Dec. 11, 2005


by Paul Groves

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Poem: "Incommunicado" by Paul Groves from Wowsers © Seren Books. Reprinted with permission.


What sort of a marriage is this? She hasn't
spoken to me all day. I've started to blame myself:
something I've said must be responsible for
those tears. And when I speak she doesn't answer;
she just looks disconsolate. Her behaviour
is atypical, hard to fathom; for years
we've got on well, with few disputes. Then this.
And why does she put our displayed photographs
in a drawer, prepare lunch only for herself, pick
at her food like a lovesick teenager? I try
to cheer her, but she's beyond reason, inarticulate,
inscrutable. This is ironic conduct for one
who spent time yesterday in church, though
what she was doing there—it being a Tuesday—
she has not said. "Look," I say, "be reasonable.
Tell me what's bothering you." But she rises, without
answering, and walks through me to the kitchen.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American short story writer Grace Paley, born in New York City (1922). Here parents were Russian Jews and political outlaws who fled their home country and came to live in the Bronx. She grew up in a house that became a kind of way-station for Russian exiles who stayed in the house for weeks or even months as they got established in the United States. Every Friday or Saturday night, the family and all the guests would sit around the dining table telling stories about the old country.

Paley graduated from high school early and went to college when she was fifteen, but she dropped out after a year because she didn't care about anything other than poetry. She eventually got married and had two children, and helped support the family as a typist, writing poetry all the time, but not publishing much.

She was living in Greenwich Village, and she began to get politically involved with the neighborhood. Most of the other activists were women who came from all kinds of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and she realized that she had never read about any of these kinds of women in a book. She wanted to write about them, but she didn't know how to do that in a poem.

Then, 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 what would become her first short story, "Goodbye and Good Luck."

Up until that point, all of Paley's poetry was self-consciously literary, in the style of W.B. Yeats and W.H Auden. But Paley said, "Writing the stories had allowed [my ear]—suddenly—to do its job, to remember the street language and the home language with its Russian and Yiddish accents, a language my early characters knew well, the only language I spoke."

That first 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 as one book, The Collected Stories in 1994.

Grace Paley said, "I [was] sold pretty early on the idea that I might not be writing the important serious stuff. As a grown-up woman, I had no choice. Every day life, kitchen life, children life had been handed to me, my portion... [Now] people will sometimes say, "Why don't you write more politics?" And I have to explain to them that writing the lives of women is politics."

It's the birthday of the novelist Jim Harrison born in Grayling, Michigan (1937). He grew up in rural Michigan, but when he was 16 years old he decided he wanted to be a writer and left home for New York City. He later said, "I wanted to be a bohemian; I wanted to meet a girl with black hair and a black turtleneck—and I did!" He came out with a couple collections of poetry, but he wasn't making any money off them and moved back to Michigan. One day, he was out hunting in the woods when he fell off a cliff and hurt his back. His friend Thomas McGuane suggested that Harrison write a novel while he recuperated. He began work on Wolf, and it was published in 1971.

Harrison wrote more poetry and another novel, but he was struggling to make just $10,000 per year. Then, in 1979, he came out with a series of novellas entitled Legends of the Fall.

It's the birthday of Thomas McGuane, who was born in Wyandotte, Michigan (1939). He's the author of many novels, including Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), Nothing but Blue Skies (1992), The Cadence of Grass (2002), and a book about fishing in 1999 called The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing.

Thomas McGuane said, "America is like one of those old-fashioned six-cylinder truck engines that can be missing two sparkplugs and have a broken flywheel and have a crankshaft that's 5000 millimeters off fitting properly, and two bad ball-bearings, and still runs."

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




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