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Begin Again: Collected Poems

Begin Again: Collected Poems

by Grace Paley

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A longtime teacher, activist, feminist, and masterful writer of short fiction and essays, Paley is also an accomplished poet. Combining her two previous collections with unpublished work, Begin Again traces the career of a direct, attentive, and always unpredictable poet. Whether describing the vicissitudes of life in New York City or the hard beauty of rural Vermont, whether celebrating the blessings of friendship or protesting against social injustice, her poems brim with compassion and tough good humor.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374527242
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/14/2001
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 983,566
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.45(d)

About the Author

Grace Paley is a writer and a teacher, a feminist and an activist. Her most recent book, Just as I Thought, is a collection of her personal and political essays and articles. In 1994, her Collected Stories was a finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in New York City and Vermont.

Read an Excerpt

Begin Again

Collected Poems

By Grace Paley

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2001 Grace Paley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7580-7


    A woman invented fire and called it
      the wheel
    Was it because the sun is round
      I saw the round sun bleeding to sky
    And fire rolls across the field
      from forest to treetop

    It leaps like a bike with a wild boy riding it
    oh she said
      see the orange wheel of heat
    light that took me from the
      window of my mother's home
    to home in the evening

    Stanzas: Old Age and the Conventions of Retirement Have Driven
    My Friends from the Work They Love


    When she was young she wanted
    to sing in a bank
    a song about money
      the lyrics of gold
    was her song
      she dressed for it


    She did good. She stood up like a
    planted flower among yellow weeds
      turning to please the sun
      they were all shiny
    it was known she was planted


    No metaphor reinvents the job of the nurture of children
    except to muddy or mock.


    The job of hunting of shooting in hunting season of
    standing alone in the woods of being an Indian


    The municipal center
    the morning of anger
    the centrifugal dream
    her voice flung out on plates of rage
      then they were put in a paper sack
      she was sent to the china closet
      and never came back


    Every day he went out, forsaking
    wife and child
    with his black bag he accompanied
    the needle of pain as it
    sewed our lives to death


    One day at work he cried
    I am in my full powers
      suddenly he was blind
    when slabs of time and aperture returned
    dear friend we asked
      what do you see
    he said I only see what has been
      seen already
    One day when I was a child long ago
    Mr. Long Ago spoke up in school
    He said
    Oh children you must roll your r's
    no no not on your tongue little girl
    there is nothing so beautiful as r rolled in the throat of a French
    no woman more beautiful
    he said looking back
      at beauty

    Drowning (I)

    If I were in the middle of the Atlantic
      drowning far from home
    I would look up at the sky
      veil of my hiding life
    and say:
    then I would sink

    the second time I'd come up I'd say
      these are the willful waves of the watery sea
    which is drowning me
    then I would sink
    the third time I'd come up it would be my last
    my arms reaching
    my knees falling
    I'd cry oh oh
      first friend of my thinking head
      dear flesh

    Drowning (II)

    This is how come I am drowned:
      First the sun shone on me
      Then the wind blew over me
      Then the sand polished me
      Then the sea touched me
      Then the tide came


    Some people set themselves tasks
    other people say do anything only live
    still others say
      oh oh I will never forget you event of my first life

    Right Now

    The women let the tide go out
      which will return which will return
    the sand the salt the fat drowned babies
    The men ran furiously
      along the banks of the estuary
      Come back you fucking sea
    right now
      right now

    A Poem about Storytelling

    The artist comes next
    she tells the story of the stories

    The first person may be the child who
    says Listen! Guess what happened!
    The important listener is the mother
    The mother says What?

    The first person can be the neighbor
    She says Today my son told me Goodbye
    I said Really? Who are you? You
    didn't even say hello yet The listener
    is probably her friend She remembers
    Well wasn't he always like that as a small boy
    I mean The neighbor says That's not
    true You're absolutely wrong He was like a
    motorcycle a little horse every now
    and then at rest a flower

    The first person is often the lover who
    says I never knew anyone like you
    The listener is the beloved She whispers
    Who? Me?

    The first person is the giver of testimony
    He rises and tells I lived in that village
    My father shouted He returned from the fields
    I was too small My father cried out
    Why don't you grow up and help me My mother said
    Help him you're eight years old it's time
    The listeners say Oh! it was just
    like that I remember

    The giver of testimony rises and tells
    I lived in the hut behind the barn
    The padrone the manager the master came
    to me I can take you whenever I want
    he said Now you're old enough The right
    age is twelve he said The giver of testimony
    rises She looks into her village She
    looks into the next village Where
    are the listeners

    The artist comes next She waits for
    the listeners too What if they're all dead or
    deafened by grief or in prison Then
    there's no way out of it She will listen
    It's her work She will be the listener
    in the story of the stories

A Warning

    One day I forgot Jerusalem and my right arm is withered
    My right arm, my moving arm, my rising and falling arm
      my loving arm

    Is withered

    And my left eye, the blinker and winker is plucked out
    It hangs by six threads of endless remembering.
    Because I forgot Jerusalem
    And wherever I go, I am known, I am recognized at once. I am
      perceived by strangers.

    Because on one day, only one day I forgot Jerusalem.

    Jews everywhere, Jews, old deaths of the north and south

    Poor Jews in the ghetto walls built by the noble Slav,
      Jew princes

    In Amsterdam who live in diamond houses that shine like window

    Listen to me. Wherever you go, keep the nation of that city
      in mind

    For I forgot her and now I am blind and crippled.

    Even my lover a Christian with pale eyes and the barbarian's

      has left me.


    The veins that stand on the back of my sunburned hand
    are something like the branched veins on the flat tan
      shore of the bay
    Out of these, when the tide tugs
    salt sea runs back
    into the rocky basin from which
    we came
    on the first day specks
    in a stranded pool dashed
    in high tide alive
    on the hot dry land.

    At the Battery

    I am standing on one foot
    at the prow of great Manhattan
    leaning forward
    projecting a little into the bright harbor

    If only a topographer in a helicopter
    would pass over my shadow
    I might be imposed forever
    on the maps of this city

    An Arboreal Mystery

    On Jane Street in October
    I saw three ginkgo trees
      the first is naked to the bony branch
      the second is a dance of little golden fans
      the third is green as green September

    20th Street Spring

    the wives of the black-sailed seminarians
    take their children to walk with green pails

    they are light-haired and slim their husbands are studying
    passion and service the seminary

    is old the baby leaves of the old sycamores are pale green
    are river yellow like the high light arms of the sycamore

    the seminary is red and soot-darkened
    by the soot-making city it is at the side of the city near the

    it stands aside from the piers and the warehouses and the
    it intends to be quiet and dark though sunlight surrounds it

    sun lies on the streets and the lawns and the children
    of the seminarians play with red hoops in the street in the sun

    note to grandparents

    the children are healthy
      the children are rosy
    we take them to the park
      we take them to the playground

    they swing on the swings
      the wind smacks their faces
    they jump and are lively
      they eat everything

    they sleep without crying
      they are very smart
    each day they grow
      you would hardly know them


    their shoes are stuccoed with sawdust and blood
    the two young butchers walk singing together on Ninth Avenue
    the sun is out because it is the lunch hour
    they kick the melting snow and splash into deep puddles
    then they embrace one another in the cold air
    for water and singing may wash away the blood of the lamb

    Mulberry Street

    Mulberry Street ends in good works
    The Committee for Nonviolent Action begins there
    Also St. Barnabas House which shelters abandoned children

    And on the corner of Mott Street
    Bob Nichols is making a playground
    single-handed two mountains an iron tower from which
    the cliffs of Houston Street can be observed
    a maple glade a ship at sea


    The boys from St. Bernard's
    and the boys from
    Our Lady of Pompeii
    converge on the corner of Bleecker and Bank

    There is a grinding of snowballs
    and a creaking of ice

    The name of our Lord is invoked

    But for such healthy tough warriors
    He has other deaths in mind

    They part

    For Danny

    My son enters the classroom
    There are thirty-two children waiting for him
    He dreams that he will teach them to read
    His head is full of the letters that words are looking for

    Because of his nature
    his fingers are flowers
    Here is a rose he says look it grew right
    into the letter R

    They like that idea very much they lean forward
    He says now spell garden
    They write it correctly in their notebooks maybe
      because the word rose is in it

    My son is happy
    Now spell sky
    For this simple word the children
    turn their eyes down and away doesn't he know
    the city has been quarreling with the sky all of their lives

    Well, he says Spell home he's a little frightened
      to ask this of them What?
    They laugh they can't hear him say
    What's so funny? they jump
    up out of their seats laughing

    My son says hopefully It's three o'clock
    but they don't want to leave where will they go?
    they want to stay right here in the classroom they probably
    want to spell garden again they want
    to examine his hand

    The Nature of This City

    Children walking with their grandmothers
    talk foreign languages
    that is the nature of this city
    and also this country

    Talk is cheap but comes in variety
    and witnessing dialect
    there is a rule for all
    and in each sentence a perfect grammar

    On the Fourth Floor

    The woman on the fourth floor said You slut! don't you
      knock on my
      door stand up straight be a woman!
    The girl said I ain't a slut I didn't have no father
      my mother ...
    The woman said Stop that neither did I I didn't have
    The girl said I ain't a slut I don't fuck guys
    The woman said Who cares about guys you're
      disgusting you ain't
      a woman
    You're dirty look at you you can't keep your eyes open

    The boy came to the head of the stairs He hollered Diana
      come up
      here where's the Tuinals
    The girl said I ain't got them
    The boy screamed I had sixteen I ate ten I give you four there's
      two left someplace
    I ain't got them I only got two methadone
    Look at you the boy said you hung down to the
      ground you ate

    I didn't she said come with me Eddie
    to the East River Drive there's a party I'll say you're my
    The boy screamed Get me the two Tuinals

    The woman took the girl's hand Go into your house right this
      minute pay him no mind

    wash up you stink comb your hair straight yourself
    ain't you ashamed? Be a woman

    Winter Afternoon

    Old men and women walk by my window
    they're frightened it's icy wintertime
    they take small steps they're looking
    at their feet they're glad to be
    going they hate
    the necessity

    sometimes the women wear heels why
    do they do this the old women's
    heads are bent they see their shoes
    which are often pointy these shoes
    were made for crossed legs in the
    evening pointing

      sometimes the old men
    walk a dog the dog moves too fast
    the man stands still the dog stands
    still the smells come to the dog
    floating from the square earth of the
    plane tree from the tires of cars
    at rest all this interesting life
    and adventure comes to the waiting dog
    the man doesn't know this the street
    is too icy old women in pointy shoes
    and high heels pass him their necks
    in fur collars bent their eyes watch
    their small slippery feet

    Middle-Age Poem

      With what joy
    I left home to deposit one thousand, one hundred and nineteen
      dollars in the bank
    I was whistling and skipping
    you would think I had a new baby and a new cradle
    after so many years
    or that my mother had come to visit from Queens, borough of
    you would think a lover
    was waiting
    at the corner of Chemical Trust
    and First National
    right under the willow oak
    with open arms

    Bob Visits Friends

    Well I can see you now
    you are hurrying along the street
    head down in order to not miss
    any great event on the pavement you are
    about to make a visit to somebody's life
    Peter and Elka's where the children
    will welcome you with bread and strawberries
    they fly to a proper distance
    nibbling rye crumbs by the healthy ton
    sighing in Russian and singing in German

    Then you will extricate yourself
    from the richness of kitchens and family
    and cross town again because it's so early
    the summer's first light hot hand
    has made you feverish for encounter in air
    at least by open window so now the sixth floor
    overlooking Bedford Street the open lot
    that will not become the Broome Street Expressway
    Because of this political victory and the birth
    of a child there is a plan being made
    in that small apartment
    The fact is this can be successful
    if it starts late enough in life

    On Mother's Day

    I went out walking
    in the old neighborhood

    Look! more trees on the block
    forget-me-nots all around them
    ivy lantana shining
    and geraniums in the window

    Twenty years ago
    it was believed that the roots of trees
    would insert themselves into gas lines
    then fall poisoned on houses and children

    or tap the city's water pipes starved
    for nitrogen obstruct the sewers

    In those days in the afternoon I floated
    by ferry to Hoboken or Staten Island
    then pushed the babies in their carriages
    along the river wall observing Manhattan
    See Manhattan I cried New York!

    even at sunset it doesn't shine
    but stands in fire charcoal to the waist

    But this Sunday afternoon on Mother's Day
    I walked west and came to Hudson Street tricolored flags
    were flying over old oak furniture for sale
    brass bedsteads copper pots and vases
    by the pound from India

    Suddenly before my eyes twenty-two transvestites
    in joyous parade stuffed pillows
    under their lovely gowns
    and entered a restaurant
    under a sign which said All Pregnant Mothers Free

    I watched them place napkins over their bellies
    and accept coffee and zabaglione

    I am especially open to sadness and hilarity
    since my father died as a child
    one week ago in this his ninetieth year


    Walking along a street in a neighborhood
    where the black trash bags are stacked as neat
    as a woodpile in Vermont my lover said to me
    oh will we ever live in a district like this
    where the artists are growing old in brownstones
    and their grandchildren visit them with watercolors
    and pastels if we could only find a
    condominium or a co-op like the one
    on Ninth Street where the tenants themselves
    have lovingly laid a mulch of pine branches
    among the roses

      then I answered her
    it is probably too late for sentiment
    of that kind we are fated to create
    our own community in the borough of
    Brooklyn or Staten Island though there are
    many who are happy in the little cities
    across the river in another state
    where we might well establish patterns of
    comfort and gently rising affluence
    all of which requires of course that the earth
    be not blown up or irremediably
    poisoned and that you and I remain if not
    lovers at least cordial creators of
    family and continuity

    Having Arrived by Bike at Battery Park

    I thought I would
    sit down at one of those park department tables
    and write a poem honoring
    the occasion which is May 25th
    Evelyn my best friend's birthday
    and Willy Langbauer's birthday

    Day! I love you for your delicacy
    in appearing after so many years
    as an afternoon in Battery Park right
    on the curved water
    where Manhattan was beached

    At once arrows
    straight as Broadway were driven
    into the great Indian heart

    Then we came from the east
    seasick and safe the
    white tormented people
    grew fat in the
    blood of that wound



    A stranger calling a dog whistled
    and I came running though I am not an afghan

    or a high-class poodle and not much like a
    city boy's dog with a happy wild tail and red eyes

    The stranger said Excuse me I was calling my dog not you
    Ah I replied to this courteous explanation

    Sometimes I whistle too but mostly for fear
    of missing the world I am a dog to whistlers

    For George (I)

    What was left before crumbling
    was sweetness in the maple leaf

    in our friend George a brilliant
    attentive sweetness

    in the wild red maple leaf
    before winter in our friend
    George Dennison before death

    For George (II)

    The birds everywhere are talking
      about my friend George who is dying
    What have the birds to do with it?
    In their whistling songs they say go south
      or else

    George they peck at his window in Maine
      in the town of Temple
    Go south come with us save yourself
      there's still time
    But he refuses to leave pain has trapped him
    Pain keeps him at home

    But if he had help? If the children
    whom he has after all immortalized in stories
      of their joyfulness with horses
    if the children could help if Mabel
      would help if they stopped listening
    to George's pain if they saw the birds
    how sure of themselves they are as they wrap up
      their northern affairs
    and gather their swarming communities to fly
    float sail toward long sunlight
    south south


Excerpted from Begin Again by Grace Paley. Copyright © 2001 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.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
A woman invented fire,
Stanzas: Old Age and the Conventions of Retirement Have Driven My Friends from the,
Work They Love,
One day when I was a child,
Drowning (I),
Drowning (II),
Right Now,
A Poem about Storytelling,
A Warning,
At the Battery,
An Arboreal Mystery,
note to grandparents,
Mulberry Street,
For Danny,
The Nature of This City,
On the Fourth Floor,
Winter Afternoon,
Middle-Age Poem,
Bob Visits Friends,
On Mother's Day,
Having Arrived by Bike at Battery Park,
For George (I),
For George (II),
Certain Days,
One Day,
The Five-Day Week,
Some Days,
My Mother: 33 Years Later,
On the Bank Street Pier,
No Love,
Old Age Porch,
Fund Appeal,
For My Friend Who Planted a Tree for His Daughter Jane,
What is this whiteness on the field?,
When the wild strawberry leaves turn,
In Deepest Summer,
A bee!,
An ant!,
False strawberry is,
The Choir Singing,
Song Stanzas of Private Luck,
Some Nearly Songs,
The Old Dog's Song,
34th Street Song,
The Sad Children's Song,
Speaker and Speaker,
South Window,
My Father at 85,
My Father at 89,
One Day I Decided,
In Aix,
In France,
I Gave Away That Kid,
Subway Station,
In Hanoi 1969,
Two Villages,
That Country,
Street Corner Dialogue,
Illegal Aliens,
In San Salvador (I),
In San Salvador (II),
Learning from Barbara Deming,
The Dance in Jinotega,
People in My Family,
In the Bus,
House: Some Instructions,
The Immigrant Story,
The Woman Says,
It's True,
Tenth Grade,
The Word Thrum,
My Father Said,
He Wanders,
Four Short Pieces,
The Poet's Occasional Alternative,
One of the Softer Sorrows of Age,
When this old body,
When I Was Asked How I Could Leave Vermont in the Middle of October,
In Montpelier, Vermont,
Is There a Difference Between Men and Women,
Reading the Newspapers at the Village Store,
What If (This Week),
This Life,
I See My Friend Everywhere,
A Letter,
For Jan,
On the Deck,
For My Daughter,
In This Dream,
Walking in the Woods,
Also by Grace Paley,
About the Author,

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