This Is What We Must Do

This Is What We Must Do

Five poems by the late American writer and activist Grace Paley (1922–2007).


It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
               giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
               also leaflets they can hardly bear to look at
               because of the screaming rhetoric
It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy     to hang out and
It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes
It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory
               towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C
               and buckwheat fields and army camps
It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman
It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the
               Quakers say
It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
               freedom without justice and this means economic
               justice and love justice
It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original
               and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it
               on in the way storytellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery     there is no
               freedom unless
               earth and air and water continue and children
               also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman     to keep an eye on
               this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
               listened to this time


My friends are dying
well we’re old     it’s natural
one day we passed the experience of “older”
which began in late middle age
and came suddenly upon “old”     then
all the little killing bugs and
baby tumors that had struggled
for years against the body’s
brave immunities found their
level playing fields and

but this is not what I meant to
tell you     I wanted to say that
my friends were dying but have now
become absent     the word dead is correct
but inappropriate

I have not taken their names out of
conversation     gossip     political argument
my telephone book or card index in
what ever alphabetical or contextual
organizer     I can stop any evening of
the lonesome week at Claiborne     Berovici
Vernarelli     Deming and rest a moment
on their seriousness as artists     workers
their excitement as political actors in the
streets of our cities or in their workplaces
the vigiling     fasting     praying in or out
of jail     their lightheartedness which floated
above the year’s despair
their courageousness sometimes hilarious
disobediences before the state’s official
servants     their fidelity to the idea that
it is possible with only a little extra anguish
to live in this world     at an absolute minimum
loving brainy sexual energetic redeemed

People in My Family

In my family
people who were eighty-two were very different
from people who were ninety-two

The eighty-two-year-old people grew up
       it was 1914
       this is what they knew
       War    World War    War

That’s why when they speak of the child
they say
       poor little one . . .

The ninety-two-year-old people remember
       it was the year 1905
       they went to prison
       they went into exile
       they said    ah     soon

When they speak to the grandchild
they say
       yes     there will be revolution
       then there will be revolution     then
       once more     then the earth itself
       will turn and turn and cry out     oh I
       have been made sick

                  then you     my little bud
                       must flower and save it


although we would prefer to talk
and talk it into psychological the-
ory the prevalence of small genocides
or the recent disease floating
toward us from another continent we
must not     while she speaks her eyes
frighten us     she is only one person
she tells us the terrible news     we
want to leave the room we may not
we must listen     in this wrong world this
is what     we must do     we must bear it


My dissent is cheer
a thankless disposition
first as the morning star
       my ambition: good luck

and why not     a flight
over the wide dilemna
and then good night to
       sad forever

Grace Paley (1922–2007) was an American writer, poet, teacher, and activist.

The poems above were excerpted from A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays, and Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) by Grace Paley. Edited by Kevin Bowen and Nora Paley, with an introduction by George Saunders. Copyright © 2017 by Nora Paley and Danny Paley. All rights reserved.

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