Marge Piercy

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Marge Piercy (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5034

SOURCE: “Inviting the Muse,” in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, The University of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 5-17.

[In the following essay, Piercy describes the initial steps of her creative process—inspiration and concentration.]

Here is Henry Thoreau from his journal for October 26, 1853, although he is talking about spring. “That afternoon the dream of the toads rang through the elms by Little River and affected the thoughts of men, though they were not conscious that they heard it. How watchful we must be to keep the crystal well that we are made, clear!”

Writing poems can be divided crudely into three kinds of labor: beginning and getting well and hard into it; pushing through inner barriers and finding the correct form; drawing back and judging what you have done and what is still to be done or redone. This essay is about the first stage, learning how to flow, how to push yourself, how to reach that cone of concentration I experience at its best as a tower of light, when all the voices in the head are one voice.

I do not know how to teach that, although concentration can be learned and worked on the same as flattening stomach muscles or swimming farther. You could perhaps set someone to studying a rock or a leaf or a bird—perhaps a warbler. Nothing requires more concentration than trying to observe a warbler up in the leafy maze of a summer tree. If I were really and truly teaching poetry, I would probably drive everybody crazy by sending them off to notice the shades of sand on a beach.

Of course observation isn’t concentration, but learning to do one brings on the ability to do the other. My mother taught me to observe. A woman who had not been allowed to finish the tenth grade, she had some extraordinary ideas about how to raise very young children. Later when I was grown out of dependency and highly imperfect, she had trouble with me and could not endure my puberty. However, when I was little enough to fit comfortably into her arms and lap, we played unusual games. She had contempt for people who did not observe, who did not notice, and would require me to remember the houses we passed going to the store, or play mental hide-and-seek in other people's houses that we had visited. We would give each other three random objects or words to make stories around. We would try to guess the stories of people we saw on the bus and would argue to prove or disprove each other's theories.

I suppose such training might have produced what she wanted, a sharply observant person like herself, a reporter's mentality, a little Sherlock Holmes in Shirley Temple guise. What it created in me was observation suffused with imagination, since our life was on the whole skimpy, hard, surrounded by violence outdoors and containing familial violence within, a typical patriarchal working-class family in inner-city Detroit. Blacks and whites fought; the Polish and Blacks who lived across Tireman (a street) fought the Irish who went to parochial school. The neighborhood offered the kind of stable family life writers like Christopher Lasch, beating the dolly of the new narcissism, love to harken back to. Although husbands sometimes took off and not infrequently had girlfriends on the side, women almost never walked out of their homes. Wife beating was common, child beating just as common; drunkenness, drug abuse, rape, molestation of children occurred on every block but families went on from generation to generation. In such a neighborhood...

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where the whites were comprised of Polish, Irish, a few Italian and German Catholics, of some remaining WASP and some newly arrived Appalachian families (I divide the Appalachian WASP from the others because they were often Celts, and because they were looked down on by everybody as hillbillies and provided some of my closest friends), being a Jew was walking around with a kick-me sign. I’d say the level of tolerance for lesbians was higher than that for Jews. You learn to observe street action and people's muscular tensions and involuntary tics rather closely.

Detroit sprawls there, willfully ugly mile after flat smoggy mile; yet what saves it are trees. Every abandoned vacant lot becomes a jungle in a couple of years. Our tiny backyard was rampant with tomatoes, beans, herbs, lettuce, onions, Swiss chard. One of the earliest poems I wrote and still like is subtly about sex and overtly about peonies. Pansies, iris, mock orange, wisteria, hollyhocks along the alley fence, black-eyed Susans, goldenglow whose stems were red with spider mites, bronze chrysanthemums, a lilac bush by the compost pile. Nothing to me will ever be more beautiful than the flowers in that yard, except my mother when I was young.

You learn to sink roots into your childhood and feed on it, twist it, wring it, use it again and again. Sometimes one daub of childhood mud can set a whole poem right or save a character. It’s not always a matter of writing about your family, although at times we all do that. You use your childhood again and again in poems about totally other things. You learn how to use that rush of energy and how to make sure your use transcends the often trivial and ludicrous associations you are touching and drawing power from.

Some poets get going, get the flow by reading other poets. You learn whose writing moves you to your own, whether it’s Whitman or the King James version of the Bible or Rukeyser or Neruda in Spanish or in translation. Actually I’ve never met anyone who got themselves going by reading poetry in any other language than the one they were working in, but I’m curious if anybody does. On the other hand I have met a number of poets who use work in translation to prime themselves. It is a priming act we’re talking about. You set the words and rhythms going through you and you begin to align yourself. It has disadvantages, of course; if you are the least impressionable you may produce involuntary pastiche. You may find yourself churning out imagery that is bookishly exotic, imagery culled from others and bearing the imprint of being on loan like clothes that fit badly. Some poets use poetry of another time to prime themselves, to minimize the unintentional fertilization.

This priming can happen by accident. Oftentimes I am reading poetry and suddenly a poem starts, that change in the brain, maybe words, maybe an image, maybe an idea. It need not even be poetry. That quotation from Thoreau that begins this essay instigated a poem called “Toad dreams.” I remember starting a poem in the middle of reading a Natural History magazine or the Farmers Almanac.

I think of that instigation as having a peculiar radiance; that is, the idea, the image, the rhythm, the phrase—radiates. I find myself wanting to attend to it. I may not know at once, often I may not find out for several drafts, what that meaning, that implication, that web of associations and train of utterances will be or even in what direction I am being led. Sometimes the original moment radiates in many directions. Then my problem is sorting out the direction to pursue first or exclusively.

At that point if concentration is not forthcoming, the whole possibility may be blown. If you can lose a novel by talking it out, you can easily destroy a poem by not paying attention. I have lost many poems that way; I must lose one a week because I can’t get to a typewriter or even to a piece of paper fast enough—sometimes can’t break through to silence, to solitude, to a closed door. I am not good at working at cafe tables, as Sartre was supposed to do, although I have written on planes often enough. Even then I work only when I have a bit of space, never while wedged in the middle seat. I need at least a seat between me and any other person to work on a plane. At home, I need a closed door.

Poems can be aborted by answering the phone at the wrong moment. They can be aborted when an alien rhythm forces itself in, or the wrong other words are juxtaposed. I cannot work with a radio on loud enough to hear the words, or a television, or music with words playing. I have trouble working at all with music on, for the rhythms are much too insistent. I know other writers who work to music, but I cannot do so. Rhythm is extremely important to me in building the line and the poem, so any other insistent rhythm interferes. Irregular rhythms—hammering on a construction site nearby—have little effect.

I had a friend in Brooklyn who used to work with wax plungs in her ears, but I find that difficult. I talk my poems aloud and my voice roaring in my head gives me a headache. However, I pass on this method as it may do the trick for you. I know another writer who uses a white noise machine, the type usually purchased to help you sleep. I used to run an air conditioner to screen the noises from outside the apartment, when it seemed to me that every window opening onto the center of our block in Adelphi had a radio or a TV or both turned to top decibel.

Often I begin a poem simply by paying attention to myself, by finding what is stirring in there. I need a quiet moment. I try to use the routine of waking to bring me to work, whether into a novel I am working on or into poetry. I work best in the morning, although I started out believing myself to be a night person. I changed over during the sixties when the one quiet time I was assured of was before the rest of the antiwar movement in New York was awake. I learned to get out of bed and to use waking to move toward work.

Without the pressure on me now to work before friends are stirring, I need not rush to the typewriter but I preserve my attention. I always do some exercises in the morning and I take a morning bath. All of that routine I use to become thoroughly awake but retain some of the connectedness, some of the rich associativeness of dreaming sleep. I don’t want to shed that dark energy of dreams, nor to lose that concentration and involvement in the clutter of the day. I don’t think of it quite as self-involvement. I remember when a relationship that had been part of my life for seventeen years was breaking up, I would wake very early after three or four hours sleep and lie in anxiety and pain. Nonetheless by the time I rose through my morning schedule, when I came to the typewriter, I was clear of my immediate anguish and fussing and ready to turn them into work or to write about something entirely different.

I am not saying every writer should get up, eat a good breakfast, take a hot bath and do exercises without talking much to anyone, and then she will write richly. I am trying to say that you must learn how to prepare in a daily way for the combination of concentration and receptivity, a clearing that is also going down into yourself and also putting antennae out. One thing I cannot do and work well is worry about something in my life. If I sit at the typewriter fussing about where the money to pay the real estate taxes is coming from or whether my lover loves me more or less today, whether I am spending too much money on oil this winter, whether the decision taken at the MORAL meeting was correct, I will not find my concentration. I can carry emotions to my typewriter but I must be ready to use and transmute them. They must already be a little apart. It is not exactly emotion recollected in tranquility I mean, although for twenty-five years I have contemplated that phrase with increasing respect. I often feel the emotion but with less ego, less anxiety than in ordinary life. The emotion—the pain, the regret, the anger, the pleasure—is becoming energy. I suppose whenever I find my life too much more fascinating than work, I work less and write less well. I certainly write fiction poorly in these stretches. I produce some poems, often decent ones, but my output is down.

Such periods are not frequent because I love to write more than almost anything—not essays, to be honest, but poems and novels. I am still writing in letters to friends this week that I am immensely relieved that I have finally shipped off my novel Braided Lives to my publisher in its last draft. I do in fact feel as if an elephant had risen daintily from its perch on my chest and ambled away. Free, free at last, oh free! Of course it will return soon enough all penciled over with the comments of some copyeditor enamored of commas and semicolons (“Fuck all that shit; we’re not going anyplace,” is a typical copyeditor improvement). Comes back again as galleys. But essentially it is gone, finished.

Then yesterday afternoon Woody and I were chatting about the next novel I am planning to start as soon as I put this volume together and finish the next volume of poetry. Say, December? It is June now. He made a suggestion as I was mulling over something about the novel and I fell on it immediately and began chewing it, worrying it. It was just right. In the evening in the car on the way to see a movie two towns away, we began chatting again about my next novel until I shrieked that we must stop it, because I cannot get to it before December.

I try to put on with other writers how much I suffer at this excruciating martyrdom and all that posing we are expected to do, but the simple truth is I love to write and I think it an enormous con that I actually get paid for doing it. After all I did it for ten years without pay.

Find out when you work best and arrange the days that you have to write or the hours you have, to channel yourself into full concentration. If like Sylvia Plath you have only from 4:00 A.M. till the babies wake, if you have only from 6:00 A.M. till 9:00 A.M. as I did in New York, if you have only weekends or only Sundays or only afternoons from 3:30 to 5:30, you have to figure out the funnel that works for you: the set of habitual acts that shuts out distractions and ego noise, shuts out your household, your family, and brings you quickly to the state of prime concentration.

Whatever habits you develop as a writer, your ability to work cannot depend on them. I went from writing late afternoons and evenings to writing mornings because that was the only time I could be sure of. I used to smoke all the time I wrote. I imagined I could not write without the smoke of a cigarette curling around me. Then my lungs gave out. I had to die or learn to live without smoking. Given that choice I abandoned smoking rather fast. I can’t say my productivity was amazing the couple of years afterwards, but that was mostly because I had chronic bronchitis and it was a while before I was not sick at least fifty percent of the time with too high a fever to work. I have had to give up alcohol at times and to give up coffee, my keenest addiction of all, for periods, and work goes on whatever I am giving up so long as I have enough strength to make it to the typewriter and sit there.

You may permit yourself any indulgence to get going, so long as you can have it: Cuban cigars, a toke of the best weed, Grandma Hogfat's Pismire Tea, a smelly old jacket: but you have to be able to figure out just what is ritual and what is necessity. I really need silence and to be let alone during the first draft. I like having a typewriter but can produce a first draft of poetry without it; I cannot write prose without a typewriter as I write too slowly by hand. My handwriting is barely legible to me. All the other props are ritual. I have my sacred socks, my window of tree, my edge-notched card memory annex, my bird fetish necklace hanging over the typewriter, my Olympia standard powered by hand, my reference works on nearby shelves, my cats coming and going, my good coffee downstairs where I am forced to go and straighten my back on the hour as I should. But I have written in vastly less comfort and doubtless will do so again. Don’t talk yourself into needing a corklined room, although if someone gives it to you, fine. Do ask the price.

For many years I felt an intense and negotiable gratitude to my second husband because while I had supported myself from age eighteen and was doing part-time jobs, at a certain point he offered me five years without having to work at shit jobs to establish myself as a writer. I took the offer and by the end of five years was making a decent income—decent by my standards, compared to what I earned as part-time secretary, artist's model, telephone operator, store clerk and so on.

Not until I was putting this volume together and looking at my own output over the years since I began writing poetry seriously and began my first (dreadful) novel at fifteen, did I ever realize that I was less productive during those years of being supported than before or since. Women have to be very cautious with gift horses. We feel guilty. Traditional roles press us back and down. When I stayed home I was a writer in my eyes but a housewife in the world's and largely in my husband's view. Why wasn’t the floor polished? What had I been doing all day?

I began to write at a decent clip again not during those two years of traditional wifehood in Brookline but in New York when I was passionately involved in the antiwar movement and working as an organizer at least six hours a day and sometimes twelve.

I am not saying we work best if we use up a lot of our lives doing other work. Some poets do; few prose writers do. It depends on the type of other work in part; I think the less that other work has to do with writing, with writers, with words, the better. I understand the temptation young writers have to take jobs associated with writing. That may be the only affirmation that you are a writer available in the often many years before publication certifies your occupation to the people around you. I don’t think I could have resisted writer's residencies if they had been available when I was un- or underpublished. In an ideal world for writers we would be paid while apprenticing at some minimum wage and then encouraged to do something entirely different part-time, in work parties digging sewers or putting in gardens or taking care of the dying, at a reasonable wage.

What I am saying is that the choice may be offered to a woman to stay home (where it is much, much nicer than going out to a lousy job) and write because the amount she can earn as a part-time female worker is negligible from the viewpoint of a professional or skilled male wage earner. The offer can help but it also can hinder. You may find yourself doing a full-time job instead without pay and writing in the interstices—just as before except that you may have even less time that is really yours and you have lost your independent base of income.

Similarly a job teaching can be wonderful because it answers the questions, what do you do? If you get hired as a writer after you have published, say, five short stories, you have sudden legitimacy. If you started in workshops and got an MFA, you have more legitimacy. You have items to add to your resume. Of course once you have taken the teaching job, you may have little time to write, especially given the way the academic marketplace is a buyer's market and teaching loads are getting heavier. You’re certified a writer, you deal professionally with literature and words, you make better money and are more respectable in middle-class society, but you have less time and energy to put into your own writing than you would if you worked as a waiter or secretary.

Actually sitting and writing novel after novel before one gets accepted at last the way fiction writers usually must do, or actually working and working on poems till they’re right when hardly anybody publishes them and when they do you’re read by two librarians, three editors, and six other poets, gives you little to put in your resume. We all make it as we can, and I do a lot of gigs. Unless writers are of draftable age, we are seldom offered money to do something overtly bad like kill somebody or blow up hospitals or burn villages, seldom paid to invent nerve gases or program data bases for the CIA. The jobs available to us range from the therapeutic to the mildly helpful to the pure bullshit to the menial and tedious; all of them sometimes prevent us from writing and sometimes enable us to write. Jobs that have nothing to do with writing often provide more stimulation to the gnome inside who starts poems than jobs that involve teaching writing or writing copy.

When I am trying to get going and find myself empty, often the problem is that I desire to write a poem rather than one specific poem. That is the case sometimes when I have been working eight hours a day finishing up a novel and have not had the time to write poems or the mental space that allows them to begin forming. That is when the writer's notebook or whatever equivalent you use (my own memory annex is on edge-notched cards) can if it is well-organized disgorge those tidbits put in it. I think of those jottings as matches, the images, the poem ideas, the lines that wait resurrection. Often lines that were cut from other poems will in time serve as the instigation for their own proper home. For me the absolute best way to get going is to resort to my memory annex. That summons the Muse, my own muse for sure.

The notion of a muse is less archaic than a lot of vintage mythology because most poets have probably experienced being picked up by the nape of the neck, shaken, and dumped again miles from where your daily life or ordinary preoccupations could have been expected to bring you. Duende, Lorca called that possession. Poems that come down like Moses from the mountaintop, that bore their way through my mind, are not better or worse than poems I labor on for two days, two months, or fifteen years. Nonetheless I always remember which ones arrived that way. Sometimes in writing I experience myself as other. Not in the sense of the “I” as social artifact, the other that strangers or intimates see; the mask the camera catches off guard. When we see ourselves videotaped, often we experience a sense of nakedness and say, “so that is what I am really like,” as if the exterior because we usually cannot see it is therefore the truth of our lives. Nor do I mean the artifact we construct, the “I” writers perhaps more than most people make up out of parts of ourselves and parts of our books, as camouflage and advertisement.

What I mean is simply that in writing the poet sometimes transcends the daily self into something clearer. I have often had the experience of looking up from the typewriter, the page, and feeling complete blankness about who I am—the minutia of my daily life, where I am, why. I have for a moment no sex, no history, no character. Past a certain point I will not hear the phone. I respect that self, that artisan who feels empty of personal concern even when dealing with the stuff of my intimate life. I guess the only time I am ever free of the buzz of self-concern and the sometimes interesting, often boring reflection of consciousness on itself, is during moments when I am writing and moments when I am making love. I overvalue both activities because of the refreshment of quieting the skull to pure attention.

That to me is ecstasy, rapture—being seized as if by a raptor, the eagle in “The Rose and the Eagle”—the loss of the buzz of ego in the intense and joyous contemplation of something, whether a lover, a sensation, the energy, the image, the artifact. The ability to move into the state I called concentration is a needful preliminary to, in the first and commonest case, the work that you gradually build, or in the second and rarer case, the visit from necessity, the poems that fall through you entire and burning like a meteorite.

In a society that values the ability to see visions, such as some of the Plains Indians did, many people will manage to crank out a few visions at least at critical moments in their lives; very few people will not manage a vision at least once. Some will become virtuosos of vision.

In a society where seeing visions is usually punished by imprisonment, torture with electroshock, heavy drugging that destroys coordination and shortens life expectancy, very few people will see visions. Some of those who do so occasionally will learn early on to keep their mouths shut, respect the visions, use them but keep quiet about seeing or hearing what other people say is not there. A few of my poems are founded in specific visions: “Curse of the earth magician on a metal land” which also was the seed of Dance the Eagle to Sleep; “The sun” from the Tarot card sequence “Laying down the tower,” which was the seed of Woman on the Edge of Time.

That a poem is visionary in inception does not mean it comes entire. Actually writing a poem or any other artifact out of a vision is often a great deal of work. The hinge poem, for the month of Beth in The Lunar Cycle, called “At the well” was a case in point. I first wrote a version of that experience in 1959, when it happened. Here I am finally being able to bring off the poem that is faithful to it in 1979.

To me, no particular value attaches to the genesis of a poem. I am not embarrassed by the sense I have at times of being a conduit through which a poem forces itself and I am not embarrassed by working as long as it takes to build a poem—in the case I just mentioned, twenty years. I write poems for specific occasions, viewing myself as a useful artisan. I have written poems for antiwar rallies, for women's day rallies, for rallies centering on the rights and abuses of mental institution inmates. I have written poems to raise money for the legal defense of political prisoners, for Inez Garcia, who shot the man who raped her, for Shoshana Rihm-Pat Swinton, for many years a political fugitive and finally acquitted of all charges. I wrote a poem for a poster to raise money for Transition House (a shelter for battered women) along with a beautiful graphic by Betsy Warrior, a warrior for women indeed. I wrote a poem to be presented to the Vietnamese, delegation at Montreal, during meetings with antiwar activists.

Some of those occasional poems (as some of the category that arrive like a fast train) are among my best poems; some are mediocre. Frequently I find the necessity to write a poem for a specific purpose or occasion focuses me; perhaps coalesces is a better verb. A charged rod enters the colloidal substance of my consciousness and particles begin to adhere. “For Shoshana-Pat Swinton” is a meditation on feeling oneself active in history that I consider a very strong poem, for instance. I was, of course, to deal with the figure of the political fugitive as a paradigm of certain women's experiences as well as a touchstone for our recent political history in Vida; that swirl of ideas and images was obiously rich for me. What doesn’t touch you, you can’t make poems of.

One last thing I have learned about starting a poem is that if you manage to write down a certain amount when you begin, and failing that, to memorize enough, you will not lose it. If you cannot memorize or scribble that essential sufficient fragment, the poem will dissolve. Sometimes a couple of lines are ample to preserve the impulse till you can give it your full attention. Often it is a started first draft, maybe what will become eventually the first third of the poem, that I carry to my typewriter. But if I can’t memorize and record that seed, that match, the instigating factor, then I have lost that particular poem.

Good work habits are nothing more than habits that let you work, that encourage you to pay attention. Focus is most of it: to be fierce and pointed, so that everything else momentarily sloughs away.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

Marge Piercy 1936-

American novelist, poet, and essayist.

Piercy is a prominent feminist poet whose political commitment informs her work. Her verse often focuses on individuals struggling to escape oppressive social roles. Frankly polemical, Piercy's colloquial, free verse poetry passionately excoriates such phenomena as sexism, capitalism, and pollution, using exaggerated imagery and unabashed emotionalism in service of her social commentary.

Biographical Information

Piercy was born to a Jewish mother and a Welsh father in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit. After attending the University of Michigan as a scholarship student, she moved to Chicago and received a Masters degree from Northwestern University. Much of Piercy's work during the 1960s and 1970s emerged directly from her involvement in the radical youth organization Students for a Democratic Society. She has also been very supportive of feminist issues. As a poet, novelist, and commentator, she has a large international following, and her work has been translated into a number of languages. She lives in Massachusetts and continues to write novels and poetry.

Major Works

In her poetry, Piercy's political concerns are often expressed in an anguished or angry first-person narrative. Her first publication, Breaking Camp, is a volume of poetry that balances expressions of outrage at impoverished living conditions in Chicago with personal accounts of joy in love and being alive. In the 1970s, she shifted her emphasis from poverty, racism, and the Vietnam War to the struggle for women's rights. The poems collected in To Be of Use, Living in the Open, and The Moon Is Always Female reflect her commitment to exposing the damaging effects of patriarchy in contemporary American society and her condemnation of the roles ascribed to women by the male establishment. Piercy's works of the 1980s emphasize the politics of city-planning and the poet's sensual pleasure in such activities as gardening, making love, and cooking. In more recent works, such as Available Light and The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, Piercy celebrates her Jewish heritage.

Critical Reception

Critical analyses of Piercy's verse often consider the essential role of political and social commentary, with reviewers perceiving her emphasis on such social problems as poverty, the destruction of the environment, gentrification of old neighborhoods, and civil and women's rights as commendable. Some critics have faulted her work for excessive, often violent imagery as well as a self-righteous tone. Yet she is praised for aspects of her personal poetry, particularly her sensuality, humor, and playfulness.

Marge Piercy (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5481

SOURCE: “Revision in Action: Chipping and Building,” in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, The University of Michigan Press, 1982, pp. 79-98.

[In the following essay, Piercy explicates the final stages of her creative process, in particular how she revises and finishes her poems.]

I have put together three accounts of the process of writing through various drafts toward the finished poems. Each of these brief descriptions includes the various drafts of the poem I was working on. Each process offers a somewhat different route between onslaught and finished product, with differing problems to solve en route.


“Becoming new” started as a rambling love lyric of no particular distinction in first draft. Not atypically, however, for the type of poem revised by cutting as much as by rewriting, most of the imagery of which the later poem would be built was present in the wordy original. Some poems I work on from a stark beginning into more elaboration and development. Some poems, like this one, need pruning to reach a shape.

“How it feels to be touching you”

An Io moth, orange
and yellow as butter
winging through the night
miles to mate
crumbling in the hand to dust
hardly smearing the wall.
It feels like a brick
square and sturdy and pleasing
to the eye and hand
ready to be used
to build something
I can keep warm in
keep tools in
walk on.
Hardy as an onion and layered.
Going into the blood like garlic
secretly antibiotic.
Sour as rose hips.
Gritty as whole grains.
Sweet and fragrant as thyme honey.
Scarce as love,
my dear, what we have started.
Its substance goes out between us
like a hair
that any weight could break,
like a morning web shining.
It flares into pockets of meeting,
dark pools of touch.
What does it mean to me?
What does it mean to you?
We are meaning together.
We become new selves in private.
When I am turning slowly
in our woven hammocks of talk
when I am melting like chocolate
our bodies glued together
I taste myself quite new
I smell like a book
just off the press
You smell like hot bread.
Though I seem to be standing still
I am flying flying flying
in the trees of your eyes.

By the next version, still with the same title, the poem begins to assume a little shape. It is in paragraphs now, centered each around the imagery. I cut some of the wordier sections but I am still adrift, not yet focussed on what in the experience or the blob of the poem is interesting. The ending is the one that will stay through all versions of the poem. These first two versions were done in rapid succession.

“How it feels to be touching you”

An Io moth, orange
and yellow as butter
wings through the night
miles to mate,
crumbles in the hand to dust
hardly smearing the wall.
We feel like a brick
square and sturdy and pleasing
to the eye and hand
ready to be used
to build something
I can keep warm in
keep tools in
walk on.
Hardy as an onion and layered.
Going into the blood like garlic
pungent and antibiotic.
Sour as rose hips.
Gritty as whole grains.
Sweet and fragrant as thyme honey.
Its substance goes out between us
like a hair
that any weight could break,
like a morning web shining.
It flares into pockets of meeting,
dark pools of touch.
We are meaning together.
When I am turning slowly
in the woven hammocks of our talk
when I am melting like chocolate
our bodies glued together
I taste myself quite new
I smell like a book
just off the press
You smell like hot bread.
Though I seem to be standing still
I am flying flying flying
in the trees of your eyes.

At that point I put the poem aside for a while. When I took it out again, I decided that what is interesting is that the two people were friends who have become lovers while still being friends. The wonder of the friend developing the charisma and magic that a lover possesses while still being the same friend is the focus of the poem. The imagery that stresses the strength and dailiness in terms of bricks, buildings, tools disappears, as being irrelevant to the revelation of sensuous pleasure. I realized as I returned to the poem and began to shape it, to focus it, that the sensuality was important to the poem and equally important was leaving the sexes ambiguous. The poem had begun as one about a man with whom in the course of a long friendship, I had a three-week sexual involvement; but by the time I returned to work on it, the piece seemed to me more about friendships between women that become love relationships. Then I realized I wanted to make the poem truly and carefully androgynous (a word I am not fond of) because friendship is.

The hair imagery disappeared when I realized I was using the same metaphor in another poem of about the same vintage—“Bridging,” also contained in To Be of Use—where the imagery is far more relevant to a completely different theme. The associations of smelling like a book just off the press seemed inappropriate to the new focus, and the hot bread image seemed trite, so they were lopped off, replaced by a simple statement of the theme. The first stanza remained the same.

“Something borrowed”

How it feels to be touching
you: an Io moth, orange
and yellow as butter
wings through the night
miles to mate,
crumbles in the hand
hardly smears the wall.
Yet our meaning together
is hardy as an onion
and layered.
Going into the blood like garlic,
pungent and antibiotic.
Sour as rose hips.
Gritty as whole grain.
Sweet and fragrant as thyme honey:
this substance goes out between us
a morning web shining.
When I am turning slowly
in the woven hammocks of our talk,
when I am melting like chocolate
our bodies glued together
I taste myself quite new
in your mouth.
You are not my old friend.
How did I used to sit
and look at you?
Though I seem to be standing still
I am flying flying flying
in the trees of your eyes.

In the next version, published in To Be of Use and anthologized, the title settled into “We become new.” In fact there is an anthology named for this poem: We Become New, edited by Lucille Iverson and Kathryn Ruby (New York: Bantam Books, 1975). This title emphasized what I had fixed on as the core of the poem. There are many routes into poems. Sometimes when I launch into a poem, I know exactly where I’m going, although it may take me one or many drafts to fix that vision in words. Sometimes, as in this poem, the basic imagery is there but I don’t know quite what I’m getting at for a while. I have to hack away at it until I perceive what it is I’m trying to say, even in a case this simple. The discovery of the secret sensuality or the repressed sexuality in a friendship either between women or between a man and a woman is a common experience that makes this poem interesting to a number of people, who have mentioned it to me, or written me about it. We tend to see people with whom we make love as more luminous, more radiantly physical than those with whom we haven’t been as intimate. In the case of someone we have known for a long time or perhaps even worked with, we had thought we knew her or him quite well. We feel dazzled with the change of perception love-making brings.

The morning web shining I liked, but somehow it didn’t fit. It wasn’t exactly a web I was dealing with—not a couple formation. Furthermore, I had noticed a strong oral component in the imagery, especially after the first stanza, and I like that and wished to concentrate on it. The moth smeared on the wall also disappeared. What does crushing a moth have to do with sensuality unless you’re being a little weirder than I intended? I decided the image was peculiar and distracting.

The two changes I like best occur in the third stanza, where the chocolate image finally comes into its own, and where what is experienced new when the perimeters of the relationship change, is “everything” rather than “myself.” In that small context, I like the large claim.

“We become new”

How it feels to be touching
you: an Io moth, orange
and yellow as pollen,
wings through the night
miles to mate,
could crumble in the hand.
Yet our meaning together
is hardy as an onion
and layered.
Goes into the blood like garlic.
Sour as rose hips.
Gritty as whole grain.
Fragrant as thyme honey.
When I am turning slowly
in the woven hammocks of our talk,
when I am chocolate melting into you,
I taste everything new
in your mouth.
You are not my old friend.
How did I used to sit
and look at you? Now
though I seem to be standing still
I am flying flying flying
in the trees of your eyes.

When I included this poem, finally, in my selected poems (Circles on the Water [1982]), the only change I made was to move the last line of stanza two down to become the first line of stanza three. That brought the poem into regular six line stanzas. Although I talk a lot about the ear being primary, that is one of the occasional changes made primarily for the eyes. I liked the look on the page better.


“Rough times” is a poem that began with a rather prosy fragment:

Those who speak of good and simple
in the same mouthful
who say good and innocent
inhabit some other universe than I struggle through
I find it hard to be good
and the good hard: hard to know
hard to choose when known
and hard to accomplish when chosen:
rocky, sprace and
good makes my hands bleed,
good keeps me awake with fear, lying on broken shards
good pickles me in the vinegar of guilt
good goads me with burrs in my underwear

I have no idea whatsoever about the meaning of “rocky, sprace and.” However, this note was a sufficient fragment to launch the poem, not immediately I think. The above jottings were an idea for a poem which remained dormant for a while—in this case I think a matter of weeks. The fragment arose from my irritation with the presumption that good is simple or clear, that ethics and matters of right and wrong are as automatic to decide as calling up the time by dialing N-E-R-V-O-U-S on the telephone and resetting your watch for accuracy. If you do not accept the prevailing patriarchal standards of right and wrong, then you have to hammer out your own ethics at the same time that you try to change yourself to adhere to your values.

A short time—weeks—later, I wrote a true first draft. The first stanza is one that will remain through all subsequent drafts, but after that, I had a lot more trouble. This version remains fairly prosy although some of the imagery about two thirds of the way through is strong enough to stay the route. Finally this version simply trails off. I could find no completion to my complaint.

Trying to live
as if we were an experiment
conducted by the future.
Tearing down the walls of cells
when nothing has been evolved
to replace that protection.
A prolonged vivisection
of my own tissues, carried out
under the barking muzzle of guns.
Those who speak of good and simple
in the same mouthful of tongue and teeth
inhabit some other universe
than I trundle my bag of bones through.
I find it hard to know what’s good,
hard to choose when known,
hard to accomplish it when chosen,
hard to repeat it when blundered through.
Good runs the locomotive of the night over my bed/chest
good pickles me in the vinegar of guilt
good robs the easy words as they rattle over my teeth
and leave me naked as an egg.
Some love comfort and some pleasure;
perhaps of the good, the beautiful and the true
each person can crave
We are tools who carve ourselves

You can see here two of the stanzas evolving as I work. I was playing with crave/carve at the end but the playing came to nothing.

The next draft still has no title. The beginning three line stanzas are slowly taking shape. Finally, I have an ending; I see where the poem is going. Basically, the verb “evolve” in the second stanza had hidden inside it my ending.

Evolution is a concept with a marked place in my poetry, forming an important element in poems such as “For Shoshana-Pat Swinton” about taking an active role in history; “Two higher mammals” about trying to change from what I mistakenly believed then about human prehistory as predators, for I hadn’t yet read Richard Leakey or Elizabeth Fisher; “For Walter and Lilian Lowenfels” about trying to grasp one's own time; “The perpetual migration” from The Lunar Cycle, that compares us to seabirds and views our whole prehistory and history in terms of social evolution; and the recent poem “Let us gather at the river.”

The poem is still shapeless and wordy, but it begins to acquire a direction and a consciousness of its intent.

We are trying to live
as if we were an experiment
conducted by the future,
bulldozing / bombing / blasting
Blasting the walls of the cells
that nothing has yet
been evolved to replace.
A prolonged vivisection
on my own tissues, carried out
under the barking muzzle of guns.
Those who speak of the good and simple
in the same mouthful of tongue and teeth / in the same
inhabit some other universe
than I trundle my bag of bones through.
I find it hard to know what’s good,
hard to choose when known,
hard to accomplish when chosen,
hard to repeat when blundered into.
Good draws blood from my scalp and the roots of my nerves.
Good runs the locomotive of the night over my bed.
Good pickles me in the brown vinegar of guilt.
Good robs the easy words as they rattle off my teeth
and leaves me naked as an egg.
We are tools who carve ourselves,
blind hands righting each other,
usually wrong.
Remember that pregnancy is beautiful only
to those who don’t look closely
at the distended belly, waterlogged legs, squashed bladder
clumsily she lumbers and wades, who is about
to give birth.
No new idea is seldom borne on the halfshell
attended by graces.
More commonly it’s modeled of baling wire and acne.
More commonly it wheezes and tips over.
Most mutants die; the minority refract
the race through the prisms of their genes.
How ugly were the first fish with air sacs
as they hauled up on the muddy flats
heaving and gasping. How clumsy we are in this huge air
we reach with such effort
and can not yet breathe.

I think the association of Venus with the lungfishes is that they are both born from the ocean, with tremendous novelty. And like Lucretius, I associate Venus with the energy in nature. That’s what the as yet unnamed reference to her is doing here.

Finally comes the version printed in Living in the Open. The poem now has a title taken from a periodical called Rough Times, where the poem was first published. Rough Times was the second incarnation of the collectively edited periodical known, in order, as Journal of Radical Therapy, Rough Times, Radical Therapist, and finally State and Mind. I named the poem for a magazine that made a genuine and prolonged effort to connect the personal and the political with fairness to both, that recognized the problems of attempting to live in new ways, that dealt with the bruises and abrasions of living in a brutal, racist, and deeply hierarchical society but also dealt consistently with the casualties of trying to change that society. The whole collective at Rough Times was extremely helpful when I was researching mental institutions, psychosurgery, and electrode implantation for Woman on the Edge of Time.

The poem in this final version has also acquired a dedication to Nancy Henley, now head of women's studies at UCLA. At that time Nancy was living in the Boston area and we saw each other frequently. We are friends equally fascinated through our different disciplines by the personal and the political dimensions of the psychology of every day life—how men and women and people with different positions in the social hierarchy and different amounts of power address each other, touch each other, question or confront each other. When I was writing Small Changes and Nancy was writing He Says/She Says, we often exchanged observations.

Nancy Henley is a rare dear person, a passionately committed feminist with a strong sense of economic issues, a woman who deals with the theory of social change and also with the practical consequences, who has always taken on far more than her share of the daily work of change—the unglamorous equivalent of taking out the garbage in committee work—as well as writing, speaking, and always thinking clearly and well. I know how hard her life and her choices have been at times, so I dedicated the poem to her.

I had by this version decided on a combination of three line and five line stanzas. The “yard engine” was a better metaphor than in earlier versions, for I remember in childhood watching yard engines shuttle back and forth, back and forth. The extended description of the ninth month of pregnancy has been reduced to one line. The reference to Botticelli's Venus is more explicit and reduced in length.

One of the technical aspects of the poem that picked up the most as the drafts went on is the matter of line breaks. Note the difference between the rather flat:

Most mutants die; the minority refract
the race through the prisms of their genes.

and the less obvious, far more potent setting off of the image:

Most mutants die; only
a minority refract the race
through the prisms of their genes.

The tools who carve each other have dropped out entirely, as that image didn’t belong to the rest of the poem once I had found my predominant biological metaphors. The vivisection image came early and I still like it, reflecting as it does the pain attendant upon trying to live as if you were changed while trying to change the society.

One of the reasons I worked on the poem after its rather unpromising beginning was a sense that such a subject is difficult to tackle in a lyric but also important. A great many people try to live ethically with a sense of wanting to move toward a better future; but I have seen little in the poetry of our time that alludes to that not uncommon activity. I changed the parallel sentence structure in the last stanza because I wanted to emphasize our clumsiness rather than to emphasize equally the ugliness of the lungfish. I also had used the rhetorical device of initial repetitions earlier in the poem in two places: the four lines in the fifth stanza that begin with “Good” followed by a verb, and the last two lines of the sixth stanza, which both begin “More commonly it.” I liked the first two instances of initial repetition much better than the third usage.

I think the final strength of the poem lies in the increasingly concrete language and images and the hard-working vivid verbs. Thus while the poem is about a fairly abstract idea, it is not an abstract poem.

“Rough times”

for Nancy Henley

We are trying to live
as if we were an experiment
conducted by the future,
blasting cell walls
that no protective seal or inhibition
has evolved to replace.
I am conducting a slow vivisection
on my own tissues, carried out
under the barking muzzle of guns.
Those who speak of good and simple
in the same sandwich of tongue and teeth
inhabit some other universe.
Good draws blood from my scalp and files my nerves.
Good runs the yard engine of the night over my bed.
Good pickles me in the brown vinegar of guilt.
Good robs the easy words as they rattle off my teeth,
leaving me naked as an egg.
Remember that pregnancy is beautiful only
at a distance from the distended belly.
A new idea rarely is born like Venus attended by graces.
More commonly it’s modeled of baling wire and acne.
More commonly it wheezes and tips over.
Must mutants die: only
a minority refract the race
through the prisms of their genes.
Those slimy fish with air sacs were ugly
as they hauled up on the mud flats
heaving and gasping. How clumsy we are
in this new air we reach with such effort
and cannot yet breathe.


The scheme of the Tarot poems, the eleven cards of a Tarot reading, was worked out before I began the first of the poems. I no longer have any memory of in what order I first wrote the poems, but the earliest fragment of “The Sun” I have extant dates from the scheme of the whole. On a piece of paper I have listed the cards I planned to work with—not even the final list, for in the notes on that piece of graph paper, three of the cards are different from those I actually wrote about. Next to the sun I have written:

us into the new world
concrete images of liberation
from the garden outward
naked on a horse that is not bridled
androgynous child

The first draft of the poem I can find begins with the image on the deck I was using created by Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Edward Waite, as do all subsequent versions of the poem. That description comprises about a third of this draft.

From that point on, in the last two-thirds of the poem, I was describing a particular vision, also the seed of Woman on the Edge of Time, which did emerge from meditation on this particular card when I was preparing to write the Tarot poems. Some of the cards I was able to penetrate immediately and got a fast fix on what in their imagery and their symbols I wanted to use and how I wanted to treat them; others of the cards resisted my comprehension (beyond the obvious, I mean). “The Sun” was a resistant one until it came blindingly.

Thus the structure of this particular poem was set a priori: beginning with the card and then proceeding to an attempt to embody what I had imagined. Even the image of the sunrise that ends the poem in all versions was a given, being obvious in the card and given in the vision. The struggle with the different versions is almost entirely a struggle of cleaner, stronger language and better rhythms. I was committed to a fairly long line in all the Tarot poems.

“The Total Influence or Outcome: The Sun”

Androgynous child whose hair curls into flowers,
naked you ride the horse, without saddle or bridle,
naked too between your thighs, from the walled garden
Coarse sunflowers of desire, whose seeds the birds and I eat
which they break on their beaks and I with my teeth,
nod upon your journey: child of the morning
whose sun can only be born red from us who strain to give
Joy to the world, joy, and the daughters of the sun will dance
Grow into your horse, child: let there be no more riders and
Learn his strong thighs and teach him your good brain.
A horse running in a field yanks the throat open like a bell
swinging with joy, you will run too and work and till and
          make good.
Child, where are you headed, with your arms spread wide,
as a shore, have I been there, have I seen it shining
like oranges among their waxy leaves on a morning tree?
I do not know your dances, I cannot translate your tongue
into words of my own, your pleasures are strange to me
as the rites of bees: yet you are the golden flowers
of a melon vine, that grows out of my belly
up where I cannot see any more in the full strong sun.
My eyes cannot make out those shapes of children like burning clouds
who are not what we are: they go barefoot on the land like
they have computers as household pets, they are six or seven
and all one sex, they do not own or lease or control:
they are of one body and they are private as shamans
learning their magic at the teats of stones.
They are all magicians and do not any more forget their
          birthright of self
dancing in and out through the gates of the body standing
Like a bear lumbering and clumsy and speaking no tongue
they know, I waddle into the fields of their play.
We are not the future, we are stunted slaves mumbling over
the tales of dragons our masters tell us, but we will be free
and you children will be free of us and uncomprehending
as we are of those shufflers in caves who scraped for fire
and banded together at last to hunt the saber-toothed tiger,
the mastodon with its tusks, the giant cave bear,
the predators that had penned them up in the dark, cowering
          so long.
The sun is rising, look, it is the sun.
I cannot look on its face, the brightness blinds me,
but from my own shadow becoming distinct, I know
that now at last it is growing light.

In the next draft I have preserved, the poem has assumed verse paragraphs and has been cut somewhat. There are many small omissions and small developments, but not enough difference for me to feel it is worth quoting in its entirety. The image of the melon vine came out of an old woodcut I had seen, medieval I believe, where Abraham sees all his descendants growing up out of his prostrate body.

However, I do feel it’s worth quoting the third draft.

“The Total Influence or Outcome of the Matter: The Sun”

Androgynous child whose hair curls into flowers,
naked you ride the horse without saddle or bridle
easy between your thighs, from the walled garden outward.
Coarse sunflowers of desire whose seeds birds crack open
nod upon your journey, child of the morning whose sun
can only be born bloody from us who strain to give birth
Joy to the world, joy, and the daughters of the sun will dance
like motes of pollen in the summer air
Grow into your horse, child: let there be no more riders and
Child, where are you heading with arms spread wide
as a shore, have I been there, have I seen that land shining
as oranges do among their waxy leaves on a morning tree?
I do not know your dances, I cannot translate your tongue
to words of my own, your pleasures are strange to me
as the rites of bees; yet you are the yellow flower
of a melon vine growing out of my belly
though it climbs up where I cannot see in the strong sun.
My eyes cannot decipher those shapes of children like burning
who are not what we are: they go barefoot like savages,
they have computers as household pets; they are six or seven
and only one sex; they do not own or lease or control.
They are of one body and of tribes. They are private as
learning each her own magic at the teats of stones.
They are all magicians and technicians
and do not any more forget their birthright of self
dancing in and out through the gates of the body standing
A bear lumbering I waddle into the fields of their play.
We are stunted slaves mumbling over the tales
of dragons our masters tell us, but we will be free.
Our children will be free of us uncomprehending
as are we of those shufflers in caves who scraped for fire
and banded together at last to hunt the saber-toothed tiger,
the tusked mastodon, the giant cave bear,
predators that had penned them up, cowering so long.
The sun is rising, look: it is blooming new.
I cannot look in the sun's face, its brightness blinds me
but from my own shadow becoming distinct I know
that now at last it is beginning to grow light.

Here the second paragraph has become quite short. The extended development of the horse has been lopped back to one line. In the fourth paragraph the children of the future have become not merely magicians but magicians and technicians, a not particularly felicitous phrase. The “gates of the body” I associate with Blake, some amalgam of his “The doors of perception” with “Twelve gates to the City,” a song I recall from civil rights days.

I am still having trouble with the image and words of the last paragraph. I am aware as I write it of Plato's cave. I am still having trouble with the line breaks and the phrasing of the words themselves.

The final version of the poem makes many small changes: in the second line, “the horse” becomes “a horse” in keeping with its diminished importance while the second paragraph has been assimilated into the first. I have finally realized that it is not the future sun that ought to be bleeding but the mother giving birth, and fixed that.

In the second verse paragraph, the replacement of “to words of my own” with “to words I use” is a matter of rhythm. The image of the oranges among their leaves on that tree has finally gone—it never quite took or worked—and been replaced by a far more appropriate image “like sun spangles on clean water rippling,” a line superior in its rhythm by far. The sun entering that line meant I had to change the last line of the stanza, where to avoid repetition “strong sun” became “strong light,” a more accurate word in that context.

The children have stopped being “like” burning clouds and that has become an alternate way to see them. There are many small cuts there, “seven sexes” for “six or seven sexes”—I was thinking of paramecia. “The teats of stones” has become “the teats of stones and trees” because I wanted a longer line and because that seemed to me more evocative of the kind of earth reverence I was trying to bring to mind. Finally it is “technicians and peasants” they become. “Magic” has already appeared and what I wanted was the connection to the basic means of production, agriculture, the commitment to the land insisted on, along with the full use of science. Finally instead of only a “birthright of self” it is that plus “their mane of animal pride” they do not forget. I wanted to describe a people sensual, proudly physical, connected to other living beings and the earth, who were also highly civilized in the best sense.

“The fields of their play” has become “the fields of their work games” because I wanted to emphasize their productivity and did not want them to sound trivial or infantile.

I finally got the ending together. That changing smell of the air at dawn is something I have often noticed in the country. I also got the line breaks functional at last in the ending.

The sun is rising, feel it: the air smells fresh.
I cannot look in the sun's face, its brightness blinds me,
but from my own shadow becoming distinct
I know that now at last
it is beginning to grow light.

When I put this poem in my selected poems (Circles on the Water [1982]) I made only one change. I took out the mastodon, as not properly a predator and because it was messing up the line breaks. I broke it as follows:

and banded together at last to hunt the saber-toothed tiger,
the giant cave bear, predators
that had penned them up cowering so long.

Principal Works

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Breaking Camp 1968

Hard Loving 1969

To Be of Use 1973

Living in the Open 1976

The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing 1978

The Moon Is Always Female 1980

Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy 1982

Stone, Paper, Knife 1983

My Mother's Body 1985

Available Light 1988

Mars and Her Children 1992

What are Big Girls Made of? 1997

The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme 1999

Early Grrrl: The Poems of Marge Piercy 1999

Going Down Fast (novel) 1969

Dance the Eagle to Sleep (novel) 1971

Small Changes (novel) 1973

Woman on the Edge of Time (novel) 1976

The High Cost of Living (novel) 1978

Vida (novel) 1980

Braided Lives (novel) 1982

Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt: Poets on Poetry (essays) 1982

Fly Away Home (novel) 1984

Gone to Soldiers (novel) 1987

Summer People (novel) 1989

He, She, and It (novel) 1991

Body of Glass (novel) 1992

The Longings of Women (novel) 1994

City of Darkness, City of Light (novel) 1996

Storm Tide [with Ira Wood] (novel) 1998

Eleanor Bender (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Visions of a Better World: The Poetry of Marge Piercy,” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Bender provides a thematic overview of Piercy's verse.]

Perhaps more than any other poet of her generation, Marge Piercy is most explicit in confronting the political, social, and economic realities of her time. A poet of conscience, Piercy does not separate her politics from her life, or her life from her poetry. Like Muriel Rukeyser before her, Marge Piercy's poetry is not confessional. Her poems never apologize, suffer from guilt, or dwell on some abstract evil. Piercy is concerned with the work of words. Her images are bold and hard hitting, her language always direct and on target. Her poetry is the result of an examined life, and each new book mirrors her personal growth as she enlarges her vision and evolves as a poet.

While individual poems focus on specific experiences with men, women, and community, Piercy's overall intention is to show how her love of men, her love of women, her love of community are intertwined. Love is how we live in the world and all love is lived in a cultural context in the same way that food is grown, wars are fought, and money is spent. Read chronologically, her first six volumes document Piercy's understanding of what it means to love.

Her first book, Breaking Camp (1968), is an anthology of her best early poems. The works that follow are more thematically realized as books. Breaking Camp is a workshop collection, the strongest poems of which introduce the political acumen of her later work. “Visiting a Deadman on a Summer Day” points to the disparities between the urban rich and the urban poor, the role of capitalism in creating war, the senseless wasting of human potential. While the spirit of the Vietnam War protestors burns through this poem, Piercy also comes to terms with the fact that her own poetry must break through “past structures … hiding its iron frame in masonry.” In “Noon of the Sunbather,” “a woman nude on a rooftop” confirms her right to survive midst an imagery of concrete oppression. The god's breath turns her to ashes “but the ashes dance. Each ashfleck leaps at the sun.” The ashflecks represent Piercy's emerging feminism. “Breaking Camp,” the title poem that completes this volume, emphasizes the feminist construct that will take hold in succeeding books. In it Piercy declares: “I belong to nothing but my work carried like a prayer rug on my back.” Her conviction is that her own work will not be dependent upon the judgment of others. She will be the architect of herself in order to allow her poetry greater freedom of her mind and body.

“Walking into Love,” the opening poem for Hard Loving (1969), was written when Piercy was around thirty. This poem is about the community she helped to create, first in the antiwar movement and Students for a Democratic Society, and later in the women's movement. In a letter dated June 4, 1980, Piercy writes: “It was a relationship that is not a monogamous relationship. It was a relationship that was political and personal and serious, although not monogamous” (Letter to Eleanor Bender). The poet admits to feeling disoriented and afraid. She realizes she must discard the heavy weight of her past, which consists of:

a saw, a globe, a dictionary,
a doll leaking stuffing,
a bouquet of knitting needles,
a basin of dried heads.

(Hard Loving 11)

With her “saw,” she will break open her past and reveal its true contents. The “globe” she carries is the world in need of change, and what Adrienne Rich has called re-vision.1 The “dictionary” contains a language that has defined her. She will turn it into her most useful tool, that of the power of words to establish new definitions. The “doll leaking stuffing” is her childhood, her memory, and a reminder of her own mortality. The “bouquet of knitting needles” is a symbol of what the culture expects from a woman. The “basin of dried heads” holds the authority figures who have discouraged her from making her journey. She has managed to sever those relationships. She continues: “Withered and hard as a spider / I crawl among bones: awful charnel knowledge / of failure, of death, of decay.” The poet is well aware that the history of creative women has long been shrouded in images of secrecy, darkness, and insanity. She will not be stopped. Piercy sees herself, and all women, as missing links between the past and the future. Like the web of a spider, her work, her politics, her art, will be spun from her self. She will weave this web carefully in order to sustain, nourish, and extend life for herself and others. For those who would “make soup” of her, she will “hide in webs / of mocking voices,” allowing her poetry to speak the truth.

Section three of “Walking into Love,” which Piercy calls “Meditation in my favorite position,” celebrates the fact that she is as much a sexual being as she is an intellectual being. While her mind explores the meaning of life, her body is life: “Words end, / and body goes on / and something / small and wet and real / is exchanged.” Physical love reenacts creation. And for Piercy, sex is a way of experiencing being alive that is a source of energy. In section four, the poet voices her resentment of the prejudice that persists against sexual women in “the eyes of others” who “measure and condemn.” She sees sexual needs as being as vital to her sense of well-being as nourishing food. But she insists that a woman's bodily appetites equal her reponsibilities to the culture as a whole.

“Walking into Love” was published at a time when the women's movement was gaining momentum. Adrienne Rich had written of the arrival of the “new” women in her discursive poem “Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law” (1958-1960). Other brilliant women were writing unsparingly about what it meant to be a woman in the Post-Modernist era. So when Marge Piercy writes in section five of “Walking into Love”: “There is a bird in my chest / with wings too broad / with beak that rips me / waiting to get out,” she is giving form to her own powerful, creative, sexual self struggling to be born. When this happens, the iron weight of the 1950's—when all women were virgins, and all men heroes and saints—is lifted from her chest: “I open my mouth / to let you out / and your shining blinds me.” The “shining” is that of spiritual release. It is blinding only in so far as the poet is new to her own power. When the intensity of this experience eases, the poet sees with a clearer light: “Sometimes, sometimes / I can ask for what I want: / I have begun to trust you.” This trust is not arrived at easily. It comes out of a commitment to work through both the external and internal barriers that exist between men and women and between human beings and their culture.

In twenty-three lines, Piercy's poem “Community” outlines some of the realism of her experiences with political movements: “Loving feels lonely in a violent world.” She lived too close to the failures: “Love is arthritic. Mistrust swells like a prune. / Perhaps we gather so they may dig one big cheap grave.” The world is a community, and we must all love as if our lives depended on it because they do:

We have to build our city, our camp
from used razorblades and bumpers and aspirin boxes
in the shadow of the nuclear plant that kills the fish
with coke bottle lamps flickering
on the chemical night.

(Hard Loving 17)

In Piercy's view it is possible to build a new, stronger community out of the wreckage of the past. She does not advocate a revolution that serves to further destruction. She believes in turning used technology into useful instruments. “Used razorblades and bumpers and aspirin boxes” are the tools of survival for a dispossessed society.

“The Friend” is one in a series of poems about the kinds of destructive relationships that undermine the strengths of a community. The man in “The Friend” demands of the woman that she cut off her hands and burn her body because it is “not clean and smells like sex.” He not only finds her sex threatening, but he sees love itself as a threat to this power. Piercy writes of this poem: “‘The Friend’ is part of a sequence about the friends that aren’t friends, neighbors that aren’t neighbors, relationships that aren’t relationships, community that isn’t community” (Letter to Eleanor Bender, 4 June 1980). The poet knows that people are deceived by their own need to be close to others. She addresses this point in “Simple-Song”:

When we are going toward someone we say
you are just like me
your thoughts are my brothers and sisters
word matches word
how easy to be together.

(Hard Loving 35)

Then, after a relationship has ended:

When we are leaving someone we say
how strange you are
we cannot communicate
we can never agree
how hard, hard and weary to be together.

(Hard Loving 35)

All of her needs cannot be met by one person. She remains open to her needs, and to the needs of others. This is loving: “an act / that cannot outlive / the open hand / the open eye / the door in the chest standing open.”

The lovers in Hard Loving are experimenting with love, searching for the right partners. “Becoming Strangers” describes a state where a love is “There and not there … fading into your smoky flesh / to charge out butting.” Then he acts as if he doesn’t know her, “as if out of bed / if you recognized me / I might charge you something.” Passions come more easily than the right partners. Piercy learns to set certain ground rules for love. Starting with “Loving an Honest Man,” Piercy insists her relationship with men must add, not subtract from her life:

So we live with each other: not against
not over or under or in tangent.
Secretive in joy and touching, back to back
sensual taproot feeding deep in the soil
we face out with hands open and usually bruised,
crafting messages of lightning in common brick.

(Hard Loving 54)

The men she loves will be men who share fully her pleasures and her dreams. “Loving an Honest Man” is her way of accepting responsibility for future generations who will “grow out of us who love freedom and each other.”

Marge Piercy dedicated her third book of poetry To Be Of Use (1973) to the women's movement. “The Nuisance” is written in the voice of a woman whose consciousness has been sufficiently raised for her to confront her lover with the totality of her presence in the world:

I am an inconvenient woman.
You might trade me in on a sheepdog or a llama.
You might trade me in for a yak.
They are faithful and demand only straw.
They make good overcoats.
They never call you on the telephone.

(To Be Of Use 12)

This woman still finds it necessary to coach her lover's ego. She seems to be trying to take some of the edge off the power of her feelings. But more importantly, she no longer fears her own vulnerability. She recognizes that she has sex drives that cannot be disguised in any other form than what they are, which is to want her lover to want her “as directly and simply and variously / as a cup of hot coffee.” Piercy, along with other women poets of her generation, learned to be a sexual challenger: “To want to, to have to, to miss what can’t have room to happen. / I carry my love for you / around with me like my teeth / and I am starving.” The woman in “The Nuisance” is learning to distinguish between what is love, and what is not love. This is a necessary step in discovering how to use love as a source for both individual and collective strength.

“The Winning Argument” offers a parable of a more or less traditional male and female relationship. The relationship is centered around the man. When the woman begins to sense that something is lacking in this arrangement, the man accuses her of being insane. In the second stanza, the man decides that sex is “bad for the health,” so he throws her “out the door.” Finally the woman realizes she is better off risking the dangers of the outside world rather than suffer the slow death of servitude. By the late 1960s, women were prime for this kind of decision because women were beginning to think of their domestic lives in political terms. Piercy understands the issues behind the need for women's equality and warns feminists against a too narrow vision: “If what we change does not change us / we are playing with blocks” (“A Shadow Play for Guilt”).

“The Woman in the Ordinary” offers this description of a sixties woman: “a yam of a woman of butter and brass, / compounded of acid and sweet like a pineapple, / like a handgrenade set to explode, / like a goldenrod ready to bloom.” Piercy's repeated concern is that this “new” woman must come to terms with her responsibility to herself and her community. The title poem, “To Be of Use,” is written in praise of work, any productive work, required of these women.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

(To Be Of Use 12)

Several of the poems in Marge Piercy's fourth book of poetry, Living in the Open (1976), were written around the same time period as To Be Of Use. However, Living in the Open, published three years later, marks an important shift in the development of Piercy's poetry. Fourteen poems make up the first section, titled “A Particular Place To Be Healed.” The “place” is Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. The poems build a bridge between the hard, grinding toil of her city life and the softer, cleaner, more generous landscape of Wellfleet. The poems of “A Particular Place To Be Healed” also reflect the spiritual and physical renewal made possible through feminism and her success at earning a living as a writer.

The poet explores the relationship between her body and the world of birds, salt marsh, meadow grasses, fiddle crabs, samphire, and sea lavender. She applies the communal philosophy set forth in To Be Of Use to gardening and living and working with people she loves and trusts. The landscape becomes her teacher and respect for this teacher allows her ideas about love to take root and grow. Her poems take on a broader, more spiritual composition. The long, sequential poem “Sand Roads” describes her arrival in Wellfleet by car. Each of the first seven sections merges with the next, revealing the poet's awareness of the land's response to human history. The seventh section, “The Development,” ends:

Forgive us, grey fox, our stealing
your home, our loving
this land carved into lots
over a shrinking watertable
where the long sea wind that blows
the sand whispers to developers
money, money, money.

(Living in the Open 28)

In section eight, “The Road Behind the Last Dune” the poet's life is renewed in the presence of the sea:

Flow out to the ancient cold
mothering embrace, cold
and weightless yourself
as a fish, over the buried
wrecks. Then with respect
let the breakers drive you
up and out into
the heavy air, your heart
pounding. The warm scratchy sand
like a receiving blanket
holds you up gasping with life.

(Living in the Open 31)

The sea's “mothering embrace” is her future seeking to release the ideas carried within the gravitational pull of her writing. The waves crest with the maturity of her perceptions restoring her to a physical understanding of the earth's history and its future.

Piercy's poetry never loses touch with her childhood in Detroit, Michigan, who she is, how she has chosen to live. In this work, what will come to be known as the middle period of her poetry, we see her moving beyond the trap doors of past wounds toward a greater freedom of her capacities as a living woman. The title poem, “Living in the Open,” is about the possibilities that result from living in multiple relationships with people:

Can you imagine not having to lie?
To try to tell what you feel and want
Till sometimes you can even see
each other clear and strange
as a photograph of your hand.

(Living in the Open 46)

Her insistence on the truth is what makes such a private person a public writer. She does not play the part of a mercurial messenger. She is the tough street sister who comes directly to the point:

We are all hustling and dealing
as we broil on the iron gates of the city.
Our minds charred, we collide and veer off.
Hard and spiny, we taste of DDT.
We trade each other in.
Talk is a poker game,
bed is a marketplace,
love is a soggy trap.

(Living in the Open 46-47)

Piercy understands that to live on her own terms, without apology, is to be something of an outsider. But to her, competition is fragmenting and uses up energy. If we really love, if we are political, if we are artists, there is no need for “trade-ins or betrayals, / only the slow accretion of community, / hand on hand.”

The last stanza can be read as an open love letter to those whom she sees as her true audience, all those who have learned how to “move in common rhythm”:

Help me to be clear and useful.
Help me to help you.
You are not my insurance, not my vacation,
not my romance, not my job, not my garden.
You wear your own flags and colors and your own names.
I will never have you.
I am a friend who loves you.

(Living in the Open 48)

Piercy has written a number of richly sensual love poems intrinsic to the structure of her work. While several poems appear to be moments of passion recollected in tranquility, there is usually a political message. “Unclench Yourself” expresses in sexual terms the same kind of ideas she articulates in political terms:

You will find
that in this river
we can breathe
we can breathe
and under water see
small gardens and bright fish
too tender
too tender
for the air.

(Living in the Open 59)

Sex allows for the magical world that is possible between women and men.

The poems of Piercy's fifth volume, The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing (1978), are concerned with what it means to love and work together in day-to-day mature relationships. Her willingness to nurture patiently a relationship is implicit in “The Summer We Almost Split.” She refers to how she almost “patented the M. Piercy Total Weight Loss / Through Total Relationship Loss Diet.” She admits that she is not immune to breakdowns in communications with those she loves. She and her lover reconcile: “Well, we came back, didn’t we, crawling / and clawing. We came to this place / under a hard clear light and this new / understanding.” This “new understanding” is built upon a love that forgives, a love that doesn’t unravel at every snag in the armor, a love that gathers in the feelings of a woman and feelings of a man and reaffirms their future together.

The poems of The Twelve Spoked Wheel Flashing are organized around commonplace events—eating, sleeping, writing letters, cooking, keeping warm, the shifts in weather, the blending of one day into another. Within the structure of the seasons and the span of one year, Piercy writes about her fear of failure, the fear of loss, of being alone, the fear of dying. The poet expresses her philosophy in “If They Come in the Night”:

                    We all lose
everything. We lose
ourselves. We are lost.
Only what we manage to do
lasts, what love sculpts from us;
but what I count, my rubies, my
children, are those moments
wide open when I know clearly
who I am, who you are, what we
do, a marigold, an oakleaf, a meteor,
with all my senses hungry and filled
at once like a pitcher with light.

(The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing 114)

Marge Piercy has reached “Those moments / wide open” because she continued the journey that began “above the treeline” in “Walking into Love.” Her creative integrity enabled her to go on to the prophetic visions of The Moon Is Always Female (1980). This book is divided into two sections: “Hand Games” are definitely not head games.2 They are based on instinct and an optimism about the future. She writes in the opening poem, “The Inside Dance”: “Dance like a jackrabbit / in the dunegrass, dance / not for release … but for the promise.” Here, at the age of forty-three, Piercy works toward a more profound understanding of relationships between all cycles of life, past, present, and future.

“Intruding” concerns every animal's instinct to protect its nest, to leave its own mark, while living with the threat of instant destruction. To be human is to be an invader, to be always marching “on somebody's roof.” While the poems of “Hand Games” respect the delicate balance of nature, the background is always that of a world where “Radiation is like oppression, / the average daily kind of subliminal toothache / you get almost used to” (“The Long Death”). Whereas in “Community” (Hard Loving, 1969), Piercy was a fugitive from “the shadow of the nuclear plant that kills the fish / with coke bottle lamps flickering / on the chemical night,” she now takes a more public stance in reminding everyone that they are guilty of neglecting the needs of the future:

We acquiesce at murder so long as it is slow,
murder from asbestos dust, from tobacco,
from lead in the water, from sulphur in the air,
and fourteen years later statistics are printed
on the rise in leukemia among children.
We never see their faces.

(The Moon Is Always Female 35)

“To Have Without Holding” says that it “hurts” to love “without air, to love consciously, / conscientiously, concretely, constructively.” But it is love that allows the human to feel human, to feel that the body is a significant medium for imposing its needs upon the world. Love is the context for survival. Piercy's definitions for love are summarized in the last stanza of “The Name I Call You”:3

Love is work. Love is pleasure. Love
is studying. Love is holding and
letting go without going away.
Love is returning and turning
and rebuilding and building new.
Love is words mating like falcons a mile
high, love is work growing
strong and blossoming like an apple tree,
like two rivers that flow together,
love is our minds stretching out webs
of thought and wonder and argument slung
across the flesh or the wires of distance,
love is the name I call you.

(Stone, Paper, Knife 97)

“The Lunar Cycle” is inspired by The Lunar Calendar, published by the Luna Press. This calendar has thirteen months and is centered around the times that the moon rises and sets in all its phases. Piercy writes in her brief introduction to these poems: “Rediscovering the lunar calendar has been a part of rediscovering woman's past, but it has also meant for me a series of doorways to some of the nonrational aspects of being a living woman.” The key words in the title poem, “The Moon Is Always Female,” are “priest,” “doctor” and “teacher.” The poet reaffirms the female as the original creator, the original doctor, and the original teacher of human life. It is a supreme irony that these original powers have been used in the destructive domestication of women throughout recorded history.

Piercy points to the horrible fact of female clitorectomy: “in a quarter / of the world girl children are so maimed.” Technically, a clitorectomy assures that a woman can bear children, while being denied sexual fulfillment. In fearing a woman's sexual fulfillment, a culture fears original power and the mystery of creation itself. Yet, all religions, all cultures are founded upon this kind of a sexual power base. The equivalent for man would mean: “You are left / your testicles but they are sewed to your / crotch … so that your precious / semen can be siphoned out.”

Piercy's proclamation is: “Never even at knife point have I wanted / or been willing to be or become a man. / I want only to be myself and free.” Piercy, the woman, the poet, the teacher, is the moon, subject to changes and cycles of fullness. In this book her desire is to travel deeper into the body and all its senses, into a creative intelligence unbound by the conformities of time, place, and sex.

In “Cutting the Grapes Free,” the grapevine is used as a metaphor for energy-time. The fruit it bears is androgynous: “Now the grapes swell in the sun yellow / black and ruby mounds of breast / and testicle.” From her blood there flows “fermented poetry,” which the vine works to mature into song: “Vine, from my blood is fermented / poetry and from yours wine that tunes my sinews / and nerves till they sing instead of screeching.” She admits to receiving a great deal of her energy needs from men: “I do not seek to leap free from the wheel / of change but to dance in that turning.” She further develops the messages of her earlier poetry, that of the necessity of working together, working with the land, and with the forces of gravity that spin us all on the same axis.


  1. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Adrienne Rich's Poetry, ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York: Norton, 1975) 90-98.

  2. I am indebted to Kendra Moore for this insight concerning Marge Piercy's Hand Games.

  3. “The name I call you” was included in the original manuscript for The Moon Is Always Female, mailed to me by Piercy on 10 September 1979. The poem was later deleted from the book for inclusion in her collection, Stone, Paper, Knife.

Works Cited

Piercy, Marge. Breaking Camp. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1968.

———. Hard Loving. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1969.

———. Letter to Eleanor M. Bender. 4 June 1980.

———. Living in the Open. New York: Knopf, 1976.

———. The Moon Is Always Female. New York: Knopf, 1980.

———. The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Rich, Adrienne. Adrienne Rich's Poetry. Ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. New York: Norton, 1975.

Jeanne Lebow (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4481

SOURCE: “Bearing Hope Back into the World: Marge Piercy's Stone, Paper, Knife,” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991, pp. 60-71.

[In the following essay, Lebow asserts that “the publication of Stone, Paper, Knife marks Piercy's full evolution into a doer, a user of tools, a woman who has created her own vision of the world on paper.”]

In “Through the Cracks: Growing Up in the Fifties,” a 1974 essay in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, Marge Piercy felt that “Success was telling some truth, creating some vision on paper” (207); however, she did not have hope of altering the world around her: “For if you cannot conceive of doing anything to alter your world, you reserve your admiration for manipulating concepts about those who have done something, or even for those who manipulate concepts about others who have manipulated concepts” (205).

Now, however, the publication of Stone, Paper, Knife marks Piercy's full evolution into a doer, a user of tools, a woman who has created her own vision of the world on paper.

Stone, paper, knife—these symbols, which Piercy redefines, are both the ancient tools of primitive man and the creative tools of artists: painters, photographers, printmakers, sculptors, children, and writers. In the first two sections of the book, “Mrs. Frankenstein's Dairy” and “In the Marshes of the Blood River,” stone, paper, and knife are negative forces of the old repressive order; however, in the last two sections, “Digging In” and “Elementary Odes,” stone, paper, and knife are elements of nature as well as hopeful forces for change and wholeness. Thus, the tools represent the circularity of incorporating old values into a new vision. The book, Stone, Paper, Knife, therefore, not only represents an evolution in the symbolic use of the tools of a children's game and an evolution from negative to positive relationships, but also reflects the growth of the poet's world view from anger to hope, a hope that rings out more clearly here than in any of Piercy's other collections of poems.

Not only are stone, paper, and knife historical tools for mankind, but also they are appropriately old tools for Piercy. While Stone, Paper, Knife reveals the full evolution of the tools and of Piercy's world view, these three symbols do appear in her earlier work. In fact, they dominate the poem “Athena in the front lines,” published five years earlier in The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing and selected for inclusion in her collection Circles on the Water. In this poem, a woman who believes that making is “an attack too, on bronze, on air, on time,” Piercy see words as beneficial stones, “pebbles / sucked from mouth to mouth since Chaucer” (206). Containing the metaphor of the artist as well as the three symbolic tools, this earlier poem is the forerunner of the new book of poetry. The tools appear as follows in “Athena in the front lines”:

The stone:
Wring the stones of the hillside
for the lost plays of Sophocles they heard.
Art is nonaccident. Like love, it is
a willed tension up through the mind
balancing thrust and inertia, energy
stored in a bulb. Then the golden
trumpet of the narcissus pokes up
willfully into the sun, focusing the world.
The knife:
The epigraphs stabbed the Song of Songs
through the smoking heart
Generations of women wrote poems and hid
them in drawers, because an able
woman is a bad woman.
The paper:
A woman scribbling for no one doodles,
dabbles in madness, dribbles shame.
Art requires a plaza in the mind, a space
lit by the sun of regard. That tension
between maker and audience, that feedback.


Because Piercy knows that destruction of the old order must occur before the world can be remade, “Mrs. Frankenstein's Diary,” the first section of Stone, Paper, Knife, tells of the death of such an old order in the form of a long relationship. In her early essay “Through the Cracks,” Piercy explains why the old order must die: “Mutually exclusive sex roles divided humanity into winners and losers, makers and made, doers and done, fuckers and fuckees, yin and yang, and who the hell wants to be passive, moist, cold, receptive, unmoving, inert: sort of the superbasement of humanity” (212). Of the two types of men that Piercy says women were trained to love in the fifties, the Sensitive Hood and Iceman, Dr. Frankenstein is Iceman: “the block of stone, destructive but not usually self-destructive”; without the ability to love, he is the “perfect tool of empire, whether in his study or his factory or his trenchcoat” (124-25). It is therefore no accident that readers of “Mrs. Frankenstein” see Dr. Frankenstein as stone:

An old howitzer, a sewing machine,
a Concorde engine, chrome bumpers,
a scientist trained never to feel,
a fucking machine, a stone face
without ears to hear others.


If stone is one of the major metaphors for Dr. Frankenstein himself, living under the weight of that stone describes Mrs. Frankenstein's role in the relationship, a situation Piercy examines at length in “The weight”: “All too long I have been carrying a weight / balanced on my head as I climb the stairs / up from the subway in rush hour jostle” (24). Not only has she been forced to carry around this weight, but the weight sits on her:

Wife was a box you kept pushing me down
into like a trunk crammed to overflowing
with off-season clothes, whose lid
you must push on to shut. You sat
on my head. You sat on my belly.


Dr. Frankenstein's heart of stone lies parallel to his arid personality, a temperament that resembles a desert of pulverized rock. At the beginning of “The weight,” Piercy's Mrs. Frankenstein says: “I lived in the winter drought of his anger, / cold and dry and bright. I could not breathe” (24). And at the poem's end, she states:

Your anger was a climate I inhabited
like a desert in dry frigid weather
of high thin air and ivory sun,
sand dunes the wind lifted into stinging
clouds that blinded and choked me
where the only ice was in the blood. (26)

At the same time that the poem “Where nothing grows” continues the drought imagery, it also emphasizes both Piercy's rejection of this desert and her rejection of the old order which it represents. She watches the old lover march off into the desert, but she does not follow him, nor does she choose “stones and arid / spikes of cactus” (29).

Rocks also represent the materialistic success which Dr. Frankenstein embraces. In “A visit from the ex,” Piercy states, “You showed me your new quartz / movement solar batteried gold / Cadillac mistress” (37). The emphasis of his lifestyle is emphasized by the gift packages at the end of the poem, packages that do not even contain quartz but are “all empty” (37).

In “Ragged ending,” the vulnerability of woman shreds like the gift wrap on these empty boxes, leaving only tattered remnants:

Every middle-aged woman abandoned
by her longest love blows
in the night wind like torn
newspapers, shredding.


Saying that a woman in the hands of a man can be a powerless tool—a powerless piece of torn paper—Piercy is showing the position of paper, the second symbol, within the old order of section one. Here, in “It breaks,” the poet talks of the unprotected trust and wallpaper of the relationship standing stripped:

Suddenly we are naked,
abandoned. The plaster of bedrooms
hangs exposed to the street, wall
paper, pink and beige skins of broken
intimacy torn and flapping.


Because Piercy fears that paper contracts and trusts will never be the same, the poem concludes with a restricted faith in love and partnership, a reservation symbolized by her refusal to “share a joint checking account” in the future (40).

The final poem of the section, “Wind is the wall of the year,” heightens the image of trusting women as fragile, as capable of being “brushed aside” by Iceman: “The strong broad wind of autumn brushes / before it torn bags, seared apple skins, / moth wings, scraps of party velvet” (41). Although trees and their paper products are often at the mercy of Iceman, in “The deck that pouts,” Piercy plans to resurrect herself from self-pity and from ashes: “I rise to rebuild my house / of cards, of paper, here / at the meeting place of winds” (9). When she does rise, she arms herself with the knife, the third image of the book, and says, in the same poem, “I must grasp / my decisions like swords” (8).

Extending her belief that a relationship is a living thing that can die at the hands of a cold scientist, Piercy shows in section two, “In the Marshes of the Blood River,” how scientists are killing not only women as individuals but the community of women, as well as the larger community of the earth. Both “The disturbance” and “Jill in the box” bring back the motif of the wife in the box that appears in section one, but this time the social implications are wider. On one level, “The disturbance” examines the need for fathers and mothers to share child care, while on another level, it calls for community-wide child care: “Should we really just cram mother / back in the broom closet with baby / and go on with our business” (57). Piercy continues the closet image with “Jill in the box”; however, this poem asserts that women are not merely pushed down like puppets with the weight of stones upon them, but also are mutilated if they try to peep “at sunlight through drawn curtains” or try “to push through hunger to knowledge” (61). Here Piercy sees swords and knives in the hands of the enemy: “The nation bristles still with busy people / who long to cut off women's hands and feet, / forbid us to bloom rampant and scarlet” (61).

Piercy believes that knives and papers also have been used as dual weapons aimed at the larger community. In “Down at the bottom of things,” the “long bills” of herons are seen both as knives that stab and as bureaucratic bills that kill:

In the salty estuary of the blood river
small intermittent truths dart
in fear through the eel grass, and the nastier
facts come striding, herons stabbing
with long bills yet graceful when they rise in heavy
flight. Here we deal with archaic base
          of advertising slogans and bureaucratic
orders that condemn babies to kwashiorkor,
here on the mud flats of language.


Writing in “For the Furies,” Piercy plots appropriate ends for each greedy exploiter who threatens the community with paper, stone, and knives. Here in the last poem of the section, she invokes the Furies, avenging feminine spirits of retributive justice in Greek mythology, spirits whose heads were wreathed with serpents. She curses all of the Icemen who treat people as pieces of paper or as rocks: the generals who play war games, the chemical company presidents who pollute the rivers, the man from the utility company who says radiation is harmless, cigarette advertisers, the men who make movies where women are raped and “enjoy” it “as you might enjoy an electric saw / taking off your thumb” (72), and slum landlords who bribe fire inspectors and who hide behind “paper corporations.” She curses those who think that they are not guilty because they kill indirectly as though they were filling out an order blank: “For them, murder is ordering a pair of ski / boots from a catalog. The dead, the mangled / are faceless others removed like rock” from the bed of a highway (76). Society punishes crimes against the old paternal order, crimes against the government, banks, or wealthy landowners. But, as Piercy notes, “crimes against / the mother are honored, paid in gold” (76). The poet calls for people to join together to fight these crimes against women, these Mack-the-Knife crimes against Mother Earth.

But Piercy is not a poet filled with curses. The first two sections tell of the death of love and earth at the hands of Iceman, but the third and fourth sections deal with the hope of regenerating love and land. Here stone, paper, and knife become the tools for “Digging In” and become “elementary” forces, as the two section titles suggest. And here the phoenix rises as a new house in “The Annealing,” the first poem of “Digging In,” a new house founded “without evasion, without denial / on the bedrock of death” (70). Through connotation and denotation, the compound word “bedrock” represents the loving foundation of a new relationship built on equality as well as the couple's foundation of the living earth around them. Piercy takes the bedrock image to another level in “A private bestiary,” a poem that pictures the lovers as dolphins, falcons, snakes, snails, “hot-blooded” dinosaurs, and finally as peaceful rocks, “braille” “bestiaries” curled together in bed: “stones / sleeping in our mountainside fossils / locked inside” (115).

Just as nature uses heat and pressure to create fossils, man can produce his own rocks—crockery and glass—by heating clay and silica. Using the image of household china, Piercy tells of a changing point of view when she describes in “Mornings in various years” how her mornings have evolved from a day with Dr. Frankenstein, a “day piled up / before me like dirty dishes” to a day alone where “I would trip / on ghostly shards of broken / domestic routines” (94) to a day with the new lover, an “unblemished day before us / like a clean white ironstone platter / waiting to be filled” (95). Piercy believes also in picking up the pieces and recycling them to make something new and beautiful from something broken. From “broken gutter bottles, / pain and jagged edges, loss and waste, / the refuse of city lives jangling,” the poet and her lover piece together a stained glass window (“The name I call you” 96). In this new life, “the name I call you” is not Dr. Frankenstein but “love” (97). It is therefore no coincidence that Piercy returns to the image of “stained glass windows that shape / light into icons” as a unification of the world's “jagged edges” in her final poem of the book (“Stone, paper, knife” 143).

Again connecting love with the world of living things in this third section, Piercy shows that love, like the earth and the plants which grow in its crumbled rock, must be cultivated tenderly. She tells how her Hungarian hot pepper bush wilted during a lovers' quarrel. And in the final stanza of “Death of the Hungarian hot pepper bush,” Piercy, no longer passive or powerless, takes the initiative for “reseeding” the relationship. Continuing the fertility imagery in a later poem in the section, “In which she begs (like everybody else) that love may last,” the poet prays for a hothouse love where she is a rose that blooms all year (116).

Paralleling this hothouse image is the incubation image which Piercy works throughout the first three sections in order to prepare for the final hatching of hope in the last section. Beginning as an infertile “stone” that “will never hatch into a chick / or even a beetle” (“From something, nothing” 27), the egg evolves into a poem that breaks “on the rim of the iron pan” and bleeds out (“It weeps away” 69). The second section of the book describes the interim period where Piercy has seen herself and the community of “the great world egg” cracked by the cold scientist (“Very late July” 71). Here Piercy fears that, in addition to cracking the egg, the scientists and others will cook and eat it:

          It’s an araucana
egg, all blue and green
swaddled in filmy clouds.
Don’t let them cook and gobble it,
azure and jungle green egg laid
by the extinct phoenix of the universe.

(“Let us gather at the river” 48)

Yet here in the third section, “real chickens lay real eggs” (“The West Main Book Store chickens” 98), and Piercy and her lover find “the as yet unbroken / blue egg of spring is [their] joy as [they] twist / and twine about each other in the bed” (“Snow, snow” 103).

Because the four elements—air, earth, fire, and water—represent Mother Nature's tools, as stone, paper, and knife can be mankind's tools, the final section, “Elementary Odes,” is the poet's integration of the relationships between man and woman, between mankind and planet. These four odes prepare readers for the different look at the game of stone, paper, knife that Piercy gives in her final poem.

In “What goes up,” the first ode, Piercy explains that the feathers or down of air is “our second skin”; “the intimate element, in / and out of our bodies all day, feeding / us quietly, stoking our little fires” and entering us “like a lover” (120). Although the wind can be gentle, here it can also be a knife that “kills” and “tears down” and “resculpts” (121).

The second poem of the section represents rock in its commonest form. Again Piercy returns to the image of bedrock:

You are the bed we all sleep on.
You are the food we eat, the food
we ate, the food we will become.
We are walking trees rooted in you.

(“The common living dirt” 123)

Personifying the earth as a mortal goddess, Piercy chastises readers because they have lost primitive man's belief in the earth as living and therefore as vulnerable to death. The greed of the cold scientist thus endangers all eggs, all “jewels of the genes wrapped in seed” (125). Piercy again asserts, “Power warps because it involves joy / in domination; also because it means / forgetting how we too starve” (125). She continues:

Because you can die of overwork, because
you can die of the fire that melts
rock, because you can die of the poison
that kills the beetle and the slug,
we must come again to worship you
on our knees, the common living dirt.

(“The common living dirt” 125)

In the third poem of the section, “Ashes, ashes, all fall down,” Piercy describes the paradox of fire, that warming element which has the power to dissolve rock: “Emblem of all we have seized upon / in nature, energy made property, / as what we use uses us” (126). Fire represents a force that we “depend on” that in turn “enslaves us,” a force that we “live by” that eventually “kills us” (126). Fire is passion that “simplifies like surgery,” a fire that burns “the friends who can’t clear out / fast enough” (127). Yet as Piercy notes, life without fire is the “architecture / of airports, laundromats” (128). To avoid blandness and coldness, we must leap through fire “to bring the sun around” because it may not return “without risk” (128). Without passion, the world belongs to Iceman: “Glaciers slide down the mountains / choking the valleys” (129). Reintroducing the idea of the fragile self as paper, Piercy continues the paradox of fire by suggesting that not only is breathing “a little burning,” but also life is burning where “what we burn / is all the others we eat and drink” and “what we burn / is ourselves” (129). However, Piercy affirms that, while the back may “bow like a paper match,” we can rise from the ashes (129).

Water, the final element, receives its tribute in “The pool that swims in us,” the poem where Piercy shows mankind and nature united in “the whole world river” (135). Here the “ocean we carry inside” is “bottled to nourish us among alien rocks,” to join us in “wet jokes and wet creams” (131). The poet contrasts the way dolphins cooperate with each other with the way that people “among rock and cement” fear and use each other (132). The poet's answer to her own question of “How can we feel part of one another?” is to “feel on our nerves the great pattern” (133). In this poem Piercy echoes the image of Circles on the Water, the title of her book of selected poems which she was putting together when she made a decision to rewrite the poem that became the beginning of “Elementary Odes”; “we are of one tide ebbing and flowing. / We are one circular pool. Ideas spread / in ripples” (134). The last two stanzas, however, offer a more hopeful resolution of man, woman, planet, and the four elements than does any of her previous work:

We carry in the wet cuneiform of proteins
the long history of working to be human.
In this time we will fail into ashes,
fail into twisted metal and dry bones,
or break through into a sea of shared abundance
where man must join woman and dolphin and whale
in salty joy, in flowing trust.
We must feel our floating on the whole world river,
all people breathing the same thin skin of air,
all people growing our food in the same worn
dirt, all drinking water from the same
vast cup of clay. We must be healed at last
to our soft bodies and our hard planet
to make fruitful conscious history in common.

(“The pool that swims in us” 134-35)

When readers encounter the final poem, which is also the title poem, they realize that Piercy has molded the rest of the book as preparation. Here she asks “Who shall bear hope back into the world?” and explains how to use the elements of the children's game of stone, paper, knife in new ways to bring back spring into our world. Although “[p]aper covers stone, / knife cuts paper, stone breaks knife,” Piercy states, “you learn each one's strength and weakness / are light and shadows thrown by one source” (“Stone, paper, knife” 136). In other words, all people and all tools are part of one earth and, therefore, are interrelated in the game of life.

In stanza two, games become “lighter rituals,” and art becomes “game only if you play at it” (136). Piercy is here suggesting that we “play at it” instead of “Stubbing” our toes “on habit” (137). She asks, in stanza three, what we should “give over to habit like an old slipper / flung to the dog” and what we should “save and strip” (139). The answer, given in stanza four, is to celebrate good habits, rituals, and “holy days” that “give our passing dignity” (140). Stanza five warns to “let go” the old, destructive games played with stone, paper, and knife:

We can be addicted to the stone
of submission, of security, addicted
to the paper of mobility, blowing
lighter than dust and thin as water.
We can be addicted to the cleaver
of our will and go hacking through.
Security, power, freedom contradict.

(“Stone, paper, knife” 141)

This stanza also asks how to reorganize the game:

How can we open our hands and let go
the old dangerous toys we clutch
hard, the mama dolls, the cowboy
six-shooters, the Monopoly sets,
the ray guns and rockets? How can we
with only stone and paper and knife
build with imagination a better game?


Stanza six provides the answer in the form of a plea to replace apathetic games with mobilization and “the hard clear image of hope” (142). Even though evil tries to control both the elements and the tools by turning fire into bombs, by poisoning the waters, by selling children “like newspapers” on street corners, “we” must quit “sulking in corners” and bear hope: “Who shall bear hope, who else but us? / After us is the long wind blowing / off the ash pit of blasted genes” (143). And how does Piercy suggest bearing this hope? She says:

We must begin with the stone of mass
resistance, and pile stone on stone on stone,
begin cranking out whirlwinds of paper,
the word that embodies before any body
can rise to dance on the wind, and the sword
of action that cuts through. We must shine
with hope, stained glass windows that shape
light into icons, glow like lanterns
borne before a procession.

(“Stone, paper, knife” 143-44)

Piercy's final question of Stone, Paper, Knife—“Who shall bear hope back into the world?”—places her clearly in the midst of those politically active women writers who would like to see men, women, and the earth together in warm, interdependent relationships. She therefore echoes and answers the questions Toni Cade Bambara raised in “What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow”:

And the questions that face the millions of us on the earth are—in whose name will the twenty-first century be claimed? Can the planet be rescued from the psychopaths? Where are the evolved, poised-for-light adepts who will assume the task of administering power in a human interest, of redefining power as being not the privilege or class right to define, deform, and dominate but as the human responsibility to define, transform and develop?

(The Writer on Her Work 153)

Because Stone, Paper, Knife offers a redefinition of power, tools, and games, it reveals both Piercy's willingness to accept responsibility and her hope and faith that others will join her.

In “Thoughts on Writing: A Diary,” Susan Griffin explains the difference between the old and the new literary orders:

… the most interesting creative work is being done at the moment by those who are excluded and have departed from the dominant culture—women, people of color, homosexuals. And this work, unlike the decadent, and abstract, and dadaist, and concrete [almost scientific usage of words, as sound units without sense], and mechanistic work of the dominant culture, is not despairing. This work is radiant with will, with the desire to speak; it sings with the clear tones of long-suppressed utterance, is brilliant with light, with powerful and graceful forms, with forms that embody feeling and enlarge the capacity of the beholder, of the listener, to feel.

(The Writer on Her Work 116)

These words well describe Piercy's use of the “powerful and graceful forms” of stone, paper, and knife as tools to create both a new world order and a new literary order in the four sections of her new book of poems. For Stone, Paper, Knife recognizes what Piercy has noted in her earlier poem, “Athena in the front lines”: “Making is an attack on dying, on chaos, / on blind inertia, on the second law / of thermodynamics, on indifference, on cold,” and “writing implies faith in someone listening” (207).

Stone, Paper, Knife is both an attack on what Iceman has done to the world and a statement of faith in the rebirth of hope. Although Piercy used some of the symbols before and stated some of the themes in similar ways, the difference between Stone, Paper, Knife and her earlier collections of poems is the fact that now the poet herself is truly “in the front lines” yet does not despair. She believes in the hope of being heard.

Works Cited

Piercy, Marge. Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy. New York: Knopf, 1982.

———. “Through the Cracks.” Partisan Review 42(1974), 202-16. Rpt. as “Through the Cracks: Growing Up in the Fifties.” Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1982. 113-28.

———. Stone, Paper, Knife. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Sternberg, Janet, ed. The Writer on Her Work. New York: Norton, 1983.

Ronald Nelson (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4956

SOURCE: “The Renewal of the Self By Returning to the Elements,” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991, pp. 73-89.

[In the following essay, Nelson considers the theme of healing in Piercy's verse.]

Marge Piercy speaks of poetry as “utterance that heals on two levels.” First, it heals the psyche because “it can fuse for the moment all the different kinds of knowing in its saying.” Second, it can heal “as a communal activity. It can make us share briefly the community of feeling and hoping that we want to be. It can create a rite in which we experience each other with respect and draw energy” (“Mirror Images” 189-90). Healing is a timely metaphor. In World in Collapse, John Killinger describes “a universal situation in which man is buffeted, upended, and generally perplexed by a world not of his making and certainly beyond his control” (2). Martin Esslin, in his aptly titled book on Harold Pinter, The Peopled Wound, suggests that the worst wounds are those inflicted by people. In No Exit, Sartre goes so far as to define hell as other people. One frequent result of the complexities of modern life is a sense of “cosmic loneliness” (Killinger 148). Anguish is another. Piercy's healing metaphor acknowledges the physical and mental wounds that are an inevitable part of inhabiting the planet. It also acknowledges that these wounds, being deep enough to destroy the self, require careful treatment.

What comes through strongly in Stone, Paper, Knife (1983) is Piercy's attempt to treat these wounds, perhaps to heal them. She locates the sore, applies medication, and, without being didactic, suggests ways to avoid subsequent wounds. Her artistry, like that of other fine writers, provides subtle clues to understanding and dealing with oneself and others in a difficult world. Reflecting the role of the artist described by Joseph Conrad in his Preface to “The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” she probes “to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions” (13). Her appeal is, in Conrad's words:

to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities—like the vulnerable body within a steel armour. … [She] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts.


In “Elementary Odes,” the final section of Stone, Paper, Knife, Piercy explores the basics of life in terms of the four traditional elements: earth, air, fire, and water. By returning to the elements she enables readers to share in the renewal of self.

Five long poems constitute “Elementary Odes,” the first four of which focus primarily on the four elements individually, while the final poem, the title poem, integrates them into a concluding statement of belief. They progress from air in “What goes up, ” to earth in “The common living dirt,” to fire in “Ashes, ashes, all fall down,” to water in “The pool that swims in us,” and finally to “Stone, paper, knife.” While demonstrating both positive and negative aspects, these poems celebrate the elements because they make life possible. Piercy realizes that the interdependence of all things as part of “the great pattern” (“The pool that swims in us” 133) is a matter of survival and self-fulfillment.

The techniques that Piercy uses assure an appreciation of the elements and of life itself, in all its forms, and draw readers into these odes. The ancient belief that everything was once made of earth, water, fire, and air creates both an appreciation of the timelessness of these elements and a genuine concern for the future. The titles of the poems challenge readers to reflect on their possible implications. Piercy also engages readers by addressing each element in the second person and converses imaginatively with it. Her searching questions invite answers as she links the elements and juxtaposes them in phrases that force the mind to contemplate their beauty. Readers become convinced of the interrelatedness of all things, and this conviction—being a part of the world rather than apart from it—provides spiritual refreshment.


In the first poem, “What goes up,” Piercy is concerned with air, its inhabitants, and its characteristics. Her title takes the reader imaginatively upward in mid-air while simultaneously tempting the completion of the cliche: “must come down.” This subtle lifting and lowering anticipates the second poem in the section, “The common living dirt.” “What goes up” shows the creatures that inhabit the airy realm, primarily birds, in flight or on foot. The air itself appears in a state of heightened tension at the peak of its savage fury or in a state of dissipated energy, of restful calm. The colors that the sky can assume are described in memorable hues. Piercy insures the very palpability of the air by its juxtaposition with the other elements. Knowledge of the world of the air—what its qualities are and what takes place in it—results from her penetrating description of things external and internal. This knowledge develops intimacy and unity with nature.

At the start of the poem, Piercy describes the experience of Jack Swedberg, a construction worker who, having seen a bald eagle, purchases a camera and returns to capture its majesty photographically. She immortalizes the moment in a word which, like the click of a camera, reflects Swedberg's new calling: “Conversion” (119). As a result of this “first encounter with the fierce queen of winds,” he has become a different kind of construction worker, one who composes artistically, rather than in, or perhaps in addition to, a utilitarian way. The irreversibility of his new vocation is encompassed in Piercy's summation of the experience: “The raptor seized him into art, carried / off to his vocation like a rabbit.” The artistic product of Swedberg's camera captures his new-found appreciation:

A photograph of an eagle just setting down
on the ice of Quabbin, pinions outspread:
look a winter storm in the eye.


This sequence provides a fresh perspective on a creature that alights on a stretch of ice with quiet dignity, “pinions outspread,” and faces impending adversity. This initial image of gathered composure serves as a beacon of hope that carries through to the final lines of “Stone, paper, knife.”

In the fourth stanza Piercy mentions that it does not take the rare and noble eagle to inspire an appreciation of wildlife:

The local hawks drag awe from me,
a giant reel of wire unwinding up the sky,
me, a fish on the bottom of my pond, hooked.


This passage metaphorically and dynamically affirms her connection with all life, from hawk to fish, as well as with art. Both she and Swedberg are in the grasp of art, as surely as the rabbit and the fish. The hook at the end of the wire is deeply embedded in her—“the bottom of my pond.” Readers, too, become inescapably involved in the reassurance of belonging to the scheme of things.

Then, as if transported in the “ocean of air”—“a phrase that lacks / vividness till you fly”—readers are reminded of the fact that:

We are feathered with air, downed
with it. Air is our second skin.
It enters us like a lover, or we die.


The air envelops and penetrates as Piercy addresses it and says:

 … you are the intimate element, in
and out of our bodies all day, feeding
us quietly, stoking our little fires.


As in the phrase “ocean of air,” Piercy's description gains strength through interrelation with another element. The air, so essential to human beings, has also shaped the bodies of birds: “the hummingbird / who spins sunlight into jewels”; it is intimately related to other flying creatures as well: “The monarch rising among the milkweed” and “A cloud / of floating exclamation points: / fritillaries” (121). These reminders of the everyday interplay of air with the creatures that rely on it for their existence are arresting.

Piercy sees the sky not in its traditional blue, but in countless colors: “pigeon gray, / wet granite, pearl mist,” “split pea soup,” “sulphurous / brown gray,” and “white.” It is varied both in color and mood as it erupts into “banging brass / gongs,” “slamming oaken / doors,” “tearing on pines,” storms that can be “vaster than imagination” (120, 122):

                                                            Here on this
sandbar we fear the storm but relish it.
It kills. It tears down. It resculpts
the shore … 


In spite of a close call—“Death brushes dark wings / against our shoulders but flies on”—“we venture out to confront / an altered world,” cleansed in the “washed air” like the jaegers who “stand bemused in the marsh.” Hope, “banked low … flares up yellow / and hot and leaps, as we live and breathe” (122). A feeling of guarded optimism develops after confronting the whims of the air—now savage, now gentle.


Emerging into the “washed air” after the storm, Piercy confronts the earth in the second poem, “The common living dirt.” She celebrates the lovely products of the soil—woman, mother, abused victim, and goddess—and urges a worshipful regard for the earth.

The first stanza describes delicate, lovely plants that emerge from the soil: “The small ears prick on the bushes, / furry buds, shoots tender and pale.” These plants elicit respect because of their fragility and tiny defense mechanisms. Like the colors in “What goes up,” these plants are deep in hue: “delicate gold, chartreuse, crimson, / mauve speckled, just dashed on” (123).

Piercy then describes the soil of spring just after winter:

The soil stretches naked. All winter
hidden under the down comforter of snow,
delicious now, rich in the hand
as chocolate cake: the fragrant busy
soil the worm passes through her gut
and the beetle swims in like a lake.


The soil is personified as a naked woman from whom not the blanket but the “down comforter” of snow has been removed. Because of its gustatory and tactile richness, the soil, which the snow has covered and then exposed, invites both worm and beetle to move within it, a penetration that is considered fulfilling. Again Piercy combines more than one element to provide a whole greater than individual parts.

As she addresses the undressed soil—“You can live thousands of years / undressing in the spring”—Piercy acknowledges the intensity of her attachment:

As I kneel to put the seeds in
careful as stitching, I am in love.
You are the bed we all sleep on.
You are the food we eat, the food
we ate, the food we will become.
We are walking trees rooted in you. (123)

Her posture of reverence and care reflects her passionate realization that the soil provides the essentials of life. She finds fulfillment there, while deliberately and sensitively working with the common living dirt, assisting it to realize its potential. Appreciating the gifts of the soil, past, present, and future, brings fulfillment. The line, “We are walking trees rooted in you,” suggests a phallic image that reiterates the first lines of stanza two: “The soil stretches naked.” The description of fertility, which pictures the soil after “undressing in the spring”—“your black / body, your red body, you brown body / penetrated by the rain. Here / is the goddess unveiled, / the earth opening her strong thighs”—reinforces the sexual image. The soil receives and continues whatever is put into it with the dignity and beauty of a “goddess unveiled.”

Both women and the soil have been taken for granted, have been tread upon unthinkingly for too long. Misuse has created the faulty assumption that the soil would yield its fruits forever:

We have contempt for what we spring
from. Dirt, we say, you’re dirt
as if we were not all your children.


This arrogance suggests that a change of attitude—“the simplest gratitude”—is needed:

We lack the knowledge we showed ten
thousand years past, that you live
a goddess but mortal, that what we take
must be returned; that the poison we drop
in you will stunt our children's growth.


This insistent use of parallel structure makes the poem potent. With each “that,” “that,” “that,” Piercy urges readers to change their attitudes. Bound “to the seasons, / to the will of the plants,” to ready corn and ripe peaches, she worships on her knees—“laying / the seeds in you, that worship rooted / in need, in hunger, in kinship, / flesh of the planet with my own flesh”—and experiences the joy of seeing a garden as “a chapel” and “a meadow / gone wild in grass and flower” as “a cathedral.”

In the final two stanzas, Piercy considers the reasons that power corrupts:

Power warps because it involves joy
in domination; also because it means
forgetting how we too starve, break
like a corn stalk in the wind, how we
die like the spinach of drought,
how what slays the vole slays us.


Forgetting their fragile mortality and attempting to be dominant, people are out of harmony with the world; their perspectives are distorted. They must humble themselves by coming to their knees in recognition of their true relationship with the soil. With heightened awareness of their interdependence with it, they have some hope of survival.


Piercy's poem on fire—“Ashes, ashes, all fall down”—is an attempt to come to grips with the third of the elements and with her own life as part of the universal experience. The title of the poem suggests the children's game of “Ring-a-ring- o’roses,” one version of which concludes, “We all fall down.”1 It also evokes thought of the phoenix legend, and that evocation brings the disturbing realization that consuming others is part of survival. To become more aware of what life is and how to survive is to become revitalized to the extent of partially dispelling the darkness of ignorance.

Addressing the element in Part One, Piercy notes that, unlike the other elements dealt with so far, fire “cannot enter us. No pain / is like your touch” (126). She reminds readers that once they lived without fire, but being dependent on it, they are now caught in a kind of mutual destruction:

 … what we use uses us; what
we depend on enslaves us; what
we live by kills us.


Perhaps to escape that chilling thought,

We stretch out our hands to the fire
place watching the colors shift
until the mind gives up buried images
like the secret blue in the log
the flame unlocks.


But from the hearth she recalls burning scenes of horror—both physical and mental conflagrations—and emphasizes the depth of her involvement in memory. For example, in the last stanza of Part Two, she tells of her jealousy:

Burning, burning, I huddled over the cauldron
of my jealousy bubbling like hot lead.
Under my hilly day a fire in a coal mine
was smouldering, consuming invisibly
the solid earth.


She laments the waste of self, a valuable resource, as she smoulders within, unwittingly a phoenix.

Opening the third part with the line, “Passion simplifies like surgery,” Piercy powerfully suggests that her passions have cut into her—an image that anticipates stanza three of the next poem: “A scalpel slits us open like a busted / bag of groceries, and out we ooze” (131). Using the word “burn” in two senses, she attempts to deal with her injury:

We burn, and what we burn are the books,
the couch, the rug, the bed, the houseplants,
the friends who can’t clear out
fast enough.


Considering alternately the passionate life and the passionless life, she settles on neither:

Burning, burning, we can’t live
in the fire. Nor can we in ice.
Long ago we wandered from our homeland
tropics following game to these harsh
but fertile shores.


To leave the security of home is to search for a richer security, one that entails great risk but holds the elusive promise of fulfillment.

In the fourth part Piercy recalls ancestors who “leapt / through fire, to bring the sun around,” an act that involved personal danger. She seems to urge risk-taking, for

Without risk gradually the temperature
drops, slowly, slowly. One day you notice
the roses have all died. The next year
no corn ripens.
Then even the wheat rots where it stands.
Glaciers slide down the mountains
choking the valleys. The birds are gone.
On the north side of the heart, the snow
never melts.


The consequences of life without risk are physical and spiritual death. Staring into fire and seeing figures, she remembers moments of bliss: “the memory / of times I have danced in ecstasy all night, / my hair on fire.” Such Dionysian moments are worth the risk.

In Part Five Piercy qualifies what she said about fire in the first of Part One—“you cannot enter us. No pain / is like your touch” (126). Refining her knowledge of the element, she realizes that, paradoxically, fire does enter, for “breathing is a little burning. … All the minute furnaces stoked inside / warm our skin” (129). In so doing, she perceives the destructiveness of fire, both literally and figuratively; to live is to destroy both self and others:

Life is a burning, and what we burn
is all the others we eat and drink.
We burn the carrot, we burn the cow,
we burn the calf, we burn the peach,
we burn the wine.
Life is a burning, and what we burn
is ourselves … the dark hair powdering
to grey ashes.


By defining life in terms of fire, she is able to grasp an unsettling truth. This she articulates in an address to the fire: “You are all we cannot live with / or without.”


Noses drip. Armpits sweat. Eyes weep.
We are born from a small salt pond
yet immersed in our own element we drown.
We have no natural habitat, we have
no home.


Unlike birds that inhabit the air and worms that live in the earth, “We have been making a home badly for millennia.” Piercy's sense of homelessness is implied at the start of this poem, where she recounts her departure from her lover. She takes comfort “from the slack of my pleased flesh / and the salty damp of my thighs.” Her anguished sense of waste, of loss, is graphic:

We are wet jokes and wet dreams.
A scalpel slits us open like a busted
bag of groceries, and out we ooze.


In Part Two Piercy notices how dolphins help one another though they have “no houses, / no coins, no tools or tolls, no warehouses, / no armies, classes or taxes” (132). They are “wise cousins” who have much to teach. People seem only to fear, use, or destroy each other. “[T]en thousand years of bad habits” must be corrected.

Part Three questions, “How can we feel part of one another?” (133), as Piercy seeks ways to correct the errors of humans. They must become aware of the unity of the world, the interrelatedness of all creatures and all phenomena:

The same water rises from the well, runs
through us and falls to rush through sewers.
We are of one tide ebbing and flowing.
We are one circular pool … 
One river is gliding, spurting,
soaking through every living cell. The calm
that drinks the tide and the high-rise
dweller turning the faucet share that fluid.


Because everyone is influenced by what happens, “We must feel on our nerves the great pattern” (133). Such a feeling demands the kind of gut recognition that combines the rational with the irrational to grip the soul in a lasting way. Only by breaking “through into a sea of shared abundance / where man must join woman and dolphin and whale / in salty joy, in flowing trust” is it possible to survive, to be healed and “make fruitful conscious history in common” (134-35).


“Stone, paper, knife,” the title poem, is the last of the five “Elementary Odes.” With its 197 lines stretching through six parts, it is the longest and most challenging poem. The title is adapted from the children's game, “Stone, Paper, Scissors,” in which two or more participants count to three and show with one hand either stone (closed fist), paper (flat hand), or scissors (index and middle fingers in a V-shape).2 The rules of the game are as follows: paper covers stone, scissors cut paper, stone breaks scissors.3 This game of chance involves outguessing the others in the group and, if successful, either slapping (paper as winner), punching (stone as winner), or whanging with two fingers (scissors as winner) the others.4 The version of the game that Piercy presents—substituting “knife” for “scissors”—may express the version familiar to her, or it may be a reshaping of the original to serve her artistic aim. In either case, the use of “knife” makes the game more serious and potentially deadly.

The front cover of Stone, Paper, Knife depicts three hands holding the respective objects: one covering a piece of paper, another grasping a jacknife, and a third closed around a primitive-looking fragment of stone pointed inward. The essence of the game is captured on the cover, where the three possibilities converge in timeless tableau. A unity is thereby suggested. Moreover, an extension toward a literal reality is intimated by the inclusion of actual implements in the picture. Indeed, these tools assume symbolic qualities, pointing the way toward significant action. Using these instruments as extensions of the hand, Piercy suggests how to go beyond the children's game by using these implements constructively.

The first part of the poem gives the rules of this age-old game, then the imponderables, such as guessing at what the others will show and plotting their intentions. The game teaches the players the “strength and weakness” of each other: that they are “light and shadows thrown by one source” (136).

Part Two extends the idea of games to art. Leading into the concept, Piercy says that she likes “plain pokers … not games where / every red odd card is wild.” She prefers to work with the hand she has been dealt and suggests the necessity of overcoming obstacles in games in order to derive benefits: “Grace shines in precisely doing / what the structure makes difficult.” By reworking ideas, people create art, which is “game only if you play at it, / a mirror that reflects from the inside out.” Playing with and shaping the materials of the mind into art can satiate a universal longing: “We like knowing what is to happen / with small surprises” (136). People need certainty and unexpected moments of pleasure to make life interesting. However, when the stakes are higher than mere diversion, the artist is justified in leading readers to experience “gross shocks / that stretch us till we grow or break” (137). In these poems Piercy has provided moments of truth as well as shocks.

In Part Three, Piercy speaks of the habits that thwart attempts to find fulfillment. Whether it is the insistent and habitual demands of the baby, the cat, the dog, or the men she has lain with—“who required exactly muttered / obscene formulae, precise caresses”—the result is the same: a loss of vitality. People become victims of habit and lose touch with the world around them. “Repetition numbs,” as Piercy notes:

How easily we turn off the fingertips
like lightbulbs to save energy,
pull in from the nerve endings
capped like the gleaming teeth,
then starve out impulse.
In repetition, a sense of identity
lulls, gathered into a tight ball
like socks in a drawer, mingled, woolly.


The task is to keep the senses alive and individuality intact, but “We cannot listen to every sound, / open as a baby, as a microphone.” It is a matter of deciding what to “give over to habit” and what to “save and strip” (138-39).

The establishment of meaningful personal relationships makes it possible to transcend the deadening influence of habit, even to transform habits into important rituals, as Piercy describes in Part Four. Here she celebrates meeting Ira Wood:

I met my dear on Passover, so each seder
marks exit and entry, liberation
and a chosen bond.


Such rare relationships in which there is “commitment” make life worthwhile; such celebrations refresh and ennoble the spirit:

holy days give our passing dignity
as we shuffle round the circle dance
through seasons revolving stately as planets
from strong light slowly into the cold.


Like the eagle in “What goes up,” people gather composure as they realize they are an integral part of the cosmos, and this thought provides a measure of reassurance as they move toward the grave.

Posing a series of questions directly to readers in Part Five, Piercy considers the value of security and power. To be too dependent can be a destructive drug:

We can be addicted to the cleaver
of our will and go hacking through.
Security, power, freedom contradict.


The crucial questions are:

How can we open our hands and let go
the old dangerous toys we clutch
hard, the mama dolls, the cowboy
six-shooters, and Monopoly sets,
the ray guns and rockets? How can we
with only stone and paper and knife
build with imagination a better game?


Piercy gives the fitting climax to the book—a vision of life so powerful that it forces a realization of how the world has gone awry: how religious fanatics hypocritically assume superiority, how people have developed bombs that are capable of annihilating, how pollution spoils water, how disease wastes, how girls are used and women cruelly abused, how the powerless elderly freeze, and how government does little to rectify matters. Such a vision of the human condition compels a compassionate understanding of the situation. To see as Piercy sees demands change, but letting go of childish games becomes easier after seeing where the old ways have led.

Piercy ends the poem and the book by addressing the subject of hope. The human spirit needs to soar while feet implanted firmly on earth assume the burden of responsibility. Commitment translates into action as Piercy asks, “Who shall bear hope, who else but us?” Those who are willing to return to the earth and its inhabitants, cherishing both, can find fulfillment by living whole and by working toward improving conditions. Piercy's vision of what must be done becomes clear:

We must begin with the stone of mass
resistance, and pile stone on stone on stone,
begin cranking out whirlwinds of paper,
the word that embodies before any body
can rise to dance on the wind, and the sword
of action that cuts through. We must shine
with hope, stained glass windows that shape
light into icons, glow like lanterns
borne before a procession.


“Stone, paper, knife,” the children's game, becomes through transformation “a better game” with important consequences. Based on construction rather than destruction, Piercy's visions suggest that deliberate collective action can move the modern world toward resolution of its problems. Instead of scissors or knife, she offers “the sword / of action that cuts through,” a vision which culminates in a religious perspective grounded in reverence for life and its perpetuation.

Piercy's political vision necessitates a careful and sensitive observation of the world. She urges people to notice “Jaegers / stand[ing] bemused in the marsh” (122) and “A cloud / of floating exclamation points: / fritillaries” (121), or stoop to feel the texture of the soil. Such an approach expands the consciousness by stretching it between extremes of calmness and violence, ugliness and beauty, fire and ice, the external and the internal, the remote past and the uncertain future, contempt and gratitude, the passionate and the passionless life, the using of others and the helping of others.

Exercising the rational and irrational within establishes contact with elementary matters that are forgotten or misunderstood. Whereas failure to value the physical world allows people to fall prey to bad habits and stagnant personal relationships and to inflict wounds upon themselves and others, healing comes from a renewed appreciation of what is fundamental in life. Piercy's “Elementary Odes” leads to a state of grace.


  1. As recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, the original rhyme reads:

    Ring-a-ring o’roses,
    A pocket full of posies,
              A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
    We all fall down.

    This version may have had its origin at the time of the Great Plague: “A rosy rash … was a symptom of the plague, posies of herbs were carried as protection, sneezing was a final fatal symptom, and all fall down was exactly what happened” (364-65). See also James Leasor, The Plague and the Fire, and William S. Baring-Gould and Cecil Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose (252-53).

  2. This game seems to have had its origin in an ancient game called “hic, haec, hoc.” See The Diagram Group, The Way to Play (270).

  3. Other possibilities that have come to my attention are “stone bends scissors” and “stone crushes scissors.”

  4. As described in The Way to Play, early versions of the game were nonviolent, the participants simply winning or losing each round and playing “a predetermined number of rounds” (270).

Works Cited

Baring-Gould, William S., and Cecil Baring-Gould. The Annotated Mother Goose. New York: Potter, 1962.

Conrad, Joseph. Preface. The Nigger of theNarcissus”. 1987. Garden City: Doubleday, 1914. 11-16.

The Diagram Group. The Way to Play. New York: Paddington, 1975.

Esslin, Martin. The Peopled Wound. Garden City: Doubleday, 1970.

Killinger, John. World in Collapse. New York: Dell, 1971.

Leasor, James. The Plague and the Fire. New York: McGraw, 1961.

Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie, Eds. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.

Piercy, Marge. “Mirror Images.” Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1982. 208-18.

———. Stone, Paper, Knife. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Eleanor Bender (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3644

SOURCE: “Marge Piercy's Laying Down The Tower: A Feminist Tarot Reading,” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, 1991, pp. 101-10.

[In the following essay, Bender explores Piercy's use of Tarot imagery and feminist perspective in Laying Down The Tower.]

In the eleven poems of Laying Down the Tower, Marge Piercy takes a feminist perspective in interpreting the symbolism of the ancient Tarot. As the concluding section of To Be of Use, these poems show the development of the poet's feminist consciousness through the early 1970's. Over a decade later, they typify what historian Gerda Lerner noted when speaking on “The Rise of Feminist Consciousness” at Stephens College:

In discussing the rise of feminist consciousness, let us notice that it takes place historically in certain distinct stages: 1) the awareness of a wrong; 2) the development of a sense of sisterhood; 3) women begin autonomously to define their goals and strategies for change and 4) they develop an alternate vision of the future.

Marge Piercy reaches the fourth stage, the alternate vision, in Laying Down the Tower and by a process of self-examination, comes to a revelation. In her introduction to these poems the poet states: “Here I am reconciling myself to my own history and trying to bring my sense of that history to you” (To Be of Use 72).

Piercy uses the Rider Deck designed by Pamela Colman Smith under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite. This deck is made up of seventy-eight cards and is divided into two major groups: twenty-two Major Arcana cards and fifty-six Lesser Arcana cards. Arcana is the Latin word for secrets, mysteries (Gray 12). She includes four Major Arcana cards: The Tower, The Emperor, The Judgment, and The Sun. These are all trump cards. The others are drawn from the Lesser Arcana which contain four suits including the court cards: King, Queen, Page, and Knight. These suits are called Swords, Wands, Cups, and Pentacles. Today's ordinary deck of playing cards descends from the Tarot deck.

Piercy begins her reading by choosing her Significator, the card that is placed on the table before a question can be asked of the Tarot. This is the Queen of Pentacles, the card designated for a mature woman of dark hair and eyes. This queen is Marge Piercy. Her throne is sculpted with ripe apples and pears, images common to her poetry. The top of her headrest is the shape of a crescent moon, a reminder of her birth described in a later poem about her mother, “Crescent Moon Like a Canoe” (The Moon Is Always Female 1980). It is carved with the face of the androgyne who is set free in her final Sun card. Her armrest is decorated with the head of a domestic and friendly goat. The rabbit frolicking in the foreground is content with this environment. The distant mountains are bright blue, and the rivers that come from them suggest a continual flow of energy and renewal. The closer one examines this card, the closer one comes to understanding Marge Piercy the woman and the poet. In “The Queen of pentacles” she writes: “This is my deck I unwrap, and this is the card for me. / I will in any house find quickly like my sister the cat / the most comfortable chair, snug out of drafts” (73). She is learning to create her own space. She is sensual, she is productive, she is linked to the possibilities for growth. The soil in her garden nurtures a society of plurality and diversity:

I am at home in that landscape of unkempt garden,
mulch and manure, thorny blackberry and sunflower and grape
tomato plants mad with fecundity bending their stakes,
asparagus waving fronds in the wind.


Piercy's mother kept a “victory garden” in Detroit in the 1940's. In this regard, she is her mother's daughter: “Even in a New York apartment with dirt / brought in bags like chocolate candy, I raised herbs” (74). It is her deep-rooted respect for the land that motivates her to lay out her cards: “Too many have been murdered from the sky, / the soil has been tainted and blows away and the water stinks” (74). The golden pentacle she holds on her lap is life. Before she fully can share her vision of it, she must dig her “hands into the ground.”

The first card Piercy draws from her deck is the card that covers the Significator and represents the general atmosphere surrounding the question asked, the influence at work around it. This is “The Tower Struck by Lightning Reversed; The Overturning of the Tower.” The illustration shows a gray tower on fire. Smoke is spewing from all angles. A man and woman are falling to the rocks below. A larger-than-life crown captures the flames on the left, while lightning strikes on the right. (From the vantage point of the 1980's, these images are prophetic.) When this card is reversed it means its influences are weakened. Piercy's resentment is that “all my life I have been a prisoner under the Tower” (77). She goes on to recount the history of towers: The Tower of Babylon, the Tower of London, the Twin Towers of the “World Trade Center spewing asbestos, / tallest, biggest and menacing as fins on an automobile, / horns on a Minotaur programmed to kill” (78). The “weight of the tower” is in the poet. But the Tower cannot be brought down by her alone: “The Tower will fall if we pull together, / Then the Tower reversed, symbol of tyranny and oppression, / shall not be set upright” (79). By laying “the tower on its side,” and turning it into “a communal longhouse,” the structure of power changes from that of a hierarchy to a non-hierarchal vision of human connection.

Piercy continues with “That Which Opposes the Overthrowing of the Tower: The Nine of Cups.” This card is laid sideways on top of the Tower reversed. Eden Gray calls this “the wish card, a key card on which the results of the seeker's question can depend” (63). This card represents, in Piercy's words, “the ultimate consumer, the overlord” (81). He sits triumphantly before nine golden cups filled with other people's money. He owns everything. He is the Man. He functions to keep the Tower standing because if it falls, he falls with it. He could be Leon's father in her novel Going Down Fast (1969). He is rich at the expense of the poor, and he is ruthless: “He is your landlord; he shuts off the heat and the light and the water, / he shuts off air, he shuts off growth, he shuts off your sex” (82). The nine of cups embodies the evils of capitalism; it is a negative rather than a positive influence. In her novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), there is no nine of cups. Piercy's “wish” is to overthrow his influence along with the Tower.

The next card is placed directly below the Tower reversed. This is “The Influence Passing: The Knight of Swords.” A man on horseback is brandishing a sword as he rides into the wind. He is dressed in armor, and the plume on his helmet is flagging for victory. The storm clouds could be smoke from the burning tower. He rides with determination. This card relates to her experience with Students for a Democratic Society and the anti-war movement: “We rushed in waves at the Tower and were hurtled back” (85). This influence must not be allowed to pass:

Run, keep running, don’t look sideways.
The blood is raining down all the time, how can we rest?’
How can we pause to think, how can we argue with you,
how can we pause to reason and win you over?
Conscience is the sword we wield,
conscience is the sword that runs us through.


The Knight of Swords is followed by “That Which is Now Behind, Previous Condition: The Eight of Swords.” A bound and blindfolded woman stands on marshy ground below the rocky promontory at the base of the Tower. Eight swords form a fence behind her. They are the swords that remain from the battle led by the Knight of Swords: “Bound, blinded, stymied, with bared blades for walls / and alone, my eyes and mouth filled with dark” (87). She is faced with making a conscious decision to free herself and continue the fight. The swords are there for her to use. The puddles of water at her feet are what is left of the political activism of the 1960's: “We had grown used to / a Movement, that sense of thaw, / things breaking loose and opening and doors pushed by the wind” (87). Now it is time to regroup and examine what went wrong: “We clashed on each other, we chopped, we never hit harder than when we were axing a comrade two feet to the right. / Factions charred our energies. Repression ground us” (88).

The woman on this card will learn to work with others, not as a camp follower, but as a leader of struggle. She will no longer isolate herself in the service of the knights. Piercy documented the ways women were used by men in the sixties in her first novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970). This is a healing poem, because she is attempting to put anger behind her:

There is finally a bone in the heart that does not break
when we remember we are still part of each other,
the muscle of hope that goes on in the dark
pumping the blood that feeds us.


The next card, “The Influence Coming into Play: The Seven of Pentacles,” forms the top of the outer circle. The traditional meaning of this card is growth through effort and hard work (Gray 57). A farmer leans on his hoe contemplating what appears to be a large beanstalk or a grapevine. Six pentacles adorn the green, bushy leaves. They represent the ideas in place in the first six cards. The seventh pentacle lies between his left foot and the base of the hoe. The farmer that wields this hoe is the female artist who is digging into the soil and turning over new possibilities for growth. She is coming to an understanding of her own health and capacity for survival. Piercy advises her:

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.


The woman artist is the arbiter of harmonious growth. She cannot afford to be “stymied” by inaction. Piercy tells her to “Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses” (90). This is how to win over the opposing influences of the Tower and the Nine of Cups.

“The Aim, The Best that Can be Hoped For: The Magician,” completes the outer circle. The number one card in the Major Arcana, the Magician stands for creative power. Before him there is a table arranged with the symbols of the four suit cards: pentacle, cup, sword, and wand. The poet ignores the obvious mysticism of the card and points to the table itself—perhaps it is a kitchen table, symbol of women gathering, women working. In Piercy's experience, the Magician does not provide for workable, human equality:

We had thought we were waiting our Messiah, our Lenin,
our golden Organizer who would fuse us into one body
but now we see when we grow heads they lop them off.
We must be every one the connection between energy and mass,
every one the lightning that strikes to topple the tower.


Her discouragement with the sexism of the political activism of the 1960's is her natural entree to the woman's movement:

Give birth to me, sisters, in struggle we transform
ourselves, but how often, how often
we need help to cut loose, to cry out, to breathe!
This morning we must make each other strong.
Change is qualitative: we are
each other's miracle.


The next four cards are placed to the right of the outer circle creating a step ladder to the final Sun card. The first rung is the “Querent's Attitude as It Bears Upon the Matter: The Three of Cups.” This is Piercy's card for the Women's Movement as it gathers momentum. Two women face a third woman whose back is toward us. This third woman is identified with the poet. She wears a cloak the same color of burnt orange as the gown worn by the Queen of Pentacles. She has left her garden to dance with others. Her hair is mixed with the light of the sun. The woman to her left wears a dress similar to the color of the Tower. The woman on her right is wearing a light brown tunic the color of the soil. She holds a bunch of grapes in her free hand. All three women have braided flowers into their hair: “A poem is dancing; it goes out of a mouth to your ears / and for some moments aligns us, / so we wheel and turn together” (95). The mold of traditional male and female pairing is broken in the feminization of art and work. The self comes in several ways to its knowing, and negative energy is released through the dance: “When I dance I forget myself, I am danced. / Music fills me to overflowing and the power moves / up from my feet to my fingers, making leaves as sap does” (96). Piercy does not hoard her power; she warns us that the dance is always in danger of being stopped by the Tower:

Even after Altamont, even after we have discovered
we are still death's darling children, born of the print-out,
the laser, the war-game, the fragmentation weapons of education,
still we must bear joy back into the world.


Feminism will not be realized through technology, education, or war. A true and lasting feminism will depend on the work of understanding “That every thing is a part of something else” (97).

Piercy's ninth poem card, “The House, The Environment: The Emperor,” reveals the figure of the Emperor. His throne has none of the sensual imagery of the throne of the Queen of Pentacles. The rams' heads are emblems of War. The globe in his left palm is the symbol of dominion. Piercy writes, “He holds a globe like something he might bite into” (99). He is seated against a background of “sterile mountains,” in contrast to the growth and renewal flowing from the mountains of the Queen of Pentacles. He wears so much protection, that if he stood up, he would fall over from the weight. The weight is obviously not in the Queen of Pentacles; it is on him materially. His unyielding crown keeps his head erect, incapable of swaying to the music of the Three of Cups. While the women dance, the Emperor is as still as the stone of his throne. So, while the Queen of Pentacles is surrounded by creativity and the abundance of nature, the Emperor is an entity unto himself:

The Man from Mars with sterile mountains at his back—
perhaps strip-mined. Perhaps the site of weapons testing—
if we opened that armor like a can, would we find a robot?
quaking old flesh? the ghost of an inflated bond issue?


His is “the house of power grown old.” The male in “mail” armor. His enemies are woman, love, music, art, and community. His throne could become our grave; his landscape our burial ground. He sits for materialism, sexism, and racism.

This card follows the Three of Cups to tell us that if we don’t work together in numbers, our dance is only a May Day romp. The significance of what we are up against is that:

There is in the dance of all things together no profit
for each feeds the next and all pass through each other,
the serpent whose tail is in her mouth,
our mother earth turning.
Now the wheel of the seasons sticks and the circle is broken
and life spills out in an oil slick to rot the seas.


The next to the last poem, “What is Most Hoped and / or Most Feared: The Judgment,” is a card of not turning our energies back, and of knowing our history:

I call on the dead, I call on the defeated, on the starved,
the sold, the tortured, the executed, the robbed:
Indian women bayoneted before their children at Sand Creek,
miners who choked on the black lung,
strikers shot down at Pullman and Republic Steel,
women bled to death of abortions men made illegal,
sold, penned in asylums, lobotomized, raped and torn open,
every black killed by police, national guard, mobs and armies.


These are the victims not revealed to us in our American history texts. The blast of the poet's trumpet calls back these dead: “Live in us: give us your strength, give us your counsel, / give us your rage and your will to come at last into the light” (103). She is putting her morality and our morality to the test: to stand up as the dead stand up in this card in order to open ourselves to an examined life. The dead are men, women, and children. Their coffins are floating in the water that runs off from the mountains. The symbolism here is that knowledge of these lives will replenish the living.

The question that begins the last stanza has a familiar ring: “Why do you choose to be noisy, to fight, to make trouble?” This is a question asked of women from childhood on by mothers, fathers, brothers, teachers, landlords and lovers. The question is deaf to the answer which is: “You ask me, not understanding I have been born raw and new” (104). Here she is at the third stage outlined by Gerda Lerner. She has begun autonomously to define her goals and strategies for change. These changes mean she will not “crawl back in the cavern / where I lay with my neck bowed. / I have grown. I am not myself. / I am too many” (104).

“The Outcome of the Matter: The Sun” completes her reading. Here a smiling, naked child rides a horse without bridle and saddle. Behind the child there is a wall lined with sunflowers, not swords. The dominant image is a large, bright sun sending out rays that command the sky. The rays alternate with curved shafts, which are female, and straight shafts which are male. The sun's expression is one of peace and harmony. The sun's face is androgynous like the child whose arms and legs are spread like the sun's rays. Everything on this card signifies an openness of mind, body and spirit. The banner the child holds aloft is much larger than the child. It is the same color as the Queen of Pentacle's gown, the woman's shawl in The Tower, the merchant's hat in the Nine of Cups, the woman's dress in the Eight of Swords, the plume in the helmet of the Knight of Swords, the lead dancer in the Three of Cups, and the cross on the flag of the angel's horn in Judgment. It is a deeper, more organic color than the Magician's robe and the farmer's tunic in the Seven of Pentacles. Here it flows victoriously. The horse could be the same horse ridden by the Knight of Swords, but now the horse is not charging into battle. Piercy writes: “androgynous child whose hair curls into flowers. … Grow into your horse, let there be / no more riders or ridden” (105). The orange color that dots the child's hair in a natural crown sprouts a distinctive feather. It is the color of blood mixed with earth, the same predominant color of the Queen's gown. This child bears the seal of nature and of art and signifies the restored world.

If the Sun card exists in the Tarot, does it mean such a period of peace and harmony ever existed in history? Or is this the artist's dream? If it happened, or could happen, the Tarot and its images of sexism, materialism and power would be obsolete:

Child, where are you heading with arms spread wide
as a shore, have I been there, have I seen that land shining
like sun spangles or clean water rippling?
I do not know your dances, I cannot translate your tongue
to words I use, your pleasures are strange to me
as the rites of bees; yet you are the yellow flower
of a melon vine growing out of my belly
though it climbs up where I cannot see in the strong light.


Piercy is not naive about her vision of the future. She knows that the utopian model of the Sun card will not occur in her lifetime. Her faith in the future is implicit in the last stanza

The sun is rising, feel it: the air smells fresh.
I cannot look in the sun's face, its brightness blinds me,
but from my own shadow becoming distinct
I know that now at last
it is beginning to grow light.


Piercy's view of the future in Laying Down The Tower is still in the working stages. However, it is through these poems that she sets herself free to discover the path to the future.

Works Cited

Gray, Eden. Mastering the Tarot. New York: Signet, 1973.

Kaplan, Stuart R. The Encyclopedia of Tarot. U.S. Games Systems, Inc. 1978.

Lerner, Gerda. “The Rise of Feminist Consciousness.” Symposium. Stephens College. Columbia, 16 Feb. 1983.

Piercy, Marge. To Be of Use. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Additional coverage of Piercy's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 13, 43, 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 6, 14, 18, 27, 62; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120; and Major 20th-Century Writers.




Piercy, Marge (Vol. 128)