Grace Paley

Begin Again, Collected Poems

“I went out walking in the old neighborhood.”

Places are no more than memories of visions, smells and experiences, to be relived and reconstructed by individual minds. Therefore New York, London or the Grand Canyon will mean vastly different things to each who contemplates them.

Given these individual experiences, can we ever be connected by place?

I’m partial to E. B. White’s intimate portrait of his adopted city, though it is not my view of New York:

On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town.

From Essays of E. B. White

Grace Paley1 (December 11, 1922 – August 22, 2007) spent her life in the Bronx and much later Vermont, and her memory of those places are the heart and soul of Begin Again, Collected Poems.

34th Street Song

With joy she showed the traveler Macy’s
That’s Macy’s there right by Korvette’s
and Gimbel’s

Oh you were right not to get out at 14th Street
Macy’s is nice but Klein’s was the store
and it ended.

To elevate the arrival of Macy’s (an iconic place but still, a Macy’s), Paley is saying this thing here, this change – from Klein’s to Macy’s – this matters.

“To be rooted” argued French philosopher Simone Weil, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Echoing Graham Greene’s notion that “One’s future might have been prophesied from the shape of the houses” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ formation of self on the streets of deprived Baltimore, in his words “another country, fraying at our seams.”

Paley nourishes her own roots with verse and shares them with us.

Having Arrived by Bike at Battery Park

I thought I would
sit down at one of those park department tables
and write a poem honoring
the occasion which is May 25th
Evelyn my best friend’s birthday
and Willy Langbauer’s birthday

Day! I love you for your delicacy
in appearing after so many years
as an afternoon in Battery Park right
on the curved water
where Manhattan was beached

At once arrows
straight as Broadway were driven
into the great Indian heart.

then we came from the east
seasick and safe the
white tormented people
grew fat in the
blood of that wound

The title of the poem suggests an act intimate to Paley – biking to a park, considering things only she would know. But she finishes with human displacement and alienation. In revisiting her own experience of Battery Park, Paley expands her empathy towards others’ experience.

It is hard to read Paley’s poetry without thinking of another New Yorker, Maira Kalman, a playful illustrator who recommends we sit down and quite literally put ourselves in others’ shoes.

Illustration by Maira Kalman from Kalman's book "Principles of Uncertainty" in the Examined Life Library.
“If you are ever bored or blue, stand on the street corner for half an hour…” from Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty.

As we connect to each other in our shared place, we can also connect ourselves to others in different places. Paley shows us how dust on a road and a bit of heat melt together two disparate locations.

Connections: Vermont Vietnam

Hot summer day
on the River Road
swimmers of the Ompompanoosuc
dust in my eyes
oh
it is the hot wind from Laos
the girl in the Nhe An covers her face with a straw hat
as we pass she breathes through cloth
she stands between two piles of stone

the dust of National Highway 1 blinds

me
summertime
I drive through Vermont
my fist on the horn, barefoot
like Ching

By now Londoners are attuned to the frequency of social distancing. I quite like it. Giving another person that two meters is an act of kindness. Share the air, the sidewalk, share my time, share my patience and my need to sit or stand, share my need to get to the counter or rush forward on the bus.

And you share the same with me.

Illustration by Maira Kalman from Kalman's book "Principles of Uncertainty" in the Examined Life Library.
“Shall I follow for the rest of the day?” Kalman asks, turning this anonymous stranger into an identifiable human being.

At the Battery
I am standing on one foot
at the prow of great Manhattan
leaning forward
projecting a little into the bright harbor

If only a topographer in a helicopter
would pass over my shadow
I might be imposed forever
on the maps of this city

I like the idea that Paley has left something for us to see and pick up. Even if we don’t agree with it.2

Grace Paley in 2004 by Eamonn McCabe used for Grace Paley's "Begin Again, Collected Poems" in the Examined Life Library.
Grace Paley in 2004 by Eamonn McCabe.

Perhaps we are less connected by place than how we feel about place. When Paley writes “I went out walking in the old neighborhood…” humans across time and space will nod vigorously, having had done the same.3

For a broader view of our connectedness to and within place, turn to these considered artists: John Steinbeck’s heartbreaking search for an America he once knew, Joseph Brodsky’s love letter to his beloved Venice, and Penelope Lively’s ruminations on the influence of a more intimate, creative space, her garden (and by that, all gardens and gardeners).