by Grace Paley

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Just before her death in 2007 at the age of eighty-four, Grace Paley completed this wise and poignant book of poems. Full of memories of friends and family and incisive observations of life in both her beloved hometown, New York City, and rural Vermont, the poems are sober and playful, experimenting with form while remaining eminently readable. They explore the

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Just before her death in 2007 at the age of eighty-four, Grace Paley completed this wise and poignant book of poems. Full of memories of friends and family and incisive observations of life in both her beloved hometown, New York City, and rural Vermont, the poems are sober and playful, experimenting with form while remaining eminently readable. They explore the beginnings and ends of relationships, the ties that bind siblings, the workings of dreams, the surreal strangeness of the aging body--all imbued with her unique perspective and voice. Mournful and nostalgic, but also ruefully funny and full of love, Fidelity is Grace Paley's passionate and haunting elegy for the life she was leaving behind.

Editorial Reviews

Eavan Boland
In this book, Grace Paley's celebrated gifts as a story-teller have entered a lyric fire and emerged unscathed. These are wonderful, unswerving narratives of ordeal and grace. Here are poems about friendship, about ageing and the approach of death. And in every one of them, her familiar wit shines. These poems will travel far: they will be on nightstands, in backpacks, on email lists, in conversation and memory and soliloquy for a long time to come.
Vivian Gornick
All over the world, in languages you never heard of, she is read as a master storyteller in the great tradition: People love life more because of her writing.
Mary Jo Salter
…her final book, and in it Paley reproduces with touching fidelity what it is to be old, and sick, and missing one's vanished friends, and philosophical up to a point—but unwilling to part with dear life. The authenticity of her response to experience, which includes political protest (she never stopped being a liberal activist, even on the page), remains winning as ever…Speaking now to us from the grave, Paley is writer, character, actor—a wise companion. Though offstage, her voice seems likely to be heard a long while.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

When she died this summer at age 84, Paley was widely and rightly remembered as a master of the American short story, an engagé raconteur who mixed earthly humor, Jewish-American heritage, outspoken feminism, antiwar activism and an understated postmodern self-awareness. Those facets did not all appear in Begin Again(2001), a collected poems praised more for honesty than craft; happily, Paley's many fans may find that her best poems were her last. The wry, friendly voices in this posthumous assemblage address her later years with equanimity and humor. As in her short stories, the apparent naïveté of tone plays off the earned wisdom the teller finally conveys. In "I Met a Woman on the Plane," Paley listens to a mother of five living children explain that she cannot stop grieving for her sixth, who died. Other poems praise the territories Paley has known, with wit and kindness: Manhattan and Brooklyn streets and the hills of Vermont. Finally, though, this wise and patient collection focuses on old age, presented with an appealing combination of impatience and fortitude: "Anyone who gets to be/ eighty years old says thank you/ to the One in charge," Paley says, "and then im-/ mediately begins to complain." (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

"Life is as risky/as it is branchy/treetop and twigtip/are only the beginning." Just before her death in 2007 at the age of 84, Paley compiled this smart, engaging collection. Rich with memories of family and friends, evocations of rural Vermont and her hometown of New York City, and assertions of clear-headed social convictions, these poems are sometimes melancholy, sometimes funny, and sometimes simply a pleasure. Finding herself at odds with aging-"I forget the names of my friends/and the names of the flowers in/my garden"-Paley shows us here she was nevertheless in continued and absolute control of her faculties. She was known as a none-too-shy advocate of peace and justice, especially in the everyday, and these poems are in keeping with her fine-tuned values: "Oh how hard the hard-hearted rich are/when they meet a working person in their places/of work a cab or restaurant kitchen." A fitting legacy for a wise and delightful writer; highly recommended for all collections.
—Louis McKee

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Grace Paley

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2008 The Estate of Grace Paley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-53171-3



    A person's anger should be respected
    even when it isn't shared

    a person's happiness should be shared
    even if it isn't understood

    a person should be understood though
    he has brought both his brows together
    in anger and also suddenly begun to laugh

    a person should be in love most of
    the time this is the last proverb
    and may be learned by all the organs
    capable of bodily response


    Sometimes you don't want to love the person you love
    you turn your face away from that face
    whose eyes lips might make you give up anger
    forget insult steal sadness of not wanting
    to love turn away then turn away at breakfast
    in the evening don't lift your eyes from the paper
    to see that face in all its seriousness a
    sweetness of concentration he holds his book
    in his hand the hard-knuckled winter wood
    scarred fingers turn away that's all you can
    do old as you are to save yourself from love


    I forget the names of my friends
    and the names of the flowers in
    my garden my friends remind me
    Grace it's us the flowers just
    stand there stunned by the sun

    A long time ago my mother said
    darling there are also wildflowers
    but look these I planted

    my flowers are pink and rose and
    orange they're sturdy they make
    new petals every day to fill in
    their fat round faces

    suddenly before thought I
    called out ZINNIA zinnia
    zinnia along came a sunny

      summer breeze they swayed
      lightly bowed I said Mother


    Fathers are
    more fathering
    these days they have
    accomplished this by
    being more mothering

    what luck for them that
    women's lib happened then
    the dream of new fathering
    began to shine in the eyes
    of free women and was

    on the New York subways
    and the mass transits
    of other cities one may
    see fatherings of many colors
    with their round babies on
    their laps this may also
    happen in the countryside
    these scenes were brand new
    exciting for an old woman who
    had watched the old fathers
    gathering once again in
    familiar army camps and com
    fortable war rooms to consider
    the necessary eradication of
    the new fathering fathers
    (who are their sons) as well
    as the women and children who
    will surely be in the way

    why shouldn't men look at women
    and women look at men
    and women look at women
    and men look at men
    why shouldn't they
    size each other up (as
    we used to say)

    why isn't there more
    of that looking that
    casual catching of
    breath in plain
    appreciation or rejection why
    isn't there more of it what
    old people sometimes ex
    perienced as shock and a
    dangerous heartbeat which
    sometimes erupted into
    love at first sight (as
    it is called to this day)
    and as old people we must
    warn it may once in a startling
    while last forever (as it
    is called)


    she came from somewhere around Tampa
    she was going to Chicago
    I liked her a lot
    she'd had five children
    no she'd had six one died
    at twenty-three days

    people said at least you didn't
    get too attached

    she had married at sixteen she
    married again twenty years later
    she said she loved her first husband
    just couldn't manage life

    five small children? I said
    no not that
      what? him?
    no me she said
    I couldn't get over that baby girl
    everyone else did the big
    kids you'll drive us all crazy
    they said but that baby you can't
    believe her beautifulness
    when I came into the kids' room
    in her little crib not a month old
    not breathing they say get over it
    it's more than ten years go away leave
    us for a while so I did that here I am she said
    where are you going

    you can't think without thinking about something
    my friends who are Buddhists are sometimes thinking
    weeks on end about how to think about nothing
    they are often successful
      sometimes looking
    at that famous sculpture (or a picture of it)
    I think oh he is surely not thinking about any
    thing he only wants to give the appearance to
    passersby for some reason or he needs to hold
    his heavy head in his hands which will allow
    thoughts or ideas into his stoniness
      just as I putting
    my pen to paper am pretty sure that something
    which has pressed upon my breath beyond bearing
    will appear in words take shape and singing
    let me go on with my life


    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
    freedom has overtaken me I
    had run ahead of it for years
    along an interesting but
    narrow road obeyed at least
    half the rules imposed by
    lovers children a house a
    political position now out
    of breath probably I'm stuck
    freedom has hold of my jacket
    won't let go I am alone
    before I was nobody
    I was me after
    I was nobody I
    was me I wish
    I could have rested
    in me a little longer
    there was something
    I was supposed to tell
    but it isn't allowed
    a new york city man is
    standing on the street corner
    he's smiling up at a fireman hanging
    on to the ladder of his fire engine

    the fire engine passes between us
    slowly it turns the corner it is
    going home to its firehouse

    I am in a taxi stuck in traffic
    I smile at the smiling man he
    nods his head courteously we
    know each other our newyorkness
    Thank God there is no god
    or we'd all be lost

    if it is He who sends us howling
    in murderous despair at torture
    hatred three or four times a generation
    there'd be no hope and if He permitted
    peace to appear then one day great plates
    of stone beneath the orchards and sea may
    move slowly against one another earthquake

    if it is He who built that narrow a bridge
    across which we are invited to walk
    without fear while all around us
    the old the lame the awkward the jumping
    up-and-down children are tumbling off
    or sometimes pushed into the hideous
    gorge if it is He then we are surely lost

    if it is He who offers free will but
    only sometimes a peculiar gift
    for a people who have just distinguished
    their right hand from their left

    but if we are responsible con
    sider our frequent love for one another
    because this is nowadays we may be able
    to look over great distances into
    each other's eyes these are the tele-
    phonic electronic digital nowadays
    famous for money and loneliness but we

    have defeated Babel by accepting the words
    of strangers in glorious translations if

    we can be responsible if we have
    become responsible


    Oh how hard the hard-hearted rich are
    when they meet a working person in their places
    of work a cab or a restaurant kitchen
    and the hard heart beats and eases the mouth
    into saying well they do get minimum wage
    probably and when they meet an
    ordinary bum or maybe a homeless person
    on their street or broad boulevard
    standing on the pavement common to
    all the good shops holding a paper cup or cap
    asking for change oh say the hard-hearted rich
    they will use it for drugs or drink and be found
    at midnight in drunken sleep in the doorway
    of one of the best shops of all
    Then the hard-hearted rich and
    there are many many in our city
    just as there are many many women and
    men working in hard-driven poverty
    or not working at all oh the hard-hearted rich
    move into the glorious evening of drinking and talking
    and eating and drinking again into sleep
    in their queen-size beds as though they
    were queens with kings beside each other
    and it's night and the moon's bright
    light falls through the huge windows
    then they decide to try
    love as a kind of heart softener
    they are tired and think to try love


    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
    fields the raging sea that is
    trying to get away from us leaping
    leaping falling to the shore
    again and again planted with stones
    and with land mines that explode
    the little legs of little children
    I know I have gone too far but
    would go further if the poem
    were not complete
    What a terrible racket they made
    beating all those swords into plowshares
    people were deafened worldwide letters
    of protest as well as serious essays
    pointing out in the sensible way
    of ordinary people we no longer
    use plowshares swords have been
    for generations the playthings
    of boys and men

    now the government that year happened
    to be a poet it explained
    in a kindly way citizens we had
    in mind a living performing metaphor
    using familiar religious themes and
    literary memories of course once we
    get those useless plowshares there
    may be a couple of economic or
    industrial uses we will even be able
    to beat them back into swords should swords
    still be required by boys and men
    She said
      every sentence is an accusation
    and I thought
      she speaks well
    that child has always known what to say about the world
    she has a beautiful face a clear head and cosmic notions
      My god, I said
      you're right that's the way it is
    the world speaks to you nowadays
      in accusations
    it doesn't leave you alone for a minute
    it thinks everything is your fault the world is like that
    No she said
      I wasn't talking about the world
      I was talking about you
    Yes I said that's it that's just what I meant

    Life is as risky
    as it is branchy

    treetop and twigtip
    are only the beginning

    then comes the westwind to lean
    and the northwind to turn

    then the sunshine implores
    and up all of us go

    we are like any
    greengrowing machinery

    riding the daylight route
    to darkness


    there they go
      beginning life
      all over again

    the world is a cowering
      coward of a place
      won't stand up

    for itself what
        do they have in mind
        creating hope

    w rong anyway
        hope was always there

    its little
      pockmarked flag

    be so grandiose
    just do something
      now and then
    Sometimes now when I sleep alone
    I get a whiff of myself
    and wonder all these years is this
    the odor familiar to you
    if so did you really like it doesn't
    seem so nice you're unusually non
    sweaty for such an active man but slightly
    sweet when I hug you nowadays
    (or you me) or put my head on your
    pillow in our bed I know it's you
    a delicate odor of woodsmoke and I breathe
    you in a little not surprised
    I remember you were always delicious


    One day a seducer met a seducer
    now said one what do we do
    fly into each other's arms said
    the other ugh said one they turned
    stood back to back one
    looked over one's shoulder smiled
    shyly other turned seconds
    too late made a lovelier
    shy smile oh my dear said other
    my own dear said one


    My friend said why are you so up
    I mean reality is a terrible down
    look at the facts right there in the pasta
    you can see it the plausible future boiled
    once more in its own gas the end bad luck
    for our time bad luck for literature
    our dear language back to planet pudding
    Yes it is a terrible down they blame it
    on that tree that apple of all knowing
    I would eat it again he said


    Anyone who gets to be
    eighty years old says thank you
    to the One in charge then im-
    mediately begins to complain why
    were these years such a historical
    mess why was my happiness
    and willing gratitude interfered with
    every single decade no sooner
    were the normal spats with parents
    lovers children ended than the
    interfering greed of total strangers
    probably eighty years old as well
    and full of their own bloated thank
    fulness at unbelievable success in
    the expropriation of what belonged
    to other people and peoples not
    to mention the economic degradation
    leading to thanks engendering
    profits in our own country and
    in the innocent or colluding parts
    of the world
      I am sadly reminded
    of the first couple of our American
    thanksgivings thank you thank you
    our first Americans together with
    the Absolutely First Americans within a gener
    ation or half of one the first Americans
    proceeded to drive the Absolutely First
    Americans from their villages rivers
    fields over mountains and across the con
    tinent out out they cried almost at
    the same time shouting thank you thanks
      thank you


    It doesn't matter if you were just born
    or if you're dying
    you have to sleep at night

    then you wake up the sun
    insists no matter what
    you turn even in sleep to light

    all day will then furiously begin
    your children will require bread
    you may have to fight

    to obtain it from the greedy owners of grain
    who had learned how to grind it into gold
    the old ones say there is food for everyone
    wealth in the earth but famine lies down
    in its old green field blight

    in their last sleep the mothers moan
    what of the child she must be fed
    ah in their ragged shrouds they hid
    pocketfuls of ancient seed
    inheritance against the coming night


    When I was forty everything
    was all right it's true our children
    with their ears to the pavement
    were about to become that famous
    city's generation our neighborhood
    noisy with their energetic global
    intention then in the very heart
    of the prime of my life (as it was
    called) the American War in Vietnam
    (eight thousand miles away) entered
    the newspapers

    luckily artists and poets and
    musicians were wide awake due to
    their peculiar antennae for instance
    the poets on trucks in churches had
    already heard the voice of Vietnamese
    children and the mural makers had seen
    even before the photographers the
    curious bombs like bouquets called
    cluster they painted the story that
    the poets and musicians sang

    as we say that was then this is now
    and we are here to congratulate
    the Vermont Arts Council which
    had the Vermont sense and aesthetic
    energy to be born forty years ago
    and finds itself as I did then
    in the prime of life with another
    American war with an unknown people
    thousands of miles away luckily
    Vermont the United States and the
    Arts Council is deep in poets most
    of us with big mouths (it is said) even
      the gentlest
    the very little girl looked at her grandfather
    the way he was sprawled across his big wheelchair
    his leg was crooked it was bent the wrong way she
    watched his leg for two or three minutes sometimes
    it tried to move itself it was interesting she
    gave him a Kleenex

    then she wanted to see the important room all
    the women and men in a half circle of wheelchairs
    looking straight at the television some were
    all right many were hunched over their heads
    were twisted that way they could see the tele
    vision better sometimes people walked from
    somewhere to someplace else right past the big
    television faces only one person yelled out
    hey you crazy it was very interesting

    on the way back to see her grandfather in
    his window corner she stopped a man she'd seen
    last week was bobbing his head and waving his
    arms and shouting go away and stop it and go
    to hell other words very loud no one came
    she watched him for about five minutes then he
    took a breath he was quiet she saw that he had
    finished being interesting bye-bye she said she
    waved the man exhausted softly said bye-bye


    I have been talking to my sister she
    may not know she's been dust and ashes
    for the last two years I talk to her
    nearly every day

    I've been telling her about our new baby
    who is serious comical busy dark my
    sister out of all the rubble and grit
    that is now her my sister mutters what
    about our old baby he was smart loving
    so beautiful

    yes yes I said listen just last week
    he stopped at my hallway door he saw
    your small Turkish rug he stared at it
    he fell to his knees his arms wide crying
    Jeannie oh my own auntie Jeannie

    remembered ah her hard whisper came to me
    thank you Grace now speak to him tell him
    he's still my deepest love


    After supper I returned to
    my reading book I had
    reached page one hundred
    and forty two hundred and twenty
    more to go I had been thinking that
    evening as we spoke
    early at dinner with a couple of young
    people of the dense improbable
    life of that book in which I had become so comfortable
    the characters were now my troubled companions
    I knew them understood I could
    reenter these lives without loss
    so firm my habitation I scanned the shelves
    some books so dear to me I had missed them
    leaned forward to take the work into
    my hands I took a couple of deep breaths
    thought about the acceleration of days
    yes I could reenter them but ...
    No how could I desert that other whole life
    those others in their city basements
    Abandonment How could I have allowed myself
    even thought of a half hour's distraction
    when life had pages or decades to go
    so much was about to happen to people
    I already know and nearly loved


    I invited my mother and father into my dream
    which included a table chairs a record player
    an early evening hospitality my
    friends say that their parents are always present
    to pester the night with little pearls of acid advice
    my parents are not like that

    I wanted to see my mother and father
    together They appeared they organized their bodies
    slowly they saw each other before they were
    aware of me She looked at him my god Zenya
    how old you've grown in these forty years she said
    also much shorter is it true you never married?
    my father was embarrassed he was probably ashamed
    to have outlived her by so many years
    What could they say? then thank goodness they
    remembered their own children
    Well of course he said You knew the first little one
    at least you gave her some pretty tight hugs
    and kissed her from head to toe The other one my son
    a good man he worries
    about my health he asks me do you have a fever
    are you still coughing? he was a doctor too
    he lived long
      my mother was amazed
    my father says why not It's common in this country
    even I with a vicious heart attack lived to be eighty-nine
    my mother says my god eighty-nine?
    all those years did you think of me?
    all the time he said at my eightieth birthday I
    told everybody I owe everything to you
    that was very nice she said reaching out
    you were working so hard I didn't think you remembered me
    from one day to the next


Excerpted from Fidelity by Grace Paley. Copyright © 2008 The Estate of Grace Paley. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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