Laconic Paley Says It All

“before I was nobody / I was me after / I was nobody I / was me.” In “Fidelity,” Grace Paley’s newest and last book, Paley is completely comfortable with her identity and feels free to speak frankly. Written shortly before her death at 84, the collection lays bare all aspects of Paley’s life and concisely presents her thoughts on a wide range of subjects. While some of this subject matter can seem simplistic, Paley’s voice keeps the collection engaging, her personal sensitivity and honesty suffusing everything and unifying the work. She exposes her entire consciousness and lets loose on all manner of topics, including gender, politics, religion, and, ultimately, poetry itself.

Paley was laregly known as a short story writer—her “Collected Stories” was a Pulitzer finalist—and as a political activist. Yet she began her career as a poet, studying under W.H. Auden as a young adult. Here, at the end of her life, Paley makes a final return to poetry, and the medium seems appropriate to her task. In her hands, the ability of poetry to distill itself into one thought or one emotion becomes a powerful tool; her thoughts, stripped of the context or fictitious garnish that would mask them in a short story, become uncompromisingly honest.

Although simplicity is a key component of the volume, Paley is still a very technically competent poet. The poems have no commas or periods, giving the reader the sense that the collection represents Paley’s internal monologue, a continued sequence of thought without any punctuation except the occasional pause. Great care has been taken with the pauses, as well: Paley uses line breaks and spaces within the lines to create varied silences and to modulate the relationship between ideas. This attention to silence lends great power to Paley’s use of the conversational register, as in “I Met a Woman on the Plane,” in which Paley writes of the woman she encounters: “she’d had five children / no she’d had six one died.” The line break marks a change in the direction of thought, whereas the extended space reflects a progression in the internal logic. Used to focus Paley’s speech, these formal elements carefully define a unique interior voice that stays consistent throughout the collection.

One of the most striking aspects of the book is its willingness to be overtly political—a rarity for this style of poetry, which lends itself more to reserved introspection. Paley’s activist background blurs the distinction between poet and speaker, marrying confessional artistry with the unfettered bluntness of an octogenarian. However, it often seems as if Paley’s forthright style ultimately exposes beliefs that may not be particularly interesting, especially those regarding religion or class politics. Any author knows to address these themes with caution, as they are often discussed without reaching a fruitful conclusion, but Paley writes heedless of collective wisdom. In one untitled poem, Paley writes without reservation, “Thank God there is no god / or we’d all be lost,” perhaps a clever articulation of the sentiment, but ultimately a somewhat superficial analysis of the problem of evil. Similarly, her examination of the rich never proceeds beyond their stinginess, and her look at America’s treatment of Native Americans never emerges from simply assigning blame. These conclusions may be true, but they fail to merit the project of the poem.

Beyond her polemics, Paley’s plainspoken nature reveals a subtle sense of humor. In “I Met a Seducer,” she injects her own into her characters to create a memorable sequence of dialogue: “now said one what do we do / fly into each other’s arms said / the other ugh said one.” In these places, the self-assurance of the poet carries the poem and ultimately makes its characters believable, despite the few words used to sketch each one.

Paley is at her best when she deals with the real human relationships and their effects. In the striking “My Sister and My Grandson,” Paley’s understatement truly gets to the core of feeling: “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.” Here there is no soapbox, only a frighteningly casual realization of mortality tempered with the constant desire to avoid death. Such ideas may not be new, but the understatement makes them as tangible as ever. Simultaneously celebratory and elegiac, it’s surprising that Paley’s voice, capable of speaking confidently on every subject, is still so aware of its own limitations. She says as much with the same personal, confident finality with which she approaches everything: “I know I have gone too far but / would go farther if the poem / were not complete.”