Monday, March 02, 2009

Here And Somewhere Else by Grace Paley & Robert Nichols

Why not speak the truth directly? Just speak out! Speak to! Why not?

This is Grace Paley speaking to us from one of her essays, and that is just what she has done throughout her life as activist and writer. Today I want to talk to you about how she and her partner, Robert Nichols, speak out in a little collaborative volume of essays and stories and poems published by The Feminist Press in 2007, entitled, Here and Somewhere Else.

While I’m sure that most of you readers will know of Grace Paley, one of the truly great short fiction writers of all time, you may not know of her life-partner Robert Nichols with whom she has lived for almost forty years.

Perhaps the best way to introduce you to Nichols and to this little volume is to quote from the excellent introduction by Marianne Hirsch:
‘You don’t have a story,’ Grace Paley recently told me, ‘until you have two stories. At least two stories. That’s what I always tell my students.’ Two stories. Two writers. Grace Paley and Robert Nichols. Two by two. This volume tells (at least) two stories of two writers: one, a woman, a daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, a poet, short story writer, essayist, feminist, political activist; the other, a man, son of Canadian and New England Protestants, a landscape architect, theater director, poet, novelist, short story writer, activist. And, in telling two stories, it tells one, braided by their life together, by the conversations and arguments they share as a writing couple living on a hilltop in Vermont, active participants in the political life of the second half of the twentieth century and now also the twenty first. Their political commitments and ethical values, their desire to heal the world, could not be more similar; their themes and writing styles, the ways in which they think and talk about their writing, could not be more different.
I’m talking to you about this book today more to celebrate the lives of these two wonderful political people than to recommend to you this particular book. In fact, if you have not already read Paley, this would not be the place to start. Instead, you should pick up her first masterpiece, published in 1959, The Little Disturbances of Man or her equally masterful Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Stories published fifteen years later in 1974. Once you are aware of the understated genius of her short fiction, you will come to the little pieces in this volume prepared for a feast of wisdom and attitude.

It is not just I who see the sharp contrast in the writing styles of this couple who write together, struggle together, fight for justice together, raise grandchildren together. He says of himself that he writes in response to a political problem (as you will see clearly from his little story in the volume, “Peasants”). She writes  “because I heard someone say something.” She describes herself as a story-hearer. What unites them is their moral and political vision of the world, a vision that also led them to establish a publishing house together, Glad Day Books, that was dedicated to publishing political writing that probably would not have been published otherwise. Both write poetry as well as prose (insisting that writing poetry makes them more attentive to language), but like their prose, their poetry is about as different in both form and content as could be.

I am bound to say more about Grace Paley in this piece than about Nichols; I know her work so much better than his, and she is the first in a string of short-fiction writers who rescued me from a life-long aversion to short stories. Her stories are quirky and unlike those of any other writer I know, but there is a strong current of feminism that runs through them. Indeed, she says of herself, “When I came to think as a writer, it was because I had begun to live among women,” and she described herself in early reviews as a housewife who wants to be a writer. In one of her many humorous but insightful asides on men, she says, “First they make something, then they murder it. Then they write a book about how interesting it is.” And one of her poems, “Is There a Difference Between Men And Women,” ends with the stanza:
 oh the slave trade
    the trade in the bodies of women
the worldwide unending arms trade
    everywhere man-made slaughter
While Paley’s writing is characterized by biting humor in stories about everyday women, stories that dance and flash across the page, Nichols’ writing is much more austere. There is little if any plot development and no attempt to provide psychological depth to his characters. What is very clear is that he identifies with working men and women, with the poor and disenfranchised of the world. But while his prose is transparently political and deals often with questions of race and class, his poetry is simple and personal. For example, in his poem “The Dream (On my fiftieth birthday)” he begins:
I dreamed I caught an owl        in an old coat
And it was my own heart
Although it is always impossible to capture a book in a page or two of review, this collection is even harder than most to sum up or describe. Two voices, two radically different styles, united only by the passion for peace and justice and by their own braided lives. Let me end by quoting one poem by Paley entitled “Here”.
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
summer perspiration

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

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