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PSALM 151

Grace Paley, our treasure, and one of the great short story writers of our time, writes — why not? — poetry as well, reflections, observations, lightning quick — sometimes arising as here from a moment’s inspiration. “I was standing on the corner of 10th and Sixth Avenue,” she wrote to the Forward, “they were about 5 or 6 houses down the block and I watched them.” Like a number of poems in “Begin Again: Collected Poems” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), Paley is particularly observant of aging and registers her attention in unpunctuated lines that suggest the bareness of perception heaped on perception rather than the more formal order of syntax. That is, in the poem she shows how her perceptions accumulate — sometimes as particles of detail, sometimes as a simple abstraction such as “pain,” sometimes in the gestalt of an image such as “the weak curved stem/ of neck,” which suggests, wonderfully, a wilting flower.

The freedom from punctuation, or the freedom of it, permits the poem to glide from mere noticing to a serious dilemma, “how to get home,” to something even more: “was life this long,” a question without a question mark that seems to linger in open space.

This close work with detail — and her use of spaces within the line to create rests and internal rhythms — suggests the influence of William Carlos Williams or perhaps the objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff, though when asked point-blank by the Forward about her poetic influences, she replied, wisely, “I think I’ve got a lot of tunes in my old head.”

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