Ten Poems


(Selected by Chana Bloch)

 

Editor’s Note“One Day I Decided,”“People in My Family,” “The Boy His Mother,”“Hand-Me-Downs,”“Here,”“Reading the Newspapers at the Village Store,”“Words,”“The Poet’s Occasional Alternative,”“When I Was Asked How I Could Leave Vermont in the Middle of October,” and “Walking in the Woods” are from Begin Again: Collected Poems by Grace Paley. Copyright © 2000 by Grace Paley. Reprinted by permission from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. We are very grateful to Grace Paley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for graciously letting us include these poems here.

Caution: Readers are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

 

One Day I Decided
 
One day I decided to not grow any older
lots of luck I said to myself
(my joking self)  then I looked up at the sky
which is wide its bluenessits whiteness

low on my leftthe steamy sun rosemoved

I placed my hand against it my whole hand
which is broad from pinky to thumbnomy
two hands I bared my teeth to it my teeth
are strongsecure on their gold postsI breathed
deeplyI held my breathI stood on my toesah

then I was tallerstill the clouds sailed
through mearound meit’s trueI’m just
like themsummertime water that the sun
sips and spits into this guzzling earth

 

People in My Family
 
In my family
people who were eighty-two were very different
from people who were ninety-two

The eighty-two-year-old people grew up
it was 1914
this is what they knew
WarWorld WarWar

That’s why when they speak to the child
they say
poor little one . . .

The ninety-two-year-old people remember
it was the year 1905
they went to prison
they went into exile
they saidahsoon

When they speak to the grandchild
they say
yesthere will be revolution
then there will be revolutionthen
once morethen the earth itself
will turn and turn and cry outoh I
have been made sick

then youmy little bud
must flower and save it

 

The BoyHis Mother
 
she said
you were a wonderful boy this evening
at a dinner among friendsso attentiveso
grown upthe boy’s heartoh his ribs
may crack with happinesshe runs dangerously
out into the streetcallingcome come every-
body it’s this waywe’re going this wayhe turns
wants to look up into her facecome Mothershe
laughs and followsbut there’s no helphis eyes
are tipped with tears

in only
a few birthdays love will find his whole body
beat at his skin to get outouthis knees
weakenedhe bows his headkneels
before the othera girllove-threaded
as he has beenbegging relief

 

Hand-Me-Downs
 
My love rests on the couch
in the sweater and bones of old age

I have stopped reading to look at himI take
his handI am shawled in my own somewhat
wrinkled still serviceable skin

No one knows what to do with these
hand-me-downslove them I suppose

weren’t they born in and out of
dignity by our mothers and
fatherseven our children in
the grip of merciless genes will
wear these garments

may their old lovers greet and
touch them then in the bare light
of that last beauty

 

Here
 
Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at lasta woman
in the old stylesitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirtgrandchild sliding
onoff my lapa pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forthI tell my grandson
run over to your grandpaask him
to sit beside me for a minuteI
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

 

Reading the Newspapers at the Village Store
 
this morning
the hills rolled over
in mistthe hot
watermaking sun
steamed into
the tight wet elbows of
the valleydaily dutiful sun
mocking my pessimism in
this world’s year
and one man spoke

cyclones earthquakes landslides floods
what nature doesn’t do
to those poor countries in the
places where those people live
and look at thisaren’t they
always warring on each other
murdering and maiming one
another without mercy?

the other man replied
it was in the morning paper
a couple of months ago
we came upon those very people
and slaughtered them from up high
and maimed them in their hills
and valleys and their dry desert
placescaught them morning and
night whether the sun was
blessing or burning the green skin
off their farms outside
we caught themthose people
in their dangerous
geographical places

NoNothe first man cried
above them the sun as usual
stood stillthe other man
saidAh!then holding tight
to earth’s thin coatthey fell
toward nightthe little death
of mild habitual murderers

 

Words
 
What has happened?
language eludes me
the nice specifying
words of my life fail
when I call

Ah says a friend
dried up no doubt
on the desiccated
twigs in the swamp
of the skull like
a lake where the
water level has been
shifted by highways
a couple of miles off

Another friend says
No nomy dearperhaps
you are only meant to
speak more plainly

 

The Poet’s Occasional Alternative
 
I was going to write a poem
I made a pie insteadit took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
drafta poem would have some
distance to godays and weeks and
much crumpled paper

the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor

everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in itmany friends
will saywhy in the world did you
make only one

this does not happen with poems

because of unreportable
sadnesses I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatershipI do not
want to wait a weeka yeara
generation for the right
consumer to come along

 

When I Was Asked How I Could Leave Vermont in the Middle of October
 
I did not want to be dependent on autumn
I wanted to miss it for oncedrop into
another latitude where it wasn’t so
well knownI wanted to show that beauty
can be held in the breath just as we breathe
grief and betrayalthey don’t always
have to be happening in the living minute

Lookthere it is nowour own golden
wine-colored world-famous Vermont fallgreen
as summer to begin with and then the sunny
morning draws mist out of the cold night river
the maples are sweetenedthere’s a certain
skipped beata scaldingas you live that
loyal countrysideablazetrembling
toward its long winternobody should have
to bear all that death-determined beauty
every single yearthis aging body knows
it can’t be borne

 

Walking in the Woods
 
That’s when I saw the old maple
a couple of its thick arms cracked
one arm reclining half rotted
into earthblack with the delicious
hospitality of rot to the
littlest creatures

the tree not really dyingliving
less widelygreen head high
above the other leaf-crowded
treesa terrible stretch to sun
just to stay alivebut if you’ve
liked lifeyou do it

 

(Persimmon Tree was honored to publish this section of Grace Paley’s poems two months before her death in August 2007.)

Grace Paley is one of the most beloved of American writers. Acclaimed for her short stories, beginning with the
collection Little Disturbances of Man (1959), she also has produced several collections of poetry, including
Leaning Forward: Poems (1985), New and Collected Poems (1992), and Begin Again: Collected Poems
(2001). She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, City College of New York, Columbia University, and Syracuse
University, and she has received many awards for her contribution to literature. Committed to political activism for
decades, she regards herself as a "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist."

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3 thoughts on “Ten Poems

  1. Helen Duberstein

    MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE GRACE

    Grace Paley
    (December 11, 1922 – August 22, 2007)

    A taxi ride after a snowstorm with Grace:
    White
    (starless)
    city night
    lit by mellow lamppost light
    Grace
    down from Vermont for
    Tikkun conference
    spend the night
    Greenwich Village
    apartment
    return
    Vermont tomorrow

    last on agenda to read

    Audience awaits Grace
    sat through all
    readings and/or talks

    surrounded by
    students

    past, present, future

    West Eleventh Street rejoices:
    It is Grace’s birthday
    everyone wants to be at the party!

    Everyone welcome.

    It is the sixties:

    Greenwich Village Peace Center
    Grace is standing,
    her head hangs low.

    She is explaining to Dave Dellinger why
    she missed Saturday Vigil
    Women’s House of Detention

    She apologizes
    she was ill

    Dave Dellinger accepts
    no excuse

    There is no reasonable excuse for absence
    from this vigil

    Saturday mornings. Grace agrees.
    Grace says it will not happen again
    Does not
    Happen again.

    Prague: Grace has come to read at the bookstore

    1991

    line forms
    around the block

    Standing Room only
    People turned away
    at the door but
    hang out
    catch a glimpse.

    Prague, a reading again, not Grace’s:

    [1991]
    A blonde American attendant at the
    Workshop, approaches Grace
    explains to Grace

    I was only a kid, but I remember you

    Greenwich Village Peace Center

    Grace assures young woman

    Indeed I remember
    beautiful youngster full of spirit,
    Sprite from Sixties

    (it is now the nineties.)
    Blonde glows
    Grace remembers me!
    Described me.

    We are planning a panel:
    Late in the eighties or early nineties
    Grace’s apartment, Eleventh Street:
    PEN American Center.

    We want to bring our featured
    speaker from Vermont to New York City
    to talk to us about her life.
    We are worried about the reception.
    Grace is not worried.
    If it does not work out, we
    go on to the next action.

    Don’t dwell on outcome, go on
    next action, and the next.

    Grace’s yearly sojourns
    Provincetown: Her workshops

    Her granddaughter

    her well-attended readings

    Her granddaughter

    If she gave two readings in a season,
    each had line extending up
    Pearl Street

    Those who could not
    sat outside
    swatted
    listened
    mosquitoes
    through speakers

    her granddaughter.

    On the bus to Washington, D.C. :

    [throughout the sixties]

    bagels and coffee
    barely dawn. We are
    sleepy and welcome
    coffee and bagels

    raise our spirits
    make us one, a community on the way

    Washington
    Protest war in Vietnam
    BRING THE BOYS HOME.

    Grace posses for pictures
    her daughter at hand.

    Grace is in the Lady’s Room. She
    wants to look good for a meeting. She
    is wearing a checked shirt and a plaid skirt.
    Clashing?

    She cannot tell. It
    does not matter.

  2. Bernadette Davidson

    How I miss Grace. Her humor and wit and ability to face life straight in the face but keep celebrating life made me strong. Thank you for posting these poems when I can find them on a day that I need them. Bernadette

  3. Linda Myers

    Thank you for putting up these poems. I am 70 and am taking a verse writing course with undergraduates. One assignment is to memorize a poem a week while standing on one foot. These poems, especially the pie poem, which I’ve been hunting for, will do fine for that, if my memory holds up.

    Also I am looking for a Grace Paley poem with the lines: “… but if you have loved life, you do it” somewhere inside. It was about the everyday pains of aging and illness. Could someone point me in the right direction?

    Thank you so much.

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