Fidelity Poems

Grace Paley

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

96 Pages



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Just before her death in 2007 at the age of eighty-four, Grace Paley completed this wise and poignant book of poems. Full of memories of friends, family and incisive observations of life in both her beloved hometown of New York City and rural Vermont, the poems are sober and playful, experimenting with form while remaining eminently readable. Imbued with her unique perspective and voice, they explore the beginnings and ends of relationships, the ties that bind siblings, the workings of dreams, and the surreal strangeness of the aging body. Mournful and nostalgic, but also ruefully funny and full of love, Fidelity is Paley's haunting elegy for the life she was leaving behind.


Praise for Fidelity

"In Fidelity, Grace Paley's celebrated gifts as a story-teller have entered a lyric fire and emerged unscathed. These are wonderful, unswerving narratives of ordeal and grace. Here are poems about friendship, about aging and the approach of death. And in every one of them, her familiar wit shines. These poems will travel far: they will be on nightstands, in backpacks, on email lists, in conversation and memory and soliloquy, for a long time to come."—Eavan Boland

"Both in the stories that made her famous and in her little-known poems, Paley most often wrote in voices—essentially, dramatic monologues and dialogues. Many speakers in her fiction had some Yiddish in their heads (as did she; her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants to Manhattan's Lower East Side), although she could evoke Irish-inflected speech with charming accuracy, too. Her best stories, often so short and telegraphic you could call them sketches, imparted theatrical vividness, as if talented actors were performing them . . . Paley reproduces with touching fidelity what it is to be old, and sick, and missing one's vanished friends, and philosophical up to a point—but unwilling to part with dear life. The authenticity of her response to experience, which includes political protest (she never stopped being a liberal activist, even on the page), remains winning as ever. I was surprised how much I liked a poem such as 'The Hard-Hearted Rich,' for instance, which in its last lines rises above its tired premise. After refusing smugly to give coins to beggars, at the end of the day the rich in their beds 'decide to try / love as a kind of heart softener / they are tired and think to try love' . . . Speaking now to us from the grave, Paley is writer, character, actor—a wise companion. Though offstage, her voice seems likely to be heard a long while."—Mary Jo Salter, The New York Times Book Review

"These poems mark [Paley's] passage (heels dug in, sure she should be more gracious about the whole thing) closer to death. 'I had put my days behind me . . . ,' she writes: 'future was my intention.' So she tries (still learning, still trying to get it right in her eighties) to savor the days. Fidelity is a record of that savoring."—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"In Paley's farewell, awe and wonder are accompanied by the weight of hard-earned triumph and resignation. Though loneliness comes up now and again, one gets the sense that absolute loneliness is not possible when one has lived so long. Even if only in memory, there is always a companion . . . In all the pain and joy and wit and conviction of these poems, the future is as tangible as our footprints."—Dionisio Martinez, The Miami Herald

"Fidelity, the excellent new collection of poetry by Grace Paley, is a fitting final release (she died in August, aged 84). It is about the experience of being old, and the often painful separation between the poet and her world. Paley builds her poems organically and spaciously—they seem to expand in the air and dissipate foggily, barely located anymore in time and space. She saw herself as if through the lens of a camera, as though she did not inhabit the body she wrote about . . . Fidelity is a good name for this particular collection. It captures the honesty Paley achieves through her distanced tone, and her honesty with her readers in describing what is a sad and complicated time for her. There is a graceful wisdom in her perspective. For this, among other things, she will be greatly missed."—Ariel Ramchandani, More Intelligent Life

"Grace Paley's newest book of poetry was published in the quiet interval between March's icy grip and April's melting promise. Loyal readers worldwide have, for the past two decades, received every new poem with the same gratitude with which they received every new story during the three decades before. Although Paley's first love was poetry, it remained unrequited as long as the lives of first-generation Americans, women, Jews (most of her characters were all three) demanded to be transcribed into the grainy prose that would become her trademark. Her language was utterly faithful to the Yiddish- and Russian-accented English in which she had marinated in her childhood in the Bronx, to the politically inflected conversations of her coworkers in the mother-trade that surrounded her in Greenwich Village—and yet it remained utterly unique. You always recognized a Paley sentence when you bumped into it. Documenting the struggles of women with men, of women with children, of women with the war-mongering world, Paley's fictions bridled with laughter and indignation. But then, in the late 1980s, she surprised everyone by following her husband, the writer Robert Nichols, to his New England hilltop—exchanging New York City for Thetford, Vermont, and prose for poetry. She defaulted to poetry (so she claimed) because she couldn't get the cadences of Vermont speech right—though one suspects that life was actually handing her back to the bedrock of her imagination. And so they came, the poems, little minions marking the changing seasons and the aging body. Even as she protested that she remained a New Yorker in Thetford, never nature's native like Robert Frost or Donald Hall, Grace Paley became the poet laureate of Vermont in 2003. But Fidelity marks the last enormous change; in this slim volume, Paley's voice becomes posthumous (a word she would never use), mimicking the seasons themselves: Unlike the one-time linearity of human mind and language, with their foolish, trusting assurance of more next year, these poems will have to be recycled each time March comes around. This spring is the first in more than 20 years that Grace will not celebrate with a walk through the melting snows in Thetford woods . . . There are many visitations in these poems by mother, father, sister, friends, all 'absent' ('my friends were dying but have now/ become absent the word dead is correct/ but inappropriate'). The dearly departed are protected from oblivion by allusion and argument ('I have not taken their names out of/ conversation gossip political argument/ my telephone book or card index'). But one is never too overwhelmed by the dead or by one's own dying to remember that attention must be paid especially to the living. This last book carries invisible traces of Robert Nichols' small edits as his wife's hand faltered. That is to be expected from two writers who lived together for so long . . . The many references to members of the family, the naming of multiple friends, creates a new level of intimacy that invites not voyeurism but a sense of awe before the ultimate act of fiction. Here was a woman who lived life and who named life. Zinnia, John, Elsa, White River, Claiborne, Syb, Mother . . . You must read Grace's prose to learn something about American urban life with a Yiddish accent and a political passion. You must read her poetry because her poetic voice is the other side of Hebrew, the compassionate side."—Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Haaret

"In the last year of her remarkable life, Grace Paley completed a rather remarkable manuscript of poems. What makes Fidelity 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."—Idra Novey, Lilith

Table of Contents
Anti-Love Poem
On Occasion
why shouldn't men look at women
I Met a Woman on the Plane
you can't think without thinking about something
freedom has overtaken me
before I was nobody
a new york city man is

Thank God there is no god
The Hard-Hearted Rich
Their Honest Purpose Mocked
What a terrible racket they made
She said
Life is risky
Birth of a child
Sometimes now when I sleep alone
I Met a Seducer
Having Dinner
An Occasional Speech at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering
It Doesn't Matter If
To the Vermont Arts Council on Its Fortieth Birthday

the very little girl looked at her grandfather
My Sister and My Grandson
I Invited
my lungs
Bravery on Tenth Street
I needed to talk to my sister

Suddenly There's Poughkeepsie
A Cloud Like a Tower
I Went Out Walking
some things are not
Night Morning
my heart leaps up when I behold
On the Park Bench
The Irish Poet

The Telling
All the old women came out in the sun
I have thought the tumors
One Day
Here we are now
Let the Day Go
This Hill

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Grace Paley

  • Born in the Bronx in 1922, Grace Paley was a renowned writer and activist. Her Collected Stories was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She died in Vermont on August 22, 2007.

  • Grace Paley Copyright Gentl & Hyers/Arts Counsel, Inc.