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 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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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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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
but that is not what I meant to
tell you    I wanted to say that
my friends were dying but have now
become absent    the word dead is correct
but inappropriate
I have not taken their names out of
conversation    gossip    political argument
my telephone book or card index in
what ever alphabetical or contextual
organizer    I can stop any evening of
the lonesome week at Claiborne    Bercovici
Vernarelli    Deming and rest a moment
on their seriousness as artists workers
their excitement as political actors in the
streets of our cities or in their workplaces
the vigilant    fasting    praying in or out
of jail    their lightheartedness which floated
above the year’s despair
their courageous sometimes hilarious
disobediences before the state’s official
servants    their fidelity to the idea that
it is possible with only a little extra anguish
to live in this world    at an absolute minimum
loving brainy sexual energetic redeemed


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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
I had thought the tumors
on my spine would kills me but
the tumors on my head seem to be
extraordinarily competitive this week
For the past twenty or thirty years
I have eaten the freshest most
organic and colorful fruits and
vegetables   I did not drink    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
I don’t mean morally or ethically or
geographically    I did not live near
a nuclear graveyard or under a coal
stack    nor did I allow my children
to do so    I lived in a city no worse t
than any other great and famous city    I
lived one story above a street that led
cabs and ambulances to the local hospital
that didn’t seem so bad and was
often convenient
In any event I am
already old and therefore a little ashamed
to have written this poem full
of complaints against mortality which
biological fact I have been constructed for
to hand on to my children and grand-
children as I receive it from my
dar mother and father and beloved
grandmother who all
ah    if I remember it
were in great pain at     leaving
and were furiously saying goodbye

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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
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

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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
my mother said    the
children are grown    we
are both so sick    let us
die together    my father
replied    no no    you
will be well    he lied
of course I
want you in the world
whether I’m in it or
not    your spirit
I probably mean
there is always
something to say    in
the end    speaking
without breath    one
of us will be lost
to the other

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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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