The Operating System



There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.
My favorite Grace Paley stories have one-word titles: Wants, Debts, Love, Friends, Mother. Each is just a few pages long. To me they comprise a world literature. Expansive, weighty, inexhaustible.
To tell their stories as simply as possible, in order, you might say, to save a few lives.
There is a combination of radical honesty/respect for the individual in Paley’s work that I think of as its essential quality. (There are other characteristics like dry humor, an eye for detail, sensitivity to the rhythm of language, which make it possible for honesty and respect to be communicated.) Her attitude towards life and humanity and the planet is as inextricable from her work as DNA is from the body. Reading her reinforces my half-formed theory that great art is an absolute extension of the vision of the artist. Where the vision of the artist means how the artist experiences life in her mind.
As is usual in conversations, I said a couple of things out loud and kept a few structured remarks for interior mulling and righteousness.
In some way I resist writing about Grace Paley. Is it because reading her is a private act? Because reading her is both pleasurable and painful? Because the experience is not passive? Those stories—Wants, Debts, Love, Friends, Mother—happen to me in the body. They are felt.
People requiring strengthening before the acts of life.
I can’t help but love work that is life affirming, but only after it has first affirmed that life is intrinsically sad. Sadder for some. In Friends, three middle age women visit their dying middle-aged friend. The dying friend has lost a daughter, and the story of the daughter’s death (Abby) and the mother’s loss (Selena) is woven into the story. But it is also a story of female friendship. Of how relationships are formed and lost. About our responsibilities to each other. About the experience of being a woman. And of being a human being. It is about four particular lives. Filtered through one brilliant, clear mind.
Abby. I didn’t like to hear “the kid.” I wanted to say “Abby” as I’ve said “Selena”—so those names can take thickness and strength and fall back into the world with their weight.
Grace Paley is fucking brilliant. She’s a fucking brilliant poet. Read Wants, Debts, Love, Friends, Mother.
Hello, my life, I said.
This line is from Wants, spoken by a woman to her ex-husband. A page and half long, and a whole marriage, and half a life, is told in that story. We will all see things differently. Want things differently. How do we speak then to each other? Can we speak directly? Can we speak plainly? Can we speak without cliché, which wants so badly to communicate the facts, but actually obscures them? Because to hear truth (both to have it spoken and to be able to hear it) is rare. And to speak to life. To the life itself. Can we just begin with: Hello.


One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: “Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.” By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year’s Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.

Another time she stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905. We guessed it all.

At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?

Then she died.

Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places—in the dining room with my aunts, at the window looking up and down the block, in the country garden among zinnias and marigolds, in the living room with my father.

They sat in comfortable leather chairs. They were listening to Mozart. They looked at one another amazed. It seemed to them that they’d just come over on the boat. They’d just learned the first English words. It seemed to them that he had just proudly handed in a 100 percent correct exam to the American anatomy professor. It seemed as though shed just quit the shop for the kitchen.

I wish I could see her in the doorway of the living room.

She stood there a minute. Then she sat beside him. They owned an expensive record player. They were listening to Bach. She said to him, Talk to me a little. We don’t talk so much anymore.

I’m tired, he said. Can’t you see? I saw maybe thirty people today. All sick, all talk talk talk talk. Listen to the music, he said. I believe you once had perfect pitch. I’m tired, he said.

Then she died.

Love Poem at Thirty

I want to split open some sleek animal,
zip myself inside, and gallop away.
But I’m afraid I’d be galloping towards you.
Is the house still on fire?
I want to save you and save myself,
but in what order, like the oxygen masks
on airplanes, forget who needs one first
and you both die.
Nothing new happened today.
I took a train, and I can’t remember
one thing I thought about.
Times Sq and I passed by each other
and said hello, hello, hello.
Strangers did their best
not to touch.
And the sun, my god, the sun.
Spring is a sledgehammer.
Spring is like every clock ringing
and every bell striking at the same time.
Love, I don’t mean half of what I say.
Love, I’m not as bright as this day, but I am longer.
Love, what was it I said, remind me again,
I think we were someplace impossible,
and I said something, and you said
you’d remind me, but you never did.

—Elizabeth Clark Wessel

Elizabeth Clark Wessel is an editor at Argos Books & Circumference: Poetry in Translation and the author of the chapbook Whither Weather. Her poems and translations have appeared in DIAGRAM, A Public Space, Guernica, Sixth Finch, Lana Turner Journal, Jacket2, The Laurel Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and works from home as a freelance translator.




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