paley sounds as if she were simply answering herself. She is often both the first-person voice in a poem and the replying voice, but sometimes she is another clearly defined person, as in “On the Fourth Floor.”
In both her stories and poems, Paley wrote in voices, usually using dramatic monologues and sometimes dialogues. Her finest poetry is often terse speech that is broken into rhythmic lines and that uses few formal poetic tropes. She paid a lot of attention to spacing her lines on the page so that certain words and ideas were given emphasis, and she often used blank spaces in place of punctuation, as in “In Hanoi 1969” and “For Mike and Jeannie: Resisters Fifteen Years Later.”
Begin Again includes poems from Paley’s Leaning Forward, Long Walks and Intimate Talks, and New and Collected Poems, and previously uncollected or unpublished poems. The first of six sections defines Paley as the quintessential New York writer and feminist. Most of the poems in this section take place in New York City, with street names and place-names that are easily recognizable. Her feminism is announced on the first page, with an untitled poem that begins, “A woman invented fire and called it/ the wheel.” This brief poem connects fire to the wheel, the wheel to the sun, and the sun to her mother’s home. Other poems in this section demonstrate women’s understanding of the cyclical nature of reality: In “Right Now,” she shows women waiting patiently for the tide to return, while the men “. . . ran furiously/ along the banks of the estuary/ screaming/ Come back you fucking sea/ right now/ right now.”
Another frequent theme of Paley’s work is her Jewish upbringing, which adds another dimension to some of the family portraits she draws in the second section. “Some Days,” “Vengeance,” “Letter,” and “My Mother: Thirty-three Years Later” refer to her Russian-Jewish background. This section ends with the feminist poem “Responsibility,” which ends: “It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on/ this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be/ listened to this time.”
In “Thetford Poems,” a group of sixteen poems that form section three, Paley turns to nature as inspiration. In lyrics such as “Goldenrod,” “Deepest Summer,” “Then,” and “Leaves Apples,” she creates lovely pastoral odes. However, she cannot see the world without a hint of her usual dark pessimism. In the first poem, “Fear,” she says “I am afraid of nature/ because of nature I am mortal.” In the last of the “Thetford Poems,” “Connections: Vermont Vietnam (II),” she compares her beloved Vermont to the broken world of Vietnam, beset by shells and bombs that ripped into its mountains.
In the posthumously published Fidelity, the majority of poems center on death, memory, and the loss of loved ones. These are poems from an eighty-four-year-old woman whose life has encompassed war, the women’s movement, and great social change, and who retains a stubborn fidelity to her own truths and convictions. The volume is well named.
The poems explore the beginnings and ends of relationships, the ties that bind siblings, and the oddness of the aging body. Many of them have no titles and are marked only by a dingbat at the top of the page, a publisher’s mark that is also used to separate the five unnamed sections of the book. In “Many,” Paley muses on many of her older friends who have had certain “. . . reproductive/ and recreational organs” removed. She relates, without a hint of self-pity, “I have experienced the amputation/ of my left breast I hate its absence/ but I’m at the door of a large noisy room/ full of familiar faces. . . .” In this poem, she hints at her long battle with the breast cancer that will finally kill her, but she seems to find comfort in the company of her friends. On the facing page, marked only by a dingbat, she writes of calling her sister on the telephone and of her relief that the number still rings although her sister has been dead for two years. She finds some consolation in the fact that they have not yet assigned her sister’s number to a new person, so she can dial the number again. The poems are ironic, mournful, and nostalgic, Paley’s fitting farewell to a life well lived.