In Marge Piercy's poem "The Secretary Chant," why is "once" spelled as "wonce"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Marge Piercy’s poem “The Secretary Chant” is a brief, incantatory lyric in which the secretary of the title chants the details of her life. She implies that she has literally become her job:

My hips are a desk,  
From my ears hang  
chains of paper clips.  
Rubber bands form my hair.  (1-4)

Any sense of individual personhood is in the process of being lost. The poem is, in a sense, a very ironic blazon. In Renaissance poetry in particular, the blazon was a kind of poem in which a woman’s body was described from top to bottom. Piercy’s poem is almost a parody of the genre. What is emphasized in this blazon is not feminine beauty but the idea of woman as mere machine.

Throughout the poem, Piercy plays with sounds and images, and in the final four lines the speaker suggests that ultimately her sense of self – as an individual person and as a woman – has now been lost:

File me under W  
because I wonce  
a woman.

Why does Piercy use a “w” when spelling the word “wonce”? Several explanations suggest themselves:

  • Partly the speaker is playing with the letter “w”: one word beginning with that letter appears in each of the four final lines; if Piercy had not changed “once” to “wonce,” that pattern would have been broken.
  • Partly the word-play on “once” and “wonce” is typical of the playful, witty (even if dark) phrasing that appears earlier in the poem.
  • Partly the use of “wonce” can be seen as a last small gesture of individuality and protest by the female speaker before her separate identity is completely submerged into her job.
  • Perhaps the use of “wonce” is a small, clever protest against one of the prime responsibilities of secretaries: to make sure that they spell correctly.