Circles on the Water

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

In an essay in the New Republic entitled “Beyond the Feminist Mystique,” Benjamin Barber, a professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, identifies three stages in the development of the contemporary woman’s movement. In the first stage, which began in the early 1960’s, marriage and the nuclear family were regarded as patriarchal institutions that robbed women of their identity, making them little more than servants. Men were the enemy; children were a burden to be shared equally or avoided altogether. In the early 1970’s, Barber contends, feminists shifted into a second stage, a period of reevaluation and “recantation.” While marriage was still regarded as bondage, women acknowledged that they had work to do, too. Feminists of the 1970’s argued that human beings are essentially androgynous—that women, like men, need to be strong, ambitious, and independent, avoiding petty emotionality, selfishness, and envy.

Recently, Barber suggests, feminists have moved into a third stage, in which it is permissible for women to acknowledge their limitations and their intrinsic differences from men: “Feminism in its third stage would seem to be pushing toward a full demystification of both the feminist and the feminine mystiques, in favor of a realistic appreciation of sexual differences, the constraints they place on us, and the plural virtues they make possible.”

Poets have always been in touch with the political currents of their own times. They write out of the experience of the moment, with the perspective of history. They do not make great generalizations about history and ideology, but they express in their aesthetic the nature of the times. Circles on the Water chronicles the past fifteen years, approximately the same period that Barber surveys. Marge Piercy writes in her introduction that she selected these poems to make a pattern, to present a vision. From her seven books of poetry, she has selected more than 160 poems, from Breaking Camp (1968) to The Moon Is Always Female (1980). One is tempted to read Piercy’s poems in the light of the three-stage developmental theory proposed by Barber, yet such an exercise merely reveals that the poet’s sensibility eludes Barber’s categories—as does the women’s movement itself. Piercy’s vision is complex, angry and loving, disillusioned and committed—throughout her work. She cherishes her individuality and her ability to love and her vulnerability. She eludes the stage-theory. Her book is, after all, entitled Circles on the Water.

The circle or cycle is an archetypal pattern representative of woman’s consciousness, while stages, steps, and hierarchies reflect the masculine ethic of conquering and overcoming. In her introduction, Piercy emphasizes the synthesizing potential of poetry:A poem can momentarily integrate the different kinds of knowing of our different and often warring levels of brain, from the reptilian part that recognizes rhythms and responds to them up through the mammalian centers of the emotions, from symbolic knowing as in dreams to analytical thinking, through rhythms and sound and imagery as well as overt meaning.

The poem itself, like a weaving, pulls through the warp and woof of our humanity. The fiber that results is at once one piece and myriad pieces. A reader can focus on the fine aspects of a poem, find its elements and describe the minutiae of its construction; he can read it whole and pull in its emotional or political impact; he can accept it in the context of its time and allow it to speak for him. Writes Piercy, “My work is of a piece. . . . The voice is the same voice.”

“The Sabbath of Mutual Respect,” taken from Piercy’s book The Moon Is Always Female, tries to encompass the choices women have made not only in recent times but also in all civilizations. Undermining the stage-theory of feminism, it accepts as sacred, noble, and worthy those choices—motherhood, lesbianism, professionalism, celibacy, martyrdom—which women have made...

(The entire section is 1670 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Booklist. LXXVIII, May 15, 1982, p. 1221.

Library Journal. CVII, July, 1982, p. 1329.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, August 8, 1982, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, April 9, 1982, p. 48.