In an interview with Michelle Gerise Godwin, Marge Piercy characterized herself as “blatantly sexual and raunchy”—a “stubborn” and “stupidly persistent” writer who kept creating even when no one seemed to understand her poems and novels. The worldly vision of her poetry encompasses politics, feminism, love, nature, and religion: “I don’t really differentiate between writing a love poem or a poem about a blue heron, or a poem about a demonstration or a poem about a Jewish holiday. To me, it’s all one vision.” Piercy says she exorcizes her desire for autobiography in her poetry. Her poetry collections reflect phases of her life beginning in the late 1960’s. Her verse mirrors her interest in women, their bodies, social functions, and unrealized potential.
Circles on the Water
Circles on the Water includes poems from Piercy’s earlier collections, ranging from the political works in Breaking Camp and Hard Loving to the personal poems contained in Living in the Open and The Moon Is Always Female. Circles on the Water contains several poems that are often anthologized. Three popular works, “Barbie Doll” (To Be of Use), “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” (Circles on the Water), and “A Work of Artifice” (To Be of Use), ridicule the conventional roles of women in American society. “Barbie Doll” introduces the “girlchild . . . born as usual,” who plays with dolls, lipstick, and miniature household appliances. However, at puberty, a classmate says, “You have a big nose and fat legs.” The girl must process contradictory messages—to “play coy” but “come on hearty.” Piercy characterizes the child’s dilemma in the simile “Her good nature wore out/ like a fan belt.” The poem ends with unemotional violence. The girl cuts off her offending nose and legs and achieves ultimate perfection in a casket at the undertaker’s hand.
In “A Work of Artifice,” Piercy compares women to bonsai trees. The twenty-four lines are clipped short like bonsai branches. Each contains only three to five words. A tree capable of towering eighty feet is pruned to nine inches. The gardener croons, “It is your nature/ to be small and cozy,/ domestic and weak.” The last eight lines expand the metaphor to other dwarfed creatures with “bound feet,” “crippled” brains, “hair in curlers,” and hands “you/ love to touch.” Thus, a dominant society of gardeners keeps women in check with their careful pruning.
The comic satire of “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” launches a protest against women’s domestic lives. The poem opens with a unified objection, “All over America women are burning dinners,” and closes with the battle cry, “Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.” Again Piercy uses simile to compare life to everyday objects: “Carbonized despair presses like a clinker/ from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.” The American housewife is moved by the anger that “sputters in her brainpan.” Piercy objects to the ways in which American society has stunted women’s potential. These poems assert that women are more than dolls and household accoutrements.
In Available Light, Piercy, who was in her fifties, confronts midlife issues—aging, childhood memory, menopause, and technology. The title poem explores the poet’s past and present with the wisdom and experience that come with middle age. At the age of fifty, she declares she knows herself and can forgive her dead parents for what they could not see in life through their limited “light” and knowledge. Piercy classifies as a religious poem “How Divine Is Forgiving,” which examines humankind’s need to forgive. The collection also includes “Wellfleet Sabbath,” a meditative verse set in Piercy’s seaside home near Cape Cod. The speaker metaphorically unites the welcoming of the Sabbath with the beauty of nature: “The great doors of the sabbath are swinging/ open over the ocean.” At day’s end, “the Shekinah/ comes on the short strong wings of the seaside/ sparrow.” The collection exhibits the reflective dimension of Piercy’s poetry.
Piercy’s Early Grrrl contains previously unpublished poems. “Grrrl” is a designation adopted by third-generation feminists who use music, film, and “zines” (underground newsletters and publications) to voice their sexuality, humor, and rage. Piercy frequents “grrrl” Web sites and reads their publications. She says she identifies with the term “grrrl” and understands their anger: “I relate to the grrrls of today. . . . We are all trained to feel inferior as girls and as women.” One work in the volume, “The well-preserved man,” compares the fossilized corpse of a bog man exhumed fully intact (with teeth, toenails, and stomach contents) to a woman rejected. The man was “fed and then killed” perhaps as a sacrifice to a “god or goddess/ for fertility, good weather,/ an end to a plague, who knows?” The contemporary woman, likewise, realizes as she dines with her companion that she is to be “terminated.” The speaker confesses, “I could not eat my last meal./ I kept running to the ladies room.” She is “sacrificed/ to a woman with more to offer up.” At the close of the poem, the women retreats to her bed as if entering the grave like the bog man, but she endures:
How astonished I was to survive,to find I was intact and hungry.All that happened was I knew the storynow and I grew long nails and...
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