activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press

Florence in Words

Memory #4: Proust’s Swann’s Way

October 3, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

As I sat in this, the fourth class I was auditing in an ordinary classroom on the fourth floor of the West Building at Hunter College, I wondered whether I would leave tonight with the same feelings of joy I had last week. I wondered also how anyone could talk about Proust’s seven volumes, or even the 200-pages we had just read, in the space of two and a half hours. Professor White calmly began by saying that he hadn’t finished what he had meant to say last week, and he proceeded to name some twenty kinds of memory, illuminating some of them with reference to Proust, before talking about the author himself.

I wondered how many in the class noted the large green and white paper bags on the Professor’s desk. But I turned my attention to taking notes, and almost an hour passed before Professor White began to talk about Proust’s life, suggesting that we think of him as a contemporary of Thomas Hardy, Andre Gide, George Sand, Arthur Schopenhauer, Gustav Mahler, and a host of other painters, composers, writers, philosophers. It was interesting to me, particularly that Gide, as publisher, offered the first volume of Swann’s Way, turned it down, and when it appeared, admitted that it had been the worst decision he had ever made.

Professor White’s comments on the novel emphasized Proust’s life as his great resource and his use especially of his intense ability to rouse various kinds of memory, kinetic, visual, tactile, olfactory…the whole gamut, which was why the two parts of today’s lecture served each other.

Just before the ten-minute break, Professor White began to unwrap the packages on his desk: he had bought more than two dozen (so there could be second helpings) madeleines and a quart of milk and cups. What a sweet surprise for all, and I led the way not to the goodies but to taking a photo of the Professor distributing them. Yes, it was a lovely, thoughtful gesture, and one reason he is among professors beloved.

What about the novel? Did I learn anything I valued especially? I liked the ways in which Professor White could separate the complicated—and not often admirable—life of the writer from the work he had produced, even as he noted that the one had emerged from the other’s strengths and weaknesses. He noted, for example, that Proust was a snob, and that he could write about snobbery with special vision, sometimes making it absurd.

And finally, did I come away as ecstatic as I had the week before? One must remember that, at 86, ecstasy is rare. But I came away calmly content with my life. And pleased to have been in class. And ready to read more Proust.

Memory #3:Back to the Greeks and Romans

September 14, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

When I was a junior at Hunter College—in 1948—I took an elective Classics course with Professor Pearl Wilson. I read the Iliad and the Odyssey and a group of plays, including the Orestia. ( I don’t remember the Romans.) Professor Robert White opened this third class on Thursday night by reminding us that the Greeks and Romans were “his” professorial focus, and he was going to talk about the importance of memory for all of them.

First he noted that the transmission of the Iliad and the Odyssey had been oral, that at one point in history one person with a prodigious memory could recite all 12 books of the Iliad, all the books of the Bible, all of Canon Law, 200 speeches of Cicero, and more besides. Such ability, he countered, may clearly not be important in an age of computers. Still, memory had to be essential for the creators of the Iliad and the Odyssey, who probably could not read or write; their talents were oral. Later, the texts of these epics were written down by people who were retelling what they had heard. Would this result in a loss of that prodigious memory?

Then he went on to talk about Plato’s Dialogues, and the relationships between memory and the concepts of truth and beauty and honesty. From Plato’s point of view, one needed to recall what once one knew before birth. I liked especially the idea of memory as writing on a wax tablet inside the mind—is it clear, muddy, hard, soft? Can we hold on to it, or will it disappear?

Aristotle, on the other hand, was interested in memory’s retrieval, in enabling the recall of memory. He thought that the young and the old both have poor memories: As Professor White announced that he disagreed here, he moved quickly on to the Romans, who, like Aristotle, were interested in the kinds of memory that enhanced public speaking, law, oratory. In particular, lawyers needed to remember their opponents’ main points so as to oppose them.

The class was only half over by this point and the rest was as interesting, sometimes funnier, and always memorable. I left with a smile not only on my face but in my being. For whatever complex of reasons, I left feeling almost happy, certainly cheerier than I have been in years. And it was not only the wonderful anecdote about his college friend assumed dead one day, and the next a co-winner of the Nobel for work on the hippocampus (which I knew meant work on memory). It was not only more anecdotes about prodigious memories (I had one of those once). Perhaps it was all of that, and some other essence having to do with taking notes, and, yes, remembering.

Memory #2: A Small Irony

September 9, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

The first class, on Monday evening, August 31, was an Introduction to the course as arranged by Professor Robert J. White, and a depiction of his rather unusual memory. I’ll begin with that opening episode, in which Professor White asked the twenty-six people in the room each to write their names on a piece of paper, and then their “year” at college. Then he asked that we answer two questions: what is it we like best? And what it is we like least?

He did collect these pieces of paper very slowly, beginning in the middle of the room, where I was sitting. And I did notice that he looked at me as he looked at my piece of paper. But I went on to look at the syllabus he had distributed and didn’t pay a lot of attention to him as he was collecting the other pieces of paper.

Once he had them, he went through them as he named the person and made eye contact. He moved around the room as he did this. And it took at least 30 minutes for him to name every person in the room, stumbling a bit only over some Asian names. And then he talked a bit about (his) memory, and noted that his knowing our names may not carry over to the next class, since it was two weeks away, with Labor Day coming in between.

He then went through the syllabus, describing some of the books and films we are to see. The course, described as “Memory across the Disciplines,” might have been called Across the World in Prose and Film. This Thursday, the make-up class, he will discuss Jonathan K. Foster’s Memory: A Very Short Introduction. And then we have ten days before we meet again to read Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, pp. 3-191.

And now I get to the small irony. The only book on the list which I have read, and indeed written about its formation as a novel, is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I can’t be present at that class, on October 5, because that is the evening The Feminist Press will celebrate its 45th birthday at its annual Gala. And I can’t be absent, can I?

What to do? Probably nothing. Again, there’s a break for two weeks, when Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana will be discussed. So be it, I have to say, though I have read Mrs. Dalloway many times since 1953 when I was a graduate student TA-ing for an Intro to Literature course in which it was on the reading list. Like the students, I was puzzled, but I found some solace in the company of working class and would-be writer, Septimus Smith and his hat-making Italian wife. Mostly the students complained that there were no chapters, and that nothing happened, ignoring the suicide, or not reading that far. And so I can tell myself to enjoy the irony, not fret about it, and remain silent this time.

Summer Reading - Hamilton

August 20, 2015

Tags: reading

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
If anyone had asked me about reading a huge biography of Alexander Hamilton, I would have declined, saying I read fiction. But seeing “Hamilton” on the stage in March changed my mind, and when Don Thomas recently offered the book he had just finished, I grabbed it. I am about three-quarters through, and it’s still thrilling. The author, Ron Chernow, knows how to pace his chapters so that the narrative moves along, attempting to match the remarkable energy of its hero.

And for the past two weeks, I have rearranged my life so that I can read the book mornings, after breakfast with the New York Times and the crossword, when doable. I read for at least two hours into the afternoon, sometimes a bit longer, and I am a rapid reader. Still I have at least another week before me. And though I know the plot, I don’t know the details, despite having seen the dramatic version once.

“Hamilton,” the musical play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which I saw on March 12, was astonishing not only for its story line, not only for the fact that the founding fathers and mothers were enacted by men and women of color, and not only because the unusual music was a compound of Broadway, rap, and hip-hop, such as had never before been heard. And it all passed my particular test: I could understand every word. Indeed I and the people I went with—the Hunter College High School alumni association had bought out the Public Theatre as a benefit, since Lin-Manuel was one of our very own—were so enthusiastic that we are preparing to see it once more, on Broadway, next November, again as a benefit for the high school.

Reading the biography, I can see Lin-Manuel’s attraction to the abundant energy of Hamilton, his brilliance as a theorist and as a popular writer. And the story itself, of an immigrant born into the squalor of poverty and illegitimacy on an obscure Caribbean island, and rising to be the foremost intellectual founder of this nation, responsible especially for establishing clear monetary policy and the department of the treasury. And all the time, he was a flawed human being, drawn into a degrading sexual affair, and willing to risk its open knowledge in order to clear his name of charges of fiscal or any kind of governmental abuse. It’s impossible not to admire Hamilton, even when he is being most obtuse. (The rhyme appeared in homage to Lin-Manuel.)

Mindless Politics?

August 7, 2015

Tags: Republican debate

I watched the Republican debate last night and was appalled or mystified by the crowd, and not only because of the comic central (who was placed in the center) who seemed to be saying that he was going to run separately if the Republicans didn’t choose him as their candidate. He really does have delusions: thinks he can beat Hillary as well as any (or all) of the Republicans. How does a person get to live in such a delusionary world? Is it an illness?

The others were somewhat in awe of him, if not seemingly frightened. He is, of course, a bully, and they all understand the power of money. He seemed to indicate that he has contributed funds to most if not all of them, and his tone towards them was generally scornful. I wonder how many people, ordinary people like me, see him as a bully, a delusionary bully. He does have money and in this culture money is power. He also seems devoid of normal kindness, even towards those with less or no power, less or no money. His normal demeanor is scornful. Those who have less are weak; they are fools.

And the audience? They seemed with him, but I am hoping that someone has listened even more carefully than I, and that someone had had access to faces in the audience after some of the ugly things were being said. I hope someone is analyzing this, and that that person will tell us about the crowd’s response to him. Rachel Madow: are you listening?

As for the others on stage, the two sanest seemed to me to be the former governor of Florida and the current governor of Ohio. Jeb Bush stuck to his views on immigration; and John Kasich offered a vignette about attending a same-sex wedding, saying that, apart from human kindness, such weddings had become the law of the land. They seemed to this 86-year old political junky to be the only ones able to joust with Hillary. They’ve not had her international experience, nor her eight years in the White House. But they can brag about their hands-on management of state bureaucracies.

New Series on Memory: Take One

August 6, 2015

Tags: memory, reading

As I wrote in my blog on Yoya, I couldn’t remember whether I’d written a blog about her before. And of course the keeper of my website, dear Jen, reminded me that indeed I had, not once but twice. And so I went to look, and of course then I remembered. So what does it mean? After all, I am 86, and my mother was by this age so deep into Alzheimer’s that she knew no one by name, though she knew I came to visit her regularly, and she sometimes was at the elevator waiting for me (or someone, since people came and went from there).

I can’t answer the question, not the one about me or the one about my mother. But I am preparing to learn more about the question. I’m auditing a course at Hunter College called “Memory across the Disciplines,” taught by Professor Robert J. White, of the Classical and Oriental Studies department. The first class meets on August 31, a Monday night, and I am looking forward to it more than I can say. The reading list opens with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a book that was the subject of a thesis I wrote in the mid-1960s. The thesis was rejected for not being 500 pages and 12 chapters, and for being written on an “unimportant writer.” Perhaps I will read that 100-page essay to check whether I touch on “memory.” Clearly, I don’t remember, which is entirely appropriate for the moment.

So, if you are interested in memory, tune in a bit later on. I’m a bit over-whelmed right now: I traded a fat novel I had enjoyed for a fatter biography. I don’t usually read nonfiction. But I’ve been captured by Hamilton and I’m ploughing through it. Much of the history is entirely new to me, since whatever history I studied was British, alas. But that means that the book is as interesting as a novel whose plot you don’t know in advance. Who knew that New York’s upstate power was greater than the New York City’s and that the Governor would be an enemy not only of Alexander Hamilton but of the colonies becoming a country, a nation? Yes, I’ve a lot to learn in that area.

And so Hamilton has knocked me off course for the moment. Without knowing what the course on memory would include, I had been planning to begin to reread Virginia Woolf’s novels from the very first one forward. And indeed, I began with the draft that Louise DeSalvo rescued from oblivion: Melymbrosia, the first draft of The Voyage Out, not an easy read. And, speaking of memory, I thought it much different from the published novel I had first read more than 50 years ago. And yes, I’m reading The Voyage Out right now—in the evening, before bed. Hamilton gets my best morning hours!!

A Brief Weekend with Yoya

August 4, 2015

Tags: Yoya

Perhaps I’ve never written about her, but that’s hard to believe. Still, I want to write about her now: how she brightened my weekend, though I had her only for two nights and two days and a morning. She is a Maltese named Yoya, who belongs to Don and Jorge, the two men I regard as among my closest friends, at whose wedding four years ago I was pleased to serve as witness. (Yes, it was on the very first day possible in New York.) Yoya knows me and my apartment as well as she knows them, since whenever they leave town, she’s left with me.

Outside of my apartment I use a cane, at least in part so that people made a wide circle around me. Even with Yoya, who has to be walked three times a day, I manage with the cane. And she manages, though she’s as averse to canes as I am. And so the cane resides in my right hand, while Yoya maintains her position to my left, or, if she must—for reason of grates or other conditions she objects to—she moves to the right, but well in advance of the cane. And so, until yesterday, we both managed to walk three times each day, usually two short walks and one long one with an errand or a purpose in mind.

To get to the bank to deposit checks, we walked through a parklike, shady block that was also interesting to a creature whose life is mainly lived through her nose. I could note (or at least sense) her ecstasy at certain revered spots outside of planted areas, and her stops were restful for me. She is also a delightful companion when I want to sit down for a few minutes, for she also sits down to observe the passing world, always on the lookout for other dogs.

She’s the kind of dog whose occupation is to guard me, which means she has to move when I move from one room to another. Even if she is fast asleep, my movement wakes her up and she moves uncomplainingly to find another spot near wherever I’ve located. And if someone out in the hall is coming or going, she offers me her protection in the form of a non-bark that can be described perhaps as “uh, eh, eh, uh.” The sound comes out a little like a rattle. No barking unless the person is headed to our apartment.

Yoya laying nearbyYoya on the couch
Yoya laying nearbyYoya on the couch

But of course she knows the sound of the man’s name who comes to fetch her. If the phone rings to announce him, all I have to say is “Don is coming,” and she’s at the door waiting. And yes, he gets the ecstatic welcome I get when I’ve left her even for an hour, all the wiggling and all the murmurs. And yes, I write this just one day later, missing her.

The Walkers

July 7, 2015

Last month I asked, “What is it I need to recover my ability to be independent, cheerful, and mobile?” Yes, I talked about this as I was preparing for bed, alone in my apartment, in one of those conversations with myself that I’ve written about in a poem published here. And I hit on the idea of “walkers,” individuals who might have a free hour or two each week to walk with me in exchange for my helping them perhaps with writing poems or prose. When I told Ellen Bass about this idea, she moved swiftly to put it into action. She wrote to four poets in New York and told them what I needed, and pronto, there was Scott Korb, professor at NYU, sending me Melissa Sakow, new M.A. who had studied prose writing with him. We’ve had several walks and talks, and we’ve been working on a piece about Melissa’s undergraduate college.

The second person to call me came from Ellen’s magnificent mailing list, though Briana Rose hasn’t seen Ellen in years, and has stopped writing. Briana has, instead, become a dance movement teacher and practitioner, who has recently moved from the Bay Area to New York, quite close to where I live. We walked once to the postoffice and the bank and talked in part about Ellen, in part about differences between dance and movement.

The third person, Elyse Hilton, who works as a lawyer, has recently been Ellen’s student at Pacifica where she is enrolled in an M.A. Writing program. And though we have walked only once, we have already exchanged poems, and I’ve discovered that not only is Elyse a fine poet, she is also a fine critic who demonstrated her talent by critiquing the poem I printed here as part of a blog. I am going to respond to Elyse’s critique by printing a revised version in my next blog and giving her credit for it.

There is a fourth “walker,” unavailable until fall. And in the fall, Ellen will be in New York for a recording session at the New Yorker. (Some of you may know that six of Ellen’s poems have appeared there.) What I’d like to do is plan a party for the walkers and sponsors—Scott and Ellen.

And yes, I feel as though I’ve made progress. To wit: Yesterday, I took a taxi to the JCC, the gym I haven’t been to since the knee surgery in mid-November 2013. And I went to the swimming pool and swam for half an hour, not as vigorously as I once did, but I kept my legs and arms moving, sometimes taking turns. I mean that occasionally I walked the length of the pool; occasionally I used my arms vigorously and my legs laconically. Always, I kept moving, and when I was through, I wasn’t too tired to take myself to lunch in the place I used to frequent where I could have my favorite grilled cheese and tomato sandwich and feel almost myself again.

Yes, it’s the day after, and I am resting. On Wednesday, I am going to a meeting and I am also going to the pool again. And yes, at least one walker on the weekend.

Thank-you Catch-up

June 22, 2015

Tags: Jane Austen

I am writing especially to thank two people whose comments I just found on my web-site, both very kind and thoughtful comments. Betsy Herman, thank you for encouraging me about writing poetry, and Doreen Saar, thank you for mentioning that you had been a student in my class. I do forget that part of my life, for I was far happier then, and it’s easy to dwell in the present and forget that once, life was different. If you’ve read my memoir, you know that I chose teaching at Goucher over marriage to my handsome English husband. And I would probably do it again, though right now it would be nice to have a partner. I am writing also to say that I will not give up on the blog right now, and I will write more regularly.

What have I been doing? I’ve been rereading Jane Austen “backwards.” That is, I began with Persuasion and ended with Northanger Abbey. And last night I watched a film version of Persuasion that I thought could have been better, though it was better than the version of Emma I saw some weeks ago. Perhaps the best film version was the early Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson (I think) and who? Am I alone in my view of Austen’s greatness? And filmdom’s failure to get at her nuance?

As for poems, I have to begin again. I have to believe again that I can write something I can call even a “journal/poem.” For whatever reason, I’ve stopped that kind of happiness-making writing. Guess I felt discouraged. But I will give it another try.

And for cheer, let me conclude on a wonderful note: I am in the early stages of improving my ability to walk by having “walkers,” people—all connected in some way to Ellen Bass—who can come to my apartment and walk with me for an hour or two. And, yes, there is an “exchange.” I am available to read their work, prose or poetry, and even advise about publication. Each of these women—yes, they are all women—have been students of Ellen Bass, except the first one, who is a student of a New York-based friend of Ellen, a writing professor and poet at NYU. I’ve walked with Melissa twice, and she’s now given me a piece of her prose to critique, and it’s a delightful exchange. Walking and talking for critiquing and writing advice. What could be better?

Publishing Grace Paley

April 10, 2015

Tags: Grace Paley, The Feminist Press

Grace Paley
I haven't disappeared but rather have been rereading Grace Paley in order to talk about her at a conference at the New School here in New York City. I recommend to all who are interested in her, two books I published when the publisher at the Feminist Press. They are both available still at the web site: Long Walks and Intimate Talks and Here and Somewhere Else.

Publishing Grace Paley

This is a story that begins in the mid-nineteen-sixties and ends exactly a month before Grace’s death. It’s about Grace as a writer of poetry as well as prose and about me as her editor, publisher, and friend. Its focus: ways in which Grace consciously used her voice both to jar readers and, perhaps more sparingly, to provide a bit of comforting humor, and occasionally, good news. The state of the world worried her as a writer, a mother, a grandmother, and a citizen.

In the summer of 1967, I worked for and was one of the founders of The Committee to Resist Illegitimate Authority, known as Resist, and based on the example of the French Committee that worked to free Algeria from French rule. We wrote to writers throughout the country, asking them to sign our pledge to work towards ending the war against Vietnam. Grace not only signed; she joined me in attending monthly Resist meetings in Boston and thus, to digress a little, I was able to witness, though never to imitate, her amazing ability to tell the male politicos present that they were behaving badly, not thinking clearly, or just plain fools, and have them laughingly agree with her. From my view, Grace was a charmer. And of course I began to read her stories.

Three years later, in the summer of 1970, several months before the founding of The Feminist Press, my former student Ellen Bass and I began collecting poems for what became of No More Masks! the first anthology of poems by women to appear since the 1920s. Perhaps I must remember to say that 45 years ago women poets were seemingly scarce, as hard to find in print as were women fiction writers. My own women students in the 1960s didn’t want to read women writers, whom they referred to disparagingly as “Ladies Home Journal” writers, even when they were Mary McCarthy or Kate Chopin or Doris Lessing.

Ellen and I searched for women to submit poems, even if they had not yet published a volume of poetry. We included Grace, and we were fortunate to receive two poems from her, both of which we published in 1973. One of the features of this anthology asked poets to date their poems and provide a short bio to appear at the back of the anthology. This is Grace’s bio:

Grace Paley was born and still lives in New York City. She teaches experimental writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Her volume of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, was published in 1960, and she has published other stories in the New American Review, the Atlantic, Esquire, and many little magazines. On a recent trip to North Vietnam, she began to write poems. About the last ten years, she says: “The Vietnam War has taken my energy, time, interest, and emotion.”

Many people knew that Grace had gone to Vietnam in 1969 on a particular mission having to do with bringing back U.S. pilots whose bombing planes had been shot down. The poem she wrote about that experience is the one we published first in that 1973 volume, where Grace dated it 1973. As I talked about the politics of women’s studies on hundreds of campuses in the seventies and eighties, I usually concluded by reading this poem. I can say here how delighted I am to realize that I was the first to publish it. I will read it:

This is about the women of that country
sometimes they spoke in slogans
They said
We patch the roads as we patch our sweetheart’s trousers
The heart will stop but not the transport
They said
We have ensured production even near bomb craters
Children let your voices sing higher than the explosions of the bombs
They said
We have important tasks to teach the children
that the people are the collective masters
to bear hardship
to instill love in the family
to guide for good health of the children (they must
wear clothing according to climate)
They said
once men beat their wives
now they may not
once a poor family sold a daughter to a rich old man
now the young may love one another
They said
once we planted our rice any old way
now we plant the young shoots in straight rows
so the imperialist pilot can see how steady our
hands are
In the evening we walked along the shores of the Lake of the Restored
I said is it true? we are sisters?
They said, Yes, we are of one family

In this early poem, one can hear both Grace’s colloquial voice, and the distinctive Vietnamese women’s voices in terse, memorable “slogans.”

Late in 1970, the Feminist Press was founded by a group of women and one man in Baltimore, though it moved to New York less than a year later. Now that I was in New York, I could see Grace, attend some of her readings and work with her on at least one memorable occasion that landed us in jail together, where she was always upbeat and even humorous. With regard to the Feminist Press, she was from the start supportive in many different ways. She signed fundraising letters, came to fundraising events and spoke on our behalf, always emphasizing our mission, saying that the restoration of lost women writers was important educationally and politically both to women and men.

Grace also helped the Feminist Press’s international mission, first, by writing a Forward to Apples from the Desert, a volume of stories by Savyon Liebricht, an important Israeli fiction writer, and then by connecting us to Lady Borton and the distinguished Women’s Press of Vietnam. With this press, ten years older than Feminist Press, we co-published in 2007 (after a decade of work) a large bilingual volume of Vietnamese women’s poetry from the beginning of time to the present, to be sold in both countries. Organized and edited by Lady Borton, the volume includes a Forward by Grace, who read the volume in manuscript. When I went to Vietnam in 2011, I was introduced as Grace’s friend and publisher and presented, in a loving ceremony, with a volume of Grace’s fiction in Vietnamese, signed by the publisher.

In 1985, Grace published a volume of poems with Granite Press—I own a much beaten up volume—so that when I began work on an enlarged new edition of No More Masks! , to appear in 1993, I chose, in addition to “The Women in Vietnam,” three of Grace’s poems from this volume. My choice reflects the political modes of Grace’s poetry, though I could not have known it then. One of these is a concern for the planet’s health and the health of grandchildren both at home and in the world. Here is the last stanza of “The Sad Children’s Song”:

The world is a wreck said the children
When they came home with their children
There are bombs all over the place
There’s no water the fields are all poisoned
Why did you leave things like this
Where can we go said the children
What can we say to our children?

“On Mother’s Day,” like some of Grace’s stories about the New York neighborhood in which she lived for many years, represents her special form of bizarre hilarity, which appears often in her fiction. In this poem, a woman walking on mother’s day, spots “twenty-two transvestites” and describes them “in joyous parade stuffed pillows/under their lovely gowns.” She watches them enter “a restaurant”:

under a sign which said All Pregnant Mothers Free
I watched them place napkins over their bellies
and accept coffee and zabaglione

The poem ends on a modulated note of regret without losing the warm humor of her loving voice. Miraculously, the voice expresses sentiment without sentimentality:

I am especially open to sadness and hilarity
since my father died as a child
one week ago in this his ninetieth year

The third new poem I chose, “In Aix,” represents the international perspective which mark Grace’s poems and prose as strongly as her neighborhoods in New York and Vermont. Here are the three brief stanzas of “In Aix”:

The doves the speckled doves
are cooing in French in high
female French the shutters
clatter against their latches.

The rain is the rain of Aix a-
wash in old paintings of
marsh and mist by Granet the rain
splashes the shutters, the rain is

bathed in the clouds of Chernobyl
last night on the evening
news we heard how nightingales
blowing north from Poland
folded their wings fell over
the border and died in Germany

For Grace’s 65th birthday, the War Resister’s League held a huge fundraising event on December 14, 1987 at the Village Gate. They also produced a unique “program” and bound the 74 pink pages in a blue cover on which there are two words: “Climbing Fences,” and a photograph of Grace Paley doing just that, at the top of a steel mesh fence. The pages are filled with birthday greetings, appreciations of Grace’s activism and her writing, photos of Grace and her family, various kinds of biographical pieces, two poems by Grace, and the much-beloved “Midrash on Happiness.”

Sometime after this celebration Vera Williams approached Grace to talk about producing a Peace Calendar for the War Resisters League. I regret that I don’t have a copy of 365 Reasons Not to Have Another War, published in 1989 by the League and New Society Publishers. Apparently, Grace and Vera continued to work together, perhaps for as long as a year, on a joint anti-war volume, expecting that Grace’s publisher would take the volume. But instead, early in 1990, Grace asked me whether the Feminist Press would publish what had become an expanded version of this Peace Calendar, now called Long Walks and Intimate Talks. I was surprised that Grace’s publisher had refused her, as had all the publishers her agent had tried. The issue was, Grace said clearly, that she was committed to Vera Williams, whose idea this had been in the first place. Hence, they had to have color, and no publisher would take that on. Perhaps they also couldn’t understand that Vera was not “illustrating” Grace’s writing; she was making her own anti-war statement in paint. Publishers were also surprised that Grace and Vera were to share royalties equally: they were both authors. I want to emphasize this point, for it represents Grace’s rare publishing politics.

Not surprisingly, I was totally delighted and in 1991 the Feminist Press published the book not only in paperback, but also in a cloth, numbered, and signed special edition. The book is both unique and timeless, since the traumas of war and mindless violence, however altered, continue unabated, both in Central America and worldwide. While readers of an anti-war anthology expect to be assaulted by shock and pain, Grace and Vera use another strategy. Both deliberately include pieces—of art as well as literature—that I call “centering,” pieces that offer visions of an ideal world in which flowers bloom, trees flourish, and people dance. What I want you to know is that Grace and Vera organized their volume. And I was smart enough as their publisher to accept what I could see was brilliant and should not be meddled with. I will give you a sample of this organization, focusing only on Grace’s pieces.

“Midrash on Happiness” opens the volume, and I have to assume that you know Grace’s voice as Faith talks about what makes her happy, especially “the long walks and intimate talks” with women friends. What follows are four poems, each turning the screw more sharply. I’ll try to illustrate quickly. First, a tiny poem, almost child-like and seemingly idyllic, called “Families,” which is really about sheep families, in which a lamb named “Gruff” is “going away, meaning “his work is meat.”

Slyly, and perhaps surprisingly for Grace, in the next poem, called “I Gave Away That Kid,” the speaker is a once-patriotic American father who says that his son now “is a puddle in Beirut the paper says/scraped up for singing in church.” The refrain of the father’s voice continues through several stanzas, “I gave away that kid like he was an old button,” again referencing perhaps the long war in Vietnam and the draft, for which many parents were proud of their sons going to war.

The following two poems, in the voices of mothers who have also lost their sons, are more painful still, though again modulated, the first not as shocking as the second. The mothers of the disappeared, in “In San Salvador I,” at least have “these large/heavy photograph albums full of beautiful/torn faces.” “In San Salvador II,” a longer poem, a woman mourns—and revisits—the four gruesome deaths she witnessed seemingly of four different sons, but she ends the poem, asking, “are you listening? Do you understand this story? There was only one/child one boy like Mary I had /only one son.”

What follows these harsh anti-war poems is a cheerful piece of autobiography called “Conversations,” in Grace’s voice, describing her visit with Bob to his ill and failing mother in Florida. “One evening at supper,” Grace says, “she asked me about Women’s Lib. She and her best friend (also very sick) had been talking about it…What was it like? Did it mean there would be women lawyers?” Would they work for women? And “Would women get the same pay?” Other questions continue the conversation, including Grace’s strongly expressed view of not wanting a piece of the men’s pie. The next morning Bob’s mother surprises them by coming down to breakfast to say, “You know I was up all night thinking about you and especially those young women. I couldn’t stop thinking about what wonderful lives they’re going to have.”

Long Walks and Intimate Talks appeared in 1991. I retired as director/publisher in 2000, but returned in 2005, at the request of the Feminist Press Board. I had been imagining a new series of small books, like the idea of the Press in the first place back in 1970. But these would contain fiction by two esteemed writers, one male, one female. Without fanfare, such books would simply announce themselves as what I called Two-by-Two. No politicking, no charges of discrimination. Instead, books that took for granted the kind of pairing I had in mind: a pairing of equals.

The first two living authors I wanted to publish were Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. And in 2007, before her death, Grace could hold in her hand one of these first books. I told her that I hoped these small books would be used in the classroom so that students might grow accustomed to the idea of equality as normal, without labels or preaching. After 40 years of crying sexism, I wanted to see female and male writers sharing the same space, perhaps speaking differently on the same themes.

The series began with Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle” paired with Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illich.” Other volumes in the series paired Edith Wharton with Henry James; Lu Hsun with Ding Ling; Bessie Head with Ngugi wa Thiong’o; Willa Cather and Gustave Flaubert. For Grace, I wanted something else, for several reasons: yes, I wanted to give a present to Grace; and yes, I thought it was suitable to team Grace with Bob Nichols, her husband. And I wanted Marianne Hirsch, the distinguished professor at Columbia and major figure at the MLA, to write the introduction. To do this, she spent considerable time with Grace and Bob, talking about their lives and their passions and discussing which of their work to include. I came into the discussion especially to agree that this volume would include both fiction and poetry.

What made the volume especially precious to me was that Grace could hold it in her hand, since it appeared the year she died. And she told me she was pleased. And now I want to conclude by noting, first, that Grace chose to include two love poems to Bob, as well as two poems about aging, one of which clearly presages her own death. First, the love poem called “Here,” which is one half of the title the pair gave to their volume: Here and Somewhere Else making clear in a phrase their everyday lives and their moral commitment to the world:

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sliding
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

“Walking in the Woods” ends Grace’s half of the volume. The poem reminds me today of how ill I found Grace when I visited her a month before her death:

Walking in the Woods
That’s when I saw the old maple
a couple of its thick arms cracked
one arm reclining half rotted
into earth black with the delicious
hospitality of rot to the
littlest creatures

the tree not really dying living
less widely green head high
above the other leaf-crowded
trees a terrible stretch to sun
just to stay alive but if you’ve
liked life you do it

Now in the second half of my eighties, I appreciate that poem personally: yes, one learns to live “less widely.” And perhaps, in conclusion, I need to say a few words about the kinds of poems Grace writes. I have called her poems “journal poems,” in part because they were little as well as transparent. “Transparent” is a word I used as I wrote critical introductions to the No More Masks volumes. I preferred transparent rather than “opaque” poems; I wanted to choose poems that could communicate directly to readers. Grace’s journal poems capture moments in time, flashes of vision. We have many flashes of vision from Grace, and I find them surprising and sustaining. As the old masters have long told us, literature should teach and delight. Grace mastered that formula from the start.

Select Works

"Everyone concerned about global feminism, women’s contributions, and humanity’s future will be enhanced and enchanted by A Life in Motion.”—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I and Volume II
Lecture delivered by Florence Howe on January 8, 2011, at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention
“It is impossible to imagine women’s studies without Florence Howe. Myths of Coeducation shows her vision and courage, insight and dauntlessness.”–Catharine R. Stimpson, Rutgers University
A revised and expanded edition of the classic groundbreaking anthology of 20th-century American women's poetry, representing more than 100 poets from Amy Lowell to Anne Sexton to Rita Dove.

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