Despite her occasional meditation on the beauty of a new branch growing from a dead trunk, “pale green/and greener into the sun” or a “ragged flag of hope”, Grace Paley’s final collection is mostly mournful. These are poems about death, poems about dead people and poems about old people’s inevitable struggle against death’s inevitability — tempered occasionally with Paley’s unsmiling humor: “I had thought the tumors/on my spine would kill me but/the tumors on my head seem to be/extraordinarily competitive this week”… “I/did drink one small glass of red/wine with dinner nearly every day/as suggested by The New York Times/I should have taken longer walks but/obviously I have done something wrong.”
In many of these poems Paley looks at the world, hands clasped, through yesterday’s glasses: old people get spooked by stuff on TV; old people get stranded, leaning on walkers, in the middle of a city block; old people call up their dead siblings and thrill that their number is still just disconnected and not yet reassigned, the scenes shifting seamlessly, tenderly from the lonely and almost, at times, demented present to the richly populated past.
Paley, who died last August, has left us an eerily but intentionally prescient collection that’s sweetly stubborn and largely unsentimental. The poems are best at their simplest: “I forget the names of my friends/and the names of the flowers in/my garden” she writes in ‘On Occasion’, and, in ‘Sisters’, “My friends are dying.” Fidelity, tidy and lovely, reads more like a whispered journal than Paley’s other work — which has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Still, it’s probably not something I’ll give either of my parents. After all, none of us needs to be reminded that “one of us may die/without saying goodbye//my friend said face it that’s how it goes one by one/till there’s no one left on this bench in the sun.”