cover image Begin Again: Collected Poems

Begin Again: Collected Poems

Grace Paley. Farrar Straus Giroux, $23 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-374-12642-1

Paley (Enormous Changes at the Last Minute) has stood for decades among America's most cherished short-story writers. Her poems retain the winning openness, the whimsy and the political commitments her fiction flaunts. They also contain deep insights about narrative and voice: ""A Poem about Storytelling"" explains, ""the first person is often the lover who/ says I never knew anyone like you/ The listener is the beloved She whispers/ Who? Me?"" The poems can carry her readers through the poet's traumas, astonishments, and exclamations: when she says ""Oh! the five exogamous boroughs of/ our beloved home New York,"" that adjective invites her readers to love it too. Poems address locales in New York City and Vermont; consider generational succession and old age; advocate an energetic acceptance of difference and diversity; and dwell on particular political struggles. (Some of the poems about Vietnam and El Salvador stick perhaps too closely to their occasions.) Her cadences and preoccupations can suggest a much slighter, and sunnier, Adrienne Rich. But in contrast to Rich, much of Paley's poetry seems unfinished, jotted-down rather than carefully made. Her lines give revelations without contexts, theses without examples, ends and beginnings without their middles: the poem ""Life"" reads, in its entirety: ""Some people set themselves tasks/ other people say do anything only live/ still others say/ oh oh I will never forget you event of my first life."" And too many lines become unadorned tracts: ""It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes."" Fans of the fiction will want these unguarded looks at the illimitably appealing Paley persona. And even those not already charmed by Paley's prose ought to enjoy her few best poems: an account of ""twenty-two tranvestites/ in joyous parades"" on Mother's Day; the superbly constructed, vertiginous ""Leaflet""; the heartbreaking ""On the Deck,"" about old age; a six-line apocalypse called ""psalm."" (Feb.)