GRACE PALEY'S "FIDELITY"

POETRY ABOUT AGING | January 29th 2008

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Ariel Ramchandani finds a melancholic honesty in Grace Paley's last book of poems. Paley wrote with the detachment of a woman near death, punctuating her work with the occasional bitter laugh ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

"Fidelity", the excellent new collection of poetry by Grace Paley (FSG, March 18th 2008), is a fitting final release (she died in August, aged 84). It is about the experience of being old, and the often painful separation between the poet and her world. Paley builds her poems organically and spaciously--they seem to expand in the air and dissipate foggily, barely located anymore in time and space. She saw herself as if through the lens of a camera, as though she did not inhabit the body she wrote about. In poems such as "When", she leaves physical spaces in between her words, echoing the fatigue and remove the speaker has from the action:

When she came to meet him at the ferry
he said  you are so pale  worn  so
frail standing on her toes
to reach his ear  she whispered
I am an old woman  oh then
he was always kind

The pauses make the poem feel as though it could drift away, barely anchored by the locating words "when", "then" and "always". The "when" brings us into the past, and the line break after the "oh then" leaves it dangling: we are not sure whether the speaker is lamenting a past "then",  or placing us at the ferry. In the word "always" we find ambiguous continuity, a hazily defined timeline of experience separate from the moment in which the poem occurs.

Paley is not alone in capturing the dislocation that comes with aging. Consider the terrifying poem, aptly titled "Age" by Robert Creeley, in which the self in question is depicted not as tiredly floating away, but instead as destroyed in its movement inwards. The poem achieves this formally by tightening couplet by couplet towards the end:

The world is a round but
diminishing ball, a spherical

ice cube, a dusty
joke...

...the approaching

fears when I may
cease to be me, all

lost or rather lumped
here in a retrograded,

dislocating, imploding
self...

Creeley catalogues the process of aging as one's "round and diminishing" world literally melting, and the subsequent mummification and implosion of self. Without a connection to the world, a life is over. This may seem an obvious point, but in the hands of these poets it is presented in heartbreaking detail.

Paley's poem "Their Honest Purpose Mocked" also explores the sadness that comes from losing contact with the world. She writes:

Or the past? I asked  you mean
going back to old diaries
notebooks full of me? no  see how
the unusual earth is
wrapped around with forests...

and with land mines  that explode
the legs  of little children
I know I have gone too far  but
would go further if the poem
were not complete

The "unusual earth" encompasses so much, ranging from forests to land mines--more, even, than Paley cares to write down. The poem ends abruptly. The reader wants more, and so does the poet, which explains the sadness in the apology: "I...would go further if the poem were not complete." This ending seems to remove Paley from the "unusual earth", which she can no longer observe and describe further for us.

"Fidelity" is a good name for this particular collection. It captures the honesty Paley achieves through her distanced tone, and her honesty with her readers in describing what is a sad and complicated time for her. There is a graceful wisdom in her perspective. For this, among other things, she will be greatly missed.

I want to end with a poem "The Greatest Love" by Anna Swir, a beautiful poem about aging. (Why don't more people know about Swir? She has written my favourite poem on many subjects.) Here, in one swift moment, she humorously describes the wisdom and widening of perspective that come with age:

She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.

She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
"You have hair like pearls."

Her children say:
"Old fool."

(Ariel Ramchandani is a contributing editor to More Intelligent Life)