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In Print: the poetry of unexamined lives

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Short, white-haired, plainspoken Grace Paley is the patron saint--or the feminist, pacifist, leftist, Jewish matron saint--of those of us who believe in combining the artistic and the activist life. (Not that we necessarily do it, but we believe in it.) There's the Paley whose last fiction collection was a National Book Award finalist, and the Paley who's lain down on the steps of the Pentagon to protest the arms race. She traveled to Hanoi in 1969, has had stories published in the New Yorker as well as defunct political magazines, and became known as a writer's writer for her distinctive voice.

Last year, Vanity Fair saluted Paley, now 76, in a profile complete with an Annie Leibovitz portrait and the honorific "America's mistress of the short story." Her writing is cryptic, simple, rhythmic, dense as poetry, just this side of disingenuous. Starting one of her stories is like walking in on a conversation on the subway or, more likely, in an apartment kitchen or a park in Greenwich Village.

"The old are modest, said Philip. They tend not to outlive one another. That's witty, said Faith, but the more you think about it, the less it means." So begins "Dreamer in a Dead Language," a story from her 1985 collection, Later the Same Day. It's about a woman, her lovers, her sons, her ex-husband, her father, her mother, the poems her father is writing in Yiddish, and her mother's friend in a nursing home, who pontificates in perfectly captured immigrantese: "Boils on the wrist is the least from worry. It's a scientific fact. Worries what start long ago don't come to a end. You didn't realize. Only go in and out, in and out the heart a couple hundred times like gas."

Paley started writing poetry in her teens. As a young mother, she wrote stories about the lives of mothers, children, and men in the parks and neighborhoods she knew. "In the mid-50s, it was a very masculine period. I thought it was really trivial stuff I was writing, these women, kids, and all that, and I thought, 'What can I do? That's what I have to write.'" Unwittingly, she has said, her choice of subject was a feminist, political act.

Her stories examine the connections between people, the way they talk and fight, the way they hurt and accept one another, how they seek respite from situations they can't change. "I'm not good at plot," Paley cheerfully admits. But then she expands the definition of the device, seeing it as a naturally occurring phenomenon: "Plot is like the words 'and then.' There has to be plot. If you're using up time, you have some plot."

Paley's output has been relatively small. In 40 years she's published four short-story collections plus two books of poetry, a collection of poetry and prose, and last year's Just as I Thought, a pastiche of speeches, statements, memoirs, prefaces, and reports from political travels. Looking back, Paley says, "I wish I had not written more but written more politically." The daughter of socialist Russian emigres, Paley was part of many of the progressive movements of this century, including socialism (she dropped out of a youth group because of her poor singing), the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s, and the antiwar, feminist, and environmental movements. Still, she says, she has no regrets about manuscripts that might have been. "I'm not complaining about myself," she says in her Bronx accent. She pretty much did "what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it."

Paley has lived with her husband in Vermont since 1988, where she is active, to an extent--"I know what active really is"--in local politics. She also chops her own wood. "Luckily I feel pretty good most of the time," she says. This week she comes to Chicago, where she lived in the early 1940s ("above Diversey," she says, trying to remember; "I would recognize the apartment"), to read her work--she says she won't decide what until she sees the audience. Lately she's been writing poetry. "The same old stuff people write poetry about," she says. "Personal stuff, political stuff."

Paley will read Wednesday at 6 in the ballroom of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 112 S. Michigan. Admission is $8. Call the Poetry Center of Chicago, 312-899-7483, for more information. --S.L. Wisenberg

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Grace Paley photo by Alexander Colhoun.

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