The Last Enormous Change

A new book of poetry from Grace Paley -- nearly a year after her death.

Fidelity by Grace Paley Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 83 pages, $20

Grace Paley's newest book of poetry was published in the quiet interval between March's icy grip and April's melting promise. Loyal readers worldwide have, for the past two decades, received every new poem with the same gratitude with which they received every new story during the three decades before. Although Paley's first love was poetry, it remained unrequited as long as the lives of first-generation Americans, women, Jews (most of her characters were all three) demanded to be transcribed into the grainy prose that would become her trademark. Her language was utterly faithful to the Yiddish- and Russian-accented English in which she had marinated in her childhood in the Bronx, to the politically inflected conversations of her coworkers in the mother-trade that surrounded her in Greenwich Village -- and yet it remained utterly unique. You always recognized a Paley sentence when you bumped into it.

Documenting the struggles of women with men, of women with children, of women with the war-mongering world, Paley's fictions bridled with laughter and indignation. But then, in the late 1980s, she surprised everyone by following her husband, the writer Robert Nichols, to his New England hilltop -- exchanging New York City for Thetford, Vermont, and prose for poetry. She defaulted to poetry (so she claimed) because she couldn't get the cadences of Vermont speech right -- though one suspects that life was actually handing her back to the bedrock of her imagination.

And so they came, the poems, little minions marking the changing seasons and the aging body. Even as she protested that she remained a New Yorker in Thetford, never nature's native like Robert Frost or Donald Hall, Grace Paley became the poet laureate of Vermont in 2003. But "Fidelity" marks the last enormous change; in this slim volume, Paley's voice becomes posthumous (a word she would never use), mimicking the seasons themselves: Unlike the one-time linearity of human mind and language, with their foolish, trusting assurance of more next year, these poems will have to be recycled each time March comes around. This spring is the first in more than 20 years that Grace will not celebrate with a walk through the melting snows in Thetford woods, coming back with wet feet and a poem:

on this narrow path ice holds the black undecaying oak leaves in its crackling grip oh it's become too hard to walk a sunny patch i'm suddenly in water to my ankles April

It's that "oh" followed by a brief caesura that tells us Grace was here. A pause, wonder, surprise evinced by an 84-year-old woman, sick with terminal cancer, before the grandeur of the universe. Oh! Pay attention! says the poet. Like the apostrophe "Hineh!" that announced in an early Hebrew moment that something celestial was about to happen to humans: "Look [in Robert Alter's translation] I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth ... yours they will be for food" [Gen. I: 29]; "And Jacob took one of the stones of the place and put it at his head and he lay down ... and he dreamed, and look, a ramp was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens" [Gen. 28:12].

If there was a seed-bearing plant or a ramp that stretched from the ground to the heavens, Grace was sure to see it. Unless she was too busy attending to the abused or the war-weary or the disease-stricken -- or even just to the "new york city man" glimpsed from a taxi stuck in traffic, the man who is "standing on the street corner/ smiling up at a fireman hanging/ on to the ladder of his fire engine." Attention must be paid. But the walk last year at this time was her last and this little book of poems her last, completed in the waning weeks of summer, as the zucchini was ripening and the flowers waited patiently for memory to clear so they could be named:

I forget the names of my friends and the names of the flowers in my garden my friends remind me Grace it's us the flowers just stand there stunned by the sun

A long time ago my mother said darling there are also wildflowers but look these I planted

my flowers are pink and rose and orange they're sturdy they make new petals every day to fill in their fat round faces

suddenly before thought I called out ZINNIA zinnia zinnia along came a sunny summer breeze they swayed lightly bowed I said Mother

There are many visitations in these poems by mother, father, sister, friends, all "absent" ("my friends were dying but have now/ become absent the word dead is correct/ but inappropriate"). The dearly departed are protected from oblivion by allusion and argument ("I have not taken their names out of/ conversation gossip political argument/ my telephone book or card index"). But one is never too overwhelmed by the dead or by one's own dying to remember that attention must be paid especially to the living. This last book carries invisible traces of Robert Nichols' small edits as his wife's hand faltered. That is to be expected from two writers who lived together for so long. He makes a more explicit appearance as the object of the "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

Those who knew them will recognize how perfectly the wife portrayed her husband's "hard-knuckled winter wood-/scarred fingers." And yet, having had the privilege of access to earlier drafts of this poem, I can attest to the crossed-out stages of what Grace called translating "thinking into English." Those hands in their inception on the page had "lumpy knuckles the field/ broken blacked fingers, intelligent fingers." The alchemy of the final image, possibly achieved in Grace's last days, makes it appear as serendipitous as it is necessary.

But how necessary is privileged access for a full appreciation of Grace's writing? The autobiographical references in the poetry are more explicit than in the prose, though readers have engaged in treasure hunts for the "facts" behind the fictions since Grace's voice was first sounded with her slim book of short stories, "The Little Disturbances of Man" (1959): "There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother's mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest."

That's Shirley Abramowitz, Grace Paley's first ventriloquist. Later in the story she ventriloquizes the voice of Jesus in the Christmas pageant performed by the Jewish children in the New York public school, since the Christian children don't have loud enough voices. Is Shirley A. really Grace P.? "Was Kafka a cockroach? Tolstoy a suicidal woman?" -- we chide those students who insist on being detectives rather than readers with suspended disbelief. The tendency to reduce the poetic imagination to camouflaged confession was particularly acute among early readers of women's writing. But Grace seems to invite this more than most -- certainly more than many of the so-called confessional poets of the '60s, like Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. This is not only because so much of her writing, in prose and poetry, is cast in the first-person singular, but largely because of the intimacy that Grace's work and person elicit. As can be seen from the many testimonials and tributes that have been offered since her death, the love of Grace is very proprietary.

Everyone seems to know her and to own her: Even a chance encounter -- at the local farmers market, the Thetford meeting house, the town dump (the dump is to New England is what the soap box is to Hyde Park), the backrooms and pavements where the anti-war movements are hatched in New York, in Hanoi, in Israel or Palestine -- becomes a claim to lasting friendship. Those who didn't know her adopt her as their spiritual companion, sister, mother or grandmother. There are readers who were incensed to learn that Paley had a daughter as well as a son, and not two sons -- like her "alter ego" Faith. (Grace would patiently explain to her interlocutors that Faith was not a version of herself, but that she "worked for me.") But somehow in the last book of poems, the many references to members of the family, the naming of multiple friends, creates a new level of intimacy that invites not voyeurism but a sense of awe before the ultimate act of fiction. Here was a woman who lived life and who named life. Zinnia, John, Elsa, White River, Claiborne, Syb, Mother.

There are many Israelis who know Grace because they stumbled onto a collection of her stories in a dusty bookshop or stole a book of her poems from a friend's house, or met the writer when she visited the country. Those who haven't yet made her acquaintance must do so in the original (like Agnon, Grace Paley can't be translated, though some brave attempts have been made). You must read Grace's prose to learn something about American urban life with a Yiddish accent and a political passion. You must read her poetry because her poetic voice is the other side of Hebrew, the compassionate side:

Thank God there is no god or we'd all be lost

if it is He who sends us howling in murderous despair at torture hatred three or four times a generation there'd be no hope...

if it is He who built that narrow a bridge across which we are invited to walk without fear while all around us the old the lame the awkward the jumping-up-and-down children are tumbling off or sometimes pushed into the hideous gorge if it is He then we are surely lost

but if we are responsible con-sider our frequent love for one another because this is nowadays...

...we have defeated Babel by accepting the words of strangers in glorious translations if

we can be responsible if we have become responsible

Responsibility must be taken. This poem, and others from her later years, were written with a resonance of the Hebrew that Grace claimed not to know. She did read Amichai (in translation) and engaged in an implicit dialogue with her Hebrew counterpart, the irrepressible child in each of them creating impossible connections in mischievous complicity with the created world. Think of this poem as the American version of Amichai's "El maleh rahamim," which also shifts the non-forthcoming divine compassion to the human plane. Indeed, Grace Paley's and Yehuda Amichai's poetry is the best proof I know of God's presence in our universe and of God's absence from our affairs.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi teaches comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The author of "Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination," she is now at work on a book on "Jerusalem and the Poetics of Return," for which she won a Guggenheim Fellowship.