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
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
--- Grace Paley
Grace Paley’s Here
I should have posted this poem the day after I posted Gary Soto’s Oranges. These two poems are perfect bookends, the beginning and ending, the alpha and omega in the life cycle of love. Whereas Oranges reminds us of that early love teaches the art of sacrificing for another person, Here is the culmination of a lifetime of sacrifices, of the grand and small acts we undertake and commit to memory as part of loving another person as much, if not more, than we love ourselves. From time-to-time I consider some of our clichés and common phrases; this can be a lucrative process. Consider the phrase “know by heart.” It technically means to know something completely and wholly, no fuzziness or vagaries. You’ve got it and you’ve got it good. But why bring the heart into this definition? The figurative language is enticing and apropos in this case. It transforms our hearts into a stunningly powerful vault. To know something this completely is not to commit it solely to memory, but to commit it to your heart. It will be safe there, it will not stray or vanish. Even if your heart is to break, the things you know will still be contained amongst those broken pieces.
In Here, Grace Paley gives us an old woman and man, a couple who, in many ways, know each other by heart. The woman knows that her old man is “talking to the meter reader / he’s telling him the world’s sad story.” How many times do you think she’s heard or overheard him telling this story? Would it be fair to say she knows this story by heart? Of course. Would it also be fair to say that he knows her stories by heart? You betcha. When we commit something or someone to our hearts, the places and moments where we are confronted with the unexpected are worth savoring. This poem takes us into one of those scenes.
The poem begins with a painfully honest description and accompanying question. The woman describes herself as having “heavy breasts / and a nicely mapped face.” The aging and weight of age are apparent in this description. Even if her face is “nicely mapped” that’s like saying her feet are comfortably blistered or her muscles are pleasantly cramped. From this description she leads us to a question and immediate answer: “how did this happen / well that’s who I wanted to be.” In the course of five lines Grace Paley moves the reader in and out of deep issues and troublesome questions. She arrives at a positive scene that is emblematic of the woman’s quest to find the joy in her aging, joy in the homestretch of life.
It is summer, she has a grandchild on her lap, and her husband is chitchatting with the meter reader. In the normalcy of the moment, she feels a sweet sensation: frenzied, youthful love storming inside her. She knows this feeling by heart, and still it is slightly different with each passing day. The knowledge of living another day has a conspicuous impact on our capacity to love and be loved. It is almost as if the intangibles we gain daily are slightly turning the dial and although we’ll still hear music it’ll always be a different station. Grace Paley’s speaker in this poem has lived a full enough life that she has known many things by heart. The amazing thing about her and this poem is that she has lived this complete life, a point that Paley makes through images and diction, and yet she is still surprised by living. Not only is she surprised, but she’s surprised by herself. Hearing her old man drone on about something ridiculous, she sends her grandson to retrieve him. She is “suddenly exhausted” by her “desire / to kiss his sweet explaining lips.”
To close my discussion on why Here and Oranges are complimentary poems, let's focus on some of the ways these poems play off of each other. The use of adjectives in both poems is stellar. In Here, the last line requires both “sweet” and “explaining” in order for the whole poem to work. Oranges hinges on similar descriptions, such as the boy being “cold, and weighted down / with two oranges in my jacket.” The adjectives and descriptions in both of these poems are far from complicated, with Soto and Paley doing their darnedest to eliminate anything that would make these poems esoteric. Comparing the boy and “his girl” from Oranges with the woman and her “old man” from Here, I get the eerie feeling that they could be the same people with a shared lifetime lived between the two poems. The poems are written by two different poets about two different couples in two different times. I’m obviously imposing my own fascinations upon these poems in claiming any kinship between them, but the world of poetry is rife with possibilities, especially when looking at poems you know by heart.