Poetry: Peculiar Antennaeby David Varno
Grace Paley, Fidelity (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008)
Grace Paley’s poems read nicely as first thoughts, as impressions in a journal, a pause on an afternoon stroll. Indeed, her poetry can serve as a starting point to some of her stories, such as Later the Same Day’s “Love” (1985), which opens with a poem the narrator dictates to her husband that she wrote while wandering near the Holland Tunnel; the sketches frame the character’s impulse, which develops into the conflict of the story.
Fidelity was composed last year of new poems that touch on familiar subjects, such as unrest in love, or pacifist and feminist concerns, woven by a guiding theme of mortality. The poet wrestles all the way to the last lines between a readiness to make peace with her own passing versus a continued resistance, along with the mourning of friends, family and colleagues. For Paley, who passed away before seeing the publication of this book, these last words sustain the truths she was committed to, and bear witness to new wisdom.
The attention given to the sketchy quality of Paley’s work has perhaps undercut the level of contradiction and personal conflict, such as another character from Later the Same Day whose self-deprecation surfaces when a sense of female empowerment is derived from the convenience of domestic technology. A new poem, “Their Honest Purpose Mocked,” questions the ethics of employing activism in poetry. The poet digresses from biographical impressions of the world with details of landmine victims, recognizing that “I know I have gone too far but would go further if the poem were not complete.” In a similar way, Paley’s feminist concerns feel more personal than, for example, those of Adrienne Rich, a poet who eschews the equivocation of human consciousness. Always, Paley bestows the greatest level of credit to the poets and artists who engage in activism, for their “peculiar antennae” that taps them into the world’s most important concerns.
The book’s opening poem, “Proverbs,” composed of riffs on the conventional wisdom of amorous partnership, is simple and matter-of-fact—it suggests a deal with this sort of attitude, and is just as much about resigning to the realities of love as knowing they can’t be comprehended: “A person’s happiness should be shared even if it isn’t understood.” This poem guides the first of the four sections in the book; the sections are structured thematically, first with love, then activism, aging, and finally mortality. In the third section, she imagines her parents meeting after death and reconnecting, conversing with a dead sister, and the passage of life through the eyes of passersby, as with “Bravery on Tenth St,” in which she considers “was life this long?” Though most of these poems read nakedly, there are moments of elusiveness. The poet warns, “some things are not meant to be found,” that she is an unreliable narrator—and that writers claiming to be unreliable are usually lying.
When the poet refutes the concept of her process as impulsive, which many readers would conjecture at least by mid-book with “I went out walking”—which has the quality of a notebook entry—things get complicated. Here’s the first stanza of “Night Morning”:
To translate a poem
Takes all night
Night nights and days
Paley concludes with a Wordsworth-sentimental, simplified allusion to Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” winter metaphor, which reappears at the book’s close (“This Hill,” quoted below). This insistence on the poet’s “hard labor” seems out of character, not just because the poems are made to look easy, but because Paley so often cast herself beneath this sort of ivory tower. Perhaps if the poem were to come after the succeeding, untitled entry, in which she is impelled by Wordsworth’s “breathless hope for a long life,” her dedication to her life and work might be better represented.
The final three poems are a perfect suite of Paley’s strongest concerns. Her playfulness, sullened by a coming-to-terms with “Let the Day Go” (“who needs it”), is shirked with new resilience in the final poem. “This Hill” begins with an elegy for generations passed before the poet finds herself continuing to tread “on this narrow path,” where “ice holds the black undecaying oak leaves in its crackling grip,” and though “it’s become too hard to walk,” it’s April.
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.