Piercy, Marge (Vol. 3)
Ms. Piercy is an American poet and novelist. Her latest book, Small Changes, is an important feminist novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 23-24.)
[The] arrival of Marge Piercy's novel [Dance the Eagle to Sleep] at this time is remarkable and propitious. Already one of the finest poets of the Left, young or old, she now joins Sol Yurick—whose 1968 novel The Bag never received the attention it deserved—as one of the most penetrating novelists of this time.
What a book! I find it hard to tell where its power comes from: it is a little like being in the middle of a riot, trying to spot the source of motion. The leading characters, four of them, are true; certainly that matters. And the plot, especially once the heroes and heroine have snaked together in life-and-death engagement with one another, moves with terrific energy. Miss Piercy's prose is lean and rich at the same time: a great achievement. (It is punctuated with metaphors, most of which work, some of which don't: the poet's occupational hazard.) There is a sense of being inside the irresistible force as it hurtles toward the immovable object. It is the stuff of melodrama, but then these are melodramatic times, particularly for the apocalyptic young. It may also be the stuff of tragedy.
Todd Gitlin, "Bringing Back the Buffalo," in The Nation, December 7, 1970, pp. 601-02.
The classics that Marge Piercy has chosen as models are those dark fantasies, like Lord of the Flies and Lord of the Rings, lord-books heavy with pessimism and persecution, and animated by the age-old, Manichean struggle between Good and Evil in which winners are somehow always losers. Dance the Eagle [to Sleep] tells the story of some not-too-distant time in which a small army of youth, drawn together by mutual feelings of alienation and hostility towards an oppressive, dehumanized System, declare themselves a nation apart….
Marge Piercy's schematic novel, the New Consciousness, rather than being embodied in a single representative, is depicted as a polysensuum, a group of personified and often disparate attitudes. And the movement of the group experience heads inexorably towards Apocalypse, with all that that grim experience suggests. It is Moby-Dick II, not Walden II….
Dance the Eagle [to Sleep] is a frightening book, which will reassure only those who can take solace from the fact that it is cast as a futuristic novel. This is no real solace, since Marge Piercy has used the future only as a parabolic mirror of the recent past; her novel is indirectly about the Movement, more specifically about the rise, fragmentation, and fall of the Students for a Democratic Society. The future setting allows her a certain freedom of exaggeration and abstraction, so that she may elevate the rise and fall of Reich III into a Götterdammerung of symbolic and tragic proportions, and by so doing extrapolate and give fabulous substance to the essential Myth of the Movement.
John Seelye, "The Greening Grows Dark," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), December 12, 1970, pp. 24-5.
Dance the Eagle to Sleep by Marge Piercy [is] a harsh and sentimental "youth" novel, vaguely set in the future but quite openly counting on the reader's acquiescence in the reality of its themes and obsessions. Actually many of the reviews thought the book was needlessly cast into the future and seemed to want to allow the fantasy the status of fact. The novel is about a pathetic group of "acid revolutionaries," all very young, most of them in high school. It is a destructive fantasy, full of suffering, dreary phallic obsessiveness, and it is meaningless and childish in a political sense.
Still the book's claim to immediacy is insistent and its scenes of brutal police activity, school occupations, drugs, communes are true enough. However, the real source of the action is a sado-masochistic death dream….
The language of the book has, in the dialogue, a coarse power, but the exposition, the thought, and the structure are very weak. Almost every idea or opinion in the book is a banality from one side of the gap or the other.
Elizabeth Hardwick, "Militant Nudes," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), January 7, 1971, pp. 3-4, 6.
There is nothing tentative about Marge Piercy's poems. She creates no misty landscapes and if she occasionally asks a question, it answers itself. Her revolutionary zeal equals that of the legendary missionary itching to change the cannibal's diet, as with "paws raised," she hurls herself into the poetic arena crying, "the Pentagon … is our Bastille."
The book's title [Hard Loving] declares her theme: loving—hard loving. Whether love for a person or "the Movement" it is love without mercy, love to the death.
The reader soon feels himself simultaneously moving at a very fast pace and being pelted with a stinging rocksalt of words. Soon, too, he begins to wonder where else, at some time in the past he has experienced a similar headlong gallop. Yes, he remembers, Theodore Roethke's poems bristled with that same sharp, wry, and prickly line….
Not highly compatible by nature, poetry and polemics have a hard time integrating, but Marge Piercy's personal intensity combined with her acetylene vocabulary weld the two with more than usual success. Her poems, all force and action, with abrupt and fractured lines, convey a sense of haste and urgency—the tempo of revolutionary violence….
[One may notice] Marge Piercy's kinship with Walt Whitman, for whatever their respective merits, the two are—up to a point—Camerados. Her style may make one think of Roethke, but her ardors link her with Whitman. A hundred years apart in time, the two are skin to skin in theme. Both write of love and revolutionary freedom….
Whitman's enthusiasm is cosmic, Marge Piercy's more exclusive. His (poetically at least) includes rich and poor, good and bad. Hers, as in the typical Western, embraces only the "good" guys….
The author uses with spontaneity a vocabulary adequately expressive of some of her attitudes: piranhas, sharks, fishbones, dandruff, iron air, razorblades, burnt glass, breaking glass, acid, amphetamine, benzedrine, scum, vinegar, roaches, garbage, scars, scabs. In one of a number of notable comparisons she likens afternoons to "dinosaur eggs stuffed with glue."…
"Love" and "the revolution" provide a trellis for the exuberant feuillage (to use a Whitmanesque term) of her poems. She has expended a considerable amount of "hard loving" on her art which in consequence often burns with a hard (if hardly gemlike) flame.
Dorothy Donnelly, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring, 1971, pp. 142-43.
Whatever the reasons, Marge Piercy is an anomaly as a former SDS member who writes activist fiction with the poet's personal intensity and the intellectual's rationality. Caught between political zeal and art, however, she is forced to confront the old problems of how you reconcile militant puritanism with creative integrity, how you remain committed to the Cause without being didactic, how you present the whole picture without appearing reactionary…. Marge Piercy has not been reconciled and her novels—though not her poetry—reflect a divided loyalty.
Poetry after all is her métier by gift and temperament. In its tow she lets experience wash over her and take shape through imagination. Except for a handful of verse in her two collections, Breaking Camp and Hard Loving, she shuns explicit statement, exhortation, and ego-expanding bravado. She's obliquely political so far as anything she writes is ipso facto political so outrage and cry for change find form implicitly through imagery and metaphor….
But Piercy's novels reflect an impulse divided between politics and art. Going Down Fast is based, I believe, upon the South Side urban renewal crisis that shook the University of Chicago in the early Sixties. It dramatizes the racial tension and eventual conversion of liberals to militancy, focusing upon the coming-to-consciousness of Rowley, a brooding solipsist….
Piercy's second novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, is not anachronistic because she gives it a quasi-futurist, semi-fantasist quality and narrates from the point of view of street children "getting their heads together" in Indian-like tribes. Their experiences to some extent mirror the rise and fall of SDS….
Because Marge Piercy brings to fiction an area of Movement experience and activism that no one else to my knowledge has brought, she is unique. But if she is to write serious fiction, she will have to choose between description and proscription, creativity and didacticism, art and politics. She will have to experiment with styles and techniques more intrinsic to what she depicts—means truer to her critical intelligence and closer to her poetic impulse and language. If she stops consciously serving the Revolution while she is at the typewriter, she may find that "by means of an obscure and remote consequence" she will have served it in the end after all.
Linda Kuehl, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 2, 1971, pp. 92-4.
Many women radicals will understand [the] hostility to political "heaviness" on the American left [in Small Changes] and how one of its functions was to celebrate machismo at the same time it relegated women activists to the kind of subservient roles that a real revolution must banish. But I wonder if most non-movement readers of the book won't assume that the hostility is directed toward the general priorities of the 1960's left. Piercy has been careless about her targets, and her failure to integrate and unify the issues that float through the novel—feminism, the antiwar movement, the oppression of the working class, the Government's outrageous (and continuing) use of grand juries to harrass and jail radicals—implies that most of these concerns should be discarded in favor of the more important struggle: sexual equality and freedom. On the basis of Piercy's first two novels, and her often eloquent poetry, I find it hard to believe that she means this; yet it's disturbing that, in a novel of this length, set among highly politicized people, almost all of the characters are obsessively self-concerned: with alternate life-styles, aspects of communal living, their own emotions. Neither poverty nor racism, for example, is more than casually mentioned.
The problem of how to transform the cultural conditioning of women, which is inseparable from transforming the lives of all the exploited and the structure of the society that keeps them that way, is a profound one. Piercy shows what happens when women struggle for themselves (Beth) and what happens when they give up (Miriam). But the context in which the author allows their lives to evolve is too rigid, too blurry and sometimes too downright confused to grant the characters she has created the reality and the strength they deserve.
Sara Blackburn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 12, 1973, pp. 2-3.
Marge Piercy's new novel, Small Changes, is one of the first to explore the variety of life-styles that women in our time are adopting in order to give meaning to their personal and political lives. They are portrayed as wives, as living in a commune of men and women, in a women's commune, living with more than one man, and living alone. They are shown as caught in the frightening period of the breakdown of institutions, groping to create a community, a culture, a balm to loneliness. Marge Piercy has done a superb job of depicting the pain and uncertainty of this search….
Piercy is the first contemporary white American novelist to do what Doris Lessing has done in Britain; that is in articulating the subtleties of women's thoughts, she obliterates the dichotomy between the "political" and the "personal." It is refreshing to read a novel that revolves around women protagonists, rather than the usual alienated male, struggling to survive. Avoiding both flights into political rhetoric and deterioration into soap opera, the novel depicts a new reality. If it is flawed, it lies perhaps in oversimplification, in her suggestion that Beth has found a "solution" with another woman; one's doubts are not lessened by the realization that Piercy herself writes from the vantage point of a married woman.
Nevertheless most of the book rings true. As a matrimonial lawyer I know she is not exaggerating the grief that marriage has brought to many people. As a woman who has lived primarily alone these past 15 years, I applaud her portrayal of women's search for a livable life-style. Piercy understands both the chaos and confusion women have faced and also the courage and the strength many of them have found.
Diane Schulder, "Two Women," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), October 27, 1973, pp. 30-1.