The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Available Light” is an autobiographical meditation in free verse. It consists of eleven six-line stanzas. Each of the first five of these stanzas has a definitive ending. However, the last six stanzas are paired: In each case, the first stanza ends in mid-sentence, unpunctuated, and the thought moves without a pause into the second. The final stanza ends with two lines that sum up all that has gone before. Though the title is a term taken from photography, it is meant to be a play on words: It is not visualized reality but the development of her own inner vision that Marge Piercy will be describing. A mature woman, she is looking back over her life in order to understand the person she has become.

“Available Light” begins in the present. In middle age, the poet asserts, sexual appetites are both “rampant” and “allowed,” and she is as filled with desire as nature itself. In the second stanza, the poet moves to another favorite activity, her four-mile morning walks. However, in this stanza she also introduces the theme of self-knowledge: “I know myself,” she begins the stanza, but she later modifies this statement by explaining that she also knows that her knowledge is imperfect. The poem, then, will shed some light on her past and on herself, but only the light that is “available.”

In the third stanza, Piercy moves into the past, recalling scenes from four different times in her life, the last when she was twenty-four....

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In a generally enthusiastic review of the book Available Light for the Women’s Review of Books, Diane Wakoski raised questions about the book title, pointing out that Piercy’s poetry depends much less on visual perception than on the other senses. It may be relevant that by the time this collection appeared, Piercy had developed such serious problems with her eyes that she had difficulty reading and even traveling. A decade later, despite eighteen operations, she had only one eye that was of much use. Given this personal history, the title Available Light seems more than appropriate. However, there is not necessarily any connection between Piercy’s physical problems and her imagery; it may be that she is simply more attuned than other writers to input from the other four senses.

Images are certainly of major importance in the title poem of the collection, and it is true that they are perceived in various ways. Many are visual: The poet sees the sky, the airplanes, the tracks in the snow, the skunk, and the weasel. Naturally, before the use of television became common, she would hear about the president on the radio instead of viewing him. However, she also mentions a “p.a. system” and the hooting of the owl, while she imagines smelling “Leviathan” (a whale). As for touch or feeling, the poet describes the frozen ground beneath her feet, the cold air against her skin, sexual experiences, the sensation of trying to...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Available Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Marge Piercy began her career as a poet by cutting all ties to the academic world, which she believed was stifling her poetic talent and exploiting her as a person. She gave up graduate work at Northwestern University to “learn her craft” in “a condemned building in Chicago.” Her social activism led her to condemn the jungle of cities, social injustice, and pollution, but soon she gravitated toward two of her favorite themes: sexuality and feminism. These became linked in a strange kind of lover’s quarrel; one seemed to be pitted against the other. In an early poem, “The Friend,” the lover invites the woman’s passion but rejects her expression of it:

I love you, I said.that’s very nice, he saidI like to be loved,that makes me happy.Have you cut off your hands yet?

The need to love and the frustration caused by the lover’s selfishness and coldness awakened in Piercy a sense of injustice that went beyond politics. She attacked what she came to believe was the idea of women that men carried around in their heads—an idea that not only exploited women but also kept them from inheriting their sexual rights and joys:

The token woman arrives like a milkbottleon the stoopcoming full and departing emptied. . . .The token woman . . . will teach freshman Englishfor a decade. . . .Your department orders her from a taxidermist’scatalogand she comes luxuriously stuffed with goosedownable to double as sleepingor punching bag.

Available Light is Piercy’s eleventh book of poems. In this volume, passion and anger are transcended; the poet is still informed by the same strong emotions and responds to the glories of nature with an even richer imagination, but indignation gives way to compassion and vulnerability is no longer so devastating. The “available light” of these poems is Piercy’s metaphor for the feeling and perception that come with maturity.

Perhaps the clearest indication of mellowness is the poet’s ability to laugh at herself, to see in her woman’s body the stuff of humor:

My friend Penny at twelve, being handed a napkinthe size of an ironing board cover, cried outDo I have to do this from now till I die?No, said her mother, it stops in middle age.Good, said Penny, there’s something to look foward to.

The poet can laugh at menstruation, and she has learned to take her own ideological...

(The entire section is 1264 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIV, April 1, 1988, p. 1306.

Library Journal. CXIII, March 15, 1988, p. 60.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, February 5, 1988, p. 81.

San Francisco Chronicle. June 5, 1988, p. REV5.

Women’s Review of Books. V, July, 1988, p. 7.