I’d like to write some poems again. Poems were all I wrote for years. In 1995 I learned that Grace Paley was teaching a week long summer writers’ workshop on short story writing at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, so I started writing prose so that I could work with her. I hadn’t written stories since I was a child. It turned out I liked writing prose and have worked at that when I’ve worked at any writing at all, but some days and for some purposes I’d like to get back to poems. Besides stories and essays, Grace wrote poems too.
Once in one of her classes a young woman brought a poem she had written and asked apologetically to read it to the group. Grace said yes, and the woman read. Then there was quiet and Grace asked her to read it again aloud to us. She said in that definitive way she had of speaking it was because “every poem in the world deserves to be read out loud at least twice.”
I was thinking of Grace today because of the sad very recent deaths of two beautiful Jewish women–one from the city that I now live in and the other from the city I was born in. The death of the friend from the city I was born in was a woman I have known my whole life — a woman who remained close to my mother and with whom my mother spent time often, including a long talking visit on the day before she died. I didn’t get to make it to the funeral.
This morning I found myself at the funeral of the Jewish woman from this city. I say “found myself at the funeral” because I read an email at 8 a.m. saying she had died and that the funeral was this morning. I was there by 10 a.m. At the funeral I thought of all three women, as well as a lot about my father and his funeral in a synagogue that felt similar to mine today, and I cried some.
The woman whose funeral was today was a woman I barely knew but even with that amount of knowing we could tell she was a special person. She was not very much older than I am. My partner and daughter and I met her and her husband at synagogue and we talked at length several times and liked each other a lot. She wasn’t really a friend but it seemed we all had plans to become friends. She had recently written her phone number on a napkin that is still sitting on my partner’s dresser asking us to call her so we could all take a long walk in the spring. Then she got sick and died.
The funeral today was a kind of a huge affair, by which I do not mean fancy, but I mean the family shared a lot of themselves throughout the service and there were many words. The whole thing painted a vivid picture of a life, big and well-lived and a picture of a certain generation of Jews. All kinds of stories were told, including the story of how the mother and aunt of the now- gone woman had been in five different concentration camps through the Holocaust and stayed alive together. Then the sisters escaped under a fence together and walked into the countryside where they found a family who hid them for the duration of the war. The woman who died was born in Europe at the end of the war. There were grandchildren big and small; a couple of them about 6 or 7, were crying hard, then later running around and laughing and then later came forward and sang a song to their grandmother. There was a baby granddaughter whose first birthday was today.
Grace was another older Jewish woman who has meant much to me through her writing, her activism and then personally when I got to know her and study with her several summers in Provincetown.
I cannot quite find my equilibrium today and to try to find my balance, I find myself thinking about Grace Paley and reaching for her poetry. Here is one of many favorites which is from her book, Begin Again. You should, as she emphatically taught me, read it aloud. Twice.
The Poet’s Occasional Alternative
I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper
the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor
everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it many friends
will say why in the world did you
make only one
this does not happen with poems
because of unreportable
sadnesses I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership I do not
want to wait a week a year a
generation for the right
consumer to come along
Grace Paley 1922-2007