by Grace Paley
I am afraid of nature
because of nature I am mortal
my children and my grandchildren
are also mortal
I lived in the city for forty years
in this way I escaped fear
Like a character in an old TV sitcom who’s got an engagement ring in his pocket and no opportunity for presenting it, I’ve been waiting to set loose this poem in a city for months now. Finally a weekend in Chicago afforded me a chance to post it.
Grace Paley, the daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants, spent most of her life in the Bronx and was the quintessential New York leftie. But with no plans to visit her hometown where her poems belong, I left her mark in the Second City. Even less appropriate, I left the poem at the base of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, that promenade of flagship stores and beautiful hotels housing shoppers, where throngs of midwesterners unaware of the recession stroll politely up and down. I’m sure Paley would be more comfortable passing out leaflets against nuclear proliferation than passing by storefront temples to the capitalist system. After all, she was a self-described “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” She wrote about ordinary people, not wealthy ones, and with her halo of crazy hair, looked more like a homeless person than a determined consumer.
But a city is a city, built to outlast the changes inherent in nature, and so her little poem travels well. I keep thinking how “Fear” relates to the Hopkins poem I recently posted. Both Paley and Hopkins see nature as a memento mori, but only Hopkins embraces that. Paley, with her disarming honesty, runs away.
This modest little poem led me to some big questions and deep thoughts. Why am I sometimes afraid of the night sky? Why are shopping malls lit to make it seem time never passes? How much of my life is spent in activities that actually nourish me and how many are just ways to escape fear of death? If we’re always surrounded by traffic noise, lights, rushing people, busy-ness, and man-made materials like bricks, concrete, marble, glass, and steel, how can we recognize our connection to things that decay and things that are truly infinite?
But I did a lot of shopping anyway.
Presumably Paley made her peace with nature and mortality because she spent the last 19 years of her life in Vermont and she’s been dead for the past three. Reading the old obituaries, I was surprised to find she’s known primarily as a writer of short stories and not as a poet, which is how I know her. I feel like a Van Winkle who fell asleep during Bedtime for Bonzo and woke up asking if it was true that Ronald Reagan got involved in politics.
Paley’s poems, like her stories, showcase her deft ear for how people talk and what they talk about. Her dialogue is pitch perfect. Reading her poems sometimes seems like reading a transcription of a subway conversation or a neighbor’s account of last night’s scuffle in the hallway. Her work doesn’t always “feel” like conventional poetry, like heightened language edited within an inch of its life. Paley never did anything conventionally. She may seem a mere conduit for phrases floating through everyday life and less an artist creating and arranging ideas and words. But that’s a tribute to her light touch and invisible hand.
I love the pithy little “Fear,” but it’s not the best example of the spoken quality of her poems. I include another to give you a better idea.
My Father Said
Why not my father said so
you’ll be like them pointing
to all the aunts as round as
city water barrels laughing
no disgust or disapproval
for instance your aunt Esfere
eighteen just off the boat needed
a corset ashamed she didn’t know
the custom your mother said go
Zenya measure put your arms around
her middle but bring a string for where
your hands don’t meet well soon
she was married dear girl what
can you do you’re made the same
maybe a little lighter like
your mama listen to me once
once long ago in times cold like
ice like iron such softness
that’s why we loved our wives