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On Mother’s Day

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I went out walking
in the old neighborhood

Look! more trees on the block   
forget-me-nots all around them   
ivy   lantana shining
and geraniums in the window

Twenty years ago
it was believed that the roots of trees
would insert themselves into gas lines
then fall   poisoned   on houses and children

or tap the city’s water pipes   starved   
for nitrogen   obstruct the sewers

In those days in the afternoon I floated   
by ferry to Hoboken or Staten Island   
then pushed the babies in their carriages   
along the river wall   observing Manhattan   
See Manhattan I cried   New York!
even at sunset it doesn’t shine
but stands in fire   charcoal to the waist

But this Sunday afternoon on Mother’s Day
I walked west   and came to Hudson Street   tricolored flags   
were flying over old oak furniture for sale
brass bedsteads   copper pots and vases
by the pound from India

Suddenly before my eyes   twenty-two transvestites   
in joyous parade stuffed pillows under   
their lovely gowns
and entered a restaurant
under a sign which said   All Pregnant Mothers Free

I watched them place napkins over their bellies   
and accept coffee and zabaglione

I am especially open to sadness and hilarity   
since my father died as a child   
one week ago in this his ninetieth year

Grace Paley, “On Mother’s Day” from Begin Again: The Collected Poems of Grace Paley. Copyright © 1999 by Grace Paley. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Source: Begin Again: The Collected Poems of Grace Paley (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000)
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On Mother’s Day

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  • With her first two books of short stories, Grace Paley established her niche in the world of letters. Her distinctive voice and verbal gifts have captured the hearts of critics who praise her vision as well as her style. In short and sometimes plotless tales, she plumbs the lives of working-class New Yorkers, mapping out what New York Review of Books contributing critic Michael Wood called "a whole small country of damaged, fragile, haunted citizens." Rather than action, Paley relies on conversation to establish character, reproducing Jewish, Black, Irish, and other dialects with startling accuracy. America reviewer William Novak deemed her "a writer's writer" who "focuses her talent and energy on the craft itself" and "observes the classic rules: she writes what she knows, she does not attempt too much, she shies away from any hint of cliché and tells a simple and honest story." Walter Clemons's assessment was...

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