Fearlessly Facing Aging: Poems by Grace Paley

Grace Paley

A poet has the ability to bring to the light our most inexpressible fears and doubts. When the subject is aging – the subject most of us try to avoid – it is the poets we turn to find the comfort and the clarity we need. Grace Paley is one of the poets who can instruct the heart and mind on living with death, as evidenced by this selection of her poems on aging. 

For the last ten years of her life, Grace wrote poetry on the complexities of living with death as we grow older. “Nature takes its course,” is how we have been instructed to perceive our passing, but what about our other contradictory emotions and realities.

What about our spouse — who will die first and how will the other carry on with daily life. What about our extreme grieving — for a sister or friend — and Grace’s manner of coping seems to be the wisest one: having intimate conversations with her sister — who had died before her — on how to cope with that day’s challenges.

Then there is the misplaced grievance regarding our good steps to prolong our lives, only to be disappointed later on: nature does take its course and how we accept that is up to us.

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Grace Paley

More about Grace Paley
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Grace Paley was born in the Bronx in 1922 and died in 2007 of breast cancer. She’s best known for her incomparable and experimental short stories.

The stories from Paley’s short story collections, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, The Little Disturbances of Man, and Later the Same Day, were published in one volume, Collected Stories, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Paley was also a renowned essayist and poet. Fidelity, her final collection of poems, was published in 2008, a year after her death in Vermont. The six poems collected here are presented with their first few lines, linking to the poem in full. They will offer the reader comfort and joy as we contemplate the final mystery of all, death and dying.

 

Further reading about Grace Paley as a poet

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Fear

I am afraid of nature
because of nature    I am mortal
my children and my grandchildren
are also mortal
I lived in the city for forty years
in this way I escaped fear

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Sisters

My friends are dying
well we’re old    it’s natural
one day we passed the experience of “older”
which began in late middle age
and came suddenly upon “old”    then
all the little killing bugs are
baby tumors that had struggled
for year’s against the body’s
brave immunities found their
level playing fields and
victory

Full text of “Sisters”

 

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Windows

this eighty-year-old body is
a fairly old body    what’s it
doing around the house these days
checking the laundry    brooms
still work    what’s for dinner
there are the windows     look    oh
beyond the river    Smarts Mountain
with the sun’s help is recomposing all
its little hills    never saw it that way
before    windows    the afternoon story …

Full text of “Windows”

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Even

Even at pain’s deafening intrusion
my friend could not forget the pleasant
blasphemous jokes of our daily conver-
nations    she said    grace don’t take me out
of the telephone book of your heart    and I
have not there she is under S for Syb    and
Claiborne still under C

 

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My Sister and My Grandson

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 baby    he was smart    loving
so beautiful …

Full text of “My Sister and My Grandson”

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One day

One day
one of us
will be lost
to the other
that has been
talked about but
lightly    turning
away    shyness    this business of con-
fronting the
preference for survival …

Full text of “One Day”

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Contributed by Nancy Snyder, who writes about women writers and labor women. After working for the City and County of San Francisco for thirty years, she is now learning everything about Henry David Thoreau in Los Angeles.

 

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