“I had thought the tumors…” Grace Paley

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Poems About Death


We have all heard (at least here in New England) Jonathan Edwards’ words: “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” but what about “God in the hands of an angry sinner”? Welcome to the poetry of anger, disillusionment, and death.

The poem “I had thought the tumors…” came out in 2008, a year after its author, Grace Paley, died. In it you hear the plaintive voice of a woman with a terminal illness. Death, it is said, is the great theme of literature down through the ages and will remain so because of its stubborn mystery and our stubborn and childish belief that it is something others do, not us.

The truth, as we know but hate to acknowledge? Death is random, heartless, and ironic, among other things. It has little regard for race, gender, religion, or class. Unlike humans, it lacks prejudice in every way. And it is the great unifier, bringing us together with the vast animal kingdom we are a part of but like to think we are above.

Whether you are healthy or sick, young or old, you will recognize the lament in Paley’s poem-that-knows-better. And though she admits to some shame at the end, she should have felt none. The incentive for this poem was all-too-human, and the reason it draws us in and succeeds.


I had thought the tumors…
Grace Paley

I had thought the tumors
on my spine would kill me but
the tumors on my head seem to be
extraordinarily competitive this week.

For the past twenty or thirty years
I have eaten the freshest most
organic and colorful fruits and
vegetables I did not drink I
did drink one small glass of red
wine with dinner nearly every day
as suggested by The New York Times
I should have taken longer walks but
obviously I have done something wrong

I don’t mean morally or ethically or
geographically I did not live near
a nuclear graveyard or under a coal
stack nor did I allow my children
to do so I lived in a city no worse
than any other great and famous city I
lived one story above a street that led
cabs and ambulances to the local hospital
that didn’t seem so bad and was
often convenient

In any event I am
already old and therefore a little ashamed
to have written this poem full
of complaints against mortality which
biological fact I have been constructed for
to hand on to my children and grand—
children as I received it from my
dear mother and father and beloved
grandmother who all
ah if I remember it
were in great pain at leaving
and were furiously saying goodbye