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Finis: Fidelity

Grace Paley’s last poems.

In the last year of her remarkable life, Grace Paley completed a rather remarkable manuscript of poems. What makes Fidelity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20.00) so striking is what has made Paley stand out as a poet and prose writer for many years: she is as bold and radical as she is funny. At 85, Paley’s meditations are often focused on aging and the people she has lost, but the poems are also terrifically witty. In the poem, “An Occasional Speech at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering,” Paley writes, “Anyone who gets to be / eighty years old says thank you/ to the One in charge then im-/ mediately begins to complain.”

In this poem as in all her work, Paley’s art is one of connecting her individual life and state of mind with that of those around her. In a 1998 interview for Salon.com, A.M. Homes asked Paley if she thinks writers have a moral obligation. Paley answered that she thought all humans do, and writers, being human, have some as well. “I mean why,” she said, “should they get off the hook?” In one short poem early in this last book, she writes:

freedom has overtaken me I
had run ahead of it for years
along an interesting but
narrow road obeyed at least
half the rules imposed by
lovers children a house a
political position now out
of breath probably I’m stuck
freedom has hold of my jacket
won’t let go I am alone

In 10 unpunctuated lines, Paley covers an incredible amount of ground. The lack of punctuation and compactness in this short poem also highlight the list of life concerns that takes over the middle of the poem. Lovers, children, home, politics — all are thrown together, with no commas or other punctuation to keep them discretely in order. One seems to beget the others, in quick succession, and still the poem ends with the speaker alone.

This subtle tumbling together of the different but interconnected realms of a life is part of the lean beauty and surprise of many of these late poems. In “Suddenly There’s Poughkeepsie,” she begins with the remark, “what a hard time / the Hudson River has had / trying to get to the sea.” By the end, the Hudson’s tribulations read as a kind of self-portrait as river, how the Hudson “perseveres” and moves more slowly but “dignified” and delivers itself, and us — author and readers — into a line by the activist and poet Paul Goodman, “be quiet heart/ home home/ then the sea.”

Idra Novey’s first book of poems, The Next Country, will be published in fall 2008; recent poems appear in Paris Review, Slate, and Ploughshares. She teaches at Columbia University and in the Bard College Prison Initiative.