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Posts Tagged ‘Grace Paley’

 

poem is on bus shelter window

poem is on bus shelter window between my daughter’s hand and raised foot

 

 

For My Daughter

by Grace Paley

I wanted to bring her a chalice
or maybe a cup of love
or cool water      I wanted to sit
beside her as she rested
after the long day     I wanted to adjure
commend   admonish      saying don’t
do that   of course     wonderful   try
I wanted to help her grow old      I wanted
to say last words the words     famous
for final enlightenment      I wanted
to say them now     in case I am in
calm sleep when the last sleep strikes
or aged into disorder      I wanted to
bring her a cup of cool water

I wanted to explain     tiredness is
expected     it is even appropriate
at the end of the day

 

 

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What changes a year brings. Last year when I dropped my youngest off for her freshman year of college, I unpacked the car all the while packing in as much advice as I could. Eat healthy. Join clubs. Keep your room clean. Blah Blah blah. This year on drop-off day I almost forgot to tell her anything at all until I heard her roommate’s father tell his daughter to study hard. Oh yeah, that.

 

When I finally got around to it, my advice was much less inspiring:

Don’t sped all your money on coffees.

Get a job.

Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party.

 

What can I say, she’s got good sense, this one. Or maybe I’ve learned something.

 

Maybe I’ve learned that even if I could open up my children’s heads and pour in my life experience and wisdom like cake batter, they’d still have to figure things out themselves. They have to learn–or not learn–from their own mistakes.

 

I say maybe I’ve learned because the urge to throw advice at my kids and hope it sticks never goes away, and sometimes (often times, if I’m truthful) so overwhelming I give in.

 

This is why I love Grace Paley’s “For My Daughter.” The speaker wants to tell her daughter so many things. She wants to tell these things right now, before she dies or loses her mind. She wants to correct, praise, encourage. Control.

 

But she keeps her mouth shut.

 

The un-acted upon urge animates the poem. “But I didn’t” is the unspoken coda. The poem reminds me that however much we want to shelter our kids from hardship and steer them towards happiness, in the end we can’t.

 

Paley is master of white space and here she uses it as punctuation and almost as stage directions. (You have to look at the photograph to get an idea of the spacing. It’s hard to recreate blank spaces on WordPress.) The break before the final two lines suggest that the speaker has to slow down, sit down, catch her breath after spilling out all her urgent worries. Her mothering has exhausted her. She too is tired.

 

Paley is better known for her short stories than her poems, but I’ve always loved her poems best. They’re short stories in themselves, little snippets of real life, spoken by a person who jumps off the page with her humanity. How Paley manages to use so many Latinate words–admonish, commend, appropriate, adjure –and still make the poem sound like words caught on tape and transcribed directly amazes me. Those Latinate words play off her plain-speaking voice and echo the push-pull of the urge to say and the wisdom of not saying.

 

IMG_3436I left the poem in a bus shelter close to my daughter’s dorm. Under a nearby tree (another sheltering structure) I left an illustration by the late great Maurice Sendak of a mother transforming herself to protect her little one from the rain.

 

 

 

 

IMG_3435

 

If my last-minute words of wisdom went in one of my daughter’s ears and out the other, I hope these two postings will linger. What they both say, what I want to say to her, is this:

–I’ve got your back, always–

Or to use a few of Paley’s words,

–A cup of love/or cool water, here for you when you most need it–

 

Image 2Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who had been exiled by the Czar for their socialist politics. The family spoke Russian, Yiddish and English at home. She was the youngest of three, but so much younger that she was practically an only child.

 

She went to Hunter College for a year college and studied briefly with W.H. Auden at New School. At 19 she married filmmaker Jess Paley. They had two children, Nora and Danny, and later divorced.

 

She started her career as a poet, writing in the style of Auden, but in her thirties she began writing short stories about working class New Yorkers, particularly about women and mothers. She published several collections of stories, poems and essays.

 

Image 1She was a lifelong political activist, protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, apartheid, the war in Iraq, and advocating for women’s issues. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University and City College. She was the founder of the Greenwich Village Peace Center.

 

Her second husband, Robert Nichols, was a landscape architect and writer. The couple eventually moved to Vermont where she died in 2007 at age 84 of breast cancer.

 

You can read an interview she gave at the very end of her life here.

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poem is on narrow window to the right of the door

poem is on narrow window to the right of the door

 

The Morning Baking

by Carolyn Forche

 

Grandma, come back, I forgot

How much lard for these rolls

 

Think you can put yourself in the ground

Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?

I am damn sick of getting fat like you

 

Think you can lie through your Slovak?

Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?

Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?

 

I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue

You beat me up out back, taught me to dance

 

I’ll tell you I don’t remember any kind of bread

Your wavy loaves of flesh

Stink through my sleep

The stars on your silk robes

 

But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

 

IMG_0700

 

 

Bread, sausage, potatoes, milk.  There’s a meal in Carolyn Forche’s “Morning Baking” and no wonder.  Food connects us to family history in a way old photographs can’t.  The touchstones of ethnic heritage–language, accent, music, dress, beliefs—may fade by second generation, but food remains, primal and pleasurable, inviting us to meet up with the ancestors.

 

Not that the poet’s interactions with her grandmother are all tea and crumpets, sweetness and light.  Family feeling is never simple. Forché wavers between disgust and longing, anger and love, feelings of abandonment and feelings of connection.  Even though she spends much of the poem accusing and attacking her grandmother, her admiration for the old woman balances out the anger.  Grandma may have beat her up in the back of the house, but Grandma also taught her to dance.

 

With the same mix of revulsion and pleasure, the poet watches her body change into her grandmother’s.  Grandma was what poet Grace Paley called “a woman in the old style.”  In Paley’s poem “Here,” the postmenopausal body pleases her to a degree uncommon in Western culture:

 

at last a woman

in the old style sitting

stout thighs apart under

a big skirt grandchild sliding

on off my lap a pleasant

summer perspiration

 

Forche’s initial reaction to such stoutness is more typical.  She’s “damn sick” of growing into a body she characterizes as potato-like, doughy, full of lard and yeasty smells.  But like everything else about Grandma, her body is a mixed bag. Far from losing her sexuality as she grew old and fat, Grandma was sensual in her beautiful silk robe, lusty with her raunchy jokes.

 

But it’s the strength of Grandma’s body, not the grossness of it or the sex of it, that comforts the poet and ends the poem:

 

But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

 

This ending sends me back to the beginning.  Notice that Grandma wasn’t “put in the ground”; she put herself in the ground, fierce and self-determining to the end.  The poet will walk the same path. The little girl voice who called out,  “Grandma, come back,” will become the grandmother she grieves for.

 

The poem raises (and there’s lots of raising and rising here) questions I can’t answer. Why does she blame Grandma for her Slav tongue, that is, why is it bad to have a Slav tongue? Why does she tell Grandma she can’t remember any bread when she clearly does? What are nights at the virgin in Detroit?  Pish-pish? But the longer I write about poetry, the more comfortable I am with not knowing all the answers. I understand enough. And that’s enough.

 

Carolyn Forché was born to a family of seven children in 1950 in Detroit, not far from the bakery where I put her poem. Knudsen’s Bakery in North Rosedale Park has been around since 1923, so perhaps the Forché family came here for a special treat, or at very least, drove past.  (Knudsen’s, by the way, has the best donuts I’ve ever had since I moved to Michigan from Maryland.  Light and full of air, they don’t sit like rocks in your stomach.  Great coffee cake too.)

 

Her father was a tool and die maker and her mother a journalist.  The grandmother in the poem, her father’s mother, lived with the family, but would disappear for weeks at a time without explanation.  When Forché was six, the family moved to a more rural area (now the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills) so that her father could have land for gardening.

 

Forché graduated from Michigan State and got her MFA from Bowling Green. After publishing her first book of poems at age 24, Forché went to El Salvador where she worked with Archbishop Oscar Romero, documenting human rights abuses.  The experience changed her poetry and her life.  Since then she has published widely, including three additional books of poetry, several translations, and an anthology, Against Forgetting, of poets who have witnessed the political horrors of war, prison, and torture.

 

She has received multiple awards for her poetry and for her work as a human rights activist.  She teaches at Georgetown University and lives in Bethesda, Maryland, my hometown, and once home to Montgomery Donuts, which sadly no longer bakes their glorious donuts.

 

 

 

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poem is on middle-left post

Fear

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

 

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