Dec. 11, 2007

I had thought the tumors…

by Grace Paley

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "I had thought the tumors..." by Grace Paley, from Fidelity. © Etruscan Press, 2008. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I had thought the tumors...

I had thought the tumors
on my spine would kill me but
the tumors on my head seem to be
extraordinary competitive this week.

For the past twenty or thirty years
I have eaten the freshest most
organic and colorful fruits and
vegetables I did not drink I
did drink one small glass of red
wine with dinner nearly every day
as suggested by The New York Times
I should have taken longer walks but
obviously I have done something wrong

I don't mean morally or ethically or
geographically I did not live near
a nuclear graveyard or under a coal
stack nor did I allow my children
to do so I lived in a city no worse
than any other great and famous city I
lived one story above a street that led
cabs and ambulances to the local hospital
that didn't seem so bad and was
often convenient

                   In any event I am
already old and therefore a little ashamed
to have written this poem full
of complaints against mortality which
biological fact I have been constructed for
to hand on to my children and grand—
children as I received it from my
dear mother and father and beloved
grandmother who all
ah if I remember it
were in great pain at leaving
and were furiously saying goodbye

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American short-story writer Grace Paley, (books by this author) born in New York City (1922), who was a politically active poet and mother in Greenwich Village when, one day, she got sick and was forced to arrange for her children to go to an after-school program for several weeks while she stayed home and rested. Without the children to take care of, she sat down at a typewriter and started writing stories that captured the voices of immigrant women in her neighborhood. Her first short story, "Goodbye and Good Luck," begins, "I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn't no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don't be surprised — change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused."

Paley's three collections of short stories were published in 1994 as one book, The Collected Stories. She died this past August (2007).

It's the birthday of the novelist Jim Harrison, (books by this author) born in Grayling, Michigan (1937), whose first big success was Legends of the Fall (1979). He's written many more books. His most recent is the collection of poetry Saving Daylight, which came out this September (2007). Jim Harrison said, "I like grit, I like love and death, I'm tired of irony... A lot of good fiction is sentimental... The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up... I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny."

It's the birthday of Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, (books by this author) born in Kislovodsk, Russia (1918), who was thrown into the gulag as a young man for saying in one of his personal letters that Stalin wasn't Marxist enough. But the Gulag changed his life, because in a strange way, it was only in the Gulag that Russians spoke freely about their political beliefs. Solzhenitsyn later wrote, "You can have power over people as long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything, he's no longer in your power."

Solzhenitsyn was released from his labor camp on the day of Stalin's death in 1953, and he wrote a novel about a peasant farmer in the gulag called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The publisher had to send a copy directly to Khrushchev himself for approval. Khrushchev approved it, and the book was published in 1962. It was the first time a Russian had exposed the extent of Stalin's crimes against his own people, and it made Solzhenitsyn an international hero. He quit his teaching job and expected to become a professional writer.

But then Khrushchev lost power, and all the new freedoms were suddenly taken away. Police arrived at Solzhenitsyn's house and confiscated his manuscripts. He managed to get his next two novels published abroad, and in 1970, he won the Nobel Prize in literature. But the Russian government still refused to let him publish his books in his home country.

In spite of the censorship, Solzhenitsyn set out to interview more than 200 survivors of the Stalin-era labor camps for his seven-volume history, The Gulag Archipelago. The first volume was published in Paris in 1973. After the book came out, Solzhenitsyn was summoned to appear before Russian authorities, but he refused. Two days later, he was deported from the Soviet Union. Despite all the trouble he'd endured in his home country, he had never tried to leave, and he was devastated by exile. He settled in Vermont, where he tried to live as quietly as possible, rarely speaking in public. Then, in 1993, he was finally allowed to return to his homeland. He's been living in Moscow ever since.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »