Life in the city and fear of death

poem is on middle-left post


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

only prophecy


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



  1. Wizzie

    besides living in the city, another way to escape the fear and denial of death is described nicely by Thomas Merton. He sees sin as rooted in the denial of death and he views war too in this way (individual sin and society sin). I’ll copy a few quotes here from the chapter on Death from “Seven Words” (but included in Love and Living). You can read some of this on google from their scanned in books.
    “The sinful life is one which for no reason, except that we seek to outwit death, becomes a hectic and desperate drive to assert life’s own interminability.. for one thing, in seeking to convince themselves of their own power to survive, men seek to destroy others who are weaker than themselves. In destroying others, the victors strive to feel themselves interminable, since in the presence of another’s suffering and death they themselves go on more lustily than before. They go home and celebrate their new lease on life – which has, however, come from the experience and spectacle of death…” I’m not sure I am summarizing it best here but he goes on to say something like once you realize and accept that death is part of life you don’t have to be obsessed about it anymore and can start giving of yourself and “dying” to possessions, obsessions, items, power, etc. in order for others to more fully live. “We live in order to die to ourselves and give everything to others. This concept of “dying” is , in fact, altogether different from teh death-loving attitude we have sketched about…The “dying” to self in order to give to others is nothing more or less than a higher and more special affirmation of life. Such dying is the fruit of life, the evidence of mature and productive living.”

    Sorry to write so much here. Your poem posting about fear of death reminded me of this writing which I found back in the early 90s when I was working for a very strange boss who seemed to thrive off being mean to people. I wrote up some of Merton’s quotes and hung them from paper clips from the ceiling of my closet “office.” Now the fear and denial that would lead someone to take and stay at such a job is another story. Maybe another of your poems will address it.

    thank you!!!

  2. poemelf

    Hanging quotes from paper clips in your office? And Thomas Merton to boot…..methinks you are the original poem elf.

    thanks for the Merton quote. I’m going to have to read it a few times. It frightens me a little, the idea that seeing another person’s suffering could make someone feel more alive.

  3. Wizzie

    late reply to your reply…
    yeah, i think gossip is the best example of normal everyday stuff we do that Merton is talking about v. something very large and involving lots of people like war.

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