Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2369
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 teeth.
Another Early Grrrl poem, “The name of that country is lonesome,” exposes the growing disconnect experienced by people who use modern technology to escape human contact: “Who can be bothered with friends?” the speaker asks. Friends have needs, a desire to talk: “Leave the answering machine on.” Fear and convenience replace companionship:
Talk only to the television set.It tells you just what to buySo you won’t feel lonelyany longer, so you won’t feelinadequate, bored, so you canalmost imagine yourself alive.
The anxiety of contemporary life drives individuals to sacrifice human warmth for the isolated safety of machinery.
The Art of Blessing the Day
In The Art of Blessing the Day, Piercy includes contemplative verse. “Apple Sauce for Eve” portrays the Garden of Eden saga in feminist terms. Women are in search of the world’s secrets, the speaker explains, and praises Eve for her thirst for knowledge: “We are all products of that first experiment,/ for if death was the worm in that apple,/ the seeds were freedom and the flowering of choice.” Other poems in the collection are more personal. In “Snowflakes, My Mother Called Them,” Piercy describes how her grandmother and mother taught her the art of papercuts. The folded paper opened to reveal “intricate birds, trees, . . ./ . . . moons, flowers.” The speaker had forgotten the artwork until she received one in a thank you note: “A woman sent me a papercut/ to thank me for a poem, and then/ in my hand I felt a piece of past/ materialize.” The poem considers memories of pain and pleasure united in retrospect. Piercy admits her compositions derive from her recollections, visions, and need to communicate. The poems in this collection express Piercy’s persistent themes. The direct language and forthright tone of her verse declare her interests in family, marriage, daily life, history, politics, and faith.
Colors Passing Through Us
Colors Passing Through Us shows Piercy’s powers of observation, whether she is looking at photographs of people she knows, contemplating the lives of artists such as opera singers and ballet dancers, or inventing new metaphors for the wonders of nature. Some of these poems are unflinching in their willingness to point out that which many might like to deny, and others are simply admiring of the objects upon which they gaze. In “Photograph of my mother sitting on the steps,” Piercy sees her mother, “who isn’t anyone’s,” as “intact and yearning . . . as a birch tree.” Sitting on tenement steps, she is “awkwardly lovely.” She longs to be “luminous and visible” to a handsome man who will take her away. Little does she know that he will take her into “poverty and an abortion.” Piercy captures her mother in this snapshot of her innocence and naïvete. In a more playful but also reverent poem, “One reason I like opera,” Piercy describes her preference for opera over films because in motion pictures, “Only the flawless in face and body/ win . . . ,” but in opera, “The heroine is fifty and weighs/ as much as a ’65 Chevy with fins/ She could crack your jaw in her fist./ She can hit high C lying down.” This image is especially striking when contrasted with that of the ballerina in “Her body inscribes,” whose “bones are chalky” and “hollow as flutes” because of anorexia, the cause of her death. Piercy shows her disapproval of how dancers are exploited when she refers to ballet as “pain as an art form patronized/ by eaters of large expensive dinners.”
Piercy plays with language and metaphors to capture nature from a new angle. In “Winter promises,” for example, tomatoes are “. . . rosy as perfect babies’ buttocks,/ eggplants glossy as waxed fenders.” In “The gardener’s litany,” the speaker imagines the garden “. . . alive/ in the night with its own/ adventures . . . ,” a place where slugs “. . . steal// out, snails carry their/ spiraled houses upward,” and rabbits “hop over the fence.” In “The rain as wine,” rain is imagined as “. . . big fat drops/ like grapes . . .// it is coming in waves/ whooshing through the trees.”
Other poems are politically oriented, holding world leaders accountable for what Piercy considers the travesties of the past and the disturbing developments of the present. “No one came home” is an ambitious attempt to portray the pointlessness of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. In six sections, Piercy provides snapshots of people from diverse walks of life, and in the seventh section, she asks, “When will we understand what terrorists/ never believe, that we are all/ precious in our loving, all tender/ in our flesh and webbed together?” In “The new era, c. 1946,” Piercy re-creates the year in which the “new miracle DDT” was discovered and the way she and others “danced” through the mist created when it was sprayed, not knowing that “. . . Cancer/ was the rising sign in the neon painted light” and not noticing that “little birds fell out of the trees. . . .” The poem ends with the refrains that so many schoolchildren of the time knew from drills and nursery rhymes: “Crouch and cover. Ashes, all fall down.”
The Crooked Inheritance
In the poems of The Crooked Inheritance, which begin with nostalgic memories of childhood and end in disillusionment with present-day American culture, Piercy shows the range of her subject matter and style, from the short, fragmented lines of “The crooked inheritance,” in which the speaker describes having “a short neck like my mother/ long legs like my father,” to the more meditative, longer lines of “The streets of Detroit were lined with elms,” in which the speaker remembers “elm trees that were/ the thing of beauty on grimy/ smoke-bleared streets stinking of death/ and garbage. . . .” The beauty of the elms contrasted with the ugliness of the streets is echoed in “Minor street flooding is expected,” in which the speaker describes the water she and other children waded through after heavy rain as “. . . filthy with germs/ and garbage . . . ,” yet providing one of the “accidental” pleasures available to inner-city children, like “. . . a box discarded in an alley/ with high heels we could hobble in.” Piercy also writes of simple pleasures found in adulthood, such as the coffee that she loves hot, iced, or tepid and that wakens “the gift of speech” in her when she is “dumb as a rock buried in damp earth” (in “In praise of joe”). “All my books are written with your ink,” she explains. Pleasure is also found in nature, such as “the first lily of June” opening “its red mouth” (in “More than enough”) and “silken nets” made by spiders “extruding a tent city from swollen bellies” (in “Intense”). In addition to sensual imagery, Piercy uses fresh metaphors for nature, as shown in “August like lint in the lungs,” in which she compares the August air to hot Jell-O and describes waves of rain “break[ing] their knuckles on the roof.” After the rain suddenly stops, “. . . Heat/ creeps back in like a guilty dog.”
Piercy takes those in power to task in poems such as “Mighty big” and “Counting the after-math,” warning in the first poem that “a little arrogance is a dangerous thing/ but a lot of arrogance is fatal/ to children and kittens and countries.” The speaker concludes on a note of foreboding: “. . . The harder/ you push, the harder what you never/ bothered to notice pushes back.” The second poem describes the plight of those directly affected by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and suffering in the aftermath. In the refrain, “Baby is crying/ Grandma is dying/ and that dirty water is getting higher,” Piercy uses a blues style to convey the hopelessness of the situation. As the baby cries “softer” and “Grandma is up to her chin,” the dirty water continues to rise. The poem ends with the baby no longer crying, Grandma drowning, and the water continuing to rise.
Other poems critique consumer culture. In “Absolutely safe,” a woman is told, “Take the pills, little lady, take the pills/ once daily . . . ,” only to find out that the authorities are “. . . wrong, ladies,/ These magic pills don’t prevent strokes,/ they cause them. Our bad. Or yours./ They won’t cure you after all.” In the tone of the infomercial, in “Less than you bargained for,” Piercy attacks the American culture of acquisition, urging readers to enter “the bizarre bazaar,” where, she says, you can buy “everything you don’t need/ at prices you can afford.” As useless as these knickknacks are, they are no match for what you get when you “buy a war,” as described in “Buyer beware”: “Death” as well as “. . . mistrust/ and hatred by the decadeload. . . .” At least when people go shopping, the speaker says, they can wear “. . . that orange/ cashmere sweater . . .” and “gobble that pizza.” With war, people incur a debt that great-grandchildren will have to pay. The speaker pointedly asks, “Are you happy with your purchase of this war?”
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