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Marge Piercy 1936-

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American novelist, poet, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Piercy's career through 1998. For further information on Piercy's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 14, 18, 27, and 62.

Among the most distinguished contemporary feminist writers, Marge Piercy is recognized as a trenchant poet and novelist whose work is infused with explicit political statement and social critique. Her direct, highly personal writing, informed by her experiences as a radical political activist during the 1960s and 1970s, condemns the victimization—both physical and psychological—of women and other marginalized individuals under the patriarchal, capitalist ideologies of mainstream American society. Piercy's best known novels, including Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Braided Lives (1982), and Gone to Soldiers (1987), reveal her ability to convey such themes in genres ranging from science fiction to social realism and historical fiction. An outspoken feminist and humanitarian, Piercy emphasizes the utilitarian aspect of her work as a vehicle for effective communication, evident in the colloquial, polemical tone of her fiction and free verse.

Biographical Information

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Piercy was raised by her Welsh father, a machinist, and Jewish mother in a working-class neighborhood of the city; Piercy also had an older half-brother, her mother's child from a previous marriage. While Piercy's creativity was inspired by her mother's curiosity and maternal grandmother's storytelling, her political consciousness was forged by the repressive social climate and economic disparities she experienced during her formative years. Piercy won a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan, becoming the first member of her family to receive a college education. While at Michigan she won Hopwood Awards in poetry and fiction and became involved in radical politics. She traveled to France after completing her A.B. in 1957, then enrolled at Northwestern University where she earned her M.A. degree in 1958. While living in Chicago, Piercy worked odd jobs to support her writing and taught at the Gary extension of Indiana University from 1960-62. Her first marriage to a French-Jewish physicist was short-lived; she remarried in 1962, though this unconventional, open relationship deteriorated by the mid-1970s.

During the 1960s, Piercy became active in the civil rights and antiwar movements as an organizer for the left-wing political organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), though shifted her allegiance to the women's movement by the end of the decade. She published her first volume of poetry, Breaking Camp (1968), and first novel, Going Down Fast (1969), during this period. Piercy won the Borestone Mountain Poetry award in 1968 and 1974. She worked as a writer-in-residence and visiting lecturer at various colleges during the 1970s, and held professorships at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and the University of Cincinnati. After moving between Boston, San Francisco, and New York, Piercy finally settled in rural Cape Cod, where she has made her home since 1971. Piercy married writer Ira Wood, her third husband, in 1982, with whom she has collaborated on several works. She won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and many additional honors, including the Orion Scott Award in the Humanities, the Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prize in 1986 and 1990, a Shaeffer Eaton-PEN New England award in 1989, the Golden Rose Poetry Prize in 1990, the May Sarton Award in 1991, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1993 for He, She, and It (1991).

Major Works

Piercy's fiction and poetry is a direct expression of her feminist and leftist political commitments. In language that is alternately realistic, didactic, and poetic, Piercy repeatedly draws attention to the suffering of the socially persecuted—women, the poor, racial minorities, lesbians—and the mercenary ethics of their oppressors—the government, corporations, technocrats, abusive men, repressive gender roles—often incorporating multiple narrators to this end. Her first novel, Going Down Fast, exposes the injustice of urban gentrification as callous city planners move to raze an existing low-income neighborhood to build upscale residences. Drawing upon her experiences as an SDS activist, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1971) involves a small band of young political agitators and idealists who abandon the city to organize an alternative, utopian community based on Native American culture. Small Changes (1973), set in Boston during the 1960s, relates the parallel struggles of two young women—a middle-class Jew and working-class lesbian—whose experiences reveal the effects of female subjugation across class lines. Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) portrays the state's manipulation and control of the individual through the horrific experiences of a young Chicano woman who is institutionalized in an insane asylum. There she is anesthetized, stripped of her identity, sterilized, and detained against her will, prompting her to experience hallucinatory leaps into an egalitarian future world where, in stark contrast to the dystopic near present, there are no class, race, or gender divisions among its inhabitants.

The High Cost of Living (1978) relates the dilemmas faced by a lesbian graduate student in Detroit who struggles to reconcile her literary aspirations, financial needs, and self-respect within the demoralizing structure of the academic establishment. Vida (1980), also based on Piercy's involvement with the SDS, features protagonist Davida Asch, a beautiful, renegade political radical whose revolutionary activities during the 1960s have forced her underground. Through flashbacks Vida's recollections document the rise and fall of the “Network,” the militant antiwar faction that she once headed, her long period of hiding and desolation, and newfound love with another fugitive. Braided Lives (1982), Piercy's most autobiographic novel, portrays the cultural oppression of women during the 1950s. The protagonist, a scholarship student and aspiring writer from humble origins in Detroit, struggles to define herself against the social humiliations of her milieu—particularly those surrounding sexuality, marriage, abortion, and rape—while she watches her friends succumb to the conventional roles of their mothers. Fly Away Home (1984), set amid the exclusionary prosperity of Reaganomics, traces the growing awareness of protagonist Daria Walker, a traditional wife who becomes liberated and politically engaged after discovering her husband's dark dealings as a white-collar slum lord and arsonist who victimizes the poor. Gone to Soldiers (1987), a work of historical fiction, follows the lives of ten main characters—six women, four men—on the home front and abroad during the Second World War. Their various experiences as civilians, soldiers, Resistance fighters, and refugees illustrate the personal disruptions, despair, and harrowing realities of the war, especially among women.

Returning to small-scale interpersonal drama in her next novel, Summer People (1989) revolves around real estate dealings on Cape Cod and the deterioration of a long-term love triangle involving a married couple and their female neighbor. He, She, and It, a work of science fiction that borrows from the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, involves a Jewish woman's relationship with an illegal cyborg, Yod, in a dystopic twenty-first century world. Yod, like a golem of the Hebrew folklore, is designed to protect her Jewish community from danger—in this case, the evils of the corporate state and criminal underworld—raising ethical questions about the creation and destructive potential of technology. The Longings of Women (1994) juxtaposes the precarious lives of three very different women—a sixty-one-year-old homeless housekeeper, an unhappily married college professor, and a young wife accused of murdering her husband—each of whom seek, on their own separate terms, the keys to emotional and physical security. City of Darkness, City of Light (1996), an extensively researched work of historical fiction, is a reinterpretation of events surrounding the French Revolution that parallels the vicissitudes of American leftist politics during the 1960s and 1970s. Presented through the perspective of six historical personages, both male and female, Piercy traces the formative events in each characters' life and their involvement in the radical politics, murderous rampages, and fractious alliances of their time.

In Storm Tide (1998), written in collaboration with husband Ira Wood, Piercy returns to a Cape Cod setting where the protagonist, a divorced, former professional baseball player, becomes entangled in a web of sexual intrigue, small-town politics, and guilt over a deadly accident. Three Women (1999), which centers upon strained mother-daughter relationships, involves a successful lawyer whose midlife contentment is suddenly shattered when she must take in her unemployed, emotionally scarred daughter and demanding, stroke-afflicted mother. As in her novels, Piercy's poetry reveals her effort to merge literature and political engagement. Her socially and ecologically conscious verse, influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman and Muriel Rukeyser, is characterized by its informality, autobiographic content, striking imagery, depiction of everyday life and objects, and political message. Her first several volumes, Breaking Camp, Hard Loving (1969), and To Be of Use (1973), composed while active in the civil rights, peace, and women's movements, contain some of her most polemical verse. Living in the Open (1976) marks a shift in focus from urban to rural environments following her move from New York to Cape Cod. Nature themes are also present in The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing (1978) and The Moon Is Always Female (1980), which explore personal and feminist concerns in relation to the archetypal cycles of Mother Earth and the moon. Circles on the Water (1982) contains selections from her six previous volumes along with several new poems. Piercy's subsequent volumes—Stone, Paper, Knife (1983), My Mother's Body (1985), Available Light (1988), Mars and Her Children (1992), and What Are Big Girls Made Of? (1997)—are less overtly political, though continue to focus on her private struggles with love, sexuality, family relationships, female self-identity, domestic life, and the redemptive pleasures of the natural world. The Art of Blessing the Day (1999) contains previous and new poems in which Piercy explores her Jewish heritage and religious faith. Early Grrrl (1999), another collection of new and previous poems, is dedicated to the new generation of fringe feminists behind the small magazine and Internet-based “Grrrl” movement. Piercy has also published a collection of her articles, book reviews, and interviews in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (1982).

Critical Reception

Piercy is widely recognized as a major contemporary feminist poet and novelist. Her writing in both genres is praised for its intensity, clarity, and important social message. While some critics disapprove of her emotional tenor and propagandistic condemnation of social, economic, and environmental ills, others praise the passion and immediacy of her depictions of injustice and exploitation. “Piercy has always seemed to be ahead of her time in dealing with contemporary social and political issues,” writes Sue Walker, “and she has done this with some risk to popular acclaim, but with an authenticity that should merit more lasting critical recognition and attention.” Critics also appreciate Piercy's insight into the aspirations and shortcomings of organized activism and her ability to present compelling, multidimensional characters whose individual complexity often rises above the socially malignant stereotype they are intended to illustrate. “If Piercy is accused of being preachy,” Joyce R. Ladenson explains, “it is because her characters are struck by pain which they need to explain and about which they are enraged once they examine its social sources.” Among her many novels Woman on the Edge of Time is generally regarded as her most original and important, considered by many a classic of feminist science fiction. Small Changes, Braided Lives, and Gone to Soldiers have also attracted favorable reviews and continued critical interest, though other novels such as Summer People, Fly Away Home, and He, She, and It have been deemed less successful. As Judith Wynn comments in a review of The Longings of Women, “Piercy is not an elegant writer. Interesting, swift-moving plots and careful social observation are her main strengths.” Despite the bleak circumstances she often describes, Piercy's fiction and poetry is noted for its essentially optimistic outlook which, in keeping with her artistic commitment to political action, continually presents alternatives to the status quo and inspires the possibility of communal solidarity and meaningful change.

Principal Works

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Breaking Camp (poetry) 1968

Going Down Fast (novel) 1969

Hard Loving (poetry) 1969

Dance the Eagle to Sleep (novel) 1971

4-Telling [with Bob Herson, Emmet Jarrett, and Dick Lourie] (poetry) 1971

Small Changes (novel) 1973

To Be of Use (poetry) 1973

Living in the Open (poetry) 1976

Woman on the Edge of Time (novel) 1976

The High Cost of Living (novel) 1978

The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing (poetry) 1978

The Moon Is Always Female (poetry) 1980

Vida (novel) 1980

Braided Lives (novel) 1982

Circles on the Water: Selected Poems (poetry) 1982

Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (prose) 1982

Stone, Paper, Knife (poetry) 1983

Fly Away Home (novel) 1984

My Mother's Body (poetry) 1985

Gone to Soldiers (novel) 1987

Available Light (poetry) 1988

Early Ripening: American Women Poets Now [editor] (poetry) 1988

Summer People (novel) 1989

He, She, and It (novel) 1991

Mars and Her Children (poetry) 1992

The Longings of Women (novel) 1994

City of Darkness, City of Light (novel) 1996

What Are Big Girls Made Of? (poetry) 1997

Storm Tide [with Ira Wood] (novel) 1998

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

Early Grrrl: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy (poetry) 1999

Three Women (novel) 1999

Jack Hicks (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “Fiction from the Counterculture: Marge Piercy, Richard Brautigan, Ken Kesey,” in In the Singer's Temple: Prose Fictions of Barthelme, Gaines, Brautigan, Piercy, Kesey, and Kosinski, University of North Carolina Press, 1981, pp. 138-76.

[In the following excerpt, Hicks provides analysis of Dance the Eagle to Sleep, noting flaws in the novel's overt political rhetoric and characterization. Hicks writes, “I believe the fiction's weaknesses, perhaps even more than its virtues, are instructive and exemplary.”]

Every soul must become a magician; the magician is in touch.
The magician connects: the magician helps each thing
to open into what it truly wants to utter.
The saying is not the magic: we have drunk words and eaten
manifestoes and grown bloated on resolutions
and farted winds of sour words that left us weak.
It is in the acting with the strength we cannot
really have till we have won.

—Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy has published extensively in the twelve years since her first book, Breaking Camp (poems) in 1968. Five more collections of poems have followed. An excerpt from “Maude Awake” (an unpublished novel) appeared in a feminist anthology in 1966, her first published fiction. Since then, she has published six novels, from Going Down Fast (1969)—a very solid first work—to The High Cost of Living (1978) and Vida (1979). Her most balanced and impressive work to date is Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), in which she successfully blends techniques of social realism and prophetic science fiction. I focus on her second prose work, the “cautionary tale” Dance the Eagle to Sleep.

Because of her involvement in Students for a Democratic Society during the early 1960s, Piercy has defined herself as “a committed radical artist.” Her work has grown increasingly sympathetic to the plights of women in a capitalist, sexist culture, but her earlier comments on Dance the Eagle to Sleep still serve as a personal, artistic, and political credo:

I wanted to examine alternatives and choices and daydreams and accepted mythologies and tendencies of behavior in the New Left. I am a revolutionary, my work is all committed and engaged writing. I make poems for people as people bake bread for people and people grow corn for people and people make furniture for people. This novel, like my poems and other writing, is intended to be useful: I live in a situation of feedback. I articulate what I perceive needs to be articulated out of me, out of those around me, out of those I work with, out of those who push on me, out of those who are trying to kill me … . I am involved in showing people changing through struggle, becoming, always in process. I am concerned with drawing characters who are full and able to be identified with, but not heroes or heroines of impeccable revolutionary virtue.

I get a lot of flak for that. But the people I love and thus the characters I can make out of my life and those around me are mixtures, products of a society that socializes through guilt and competition and fear and repression.

I work with Piercy's cautionary tale for several reasons. First, it was written in the midst of radical dissent in the late 1960s, examining, as she explains, “alternatives and choices and daydreams and accepted mythologies and tendencies of behavior in the New Left.” Second, I wish to examine flaws in the work. Its considerable narrative powers are diluted by long stretches of a “saying” and by a wide streak of rhetorical preaching and posing of the sort criticized by Piercy herself in the epigraph, “The Aim.” I believe the fiction's weaknesses, perhaps even more than its virtues, are instructive and exemplary.

Dance the Eagle to Sleep is set in an indefinite future, a time when a small army of alienated and oppressed youths band together to create an alternate culture. As Piercy explains, “the emphasis is on significant episodes of a collective action. There are five major characters, four of them viewpoint characters and one seen only from the other's eyes. Her major characters are familiar “youth culture” types: Corey is half-Indian, an outlaw, a strongly mystical figure given to fasting and seeking visions in which America is redeemed by her tribal children:

They could turn away from the ways of metal to the ways of the flesh. They could learn the good ways of being in harmony, of cooperating, of sane bravery in defense of each other, to be one with their bodies and their tribe and each other and the land. The children would turn away from being white. For the whites were crazy. The whites were colonizers and dominators and enslavers. They came to rob and steal and develop and conquer. Already the children wore beads and headbands and smoked ritually. They were awaiting the coming of the real tribes.

Closest to Corey is Shawn, cooler and more aristocratic, the leader of a rock band and a youth culture hero. Through Shawn's summarized experiences, Piercy relates her unsettling vision of “The Nineteenth Year of Servitude,” brainchild of a “Task Force on Youth Problems.” Implemented by a liberal president, The Nineteenth Year seems to be the ultimate in social programming:

Most guys still ended up in the Army, and a great many went into street patrols and the city militia. But a number were channeled into overseas aid and pacification corps, the rebuilding programs in the bombed-out ghettoes, and pollution clean-up corps. Girls who weren't rushed into the nursing corps worked in the pre-school socialization programs in the ghettoes, or as teachers' aides or low-level programmers for the array of teaching machines. Of course, students in medicine, engineering and the sciences just kept trotting through school.

School records, grades, and counselors determined some of the channeling, but the prime tools were the mass exams everyone took, separating out levels of skill and verbal intelligence, and locating potential troublemakers. … For two years now, The Nineteenth Year had bottled up the so-called Youth Revolution.

Shawn's involvement with the rebels is much more uncertain than Corey's. He drifts through life, and his only strong interests are his music and the passion it compels. Channeled as a musician for The Nineteenth Year, he finds his talents being used to manipulate his peers; he rebels, is arrested and court-martialed. Befriended by Corey, Shawn joins the commune and lends his music to serve the ends of the Revolution.

Bill Batson is a third major figure. Named for the human weakling in which comic book superhero Captain Marvel hid, Billy is a scientific genius, cynical and dispossessed. He joins The Indians when they occupy his high school—their first act of secession. Billy's mind and skills are quickly assimilated; even more than Corey, he comes to argue for militant, violent face-offs with the government. Piercy's rhetorical excesses are especially blatant in her descriptions of Billy:

Born twisted, born warped, born in the center of the empire, he could only pride himself that they had not succeeded in using him. They had come close. But he had escaped them and turned. For the society, the system was mad: it caused the people in it to go slowly mad. They could not care for each other. They could only hate and fear and compete and fantasize; they could only rub against each other and try to use each other and suck on their own anxieties.

He would never live to be human. Nobody like him or these people could imagine what it might be like to be human, in a society people ran for the common good instead of the plunder of the few. … Tenderness swept his body. He could almost imagine. Someday there would be people. But that coming would not be gentle. It would sprout from struggle and death. Someday there would be human people.

Joanna is the major female character. Like the other four, she is virtually a sociological type: an army child, an inveterate runaway, she finally attaches herself to The Indians at their lower East Side commune. Sleeping her way through the tribe, she finally settles as Corey's woman. Joanna is the most static of the cast, revealed to us in skeletal form; indeed, her “brainwashed” character remains unconvincing throughout the novel. She too serves as a handy mouthpiece for the preachiest of political lectures:

It depressed her that she could only define herself in negatives. She was not like her mother. She was not like her father. The conventional masculine and the conventional feminine roles were for shit. The primary business of base ladies was to talk about each other. What her mother knew could be contained in a greeting card and consisted of You're Supposed To's and Don't You Dare's. It could be summed up as, “Don't sit with your knees apart, Jill, you're a big girl now.”

She did not want to be somebody's wife or somebody else's mother. Or somebody else's servant or somebody else's secretary. Or somebody else's sex kitten or somebody else's keeper. She saw no women around who seemed to be anybody in themselves. They all wore some man's uniform. She wanted to be free, and free meant not confined, not forced to lie, not forced to pretend, not warped, not punished, not tortured.

After the initial rounds of this sort of crude exposition, Dance the Eagle to Sleep picks up markedly. Her characters swing into action: after occupying a school, forming a sizeable youth commune in New York, directing the formation of the Warriors (their guerrilla wing under Billy's leadership), and setting similar movements off throughout the country, The Indians move to a rural New Jersey commune, where they hope to build a serious land base.

Although her central characters share a marionette-like quality early in the novel, they become less wooden and more convincing in action. Drawing directly on her own movement experiences, Piercy does indeed “examine alternatives and choices and daydreams and accepted mythologies and tendencies of behavior in the New Left.” As The Indians work hard to establish a revolutionary base, take “bread” (a kind of psychedelic sacrament), and dance out their visions in tribal gatherings, personal and political relationships become strained and factions develop. Corey and his “water people” argue for continuing the commune farms and tribal families: “Creating something better is struggling, too. We need to keep it up on both fronts: making real, visible alternatives, and confronting the system. … Here they're all the way out of the system. That's the biggest trouble we can make. … But we have to gather all the tribes. Everybody can't make it on the streets. We have to grow or we perish. The tribe is the core. The whole tribe.”

His brother-antagonist Billy Batson is more urban directed, insisting on militant, confrontation-provoking tactics. Modeled closely after several of the Weathermen, most violent of the New Left factions in the late 1960s, Billy scorns tribes and farm communes: “If you had bothered with nineteenth-century history, you'd know that this whole farm business is a throwback, Brook Farm-utopian cranks off in the woods to start the good society, and at each other's throats in six months. … So we set up a summer camp in the Jersey hills for wayward adolescents. The man can let us get away with that. What would it matter to General Motors if we set up twenty?” Factions flourish: faced with revolutionary paradoxes—the need to murder and to create, for example—The Indians drain their energies by squabbling. The liberal American government is replaced by a harder line, and “The System” methodically and harshly eliminates their numbers. Billy's warriors use bombings and terrorism to force a showdown and are quickly crushed. The authorities move into the farm commune; after a time lapse at the end of the tenth chapter, we see what is left: Billy is dead, Joanna captured, Corey crushed by a bulldozer.

Driven west by the government, the remnants of The Indians gather with the shreds of other tribes; in a familiar historical parallel, almost all are annihilated. By the end of Dance the Eagle to Sleep, only Shawn, a scruffy female named Ginny, and a badly scarred black (Marcus) remain alive. It remains for the pregnant Ginny, who is politically naive, to issue final judgments of her male revolutionaries: “She was gentle with them both and angry with them both. She would not love them, because they had not been willing to escape. She told them they were in love with apocalypse, like all men, more in love with machomyths than any woman.” The tale ends on the tiniest of glimmers. Shawn, Ginny, and Marcus have come through the fire with few illusions left. At the end, somewhat sentimentally, they are prepared to make a start. The fiction closes with the difficult birth of Ginny's child: “The baby lived and she lived and it was day for Marcus and for him, it was day for them all.”

The political import of Marge Piercy's cautionary tale was seized by most reviewers. Her strongest messages are delivered mainly to her fellow leftists:

I regard the politics of Apocalypse as dangerous to our success in taking the control of the world away from those who own it and us, and I was trying to exorcise that fascination with a struggle viewed as final, fatal, sudden, and complete in Dance. The end is trying to suggest, So you get your Armageddon, so? What do you do then? You still have to go on, if you survive, trying to change things. The enemy is very real, real as Rockefeller ordering the murders at Attica, but so is the fact that our course is long and slow and this revolution, for all that we win or die, will never be finished.

Praised by left liberal critics in Nation, Commonweal, and New Republic (John Seelye, Linda Kuehl, Todd Gitlin), Dance the Eagle to Sleep is politically informed and convincing. The force and detail of Marge Piercy's analyses are valuable—the liberal undermining and cooptation of the radical left, the roots of radical divisiveness, the agonizing self-criticism and dialectical examinations—these are astute observations. But I have basic reservations about the work and dwell on the question of how art may most effectively move people to share or act upon a political belief. More exactly, how can fiction best convey a political vision? How can political concepts, values, and judgments be submerged in fictional forms, be translated into compelling patterns of character in action with which people can identify?

John Updike seems right in suggesting that Piercy's tale is less persuasive than it might have been and therefore politically inefficient. She has a tendency to indulge in “saying” rather than “showing.” Individual characters are offered in exposition as case studies rather than as individuals in actions with which we can empathize. Although large segments of Dance the Eagle to Sleep are told through the viewpoints of Shawn, Corey, Joanna, and Billy, the language and rhythms of their flashbacks, dreams, or monologues are undifferentiated and incessantly editorial. Updike is correct in saying that Piercy is “not fastidious about cliches, resorts to a hurried sociological tone, makes people talk like press handouts, and declines to linger upon sensual details.”

“The emphasis is on the significant episodes of a collective action”: although Piercy's comment suggests a purposeful lack of individual focus, it cannot excuse the weaknesses of the tale. Adults, parents, indeed most of the human components of “The System” are never seen in action. Rather, they are offered as a vast, monolithic repression-machine, and their corporate heinousness is finally difficult to accept. Psychological aberration forms the nucleus of each of her characters, but neither aberrations nor their causes are accounted for beyond this sort of general rhetorical posturing:

For years the culture has been telling everybody through every boob tube that only youth was sexual and beautiful, and that all an over-twenty-five schmuck like you could do was buy Brand X to look a little more youthful. Schmuck, schmuck, the boob tube said all evening long, you're powerless, sexless, fumbling, clumsy, mindless, unable to decide. Average man=schmuck. Average woman=bag. Buy our product once, and maybe nobody will notice what a drag you are. … Thus is a people conditioned to hate its young and focus its frustrations down upon them in a vast dream of those half-dependent, half-independent children demanding and rebelling and threatening. … They were different, alien. You were warned that you could not hope to communicate with them or understand their ways without the guidance of certified experts who had degrees in studying them, like biologists, specializing in tree monkeys or fighting fish. Them Versus Us: the first step in the psychological conditioning for war.

Only later, when Piercy is more patient in depicting the involvements of her characters, especially the sexual ones, and in coiling the springs of their actions, does the fiction engage one's attentions and belief. Although Dance the Eagle to Sleep is finally impressive, it only partially fills its promise. Judging from Piercy's other recent writings, she is fully aware of the main requisite of political fiction:

Now I get coarse when the abstract nouns start flashing.
I go out to the kitchen to chat about cabbages and habits.
I try hard to remember to watch what people do.
Yes, keep your eyes on the hands, let the voice go buzzing.
Economy is the bone, politics is the flesh,
Watch who they beat and who they eat,
Watch who they relieve themselves on, watch who they own.
The rest, the rest, the rest is decoration.

Brina Caplan (review date 6 March 1982)

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SOURCE: “Not So Happy Days,” in The Nation, March 6, 1982, pp. 280-2.

[In the following review, Caplan offers tempered analysis of Braided Lives.]

The 1950s may not seem long ago, but they are long ago enough to have become history, the object of academic speculation and commercial nostalgia. On campus, scholars revise Eisenhower's Presidential reputation. On television, loops of tape endlessly reincarnate Happy Days and bring us, in prime time, the joys of Elvis and the sorrows of Marilyn. But anyone who came of age during the McCarthy-Eisenhower era is likely to need neither revision nor television. Simple recall suffices: the way we were is not a way we want to be again.

As Marge Piercy's seventh novel, Braided Lives, reminds us, growing up female in the 1950s hurt. Even the fashions were punitive—shoes with pencil-point toes, skirts as tight as mummy windings or flared so as to require lofting by layers of starched, scratchy crinolines. Thirty years later, the then-fashionable distortions of female anatomy must seem comic. “A decent bra in 1953,” Piercy's narrator, Jill Stuart, reports, “is nearer to an armor breastplate than to a silky froth of lingerie. It holds the breasts apart, forward and out as if setting up a couple of moon shots.” Yet what Jill finds in recollection unlaughable still is the distortion of women's ambitions, impulses and self-regard. At 43, she wonders how she managed to live through ages 16 to 22. Her remembrance of a working-class childhood in Detroit, college years in Ann Arbor and a writer's life in New York City is, in fact, a survivor's retrospective. Like all narratives of survival, Braided Lives affects us by contrast—by distinction made between then and now, between those who have and have not survived and, most important, between the subtleties of individual development and the more general movement of history.

In 1953, sex is for marriage, not because, as the Victorians saw it, the act is so deeply profane that only sanctification makes it endurable. Instead, in the utilitarian 1950s, sexuality gives women their one legitimate hold on power. They are expected, with the goad of pleasure, to herd men into families. This herding ritual, as Jill observes it, is a blind-end game. A too-early marriage transforms her childhood best friend from a street-wise adventurer into “a housewife padding around in slip and feather mules, a permanent whine in her voice and a puzzled frown pulling at her wide mouth.” At her home, the power derived from earning belongs to Jill father; her industrious, beleaguered mother “works for free.” And so Mr. Stuart battles for control of family affairs through bluster and the surreptitious scheming of the weak. Although a child of her time, by age 16 Jill is already planning an escape into the future.

Her own efforts pay for four years, at the University of Michigan, where thoughtfulness, disparaged at home, proves an asset, and friendly voices help her articulate her own native radicalism. But there is other tuition to be paid, at a different price. The same destructive ambivalence that caused high school boys to pursue—and then to scorn—“girls who do” infects every male-female relationship of Jill's college years. Men bully and wheedle, disregard women's pain and ignore the gravity of child-bearing. Once discovered, sex nonetheless remains a sweet release—no other contemporary novelist writes about women's sexual pleasures with Piercy's good-humored, unmuddied sensuality—and Jill does enjoy an almost easy relationship with a factory worker in Ann Arbor. His respect for her independence, however, is offset both by his line of night work, burglary, and by his exploitative racism. In Jill's experience, men want not “just one thing” from the women they love; they want a soul-eviscerating everything.

The great passions of her life become her poetry, her politics and her friendships. She has discovered “the core of falsity in the search for love: a woman gives herself to a man as if that got rid of the problem of making an identity.” But most women she knows, including those with whom she shares political opinions, do not agree. Indeed, the woman she most loves, her cousin and sometime roommate, Donna, is haunted by a despair that she believes only marriage can alleviate. Although their intimacy provides them both with safe harbor during troubled times, its intensity inevitably frightens Donna, who then cools and resumes cruising for a husband. Her coolness, Jill's fervor; her self-loathing, Jill's self-sufficiency are played off against each other in a counterpoint of crises—the last of which is the unwanted pregnancy that ends Donna's life.

Of the lives that intertwine with Jill's to produce Braided Lives, her own is virtually the one unbroken strand: Howie, her New York lover and former high school friend, dies in a Ku Klux Klan ambush; Donna's death is fated by her marriage to a woman-hater; women friends disappear into prison, asylums, the insularity of serial baby-bearing. “I do not know a girl who does not say,” Jill remarks early in her story, “‘I don't want to live like my mother’. … Is it our mothers, ourselves or our men who mold us?” Jill alone has escaped to tell us, and her answers implicate all three agents. Certainly, this account of women's lives during the 1950s does not relieve them of responsibility for preserving the status quo. Jill recounts with bemusement, for example, how in dormitory confessions her college friends, preferring contest to mutuality, claimed themselves virginities that could appear and disappear and reappear to suit competitive moment.

If, in Braided Lives, Piercy's humor has satiric bite, her dialogue achieves a more vicious edge. Jill's mother and lovers tend to go at her in butchering arguments that appear to aim at total annihilation. “‘You poor blind ugly slut! You dirty little gutter worm living on your own shit!’” screams the mother at the daughter who has confronted her about repainting a room. Despite their compelling momentum, such scenes transport a puzzling excess, too particular and too poisoned to be explained away by a generalized feminist vision. Indeed, excess may be the one fault of this energetic novel, which in the course of nearly 450 pages manages to accommodate almost every humiliation to which women are liable: there are rapes, memories of childhood seduction, psychological manipulation, verbal and physical abuse, the agony of illegal abortion and exploitation on and off the job. Although, given Piercy's accuracy of eye and ear, any one incident is likely to be absorbing, the total catalogue is somehow numbing. Piercy might well have kept in mind Jill's weary reaction to her friend Stephanie's rendition of a childhood of horrors. Stephanie's story, Jill remarks, “has beaten me into a submission of the imagination.”

Elizabeth Wheeler (review date 12 August 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556

SOURCE: “It's Her Life and Welcome to it,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 12, 1984, p. 7.

[In the following review, Wheeler offers unfavorable assessment of Fly Away Home.]

Fly Away Home is a novel I much wanted to like, and there is much in the novel to admire. It's a novel that says much without taking a preachy tone, and it's a novel that has something to say. It's also a novel of human experience and human scale, one that takes problems of our age and time and domesticates them. It is written by a woman, about a woman and for women, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

In fact, its virtues may do this novel in. For example, there's author Marge Piercy's obvious skill in the creation of a detailed fictional world. She not only knows every inch of the house her heroine, Daria Walker, occupies and loves, she also knows every piece of underwear in her drawer and every thought in her head.

Each detail Piercy presents has behind it the richness of a thousand others. The result is an enormous strength of the parts but also a weakness of the whole. The details are perfect, but they add up to one woman's life rather than a fully realized novel.

Here again Piercy's virtues point up her failings. Daria Walker is a wonderful character. She's essentially good without being perfect, perceptive without being preternaturally wise, gentle without being mushy, she is, in fact, extraordinary enough to be interesting yet average enough to be representative. She is also, unfortunately, the only complete character in the book. There's some real humanity in her two daughters, her secretary and some of the tenants of the buildings her husband owns, but these characters seem cardboard when compared to Daria.

There are also some characters who would seem cardboard if compared to a box at a checkout counter. The husband who discards her, for example, is not only guilty of bad taste. He turns out to have the charm of bubble gum on the bottom of a shoe and about the same amount of intrinsic merit. Piercy is making a point about how two individuals can grow apart in a marriage, but it could have been made without turning one of those individuals into a snob, a bully and a vicarious pyromaniac with homicidal tendencies.

The problem of Daria's husband brings up, quite naturally, the greatest of this novel's vices of virtue. Piercy has points to make, several of them. She is not only writing about estrangement in a long marriage and what the 1980s can do to a man and a woman who seemed to have much in common in the 1960s, she's also writing about how money can corrupt the weak, how evil can be seen as necessary and how times of crisis can turn into times of self-discovery and, therefore, self-fulfillment.

Now these are all valid concerns for a novelist and merit thoughtful exploration. Piercy, however, doesn't give them one. Long before Daria and her new lover—younger, stronger, bigger, sexier and infinitely more sensitive than that creep who was her husband—have fantastic sex, this novel may seem more an exercise in wish-fulfillment than self-fulfillment. The line between the two is subtle, but many readers will have little doubt that Piercy has crossed it.

Elaine Tuttle Hansen (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Marge Piercy: The Double Narrative Structure of Small Changes,” in Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick, University Press of Kentucky, 1985, pp. 209-23.

[In the following essay, Hansen examines Piercy's mistrust of language, narrative strategies, and appropriation of dominant male discourse in Small Changes.]

“This is the oppressor's language / yet I need it to talk to you.” Speaking thus of the equivocal relationship between women and language, Adrienne Rich in the earliest days of the women's movement addressed the central question that female writers and feminist critics still seek to answer. Is the dominant discourse a male construct that women cannot use to represent their experience, or can women control or escape this discourse to speak of and for themselves? In Small Changes, more explicitly than in any of her other six novels so far published, Marge Piercy confronts this troubling question. The novel reflects at various levels a profound suspicion of “the oppressor's language,” but like Rich, Piercy finally wants to appropriate—with certain modifications—the dominant discourse. Her aim as a writer, she claims, is to communicate, and after all how else to do so: “I need it to talk to you.” Affirming that women must simultaneously mistrust and use language, Piercy goes on to explore in Small Changes, through its narrative structure, the possibilities and limitations of two different ways in which the female artist can use “the oppressor's” words, as well as his conventional narrative modes, to write—and perhaps even rewrite—female experience.

In Small Changes, a profound and pervasive suspicion of the dominant discourse is explicitly articulated by one of the two main characters, Beth Walker. Beth both recognizes and suspects the power of words. In the opening chapter, she tries to suppress her own discomfort and misgivings, as she stands at the altar with Jim, by invoking “magic words that made things happen or go away, recipes like I Love You, and I'm Sorry, and I Pledge Allegiance, and God Bless Mommy and Daddy, and Will You Marry Me, and Fine, Thank You, and I Do.” But she cannot hear these soothing formulas “over the roaring in her ears,” the sound of an apparently instinctive, inner pulse that prefigures the roars of an anger she gradually learns, in the course of the novel, to acknowledge and express. In the same scene we find that Beth, although untrained in Speech Act Theory, fully understands the performative power of “magic words,” as she hears what the clichés really say and demystifies those old recipes. So, for example, she translates her sister's description of her wedding dress, written for a newspaper that will never print it: “Nancy had written ‘the train comes away.’ That meant the thing that dragged could be taken off, with a little timely help.” Beth's debunking revision frankly emphasizes the oppression of women that the formulaic words conceal: the conventional train of the white wedding gown is in fact a useless burden, “the thing that dragged,” symbolizing not elegance—or pretensions to elegance—but woman's lack of power, her need for “a little timely help” to rid herself of obstacles to comfort and freedom of action. Beth's revisionist insight into the way words both reflect and hide the oppression of women continues throughout the novel: again, when Dorine laments her loneliness—“I feel sometimes as if I'll go through life and never belong to anyone”—Beth responds: “But you aren't a dog, why do you want to be owned?” On her wedding night, “going all the way” with Jim for the first time, she is left completely unsatisfied by his rapid defloration: “they had made love finally, but where was the love they had made?”

Beth's mistrust of magic words extends to the written word as well. Reflecting on her past, as she tries to find out what is going wrong in her marriage, she notes that she was once an avid reader, first consuming adventure stories for boys and later “a lot of Frank Yerby and Galsworthy,” and “all of Aldous Huxley and Iris Murdoch.” But she stopped reading as she began to feel the gap between “reality” and fiction: “The books had betrayed her, leading her to want what she could not approach.” She finds the diary she kept in high school and discovers that she, too, wrote words that misrepresented life, lying to herself in order to cover up painful experience with a story of “how it was all supposed to be.” Even “Jim,” she comes to believe, is “a character made up as she used to make over her daily life for her diary.” To escape her depressing marriage to the real Jim, she once again turns to books—to Hemingway and Colette, among others—and to daydreaming. Beth finds something “shameful,” however, about this retreat to a fantasy world, “something second rate about an imaginary life.” Later, after her first actual escape from Jim and Syracuse, at a point at which she no longer needs to imagine herself taking part in fictional adventures, she picks up some magazines from an old friend's coffee table. With clear sight she analyzes the way they prescribe and distort female life, but she can still feel their power: “The effect of reading them was to feel discontented and sad and vaguely stirred up, as if lacking, as if something were wrong with her. Quickly she put down the magazine.”

On her own for the first time, in Boston and on the fringes of academe, Beth learns about another (ab)use of words. The educated men she now meets play a “verbal game,” while the women “sat on the sidelines and watched the words go by.” Talking for these men is “a kind of playing,” like Jim's car races and football games, but this game has serious consequences. Men have the power to name women: just as Jim called Beth “Little Girl,” the men in the apartment on Pearl Street call Dorine “Chlorine”; Beth is “Peter Rabbit” and Miriam is “Venus.” (Later male epithets for Miriam are even more offensive and destructive: Jackson identifies her with his ex-wife—“You're both cunts”—and Neil criticizes her for her failure to behave as “my wife”—even “a professor's wife”—should.) Dorine consoles Beth for her inability to play the verbal game by arguing that it is just a little harmless sport—“It's jaw exercise. It's Indian wrestling.” But Beth sees more: “I think it's their way of putting things in their place and people in their place and keeping them there. … They're making a pecking order.”

In her suspicion of words and the ways they are used to keep people, especially women, in their places, Beth explores alternative ways of understanding and expressing herself and of communicating with others. She turns first to music, where “sometimes it was people saying things sharper and cleaner than people ever talked to each other in her life … great charges of feeling, someone and then someone else talking to her with power.” Through music she joins “the heart of feeling” she cannot otherwise enter, and she hears the vague but powerful promise of “something, something” that “hung out there in music and birds, wheeling against the dusk and crickets chirping in the weeds.” She also thinks in images; she studies herself as a turtle in an attempt to understand what she feels and believes. Later she finds alternative outlets for her creativity, first in the children's story that she and the women of the commune collectively invent, and ultimately in the women's theater group. She also continues to talk and listen and write, but always with a marked effort to be honest, to say what she means, and to hear what other people are saying. She replaces magic words that distort, falsify, and oppress with the mottoes she writes on the walls of her room in Back Bay, sayings that use language itself, as Beth always does, to demystify, debunk, and deconstruct the dominant discourse and replace it with words that speak of and for women: “NOBODY LOVES A DOORMAT, THEY JUST WALK ON OVER. THE MIRROR IS THE FIRST DAILY TRAP. CHICK—small, fuzzy, helpless, stupid, cute, lays eggs and in the end gets eaten. CAT—predator, active, alert, tough, independent, mean, quick. The language says one is predator and the other is prey. LOVE IS WHAT WOMEN DO INSTEAD OF KNOWING OR FIGHTING OR MAKING OR INVENTING.”

Beth even writes a poem, a self-help piece that ends with a chant of defiance and self-affirmation—“Yes, Beth! Yes, Beth! / Yes”—whose chief virtue is that it makes her feel better. Miriam's perceptive analysis of Beth's surprisingly strong sense of her identity underscores Beth's escape from the dominant discourse that (mis)directs and (dis)figures most women's lives: “She seemed to have her own cry that she uttered through the confusions they all lived in.”

But Beth herself understands that “her own cry” is not enough for a woman, and despite her strong distrust of their uses of language, she wants to engage with men in the verbal game. She articulates to Dorine the reason for her apparently contradictory desire to play a game she hates and in which she has no confidence: “I want to be better with words. I want to be able to answer them back. But I don't believe that's how you do anything. I only want to use words as weapons because I'm tired of being beaten with them. Tired of being pushed around because I don't know how to push back.” When Beth says that words, as men use them, are inadequate to “do anything,” she is not denying the potency of words; she is voicing, rather, her political belief in action as opposed to a hollow rhetoric that is not useful to women, or to anyone else who wants to change the world. As she puts it later, explaining her distrust of Phil: “He talks too much. He turns everything into words and makes it change in words, but nothing changes.” Without relinquishing this insight into the insufficiency of words, she acknowledges their real power to oppress and wants access to that power, not to join in the dominant discourse, not to play the game as men play it, but to protect herself against oppression. In Small Changes Piercy expresses her mistrust of language but does not advocate or sentimentalize silence on the part of women. While women need to seek alternatives and to reject language and literature when they are used to keep women in their place, they cannot allow themselves to be muted; inarticulateness is not a useful weapon.

Other characters and events in the novel support Beth's explicit stance on the troubled question of women and language. Miriam, for instance, who has had more formal education than Beth has had, is always talking and has less suspicion of the dominant discourse, perhaps because she is better at playing the verbal game herself. But while she is seldom at a loss for words, she is also the most oppressed woman in the novel, or at least the one who is most damaged by the epithets and plots assigned to her by men. She uses words to hide—chiefly from herself—the truth about her relationships with men. Her lovers and her husband repeatedly shut her out from their games and refuse to speak, while she tries in vain to understand and communicate: “Still she watched him for a sign, any sign.” Fittingly, like so many women, Miriam has a special facility for language, which is manifest in her interest as a computer scientist in the problems of artificial language. She begins work on a project that will facilitate communication between people and computers and between various incompatible computer languages, but when she marries the director of the project, she is transferred to work on a missile contract. Only Phil ever really talks with Miriam, but then Phil is an unusual man, the exception that proves the rule. A hustler with words—as are women—Phil is beaten down by the establishment, undergoes a conversion, and in the end recants his old phallogocentrism. He gives up writing poetry—whose eternal status he earlier celebrated—drops out of graduate school, and even distances himself from his friend Jackson because “being with him pushes me into my old way of using words.” He chooses to withdraw from the dominant discourse and becomes a carpenter: “I want to do simple useful things with my hands and keep my rotten fucked-up head out of it. I don't trust how I use words.”

The pervasive and fundamental suspicion of words that separates the sheep from the goats in Small Changes may also serve, self-reflexively, to explain and defend Piercy's own characteristic use of language. Critics have repeatedly faulted her novels for their stylistic lapses, their failure to display “the felicities of a decent prose style.” A reader might be reminded, however, when reading such criticism, of Virginia Woolf's self-mocking critique of Life's Adventure, the imaginary novel by Mary Carmichael analyzed in A Room of One's Own: “She had broken up Jane Austen's sentence,” Woolf complains, “and thus given me no chance of pluming myself upon my impeccable taste, my fastidious ear.” Piercy, in Small Changes, as did Mary Carmichael in Life's Adventure, insists that we question our standards of taste, our fastidious assumptions about stylistic decency, that we see the political indecency of “very very literary literature,” and that we recognize Piercy's effort to communicate with a “popular” audience, specifically one that includes men and women “who don't go into bookstores,” as she puts it. There are dangers, of course, in this insistence and this effort. There is a danger, for instance, that Piercy will go unread, or unappreciated, by people who do go into bookstores—people whom she also wants to reach, or so she says. And there is the more serious danger, perhaps, that Piercy's mistrust of language and literature can radically undercut the political message of the novel for any reader. If literature falsifies experience, why should anyone believe what Small Changes says about women's lives? If words change nothing, can a novel be “of use,” as Piercy wants hers to be?

Such are the questions raised in Small Changes, crucial questions for many women writers today, and to my mind they make this novel a particularly exciting document for both the feminist critic and the student of contemporary narrative. This is not the conventional novel or the “merely” popular work that so many critics have plumed themselves on criticizing. Whether it succeeds or fails in the attempt to set new standards and say new things, it raises questions that are on the cutting edge of feminist aesthetics and feminist theory, and it repays critical analysis. One type of analysis, to which some of Piercy's other novels—especially Woman on the Edge of Time—might more obviously give occasion, is examination of her narrative technique as a kind of literary manifesto for contemporary women writers. From this perspective, Small Changes suggests several by now almost commonplace strategies and principles, including the subversion of conventional narrative openings and closings; the intentionally didactic, oversimplified, even allegorical nature of the work and its characters; the use of what DuPlessis has called “multi-personed or cluster protagonists” to affirm the “feminine” values of “collectivity” and “interdependence”; the rich, even “exhaustive” and “obsessively observed”—details, often associated with stereotypically female interests such as the way space is arranged in various domiciles, or the way “life support” activities are managed.

Along these lines, I want to suggest that the narrative structure of Small Changes, built on the stories of two women, can be seen as an experiment, not in “the variety of lifestyles that women in our time are adopting,” but in two alternative ways in which the woman writer can write, can represent the experience of women while using the only language available and the traditional forms and myths available to any writer. I want to suggest, that is, that Piercy, wary like Beth of language, investigates the possibilities and the limitations of two prominent ways in which the woman writer can appropriate the dominant discourse: either by inverting the classic male plot, as in Beth's story; or by revitalizing and perhaps “legitimating” a conventional female form of narrative, as in “the ongoing soap opera” of Miriam's life. Small Changes is in this regard not an optimistic novel; it reveals in both modes the difficulties as well as the possibilities of appropriation, the price that women pay, the resistance of the dominant discourse—a system that is not user-friendly, as Miriam might put it, when the user is a woman writing for women and hoping to “do” something with words.

The plot of Beth's story represents an example of the first possibility that is available to the feminist writer: the revolutionary use of a classic male narrative structure to portray a radical female experience. Beth's story is a version—and an inversion—of both the Bildungsroman (or even the Kunstlerroman, in which Beth is the artist as a young woman, unable to speak) and the melodrama. Endowed only with her seemingly innate feminist sensitivity—“She bruises easily,” her mother says—Beth miraculously escapes imprisonment in the perpetual childhood of the married woman. She begins to educate herself, is recaptured, escapes again, and finally after many adventures meets the perfect woman and finds her true identity, both sexual and social, as a lesbian feminist. This plot is clearly presented as a romantic journey from darkness to light, a narrative of revolution and rebirth into a new and higher state. Appropriately, the climax of the story comes when the hero explicitly breaks the law she has already transgressed in private and escapes as nearly as possible, not just from her personal patriarchs, but from the patriarchal state as a whole. At the end of the novel, Beth goes underground, literally creating a new identity and renaming herself and her family. The maleness of this plot, despite its feminist twist, is underscored by the characterization of Beth. The name Jackson gives her—Peter Rabbit—is shown to be apt; although she loves women and is abused by men, she has few traditionally feminine traits and tastes. She is cool and dry, flat-chested and narrow-hipped; she hates to cook, travels light, and refuses to be caught in the reproductive cycle: “I can't be mothered and I won't mother,” she tells Miriam. Tellingly—and with the homoerotic overtones characteristic of the central male-male and female-female relationships in the novel—Miriam likes Beth because she seems, like Phil or Neil, more an equal than other women. At the same time, however, Beth's feminine capacity to love and care for others—for Wanda and her sons, in particular, and for the hypothetical patients she will treat if she becomes, as she plans, a paramedic—is validated by the ending of her story. Piercy may be attempting to suggest here what Lee Edwards has recently argued: that the woman hero challenges stereotypical associations of sex and behavior. “Permitted, like others of her sex, to love and nurture, to comfort, to solace, and to please,” Edwards argues, “the heroic woman specifies these impulses as human, not just female, and endows them with a value that counters their usual debasement.”

Where Beth and her plot, like the classic male story of education and adventure upon which it is built, are basically “simple and contained,” Miriam and her story are “vast and yeasty,” hopelessly complicated and archetypally feminine. The characters themselves suggest to us the specific genre of Miriam's story: as she herself says and as Jackson later repeats, she is the heroine of a soap opera. Closer analysis confirms and clarifies the significance of this point, as we see how Piercy manipulates narrative structure, point of view, and thematic elements so that Miriam's story corresponds in critical respects to the shape and style of the soaps, and is in sharp contrast to the story of the woman hero. The novel begins, for instance, with “The Book of Beth,” in which we are introduced to the protagonist as she learns about herself, and thus we are given a sense, as in the typical Bildungsroman, of the freedom and capacity of the central character to grow, to make choices, and to take action. Miriam, by contrast, is first introduced in Beth's book as just one of a group of people with complex histories and relationships, a small but complete cast of characters whose lives are already—and only, and always—in progress when Beth tunes in. We later see Miriam and Phil but know no more than Beth does about their relationship at this point; in the penultimate chapter and narrative climax of “The Book of Beth,” set on the day of the Street Fair, Dorine and Lennie and Beth walk in on Miriam and Jackson, who are in bed.

In “The Book of Miriam,” which begins shortly thereafter, we are offered the testimony of Miriam's childhood, college days, and affairs with Phil and Jackson, in a lengthy reprisal that appears to introduce us to Miriam in the same way in which we were introduced to Beth. But when we have finally come again to that same point in narrative time where we were in Beth's Book—the day of the Street Fair—we already know what is going to happen. Our knowledge makes us perceive Miriam's experience much differently from the way we perceive Beth's: the soap-opera heroine is caught in predetermined circumstances, unable to choose or to act on her own. She is constrained by the narrative structure, and hence by the reader's foreknowledge, as much as by her own all too predictable desires.

Furthermore, as is that of any character in a good soap opera, Miriam's story is interrupted by other characters in a way that Beth's is not. In “The Book of Miriam,” two chapters are in fact written from Phil's point of view; Miriam, who sometimes feels as if she is Phil's product—or his poodle—relinquishes control to him even in her titular story. In the third and longest section of the novel, “Both in Turn,” the reader is farther from Miriam, especially in crucial scenes such as the party she gives, where we see her first through Beth's eyes, just as, in the last chapter, we see her through Helen's. The effect is that in general we see with Beth, where we often merely see Miriam.

Like a soap opera, and unlike Beth's evolutionary plot, Miriam's story is also one of continual and unfulfilled anticipation, obsessive and ungratified desire, and formless repetition. Miriam repeatedly thinks her dreams have at last come true—first when she meets Phil, then when she succumbs to Jackson, then when she marries Neil—but we soon see how blind she is and how little progress she makes. Again, the narrative structure highlights her self-deception: when Beth returns to Boston, finds Miriam married to Neil, and asks how it happened, Miriam clearly represses the all-important meeting in Washington with Wilhelm Graben; only later does she reveal to us how much this episode influences her decision to marry Neil and to have a baby. Her life is presented as a series of defeats, as her story moves relentlessly from one predictable scene to the next. Phil gets stoned and lets Miriam down, but makes Miriam feel that she has let him down; Jackson wins the chess game; Tom Ryan—or Wilhelm Graban, or Phil, or Neil—has sex with her while she is drunk, or unable to object, or too sleepy to use her diaphragm; Neil humiliates her for smoking marijuana when she is carrying “his” child, or for talking to the wrong people, or for spilling her drink, or for spoiling or neglecting Ariane. Occasionally Miriam even sees the predictability and shapelessness of her narrative. With Jackson, she feels unable to “shatter the web of myth,” and toward the end of the novel, comments on the ironic exchange of roles that she and Dorine have undergone: “It's strange, Beth. As if our lives had no inner shape.”

Contrast the exhausting, repetitious, shapeless series of defeats that Miriam experiences with the functional repetition in Beth's plot. When, for example, Jim's detective takes Beth back to Syracuse, and she has to escape from him all over again, what might look like a frustration, even a regression, of her development serves to demonstrate how Beth has in fact grown in moral stature and in heroic resolve. Juxtaposed in this way, the two escapes reveal Beth's development from passive resistance—before, she simply lied and evaded confrontation—to active, even aggressive self-defense, as she now takes up the bread knife and gets herself a lawyer. Whereas she simply boards a plane to Boston the first time she runs away—“She thought she would be less frightened to get on a plane and be in Boston in an hour and a half”—after her second escape she hitchhikes to California and back, exercising her new self-reliance and earning her stripes (she has her first lesbian affair on the way) before returning to the women's house. Literally as well as figuratively the heroine covers much more space—“what a distance she had traveled beyond what she has been raised to”—than does the soap-opera heroine, who stays in the same small world—within easy range of Route 128—for the central part of the action.

And as in the soap operas, the predominant concern within Miriam's small world is the life of the emotions. She earns a Ph.D. in computer science from M.I.T. and speaks of the joys of work, but when “she understood that she was in love” with Jackson, she forgets everything else, “plans and projects and curiosities and relationships and speculations.” She is not really committed to her career even in the beginning; she dreams of saving half her first year's salary, then taking a leave of absence or quitting to travel with Phil. By the time her second child is born—only three years after her “leave of absence” from Logical Systems Development—she feels totally unmarketable. Rationalizing her professional failure, Miriam might speak for all soap opera characters when she says “People are the most important thing to me.” Again and again, in long stretches of dialogue or interior monologue, we hear of her obsessive desire to be loved, and we also hear the simple Freudian psychologizing that guides her—and most of the characters—in her thinking about love and sex.

The final and most emphatic similarity between Miriam's narrative and the genre of soap opera is its open-endedness. We do not know exactly what will become of Beth and Wanda, but the effect of the final two-page narrative of “Cindy” and “Marie,” and their sons, and their dog Dean, is to seal off Beth's story. Our brief glimpse of this happy family sitting down to a meal of potato soup and discussing Cindy and Marie's plan to train as paramedics is as idealized and romantic as the happy ending of the most conventional novel. In our last view of Miriam, on the other hand, we witness yet another fight with Neil, who is already having an affair— soon to be revealed to us, unbeknown to Miriam—with his secretary. He leaves Miriam, and she sits alone in the dark house, thinking about her dreams, her love, her children, and her connections with Beth, Wanda, Dorine, Phil, Sally—the principal players in the cast. Although we know Miriam is still deceiving herself in her hope that she can regain Neil's love, we are—at least momentarily—invited to believe that the strength of her connections will enable her to survive, to recover her energy, and perhaps even to break the cycle of repeated defeat, not as Beth does in one fell revolutionary swoop, but through “the slow undramatic refounding, single thought by small decision by petty act, of a life: her life.” This all-but-final vision of Miriam crouched in the dark, looking out at the streetlights, could encourage the reader to invent a future that takes the character out of a world of endless repetition without insisting that she become a heroine, a superwoman, or a lesbian separatist.

But Small Changes does not end with this plausible if limited optimism: instead, underscoring its affinities with the constitutionally endless soap operas, the last brief chapter of the novel—“Another Desperate Soprano (Helen)”—introduces a new heroine, mentioned in passing by Neil in the preceding chapter, and a new point of view. The story, however, is depressingly familiar: Helen is on the verge of taking Miriam's place in the plot, repeating her error, and fleeing gratefully from a hard, lonely life into the deceptive protection of Neil Stone's petrifying embrace. The final word in Small Changes implies that for every woman who manages to escape even a little, as Miriam might, there is another soprano waiting in the wings, doomed to reenact a plot that offers no relief from oppression, no freedom from endless anticipation and frustration of desire.

Piercy thus uses the double narrative in Small Changes to explore both the possibilities and the limitations of two available narrative structures, one male and one female, for speaking the unspoken and perhaps unspeakable story of women's lives. The feminist Bildungsroman, built on a culturally male model, facilitates the representation of a certain kind of revolutionary change, of individual growth and development in a woman's life; the soap opera more accurately presents and records ordinary women's experience. Each genre, as used in Small Changes, can be deployed to expose the oppression of women and to write stories that diminish the gap, for women, between reality and fiction, stories that do not betray the woman reader as Beth was betrayed by the fiction she once devoured, and stories that enable women to play the verbal game without turning into the oppressors. But neither mode is yet adequate to communicate a truly satisfactory vision of the as yet unrealized future in which no one is oppressed. Small Changes does not ask us to trust language and its present forms fully, but to remain wary of the ways in which literary conventions, like the world that produces and is shaped by them, “push women around”; and so from a late-twentieth-century feminist point of view each of the two characters and her story serves as a critique of the other.

Beth's story, the classic male narrative, works for women only if it is inverted to show the radical feminist's escape from rather than reintegration into society; in this way it may also reprivilege individual over collective values and cannot easily accommodate heterosexual relationships. At the same time that Beth's narrative thematically supports female bonding, Beth's individual heroism of necessity implies a rejection of traditional women's culture and, most problematical, of motherhood. Wanda breaks the law in order to keep her children; but if Beth had children, could she sacrifice them to her love for Wanda? Again, only because Beth will not be a mother is she free to act in a heroic plot. Miriam takes as much of a risk as she can to help Wanda because both are mothers—“Suppose they were my children? Of course she has to get them back.” But she cannot go underground with her friends. She articulates precisely the limitations of Beth's career, the elitism that radical feminism can seem to perpetuate: “Come on, you call it the women's movement, but what do you have for an ordinary woman? … What have you got for me? I love my kids and I don't burn banks down or run around the streets with picket signs.”

In response to Miriam's indictment, Beth has no easy answer, but her thoughtful advice in turn exposes the inadequacies of soap opera from a feminist perspective. Above all Beth blames the isolation of woman that is the result of an excessively private life, a total investment of self in the male object of desire, and a mistaken belief that she is solely responsible for, and hence chained to, her children. The soap opera, as others have argued, could be said to affirm the collective character, the community, that the male narrative subordinates to the individual hero, but such a possibility is unrealized as long as the love of a man is the primary source of narrative action, and hence of meaning, in women's lives. Soap operas give narrative space to the experience of women in a way that the male plot cannot, but by replicating the web of myth they also serve to deny an ordinary woman the chance to escape its constraints.

Edith J. Wynne (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Imagery of Association in the Poetry of Marge Piercy,” in Publications of the Missouri Philological Association, Vol. 10, 1985, pp. 57-63.

[In the following essay, Wynne discusses emotional and psychological motifs associated with the imagery of Piercy's poetry.]

Under the title, Circles on the Water, Marge Piercy published, in 1982, a collection of more than one hundred and fifty poems selected from seven of her previously published volumes. In the introduction to Circles on the Water, Piercy remarks,

One of the oldest habits of our species, poetry is powerful in aligning the psyche. A poem can momentarily integrate the different kinds of knowing of our different and often warring levels of brain, from the reptilian part that recognizes rhythms and responds to them up through the mammalian centers of the emotions, from symbolic knowing as in dreams to analytical thinking, through rhythms and sound and imagery as well as overt meaning. A poem can momentarily heal not only the alienation of thought and feeling Eliot discussed, but can fuse the different kinds of knowing and for at least some instants weld mind back into body seamlessly.

Piercy's allusion to T. S. Eliot in her discussion of what poetry can do to integrate our ways of knowing is significant. While Piercy gives some attention to the relatively new psychological theory of opposing brain hemisphere functions, she also recalls the old debate between the functions of logic and emotion in the metaphysical poets, a group with which Piercy has some commonality in her imagistic techniques. Piercy's collected poems contain a startling array of images which, in their variety and number, in their apparently haphazard distribution, in their wide-ranging sensuousness, and in their seemingly antithetical juxtaposition of thought and feeling, create that kind of discordia concors so often associated with the metaphysical tradition. On the surface, Piercy's poems might aptly be described by Samuel Johnson's observation on the poet, Cowley:

The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises.

Yet, Piercy's poetry does more than merely surprise and instruct. Eliot and other theorists have made commonplace the critical edict that the metaphysicals were able to express experience both emotionally and intellectually at the same instance. Piercy contends that, in her poems, the richness of thought and feeling possessed by all human beings informs her choice of images and brings a kind of unity out of chaos for us:

That the poems may give voice to something in the experience of a life has been my intention. To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. … We have few rituals that function for us in the ordinary chaos of our lives.

Piercy speaks directly to her readers in her own voice although she reminds us that the experiences she recounts are not always her own, nor are the poems confessional. She states that when she is writing she is not aware of any distinction between her own and other people's experiences, but that she is “often pushing the experience beyond realism.” In this sense, Piercy creates a vortex of images which are often paradoxical but “reader-friendly.” As Cleanth Brooks noted in his discussion of the language of paradox,

The poet must work by analogies, but the metaphors do not lie in the same plane or fit neatly edge to edge. There is continual tilting of the planes; necessary overlappings, discrepancies, contradiction. Even the most direct and simple poet is forced into paradoxes far more often than we think, if we are sufficiently alive to what he is doing.

Piercy is such a direct and simple poet as Brooks describes, particularly in diction, tone, and form. She writes, she tells us, as a social animal and intends her poems not for other poets, but to be “of use” to the reader; she says, “I am not a poet who writes primarily for the approval or attention of other poets. … Poetry is too important to keep to ourselves.” She admits to occasional didacticism and to conscious feminist politics; she believes that her poems “coax, lecture, lull, seduce, exhort, denounce.” Her poetry reminds us in several ways of the metaphysical tradition but stripped of the intellectual pyrotechnics of that tradition.

Piercy's use of imagery is one of the major assets of her poetic technique. The title of the volume Circles on the Water provides a descriptive metaphor for the recurrent, intertwined, echoic use of images so characteristic of her work. A few of her poems are built upon a single, extended metaphor; among these are “A work of artifice” in which a bonsai tree is compared throughout the poem to the stunted growth of a stereotyped female, and “The best defense is offensive” in which the actions of a turkey vulture are equated with a useful political stance. Much more typical of her work, however, is a lyrical, almost free-flowing series of images, built upon emotional and psychological associations rather than upon logical paradox or metaphysical conceit. Like circles on water created when a pool's surface tension is disturbed, her images form concentric, ever-widening patterns linked only by the energy and force of the precipitating experience. Usually, we are made fully aware of the initial event, for Piercy often begins with a narrative and maintains a strong sense of time and place. The force and energy of the image patterns is, therefore, one of the most exciting and unique qualities of the poems, but a quality not easily analyzed.

One of the poems which most clearly and dramatically displays the image-by-association artistry through which Piercy constructs an organic whole is “Sign,” written in 1967 and included in her first published volume, Breaking Camp. As in the majority of her poems, Piercy provides a dramatic narrative structure; an event in the present precipitates contemplation. In “Sign,” this event is quite commonplace—the poet discovers an emblem of aging:

The first white hair coils in my hand,
more wire than down.
Out of the bathroom mirror it glittered at me.
I plucked it, feeling thirty creep in my joints,
and found it silver. It does not melt.

This brief opening stanza contains four images which are interwoven throughout the remainder of the poem in a carefully orchestrated, psychological point counter-point. The hair itself is the focal object, but one made up of several different sense impressions. The hair has color (white, then silver), texture (more “wire” than “down”), and substance (unlike quicksilver, it does not “melt” at body warmth). Furthermore, the hair is seen in a mirror, glitters, and is “plucked.” Then, the poet feels thirty “creep” in her joints.

These visual, tactile, and kinaesthetic impressions of the hair are repeated in the next stanza, but within a completely different time and place:

My twentieth birthday lean as glass
spring vacation I stayed in the college town
twangling misery's electric banjo offkey.
I wanted to inject love right into the veins
of my thigh and wake up visible:
to vibrate color
like the minerals in stones under black light.
My best friend went home without loaning me money.
Hunger was all of the time the taste of my mouth.

This shift to past time is perfectly natural; finding a white hair at thirty precipitates a realistic and commonplace reaction; the subject remembers her twentieth birthday. What is not so commonplace is the subtle, almost incremental, repetition of images from the first stanza, given new meaning in this different context. The mirror in which she first sees the hair is now transformed into her body, for she is “lean as glass.” She spends time “twanging” an electric banjo “offkey,” as in the first stanza she “plucked” the offending wire-like hair. Both actions call up misery, an emotion. At twenty, she twangs “misery's” banjo; at thirty, she experiences the misery of awareness of aging. The hair is, in its natural state, white or silver, almost colorless; at twenty, she had wanted to “vibrate color,” but as minerals do, under “black” light. In both stanzas, the parts of the body receive attention. At twenty, she wished to inject love directly into “veins” and “thigh.” At thirty, age is felt creeping into her “joints.” Finally, in the second stanza, a new sense impression is added to the catalogue of recurrent images; “hunger” and “taste” provide a gustatory dimension which will be repeated in the third stanza, as the poet returns to present time:

Now I am ripened and sag a little from my spine.
More than most I have been the same ragged self
in all colors of luck dripping and dry,
yet love has nested in me and gradually eaten
those sense organs I used to feel with.
I have eaten my hunger soft and my ghost grows stronger.

The love which the subject wished to inject into thigh and vein in her twentieth year, when she was lean, constantly hungry, and eager for an awakening to visible self, has now “nested” in her and gradually “eaten” her sense organs. The aging process of which she has become dramatically aware causes her spine to sag, as a parallel to the creeping of age into her joints in stanza one. The hunger of her college vacation now consumes itself, but her “ghost” grows stronger although she is the “same ragged self” with “all colors of luck” within her. The word “ghost” appears intentionally ambiguous, open to several interpretations, all of which may best be treated after examination of the final stanza which brings together again the colors, textures, and motions of the opening lines:

Gradually, I am turning to chalk,
to humus, to pages and pages of paper,
to fine silver wire like something a violin
could be strung with, or somebody garroted,
or current run through: silver truly,
this hair, shiny and purposeful as forceps
if I knew how to use it.

Once again, the color motif returns to become central to the message. Chalk and paper are white or colorless, as is the found hair. Humus is dark, as is black light, and as are youthful tresses. With these colors, attention to the ambiguity of aging is further disclosed. Darkness (or blackness) is both life-giving and death-dealing. Black light brings up colors in minerals; humus is fertile loam; dark hair is abundantly youthful growth. On the other hand, humus is soil, black soil, the earth to which we return in death. Black light is an artificial means which uncovers natural mineral beauty hidden to the naked eye, just as death perhaps transforms the soul (or “ghost”), or as a mirror brings attention to the sign of aging. White is played upon equally paradoxically. Now the subject becomes white chalk and colorless paper, inert, yet potentially productive. The coarse white hair of the opening stanza has become “fine silver wire” strung into a violin, in sharp contrast to the wire strung into an offkey electric banjo in her twentieth year. Paradoxically, however, this same fine silver wire is associated with death by garroting or by electrocution. Finally, the hair shines as purposefully and usefully as forceps, instruments commonly associated with birth rather than death. The poet ultimately perceives in the silver wire-hair a power as ambiguous as the images employed to re-tell the experience. Life or death, creativity or repression, growth or stagnation—the meaning lies not within the discovered object itself, the emblem of aging, but within the human spirit. The ghost which grows stronger within the poet may be death or life; the outcome depends upon the qualifying clause, “If I knew how to use it.”

This intensive study of the images in “Sign” demonstrates the intricate networking and intertwining of seemingly disparate elements which is one of the great strengths of Piercy's poetic vision. While not every poem in her canon is so full of leit-motifs as is “Sign,” patterns of psychological association appear in many other places in her work. A brief glance at three other pieces can identify the pattern. In “Erasure” from the volume Hard Loving, the poet's subject is the loss of a lover. Images of light, vision, and a mouse graphically convey the emotional impact of the experience. The poet moves from “blood turned grey,” to a burning out of the “glittering synapses of the brain,” to “stars fading in the galaxy,” and on to a picture of the imaginary animal figures of the constellations that “would photograph more like a blurry mouse.” Falling out of love she then defines as a “correcting vision” which nevertheless damages the optic nerve. The final lines of the poem powerfully unite all these loosely connected images:

To find you have loved a coward and a fool
is to give up the lion, the dragon, the sunburst
and take away your hands covered with small festering bites
and let the mouse go in a grey blur
into the baseboard.

A further example of Piercy's technique is found in the poem “Some collisions bring luck” which is from her third volume, To Be of Use. A chance meeting with a lover during the month of October provides the poem's speaker with momentary relief from the state of mind with which she opens the narrative:

I had grown invisible as a city sparrow.
My breasts had turned into watches.
Even my dreams were of function and meeting.

The chance encounter is reported in the ten lines of the next stanza. The setting is a “pumpkin afternoon”; the lover is “bright rind carved into a knowing grin.” The couple run upstairs, and at the lover's sexual touch, the poet “flew open.” Soon, “orange and indigo feathers” break through her skin and she rolls in the lover's “coarse rag-doll hair.” She sucks the lover “like a ripe apricot down to the pit.” The images circle around the visions and colors of fall, orange and apricot, like the hair of a Raggedy-Ann doll. Once again, the concluding lines of the stanza switch from objects to emotions:

Sitting crosslegged on the bed we chattered
basting our lives together with ragged stitches.

In the closing stanza, the stitches do not hold, yet the warmth of the chance encounter in the October afternoon replaces the mechanical self expressed in the opening lines:

Of course it all came apart
but my arms glow with the fizz of that cider sun.
My dreams are of mating leopards and bronze waves.
We coalesced in the false chemistry of words
rather than truly touching
yet I burn cool glinting in the sun
and my energy sings like a teakettle all day long.

One final example from the volume The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing, a poem entitled “The window of a woman burning” will underscore what Piercy accomplishes with her rich imagery. The poem opens with what appears to be the realistic description of a woman caught up in a fire, her hair a “cone of orange snakes,” as she writhes in flames. Quickly, however, the burning woman is differentiated from other martyrs; she is neither a Joan at the stake nor a crucified madonna or saint. She is, instead, “the demon of a fountain of energy,” energy which flows from her brain, from her fiery hair:

flickering lights from the furnace in the solar
plexus, lush scents from the reptilian brain,
river that winds up the hypothalamus
with its fibroids of pleasure and pain
twisted and braided like a rope,
firing the lanterns of the forebrain
till they glow blood red.

The next stanza emphasizes the strong fire-woman's dance, in “beauty that crouches / inside like a cougar in the belly / not in the eyes of others measuring.” This transformed woman leaps through a green forest. In the final stanza, she becomes “the icon of woman sexual,” who is “with the cauldrons of her energies / burning red, burning green.” From the opening images of death by fire and sacrifice to the concluding image of red and green as life and growth in the sexual cycle, Piercy bombards the senses with quick, agile turns of impression that somehow hold together. What Marge Piercy accomplishes with her circling, concentric, seemingly disparate images is exciting, fresh, and flexible poetry as demanding of the reader as any metaphysical performance by Donne. With Piercy, as with Donne, we are always in touch with the human elements, body and mind, flesh and spirit. Piercy's purposeful and powerful use of images is perhaps most clearly stated in her own words. Introducing a series of poems based upon the Tarot deck, she says:

We must break through the old roles to encounter our own meanings in the symbols we experience in dreams, in songs, in vision, in meditation. … What we use we must remake. Then only are we not playing with dead dreams but seeing ourselves more clearly, and more clearly becoming.

Piercy is, then, constructing a poetic vehicle through which old ways of seeing, old ways of knowing, are wrenched out of old contexts to be given new meaning. True to the feminist movement which she claims changed her life, she intends to break with linear, patriarchal patterns in favor of circles, moons, emotions superior to logic. These form a dialectic which teaches us, as she says in her recent poem “Digging in”:

You are learning to live in circles
as well as straight lines

Sandra M. Gilbert (review date December 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of My Mother's Body, in Poetry, Vol. CXLVII, No. 3, December, 1985, pp. 159-61.

[In the following review, Gilbert offers tempered assessment of My Mother's Body.]

It is hard to believe that the determinedly literary Amy Clampitt and the programmatically anti-literary Marge Piercy share a publisher. Rough-hewn and “realistic,” preferring politics to poetics, Piercy has always presented herself as a raw-boned working-class woman, a woman whose name, as she comically observes in My Mother's Body, sounds “like an oilcan, like a bedroom / slipper, like a box of baking soda, / useful, plain. … ” When I say that Piercy is anti-literary, I should note, I don't mean that she is in any sense against writing, but rather that she often seems to feel more strongly about what she says than she does about how she says it. Perhaps inevitably, therefore, she lapses at times into clumsiness, into editorializing, even into sloganeering.

“What Remains,” the elegiac sequence for the poet's mother which opens this collection, is marred now and then by such lapses. Finding “a bottle-cap flower: the top / from a ginger ale / into which had been glued / crystalline beads from a necklace” among her dead mother's things, Piercy is moved in “Out of the Rubbish” to awkward (though socially accurate) meditation:

A receding vista opens 
of workingclass making do:
the dress that becomes
a blouse that becomes
a doll dress, potholders,
rags to wash windows.

Similarly, in “Why Marry at All?,” one of the poems in the wedding sequence called “The Chuppah,” she becomes earnest and flat-footed in her eagerness to communicate key ideas—

Why encumber our love with patriarchal
word stones, with the old armor
of husband and the corset stays
and the chains of wife? Marriage
meant buying a breeding womb
and sole claim to enforced sexual service

—and the opening of her final stanza embarrassingly recalls those Sixties weddings where barefoot girls and boys swore groovy oaths of allegiance to each other on Vermont or California mountaintops:

This is a public saying to all our friends
that we want to stay together. We want
to share our lives.

Again, the obviously heartfelt “Homage to Lucille, Dr. Lord-Heinstein,” seems almost parodic in its use of feminist and counterculture jargon. The heroine of this piece is a gynecologist who has “gently, carefully and slowly” opened “our thighs and our vaginas / and show\n] us the os smiling / in the mirror like a full rising moon.” Enthuses Piercy:

Your language was as gentle and caring
as your hands. On the mantel
in the waiting room the clippings hung,
old battles, victories, marches.
You with your flower face, strong
in your thirties in the thirties,
were carted to prison for the crime
of prescribing birth control
for workingclass women in Lynn.

I too admire “caring” women, but I care enough about their heroism to wish it could be more imaginatively recorded.

Luckily, despite some of these linguistic lapses, Piercy does—though sometimes, it seems, almost in spite of herself—produce a number of poems in My Mother's Body which offer more imaginative and vivid records of female heroism, of the joys of wedded love, and of the pleasures of daily life. As a whole, for instance, the elegiac “What Remains” is gravely moving in its expression of grief for the lost mother's hard and wasted life—for “the ugly things / that were” in this women's world “sufficient for every / day and the pretty things for which / no day of hers was ever good enough.” And the sequence is poignantly impassioned, too, in its hope for transfiguration of the dead woman's ashes: “… just as I knew when you / really died, you know I have brought / you home. Now you want to be roses.”

Perhaps less dramatically but just as vividly, the wedding ceremony of “The Chuppah” transcends the poet's intermittent proclivity for jargon when, in “Words plain as pancakes. / Simple as potatoes, homely as cottage cheese,” she celebrates the ordinary pains and pleasures out of which the extraordinary house of marriage is built. That this new volume ends with a careful but exuberant exploration of “Six Underrated Pleasures” (“Folding Sheets,” “Picking Pole Beans,” “Taking a Hot Bath,” “Sleeping with Cats,” “Planting Bulbs,” and “Canning”) suggests that Piercy's sometimes aesthetically problematic political commitment may ultimately arise from an aesthetically energizing talent for attention to the work and play of dailiness, a talent for understanding what is “useful, plain”—and frequently delightful.

Carmen Cramer (essay date Summer 1986)

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SOURCE: “Anti-Automaton: Marge Piercy's Fight in Woman on the Edge of Time,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Summer, 1986, pp. 229-33.

[In the following essay, Cramer examines the female protagonist's struggle for autonomy and individuality in Woman on the Edge of Time.]

Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time presents a classic American conflict based on the notion of e pluribus unum. In the United States' traditional ideal, the individual, capable of heroic action, forms society. In reality, that ideal is often eclipsed by society failing to recognize the individual. Connie, the main character in Piercy's 1976 novel, is such a negated individual due to her status as a woman, a Mexican-American, and a poor person, as well as a mental patient. Woman on the Edge of Time dramatizes the struggle between society and the individual by presenting the present culture in which the society controls the individual and a possible future culture in which individuals control society.

In the present culture, Connie is an “invisible” person. She speaks, and literally, no one hears. For instance, Connie tries to explain to a nurse that she does not feel well enough to stand in line for an half hour: “The medication makes me dizzy. I'll wait here,” to which the nurse replies, “You're very confused \Connie]. It's time to line up for your lunch.” Due to her invisibility, she is imprisoned in a state mental institution; a pimp commits her in an unconscious state and the doctors never listen to her explanation later. Connie is nonexistent because she is “merely” a woman, overpowered by Geraldo physically, and by both him and her brother Luis societally when she is institutionalized. Because her labels mean more to society than she does—abuser, Mexican, woman—no one hears what Connie says.

Connie is allowed no dignity in the present society that Piercy displays. This is partly because she is “not allowed”; she has no control over her own life. Constantly, important life decisions are made for Connie: a man forces her to abort her baby; medical students decide to sterilize her; the law takes away her two loves, Angelina and Claud; and of course, a pimp commits her. Connie says of her lack of power: “All my life I been pushed around by my father, by my brother Luis, by schools, by bosses, by cops, by doctors and lawyers and case-workers and pimps and landlords. By everybody who could push.” Only when she goes to college to learn what she wants does she feel vital and self-directed. This, too, though, is cut short by an “Anglo boy.” With forced passivity of choice, Connie feels herself worthless, with nothing upon which to base self-respect. Likewise, in an ironic but realistic cycle, society—which has removed all of her choices—offers her no respect because she does not control her own life.

Even Connie's privacy is eliminated in her present society, privacy which is the hallmark of the individual heart and mind in a “free” society: “She was never alone, not even in the toilets without doors, never away from surveillance.” This lack of privacy reinforces Connie's lack of choice, lack of power. She has no chance to think quietly, to move privately; therefore, she has no chance to take action. Without independent action, individuality does not exist, as illustrated by Gildina, the futuristic version of women controlled by society: “everybody's implanted. What's the good them knowing who, if they don't know where and how?” Gildina is watched and monitored for use by “them,” the society's power-wielders, a terrifyingly similar situation to Connie's, especially as Piercy cleverly lets Connie meet Gildina only after the “electronic monitoring/controlling device” is implanted by men into her mind.

A societal automaton—whether mechanical or human—is no individual, and obviously cannot be a hero since heroism requires self-control, independent decisions, and action. Connie is being turned into an automaton, perhaps more quickly than the rest of the people in her culture because she is institutionalized; however, Piercy suggests that the rest of the people in the United States are not far behind Connie in losing identity to the society. Dolly, Luis, Claud, even the nurses, doctors, and social workers, each in his/her way is institutionalized and categorized rather than individualized.

Piercy provides an alternative of individualism, though, when she presents Mattapoisett, in the year 2137. Whether this future time and place are supposed to be fictionally real or are hallucinations in Connie's mind does not matter. What matters is the possibility—in Connie's understanding as well as in Piercy's—of a return to the ideal that individuals can form and control a society, rather than the other way around. The American tradition of e pluribus unum seems a paradox: that strong individuals do not negate a strong society. Mattapoisett, like the original concept of the United States, proves this paradox true.

In Mattapoisett, no person (and no “category” of persons) is invisible. Luciente, for instance, is seen and heard as the strong individual that she is. Even Connie respects Luciente, which causes her to assume that Luciente is a man: “she moved with that air of brisk unselfconscious authority Connie associated with men.” Contrary to Connie's cultural training, women and men in Mattapoisett are individuals rather than members of a class of people. In the present, Connie's mother tells her, “You'll do what women do,” but in Luciente's world, each woman is educated (like any other “person”) to know and be whatever is possible. Each Mattapoisett person is individualized by education which operates on personal choice: “But after naming, we go wherever we must to learn. … Where you go depends on what you want to study.” Small children are encouraged to make independent decisions about their preferences.

Each person is treasured by the society, during childhood and adulthood, because each person's work is considered valuable: “To plant beans correctly is important. To smoke fish so it doesn't rot. To store food in vacuum. To fight well. … To make good decisions in meeting. To be kind to each other.” This Mattapoisett attitude gives each individual dignity. Once children have been individually educated and encouraged to make decisions, they grow into self-determined adults. People in Mattapoisett control their individual lives and are also capable of controlling their collective lives through decision making. They gather to argue out their preferences, each knowing his/her mind well enough to express it, because of experience with personal preferences. As Luciente—the plant geneticist—illustrates, such choices are not hindered by class or economic status or sex.

To encourage both equality and individualism, a difficult combination, Mattapoisett people have redefined their population. Their test tube babies are from a genetic pool which eliminates generations of fixed race, creed, color. And these babies are nurtured by both men and women, allowing a society without fixed expectation for the sexes. As the man Barbarossa breast-feeds a child, Luciente explains that “at least two of the three \parents] agree to breast-feed. … We suspect loving and sensual enjoyment are rooted in being held and sucking and cuddling” for both men and women. Likewise, “poor” and “rich” as categories do not exist because Mattapoisett does not use money, but rather collective ownership is their economic mode, a mode that is repeated in the lack of ownership and power of people over others. Such equality is reflected in the language: pronouns have been revised to eliminate sex differentiation; Luciente is curious about the word “poor” in Connie's culture; and the citizens of Mattapoisett have no names which imply possession of people, such as Connie has always known with her identifying Consuelo (Connie) Camacho Alvarez Ramos.

People in Mattapoisett enjoy community because they have preserved privacy. Each person has his/her personal space: “We each have our own space!” Luciente exclaims, amazed that Connie would think otherwise. This privacy encourages personal dignity and self-respect which is essential if people are to respect each other: “How could one live otherwise? How meditate, think, compose songs, sleep, study? … We live among our family.” Mattapoisett has developed a society of independent people who can be interdependent, rather than Connie's present society which encourages dependence. Luciente's people know that they must struggle together to preserve each person's privacy and individuality to keep their society healthy. This is reflected in their constant war with overly mechanized, overly masculinized cultures: “Technology is imbalanced. Too few have too much power. … We must fight to come to exist, to remain in existence.”

Piercy's conflict in Woman on the Edge of Time arises out of Connie's new awareness from her visits to Mattapoisett that she too can struggle against a Gildina-world, a present-world: “The war raged outside her body now, outside her skull, but the enemy would press on and violate her frontiers again as soon as they chose their next advance. She was at war.” Her war is to win back her individuality, lost to the “flacks of power.” In Mattapoisett, Connie feels self-respect; she is reminded of unclassified love; Connie experiences action. She takes these with her back to Rockover State Hospital and begins her fight. Piercy gives Connie “the rich fictional possibilities inherent in the struggle of women.”

Connie finds that she is capable of independence, of individual choice, and of action when she poisons the doctors at Rockover. She consciously strikes out at her captors, despite their probable retaliation:

I just killed six people. … Because they are the violence-prone. Theirs is the money and the power, theirs the poisons that slow the mind and dull the heart. Theirs are the powers of life and death. I killed them. Because it is war. … I'm a dead woman now too. I know it. But I did fight them. I'm not ashamed. I tried.

Through her action against the power-wielders, Connie makes an independent action in order to protect a worthwhile society. Even though death—in one form or another—may be the outcome of her choice, Connie would have a worse death if she had not acted; she would have continued in invisibility in a society overwhelmed with itself. Through her decision to struggle, Connie saves individuality and in doing that she is helping to save her society, e pluribus unum.

The conflict on which Woman on the Edge of Time is based is the same as Connie and Luciente's conflict: can the individual be preserved? Connie, against all odds, takes independent action, and Piercy writes a novel in which a hero exists. In modern American novels, the anti-hero, the entropic and passive person, generally looms central, because authors forget to struggle with possibility, forget that there may still be a future.” Piercy looks to possibility and dares to create a modern hero. A hero, by definition, must be an individual more powerful—due to her will—than society itself. Marge Piercy gives her protagonist exposure to the hopeful future in Mattapoisett, so that Connie conquers her society heroically.

Hilma Wolitzer (review date 10 May 1987)

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SOURCE: “Women at War,” in The New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1987, p. 11.

[In the following review, Wolitzer offers qualified praise for Gone to Soldiers, citing flaws in the novel's excessive length and lack of focus.]

The battlefront has historically been the literary province of men and the home front that of women. Of course there have been exceptions, notably Virginia Woolf's “Mrs. Dalloway,” a slender novel in which she covered both fronts brilliantly in a single domestic postwar day. Now Marge Piercy attempts the same synthesis, but on a vast scale and with varying degrees of success.

Gone to Soldiers, Ms. Piercy's most ambitious novel to date, follows the lives of 10 main characters, their families, friends and lovers throughout World War II. The extensively researched book gives the reader a strong sense of the war's events and locations, with sustained sections set in both the European and Pacific theaters as well as the United States. The disruption of civilian life and the weariness and terror of battle are shown in great detail. Occasionally, there is a distracting pedantic tone, as when the acronyms and full names of various organizations are given consecutively, or the action is halted for exposition.

The war is the focus for the novel's various characters, some of whose lives will converge before it is over. The most memorable are two larger-than-life heroines, a French-Jewish teen-ager named Jacqueline Lévy-Monot and an American bomber pilot named Bernice Coates. Though they never meet, there is a vital connection between them: Bernice's brother, Jeff, becomes Jacqueline's colleague in the Jewish underground and her lover. The two women have other things in common, especially their need to escape domineering fathers. The widowed Professor Coates is oppressive in his control of Bernice, whom he has appointed his permanent housekeeper. Her long-dead mother, whose “Latin and Greek were far superior to The Professor's,” is only a vague role model; it is the war and Bernice's talent and love of flying that finally free her.

As the war progresses, Jacqueline becomes less antagonistic toward her Zionist Papa, partly because they are allied in their resistance work. We also learn, eventually, that Jacqueline's mother and her younger sister Rivka have both perished in the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp. (Rivka's twin, Naomi, had been sent while it was still possible to live with relatives in Detroit.) Their father is implicated in the twins' disparate destinies through a tragic decision, reminiscent of “Sophie's Choice.”

In all novels, but especially in a war novel, the writer makes godlike choices, and it is to Ms. Piercy's credit that the casualties in Gone to Soldiers, except in the concentration camps, seem as random as in real life. She does not kill off her less interesting characters, as she might have done, as a matter of convenience, but gives them equal space, which made this reader impatient to return to the more interesting ones. Neither Louise Kahan, a popular-fiction writer; her former husband, Oscar; nor his young lover, Abra Scott, held my attention long. Despite their varied involvement in America's defense work, their self-involvement seems to overshadow the war.

The other major characters are more engrossing, but none so much, to my mind, as Jacqueline and Bernice. Most of Jacqueline's chapters are (in the tradition of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum) diary entries. We watch her evolve from a rather vain and anti-Semitic young woman to a courageous worker for the Jewish underground. The wrenching account of her experiences in Auschwitz and on the Polish death march is the most powerful section of the book.

Bernice has a quirky charm. She is an ungainly and uncertain young woman who becomes graceful and self-assured at the controls of a plane: “The things that mattered … she was good at.” The rendering of her sexual confusion, and its resolution in her love for another woman, is convincing and moving.

Most of Marge Piercy's work, both poetry and fiction, has been concerned with feminist issues, and Gone to Soldiers is no exception. Jacqueline's and Bernice's struggles with their fathers, and Bernice's search for her sexual identity, are important elements of the book, as are the imposed and chosen war-time roles of men and women. In many male war novels character development is sacrificed; the “woman's touch” here is excellent. The battlefront is not all blood and guts—there is also the grief of separation from family and the mitigating solace of friendship. On the home front there are race riots as well as ration books, and the heartbreak of shattered families.

I very much admire the ambition and heart of Gone to Soldiers, an enormous, well-meaning novel, but I wish it were shorter and more concentrated, less exhaustively thorough and more focused.

Judith Wynn (review date 10 May 1987)

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SOURCE: “Piercy's Big War: ‘Soldiers’ is Not the ‘Good’ Fight Nostalgia Recalls,” in Chicago Tribune Books, May 10, 1987, p. 3.

[In the following essay, Wynn offers praise for Gone to Soldiers.]

Intricately braided plots, salt-of-the-earth characters, hearty cuisine and copulation down among the counterculture—these are a few of Marge Piercy's favorite things.

Then there's her civil rights and women's liberation activism—as well as her regularly voiced conviction that the United States is steering a rocky, vainglorious course to disaster. In Fly Away Home, the heroine's once-idealistic slumlord husband tried to obtain his goals by burning down his own house. Woman on the Edge of Time posited a hellish futuristic America run entirely by and for the “Rockemellons” and the “DukePonts.” Piercy has been accused of writing didactic potboilers yet, for her, art is always political.

Her latest, Gone To Soldiers—which answers the musical question, “Where have all the young men gone?”—is Piercy's most gripping, ambitious work to date. Although the story gets off to a ponderous start as the author erects her complex superstructure and limns the historical background in passages that are occasionally redolent of the research stacks, all in all she's done a skillful job interweaving the adventures of six young women and four young men caught up in the military/political cataclysm of World War II.

Unlike Herman Wouk's World War II epic, “Winds of War,” there are no portraits herein of the Great: Roosevelt, Churchill, etc. Instead, Piercy studs her narrative with cameos of little-known movers and shakers: aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran, founder of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASP); cryptanalyst William Friedman, who broke Japan's diplomatic code in 1940.

As the story opens, the Great Depression has given way to wartime boom. The United States is fighting for survival, its eastern coast littered with debris from American casualties to German U-boats. But even this worthy conflict, our last “good” war, is full of contradictions. And Piercy misses few of them. Although at war with racist Nazis, Washington, D.C., of the early 1940s is an overgrown Southern town, segregated down to its last toilet and drinking fountain. Race riots rage in Detroit. Jew-baiting divides U.S. soldiers in the Pacific theater.

As for American women—yes, the war transforms their lot for the duration; millions enter the mainstream labor force though most of them will be sluffed off after VJ Day by a postwar economy that no longer needs them.

It's against this strife-torn background of social upheaval that Piercy turns to what she does best: unleashing a diverse cast of characters to ricochet off one another in various unexpected ways.

First come the New York intellectuals and think-tank specialists. Energetic Louise Kahan writes popular romances and leftwing journalism. As a government propagandist, she reluctantly uses guilt and glamor images to sell the war to American women. In between assignments, Louise wrangles with her ex-husband (Imagine “His Girl Friday” with a Jewish Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant), rides hard on her bobby-soxer daughter, and beds down a young decoder who works for the OSS, a CIA forerunner. She will eventually cover the liberation of Paris for Colliers magazine and view the Nazis' grisly treasure-horde of Jewish plunder in defeated Germany.

Meanwhile, out in the American heartland, another sexual triangle develops among spinster Bernice and her secret-agent brother's lover, Zach, who helps supply the French Resistance. Zach teaches Bernice to fly planes and considers her a pretty good lay for a woman; she runs off to join the WASPs, concluding that, on the whole, she'd rather be a man, too.

And finally, there's the Parisian Jewish Levy-Monot family who are scattered—some into concentration camps, some into hiding—when the Nazis enter France. Rebellious teenager Jacqueline becomes a hero of the Pyrenees-based Jewish Resistance before she's abducted to Germany. Her little sister Naomi is smuggled past hostile U.S. immigration authorities to live with working class relatives in Detroit.

Piercy is boldly incisive, whether depicting Auschwitz savagery or domestic terrorism in the “normal” American household. Margaret Atwood once observed that Piercy's vigorous, occasionally awkward diction suggests that she has never taken a creative writing class. If not, that lapse may partly account for her unselfconscious, forward-thrusting narrative pace, which steadily accelerates through Gone To Soldiers as cliffhanger follows riveting cliffhanger. Capture, escape, exhilaration and despair and brutal holocaust follow in masterful order, capped by a disturbing picture of Americans fighting their way—first and foremost—to a higher living standard, into “an advertisement full of objects they had coveted but never owned and seldom even touched.”

Gone To Soldiers presents aspects of a World War II that are antithetical to late-show movie nostalgia. Piercy's war may not be the “good” fight one prefers to remember, but it happened, too, and Gone To Soldiers brings it vividly home.

Ron Grossman (review date 5 July 1989)

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SOURCE: “‘Summer People’ Ideal for Season,” in Chicago Tribune Books, July 5, 1989, p. 3.

[In the following review, Grossman offers favorable assessment of Summer People.]

Whatever Marge Piercy's other virtues—and her literary ones are considerable—she is shamelessly disrespectful of the commandment against fouling one's own nest.

In her 10th novel, Piercy has set the ultimate summer romance on Cape Cod, where she herself lives. Resort towns, Piercy says, operate on a Manichean morality that divides the human race in two. “Summer people” are always strangers, no matter how many seasons they keep coming back. Year-round residents, though, are forgiven virtually any transgression.

So it is with Dinah, Susan and Willie. They have been on the Cape of Piercy's novel for so long that the community has virtually forgotten that each was born someplace else. Scarcely noticed, too, is that they are a menage a trois.

“They were an old and respected public scandal,” Piercy observes.

Willie and Susan came first. He a sculptor, she a clothing designer, they fled New York so their kids could have a healthier place to grow up. They also needed to get away from Manhattan rents. Susan doesn't like to work too hard, and Willie's personal muse is always a few years behind or ahead of the current interest of cutting-edge collectors.

“Willie liked to create humanoid figures trying to crawl out of coffins, reaching through barbed wire or slats,” Piercy reports. “Some of them involved tapes of unpleasant noises like screaming and gunfire.”

Dinah, an avant-garde composer, bought the next cottage over from Willie and Susan as a place to tend her poet husband through his final battle with cancer. After his death she, Willie and Susan rediscovered Euclid's proposition that a triangle is the stablest configuration.

For Susan and Willie, their separate but equal involvement with Dinah has kept their own marriage alive. Without it, they, like many couples, would have inflated each other's shortcomings, discounted their strengths.

For Dinah, the arrangement lets her put out of mind nagging questions about who she is and/or ought to be. For the sake of her music, she always wanted a life unencumbered by family responsibilities, an attitude that was only reinforced by her short, tragic marriage. But her father, a Holocaust survivor, argued that it was her duty to help restore the Jews by having children.

Fortunately for her sanity, Dinah discovered that when you go to bed with the man next door in the morning and his wife in the evening, there isn't much energy left for debating your own identity.

Alas, after 10 years, their three-way tranquillity dissolves, and each becomes entangled in the vacation-time involvements of summer people. Writing about sex isn't particularly difficult, especially since recent court decisions have greatly increased authors' erotic vocabulary. The tradition of analyzing what makes the heart tick goes back to Ovid and Sappho.

This reviewer, though, knows no other writer with Piercy's gifts for tracing the emotional route that two people take to a double bed, and the mental games and gambits each transacts there.

Accordingly, there are many hours of beach-reading pleasure in Piercy's novel. My guess is that, from Martha's Vineyard to Malibu, readers will take their eyes off her pages only long enough to try guessing which of the local summer people might be doing what with whom this season.

Judith Wilt (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “‘We Are Not Dying’: Abortion and Recovery in Four Novels by Women,” in Abortion, Choice, and Contemporary Fiction: The Armageddon of the Maternal Instinct, University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 67-100.

[In the following excerpt, Wilt examines feminist themes surrounding reproduction, maternity, and Piercy's explicit argument for abortion rights in Braided Lives.]

The decade which saw the institutionalization of the right not to become a mother saw many women writers affirming daughterhood more powerfully than ever. If, as George Eliot says, every limit is a beginning as well as an ending, so also the response to a removal of limits may be an instinctive grasp at an anchor—mother, or motherhood.

In Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays (1970) and Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (1972), the abortion on which the plot hinges is an encounter with nonbeing, which threatens the extinction of female personality. The plot conflates the imaginary recovery of the lost child with the recovery of the mother and of the self. In Didion's existential romance the aborted fetus was quite simply “the point” of being itself, the winning point in the game, key point in the argument, a point tragically and stupidly conceded to the philosophical nothingness and cultural emptiness which encroach at every level. In Atwood's Hemingwayan quest the empty space of the protagonist's womb acquires grim personification as death itself until the lost child surfaces in vision as the protagonist's mother, god, grail, self. Mary Gordon's Felicitas, protagonist of The Company of Women (1980), suffers in vision this same presence: abortion is her death, death itself. She averts it, but only the many mothers of the company, recovered to her by her crisis, make the birth and survival of the new child and the new Felicitas possible.

Not until 1982, as the pro-life movement gathers momentum, do we find a full-throated cry for abortion rights in Marge Piercy's Braided Lives. This novel's stern and vulnerable poet-protagonist, undergoing at seventeen a nearly ruinous home abortion prepared by her fearful mother, lays the key on the table about the dark side of maternal desire: “Only I will know how I sometimes dream of that small changeling dribbling love on my breasts and how sick is that dream quivering with power. It would love me, poor bastard; it would have to.” The chapter in which this morally strict choice is made is called “The Agon.”

All these novels are set in those prelegal days when abortion itself meant an intimacy with death for the woman as well as the fetus. The heroines mostly experience both the choice that ends in birth and the choice that ends in abortion as male plots, part of the network of “sick arrangements,” as Didion's protagonist calls them, by which patriarchy manipulates women, coming or going, into the structures of its normalcy. The female counterplot inevitably turns on some kind of outlawry. Didion's Maria Wyeth and Atwood's nameless narrator skirt the edges of madness. Piercy's Jill Stuart forms an illegal abortion referral service. Even Gordon's Felicitas Taylor, who chooses against the abortion plot and makes a determined effort to adjust to “ordinary life. … the daughter of my mother, the mother of my daughter, caretaker of the property, soon to be a man's wife,” wears that camouflage of the ordinary uneasily, afflicted still with a noble and “specific hunger” for an as yet still alienated relationship with the absolute, with the sacred, with God.

The female counterplot also strives to transform the deaths of ordinary life, aborted fetus, aborted woman, into life. “We are not dying” is the elated final judgment of Felicitas's once-endangered daughter on her once-endangered and still not fully-actualized mother. “Take my death inside. Give birth to me!” cries the specter of Jill's beloved cousin, Donna, dead in a self-induced abortion, and “I will,” Jill answers. Sine qua non, the value of not dying, of giving birth, survives in these novels, whether attached to blood motherhood or not. …

Braided Lives: Women Giving Birth to Women

Mary Gordon, though she can see the possibility of “a radical life,” does not depict one. Marge Piercy does. Braided Lives is a flat-out feminist analysis of the fight for women's freedom and a call, in the face of the conservative rollback of the 1980s, for confirmation of the first article in that feminist bill of rights, reproductive freedom. The objects of the several abortions which braid the novel's plot are never understood to be babies, as in the other three books studied here. Pregnancy always symbolizes possession by one of the three forces—male lovers, the myth of motherhood, the truths of the female body itself—which in this society seek dominance over, instead of harmony with, the fourth force in life, the drive for female selfhood. The book is unashamed of its existence as argument but succeeds as a human story because of the passion of its argument, and because the protagonist sustains in the end a love for all humans: man and child as well as woman, for mother as well as self, for the body as integral with, and to, the will.

But Jill Stuart bears no children. Her fertility and creativity takes the form of seven books of poems (Piercy herself had written seven volumes at the time of Braided Lives), and her human empathy takes the form of an increasingly confident participation in the right-to-life issues of the 1950s and 1960s: save the Rosenbergs, ban the bomb, feed the black children of Mississippi. And give life to women dying from botched abortions. Placed tellingly at the climax of the description of the self-induced abortion Jill barely survived at age seventeen in 1954 is this flash-forward to a birth differently chosen, fiercely wanted:

Brooklyn, 1963. The doctor botched the abortion. She is hemorrhaging. I am one of a group of women who help other women secure abortions. … Now this woman, fat, gentle, in her late 30's and the mother of 5, is bleeding like a slaughtered pig—like I did. I pack her vagina with ice. I hold her against me, a woman twice my size and twice my body weight, and rock her like a baby. … Live, live, I whisper to her, dear one, sweetheart, angel darling, live. Only live.

In her forties, a successful poet and lecturer, in the 1980s a feminist activist, Jill Stuart looks back on a life “braided,” and abraded, with the lives of two key women, her mother and her cousin, Donna Stuart. “Were I pointing out a different pattern in the weave,” the poet says, other women's lives would stand out as strands in the braid. But in this pattern the unifying topos is abortion; the central figures are the mother, who “is scared of the world and thinks if she punishes me first, I will be broken down enough to squeak through,” and the pretty blond cousin, “like negative and photo—me dark and you light,” who, like Jill's mother a generation before, tries to have her freedom within the complicit terms of, under the cover of, conformity to feminine stereotypes.

In the eight years of the novel's main focus—Jill's adolescence in Detroit, college in Ann Arbor, and early adulthood in New York City—classic battles between mother and daughter break all but one thread of that strand. Her own birth, Jill speculates, both cause and result of that “love, cannibal love,” which is the other side of maternal self-denial, initiated the war. But the narrative of the forty-three-year-old Jill is rich with slowly surfacing insight about the unbreakable last thread, the desire between women, especially between mother and daughter, for a final non-cannibal form of love. The daughter's understanding of the mother increases: “She is a figure shaped by troubles I will never have to know. Sometimes I do listen, even if what I hear isn't what she is trying to tell me.” As time goes on, understanding offers both a warning and a healing.

A year goes by while she never takes a cigarette out. Then one evening after supper on a day that feels no more unusual than any other, she appears with a slender brown cylinder cupped elegantly between her fingers, acting in her own movie. Then I see in her the young beauty from the slums, studying seductive graces in darkened theaters. All she had to save herself was encompassed in being female.

Having thus internalized “femininity” from the movies, from American culture of the thirties and forties, Jill's mother sensed the danger as her daughter grew up rough, self-motivated, ambitious for education, mysteriously committed to the uncertain life of a writer, and desirous of the rich and sometimes dangerous experiences that feed a writer's omnivorous imagination. The battle to “break” her daughter to the accepted female stereotype emerges from fear for her. What it bred in Jill was a ferocious desire to make her own choices: “I will escape you all. I will choose what I do.” Mother and motherhood, even daughterhood, become the enemy of choice-defined self. Rejecting all such ready-made roles, Jill nevertheless wins the beauty with the cigarette—the fear-ridden, punishing mother, the woman born into troubles—with the rock-bottom identity of poet and lover she creates for herself.

My mother; the miracle is that in middle age we are friends. … Why did she stop disapproving of me? She likes the row of books. … Now that I am in my forties, she tells me I'm beautiful … and we have the long, personal, and even remarkably honest phone calls I always wanted so intensely I forbade myself to imagine them. … I am deeply grateful. With my poems, I finally won even my mother. The longest wooing of my life.

This relationship ends in lifegiving friendship, though its adult phase began with the devouring mother, witchlike and deadly, fearing the silent, destroying force of the father but complicit with his values, enforcing on the pregnant, seventeen-year-old daughter a home made abortion which nearly killed her.

The other key relationship in the braid ends in tragedy, though it began with physical and emotional love making between the thirteen-year-old cousins, Donna and Jill. Meeting again at college, the two women form a nonsexual, a metaphysical bond: “We strike against each other, chipping off the useless debris of our childhood. What one of us bites into, the other chews and swallows. … We define each other.” Donna, the bond, “negative” female image, anxious to move into the schizophrenic world of 1950s femininity, rushes into secret sex and forces herself into “love” and towards marriage with Jim, with Lennie, finally with Peter. Jill, Piercy's “positive” female image, reluctantly follows, imitating, with Mike, with Peter, with Kemp, finally with Howie. Donna fits her body into “iron-maiden bras” and high-heeled shoes, brightly and consciously seeking freedom through “accepting my destiny as a woman,” while inexplicable rages of resentment and self-loathing overpower her regularly: one of them results in her death by self-induced abortion. Jill, seeking to center life “on some good work you want to do,” experiences obsessions, loneliness, failures, but survives as the “scavenger,” the “alley cat,” finally the artist that she wants to be.

In this leapfrogging, braiding, finally diverging relationship between women, abortion is the key symbol for both Donna's and Jill's kind of “freedom.” First to enter a sexual relationship, Donna is first to fear pregnancy and seek money for an abortion. Trying to borrow money from her lover for this project, Jill finds him truculently “siding with the fathers … who say no to women” on the basis of sweeping generalizations about the sacredness of life. She responds, “That's just words. A fancy position for a man to take. I mean it. I care about Donna. I'm willing for chickens and cows to die to feed her, and this embryo to keep her free.”

Donna's plight turns out to be a false alarm this time, but later that summer Jill takes Donna's place in the female predicament for real, because she gave in to her lover's desire (he cited, poet to poet, man to woman, the dictums about “the natural” from D. H. Lawrence) to stop using condoms, “that damn armor.” Remembering his earlier attitude, knowing he won't marry her and won't free her for an abortion, Jill hides the fact from her lover, but her mother uncovers the truth. Obliquely hating/protecting her daughter, siding with the father—“If you go roaming around to doctors, and you can't trust a one of them, only in it for the money, I'll tell your father and he'll make you have it”—Jill's mother puts her through several harrowing home remedies. Finally, while gunshots from the father's TV western echo from the living room (the representation of pregnancy as gun appears again) and her mother holds her mouth to keep her silent, Jill carries out her choice in its enforced primitive mode: “Now I will go to work attacking my body in earnest … by force I open my womb.”

The rhetoric of attack Piercy uses here is carefully limited. It is not herself or her life, or a fetal life identified with hers, or even with her lover's that Jill feels she needs to attack. Rather it is the unruly body, cells subdividing without her volition, which she needs to confront, cherish, and rule, so that it can bear her free self. Jill had considered suicide, but a powerful will to live and to experience the variety of life dissolved that desire. After the abortion she lives a sexless life for a time—“sex … seems to me a device for converting will and energy into passivity and flesh”—but that kind of self-mutilation does not last either.

She makes friends with her body again through two simple expedients: she buys a diaphragm—“my first passport, something magical that permits passage out”—and she begins to collect the names of, and the personal funds for, competent abortionists for herself and any other woman in danger. The following year, ready to contract her upper-class dream marriage, Donna becomes pregnant after a rape from a lower-class hoodlum she had dated in one of her self-condemning fits of rage at herself and at that very dream. And Jill, deploring the feminine dream but steadfastly preserving Donna's freedom to pursue it, takes all necessary steps, even thievery, to procure money for an illegal but medically safe abortion.

It is interesting to note the ambiguous and important role of “the doctor” in this novel. He is cleanliness and training; he is safety, sought more heatedly than the lover, he is a necessary third presence in the procedure. Self-induced abortion, as represented here, seems much too close to suicide, not only pragmatically (the woman is untrained) but symbolically (the woman is deeply at odds with her own body). Yet he is still a man, not, finally, to be trusted.

This ambiguity locates itself in a metaphorical displacement, at a few key moments, of “the doctor” by “the dentist.” At virtually the same time that she is helping Donna with the abortionist, Jill provides the money and the energy to get her mother to the dentist for work on her bad teeth. To the family's shock and rage, the dentist simply extracts all Mrs. Stuart's teeth, sound ones and decaying ones alike. The dire image of “dark blood welling” in the mouth here recapitulates and anticipates the abortion motif. Both procedures, necessary to health yet associated with damage, performed by men for money on the bodies of women who submit not exactly from choice but to keep open the possibility of choice, combine elements of woe and success for the women who rage at them while desiring them. Jill helps a friend rob a dental supply store for Donna's abortion money. Later, fetus successfully aborted, engagement back on track, Donna persuades the wealthy, intelligent, handsome, and faintly sinister Peter Crecy to marry her quickly: “Fast is painless. Like pulling a tooth.”

Marriage for Donna is growing up, accepting womanhood, giving order to life. Her “work,” she thinks, is her husband, Peter, a man in rebellion against his father and yet in training to be a junior patriarch just like him. Helpless to prevent it, sliding in her cousin/alter ego's wake towards marriage with Howie, her friend and lover, Jill watches Donna plan the compromises, engage in the psychic denials, of modern “femininity.” She defines health as love and domesticity and the career in television news she clearly desires and thrives on as merely a temporary expedient until “the relationship” and its finances settle down. Peter has agreed, she thinks, to postpone children indefinitely, so when she finds a tiny hole in her diaphragm she responsibly buys a new one, celebrating at the same time the “instant respectability” that Jill attains when she announces her engagement to Howie.

Donna believes, genuinely, that Howie will “save” Jill, as Peter “saved” her, through marriage, from the “bad patterns,” the disorderly-looking life—“Destroying myself. Ending up alone and crazy. Winding up a two-bit whore”—which is the only alternative society can envision for unmarried women. The major break-through in Jill's artistic life, a new, personal, poetic voice freed by an encounter with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, goes by unrecognized by anyone but herself as she leaves Donna, her “negative” twin, the bright but self-denied woman she wanted to truly save, in New York while she goes to Detroit to be inspected by prospective in-laws.

When Jill returns the novel's tragic climax has occurred. The death by abortion that has lain in the braided lives of women since the novel's opening, fended off at seventeen by Jill, is taken instead by the conflicted, compromised, self-loathing, twenty-three-year-old Donna, “grown up” to her schizophrenic and finally deadly destiny as a woman. The novel's last “rose of blood” blooms under Donna's body on the sheets of Jill's apartment. And Jill, notifying Peter of a death whose nature he somehow knows before he is told, remembering the “small hole, like a pinprick” in Donna's diaphragm, grows “cold, cold through,” like the corpse on the bed. She believes he has pricked a hole in the diaphragm, deliberately made Donna pregnant without her consent or knowledge, killed her.

At the funeral it is all Jill can do to resist signing her name “Donna” in the visitors' book, so sunk is she in guilty identification with the lost twin, with the deadly archetype of femininity which Donna represents: the ancient fatality of women who either make a dead life bearing children to a betraying man, or who would rather die than give birth.

Separation from this archetype of femininity has been the struggle of Jill's life. A period of dreams and madness not unlike that undergone by the protagonist of Atwood's Surfacing climaxes at the novel's end with the mythic birth of a new and redeeming Donna. While Jill walks the night streets a bloody and ghostly Donna, “sharp ivory doppelganger,” wails for entrance like some frail indestructible Catherine Earnshaw.

“Leave me alone! Take me with you! It's cold and it hurts. It's getting colder. Mother. Make it stop! Momma! Momma!” “I will take you with me. I will!” “Take my death inside. Give birth to me!” “I will.”

Donna's voice, ambiguously that of child to mother, of aborting woman, or more deeply, of aborted woman, to self-saved woman, uses the ancient language of birth. Jill's “I will,” unlike Heathcliff's, which signals his final obliterating immersion in his demon, represents not possession but parturition, the erasure of abortion as death, the inauguration of a wider motherhood. It crystallizes at the end the early image of woman giving birth to woman that rode under the enactment of Jill's abortion at seventeen. Its material embodiment is an underground network of safe abortion referrals called “Donna.” This network functioned through the 1960s as that “small female government \of] conspirators and mutual advisors” that Jill and Donna lived out in college together before Donna's choices, programmed by male lovers and her own entrapment in the myths of femininity, estranged them somewhat. Its spiritual legacy is a simple pledge in the teeth of mortality “to express my caring all the time” to women and to men, and ultimately to the readers of her poems. Its practical result for Jill is a diffused and fractious loving which precludes traditional marriage and children of the blood, to spend itself on all the worthy human encounters of her life (at novel's end Jill is living, working, amiably quarreling with a long-term lover named Josh, and mothering Howie's daughter by another woman, as well as producing books and lectures).

As for the abortion freedom which paradoxically grounds this elliptical motherhood, this “death inside me” which makes births possible, both the narrator and the narrative structure argue forcefully for it. The bloody abortion that kills the protagonist's doppelganger at the climax does not contradict this. As a procedure which failed because its illegality made help impossible during the complications of aftermath, it stands starkly at one of the no exit gates—the other is death by immersion in unchosen maternity—of patriarchally-constructed “destiny as a woman.” As an accident of nature which proved fatal to a woman who had cast her lot with a “femininity” which makes no room for a fully trusting relationship with a husband or with other women, the episode speaks to the self-destructive quality of that myth. Some force in the world—woman's own complicit desire for the maternity of the myth, the disorderly energies of sex and the body, the malice of individual and collective men—stands ready to prick a hole in the diaphragm, to close down the freedom of the passage out. To define that force as “life” and condemn the counterforce, the diaphragm, the abortion, as death, is too simple, Piercy's narrative says. In fact, to women in patriarchal culture, “a society we do not control and scarcely influence, \in which] we survive and perish both by taking lovers,” the opposite may be true.

“With my poems I finally won even my mother. The longest wooing of my life.” It is interesting to consider that the mother wooed and won by the poem-producing but childless Jill Stuart is the only one of the protagonists' mothers alive and in good health at the end of these four novels. Maria Wyeth's mother, dead in an “accidental” car crash, surfaces along with Maria's repressed, aborted self as the memory of a figure yearning to “fly the ocean in a silver plane.” The mother of the narrator of Surfacing, dead years before, returns along with the repressed memory of her aborted self both as the human mother who broke her ankles thinking she could fly from the roof of a barn and as the visionary maternal guide to the experience in the woods which exorcised “the old belief that I am powerless.” Felicitas Taylor's mother is included with her daughter in her granddaughter's vatic, final speech-act, “we are not dying,” but Felicitas has before this affirmed that her acceptance of her own maternity was precisely the signal that allowed her mother, and the others of that generation of mothers, to begin to grow old and die, since now “They could leave things to me.”

The mothers of the protagonists in these novels, in various degrees complicit with patriarchy, powerless and fearful, cannot keep their daughters free or themselves alive. When their daughters become biological mothers they are marked as mortal, but the imaginary child—the ghost children of Didion's and Atwood's abortion protagonists, the haunting Donna, and the other poetic fictions of Piercy's Jill—somehow restores the mother, the original “lover,” original home, the “imaginary” itself. The novels that close on an achieved biological motherhood—Maria “playing” for Kate, Felicitas protecting Linda—must accept some element of entrapment in that closing. Like Drabble's Rosamond these mothers are embedded in time, plotted into a game. They must look to an end, begin to die.

The novels that culminate in a meeting with ghosts, strive against closure. In these opened worlds, Surfacing's protagonist still follows her dead mother and father, harboring the mystic “baby in the bottle” of her womb, a kind of third eye. And Braided Lives's Jill still carries the ghost child “Donna” as the undeliverable source for her poems. And The Middle Ground's Kate Armstrong sees in the fairy tale windings of London's rivers and streets the “little sister” who was her mother, her child self and her aborted child, her full being, “always decaying yet always renewed … unplanned … intricate, enmeshed … the old and the new side by side.”

Joyce R. Ladenson (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Political Themes and Personal Preoccupations in Marge Piercy's Novels,” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, Negative Capability, 1991, pp. 111-9.

[In the following essay, Ladenson discusses the dominant political and autobiographic features of Piercy's fiction.]

My existence in the English Department at Michigan was exceedingly perilous and bumpy. … I was a garlic among the Anglican-convert lilies. I felt the wrong shape, size, sex, volume level, class, and emotional coloration. I fought, always with a sense of shame, for I could never define what I felt was being throttled in me.

Marge Piercy, Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt

In the fifties when I got pregnant I couldn't get an abortion, had to do it myself at eighteen and almost bled to death. In the fifties I was at the mercy of a male culture terrified of sex and telling me I was either frigid, a nymphomaniac, an earth mother, or stunted with penis envy, and there were no women's experiences available to compare with mine. In the fifties nowhere could I find images of a life I considered good or useful or dignified. Nowhere could I find a way to apply myself to change the world to one I could live in with more joy and utility. Nowhere could I find a community to heal myself to in struggle. Nowhere could I find space in which affluent white men were not the arbiters of all that was good and bad. I could not grow anywhere but through the cracks.

Marge Piercy, Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt

Marge Piercy's painful memories of what life was like for her as a young woman in the fifties, recorded in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, are metaphorically recounted in her novel Braided Lives; both personal confession and fictional analog comprise radical documents which critique her times and the role of women in them. Indeed, Braided Lives, Piercy's most self-revelatory novel thus far, represents a backward glance at the roots of her abiding social and political involvement and provides something of a personal and critical perspective on her five preceding novels, which, in rough chronological sequence, mirror her perceptions of and experiences with radical American movements of the sixties and seventies. Personally involved in the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War and Feminist Movements, Piercy reflects political themes in all her work, charging her novels with authenticity and vitality, rendering her characters and situations highly complex, and successfully engaging the reader in her female and male characters, most of whom are specifically identified as activists, revolutionists or would-be politicoes.

Piercy's interest in radical politics, especially feminism, is also significant from a comparative perspective because it places her already prodigious canon together with women novelists who share similar concerns— namely such writers as Agnes Smedley, Tillie Olsen, Zora Neal Hurston, Harriet Arnow, Meridel Le Seur, Grace Paley, and Alice Walker, among others. In “From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical Tradition,” Deborah Rosenfelt raises questions about Olsen's “relationships of writing to political commitment; the circumstances of class and sex and their effect on sustained creative activity, literary or political; and the strengths and weaknesses of the radical cultural tradition in this country.” These concerns in addition to the dimension of Jewish ethnicity describe Piercy's themes and characterize her as a novelist whose relationship between political vision, personal commitment, and the creative process, like Olsen's, et al., is intimately linked.

A brief review of Piercy's novels up to Braided Lives helps locate her themes and concerns. In her first two novels, Going Down Fast (1969) and Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1971), Piercy records, through the lives of working class women and men, a resistance to the pressures of mid-sixties urban economic expansion with its concomitant social dislocation and disorganization, and to the trials and tribulations within the Civil Rights and burgeoning anti-Vietnam War Movements. While there is implicit and strong criticism of the dehumanizing values associated with American political culture, Piercy also records the painful ways resisting women and men exploit each other while trying to work collectively toward change. Living the revolution is harder than fantasizing about or planning it. Thus, her vision, from the beginning, is unrelentingly honest, avoiding romanticization of the larger ideological currents and of the relationships among those on the edge of change.

Personally active in the Women's Movement since the mid-sixties, Piercy reflects this involvement in all her succeeding novels while maintaining a persistent sympathy with working class ethnic and racial minorities. In Small Changes (1973), for instance, the personal evolutions of her two main characters, Miriam, a New York Jewish middle-class woman, and Beth, a working class, small town Protestant woman, are central to an understanding of the way they are molded by the first stirrings of Second Wave Feminism. Both torn and enabled by her New York Jewish family roots, which include political commitments and blacklisting during the McCarthy era, Miriam tries to balance her personal life against her strong, intellectual abilities in computer science and math. As an undergraduate in the Boston-Cambridge era, she becomes involved in three consuming relationships with men, the first two outside marriage—tumultuous, frustrating, and complex—and the last to Neil, the cad whom she marries and who leaves her and their two children for his secretary. Her personal life in pieces, she rebounds when she integrates again into the movement, teaching computer technology in an alternative educational setting.

Beth, Miriam's lesbian-feminist counterpart—strengthened by separatism, rebellious, painfully coming to terms with her abused childhood—dedicates herself to the feminist movement in Boston-Cambridge and finally goes underground to help her lover, Wanda, escape the Grand Jury and its judgment to separate Wanda from her children. As a committed rebel-feminist, willing to take great personal risks to fight the system, she somewhat prefigures the later Vida.

The men in this novel are complex political and social rebels who are sympathetic because they exist outside the Establishment and work to change it; in their personal lives, especially in their relationships with Miriam, they are, with one exception, archetypically patriarchal, dominating to greater or lesser degrees the women they live with. Yet this is not a political tract, with characters and plot lines serving the didactic purposes of their author; the characters are skillfully developed, the plot engaging and not melodramatic. Devoted to social realism, Piercy recreates, in detail, the uneven rhythms of her uncommon and common rebels.

A remarkable novel for its breadth and vision, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) is Piercy riding the last great crest of the New Left before it recedes into underground paranoia and disguise, or is co-opted by the realities of late seventies politics. Piercy's vision here is part utopian-socialist, part seventies feminist extended to its ideological and imaginative limits. A future world, Mattapoisett, is an androgynous, collective society where gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation are truly chosen; indeed the prevailing, consummate ethos of choice, combined with a nostalgia for a lost variety in human culture, is realized through public policy in which humane multi-cultural laboratory birthing helps newly evolved persons realize a harmony and nirvana of body and soul: e.g., through freely chosen families with multiple mothers; egalitarian political structures; individuated art, not confined by the marketplace or state-imposed standards; freely chosen racial and ethnic identities; ecological harmony with nature, etc.

Piercy's hypothesizing and fantasizing in this quasi-utopian, quasi-science-fiction and half-realistic novel, is appropriate to the mid-seventies when radical and socialist-feminism reached its own apotheosis of mind and spirit, and feminist theory stretched to often romantic extremes. Thus, with her double vision of the utopian, of what a human and womanly possibility could be, Piercy also sees the present as unacceptable by comparison. Reality is harsh, phantasmagoric, and morally and spiritually hideous; it is so beyond redemption, with particular reference to women, that it allows for no other alternative but violent rebellion. Thus Consuelo Ramos, her Chicana heroine, a woman pushed to extremes, has no choice but to murder her oppressors, in this case psychiatrists who are the most powerful killers of women's minds and souls.

Piercy returns to a thoroughgoing realism in 1979, with Vida, and to the last remains of the New Left, in her fugitive heroine whose long period of hiding from the FBI comprises another of Piercy's glimpses at the culture, the loves and the conflicts of the Left's protagonists and the insular way in which it turns on itself (cf. Dance the Eagle to Sleep); yet there is a continuing vitality associated with a radical critique, with all its failures.

Piercy takes a closer look at women's personal lives, those caught in a complex political web, often a repressive social and sexual one, in Braided Lives (1982), and in the novel somewhat resembling it in theme and focus, The High Cost of Living (1978). Here are women and men more put-upon than triumphant, confined by society yet without a movement as a counter-balance, and significantly, both novels take place in Michigan. The High Cost of Living is about lesbian and gay identity in an academic, Wayne State setting, with the major theme being the compromise of one's values and principles when faced with the pressures of succeeding as a graduate student, or as an aspiring writer or professional bound by a patronage system. Piercy's pen draws the academy's flaws, while uncovering as well the desperate and manipulative personal relations within a lesbian-gay community. Here personal relations mirror, to a large degree, the values of the Establishment. Society wins in this novel as Piercy lapses into an unprecedented cynicism.

Yet, if repression wins in The High Cost of Living, it loses in Braided Lives. This is encouraging since it appears to resemble Piercy's life closer than any of her other novels, and perhaps bodes well for the novelist. Jill Stuart, her fictional persona, is a sixteen year old Detroit high school senior at the novel's beginning—the same age Piercy was, growing up in Detroit in the fifties—of Eastern European, Jewish descent, possibly with some mixture of Tartar and Karan, anxious but wary about leaving her working class neighborhood for the status-conscious, elitist University of Michigan—again following Piercy's biography. This novel is about the emerging personality of a young Jewish woman yearning to be recognized as a beginning writer, looking for but not finding that recognition from an entrenched literary-academic establishment or from her young lover- confidants.

Ann Arbor in the fifties harbors its own Beat and Existential generation with literary heroes such as Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, John Dos Passos, Albert Camus (his novel, The Stranger, always pronounced in French), George Orwell and Jean Paul Sartre. A part of this milieu Jill finds fascinating; another part she rejects or is rejected by because it is a male club. Jill is an outsider to the New Critical, high culture style of which Ann Arbor is a bastion, and to the social and political culture represented by Joseph McCarthy and the Korean War, by cashmere sweaters and being “preppy” before it became “neo,” by The Wild One and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. She is an economic outsider as well since in order to remain in school, she must steal her texts, supplies and incidental clothing. Jill is clearly a class apart in multiple ways.

Jill's distance from the norm as a young writer is reflected in a wonderful scene where she reads from her own poetry for the first time. The setting is an auditorium on the University of Michigan campus, and she feels anxious about appearing not only before an audience of her peers but of her instructors, who hope she has learned her lessons properly and can objectify her personal experiences, making them spare, unsentimental, unromantic, unemotional, in short, masculinized and New Critical. Interjecting her view from the present when she is in her mid-forties—the book is a reflection on the fifties and uses the same extended flashback technique as Vida—Jill recalls the critics' hostile comments toward a Mrs. Starini, a middle-aged poet and another reader on the program, “for her domestic themes and for being dumpy. She was punished for lacking appeal to their gonads.” Clearly, Starini's self-disclosing poems are the antithesis of the fashionably satiric, distanced, cynical works read by Jill's lover, Mike, another English major and aspiring poet, and by others that night. Indeed, Mike's complaint to Jill is that her poem is “‘soft, pumpkin. Too soft to waste on those jerks. … Of course it's formless and silly. It isn't art, naturally.’” Jill's struggle is to affirm her talent, the authenticity of her feelings, and her role as political rebel against McCarthyism with her men friends, and finally to rebel against that aspect of fifties repression which affected women most dramatically: the laws against abortion. She is as yet an artist and a lover without a movement.

The conflict between her emerging literary talents and the conservative academy is one of several Jill experiences. Two other important dimensions of Jill's identity, her ethnicity and working-class origins, compound the stress she experiences around her emerging sexuality, and she collides with the repressive and conforming fifties ethos. Again in Braided Lives, Jill's late teens and early twenties seem close to her creator's: she is a street-wise sophisticate whose obsessive relationship with her mother is at once cloying and tender especially when, after her father's death, emotion is less frozen, less formed by convention and the past; it is also central to her sexuality. For instance, her first clandestine (at least to her parents), heterosexual affair—with Mike, by whom she becomes pregnant—is so disapproved of by both Jill's parents that they have her followed and force a false confession and promise of marriage from him. Finally Jill's pregnancy is ended by her mother's insistence that she perform the abortion, a violent act which brings her very close to death and causes an unbridgeable distance between her and Mike.

Men and their laws are the villains of this piece as Jill's father is shielded from any knowledge of her abortion for fear that he will harm both Jill and Mike; as Jill's mother supervises the abortion instead of going to a physician for fear of being apprehended; and as her lover Mike, uneasy and inexperienced, relinquishes responsibility. The development of Jill's sexuality comes at a terrible price to her body, her perception of self and her relations with men. Here is a real sense of what political and social repression in the fifties meant to women, how women like Jill were victimized but managed to survive and love again, and how men who were champions of social and political justice against McCarthy nevertheless gleaned the rewards of gender privilege, largely uncritical of conforming fifties sexual politics.

Astonishingly, Jill not only survives but prevails. Her last love in the novel, Howie, her gentle, warm Jewish childhood friend, wants to marry her yet finally cannot abide her independent spirit; her love for Howie lingers, but she is able to leave him, herself intact. Jill's recollection of her survival through a crucible of fifties' torment also reminds her that she has passed another danger zone—that moment between thirty-eight and forty-four when her mother, also the neighborhood fortune teller, predicted she would die. Via her persona Jill, Piercy revisits “that burned-over district where \she] learned to love—in friendship and in passion—and to work.” This is a novel distinguished by its honesty and commitment to personal and social justice. The closeness of friendship, especially with women, the love on which she must have drawn to recover her mother's and her own heritage, and the general lack of cynicism and high degree of emotional engagement mark this as her most personal and self-revelatory work of fiction. Braided Lives is an explanation Piercy wrote both to herself and to the reader of her coming to maturity: it expands the feminist dictum that the personal is political in depth and dimension.

If Piercy is accused of being preachy, it is because her characters are struck by pain which they need to explain and about which they are enraged once they examine its social sources. So, when Donna, Jill's college roommate and closest friend, dies of an illegal abortion toward the novel's end, Jill's words are angry and pointed in their rage against the law which, in its false morality, kills innocent women and which almost kills her earlier. The brief political commentaries and up-to-date news inserts, italicized and set apart in Dos Passos fashion, inform the reader of the bedrock of reality on which this fiction is grounded. Braided Lives successfully draws the reader into its web of pain, compassion, and love. Piercy has written another moving novel in her continuing quest for personal and political knowledge.

Sue Walker (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5968

SOURCE: “Marge Piercy: An Overview (31 March 1936-),” in Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, Negative Capability, 1991, pp. 132-47.

[In the following essay, Walker provides a survey of Piercy's literary career and the central themes and feminist perspective of her poetry and fiction.]

Although Marge Piercy—poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist—describes herself as a political writer and a feminist, her works move beyond the causes she supports to incorporate an overall thematic interest in the struggle between freedom and oppression. Most of her creative energies are devoted to fiction and poetry, and she writes both with amazing productivity—a novel published one year, a book of poems the next. Her first publication was a book of poems entitled Breaking Camp (1968); Going Down Fast, her first published novel appeared in 1969, though she had written six other novels prior to its publication and feels that her difficulty in breaking into print stemmed from the fact that her work was too political and too feminist for publication in the 1950's and 1960's.

Marge Piercy was born in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Robert and Bert Bunnin Piercy. She has one half-brother thirteen years her senior, the son from her mother's former marriage. Her father worked for Westinghouse and repaired machinery; her mother, named Bert because Piercy's grandfather wanted a boy instead of a girl, was the oldest daughter of nine children. It was she who had to help raise the younger siblings, the four girls and five boys who survived childhood. Forced to leave school before finishing the tenth grade, Bert grew up in poverty, but later taught Marge to observe closely, value curiosity, and to love books. This legacy became a major theme in Piercy's work, as Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (1982) attests:

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. … 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 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.

A writer's childhood, Piercy believes, often stimulates the muse. “You learn to sink roots into your childhood and feed on it,” she says, “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.” And it is childhood, growing up within a typical patriarchal working-class family in inner-city Detroit that Piercy describes with Proustian fidelity in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Blacks and whites fought; husbands cheated on and beat their wives, drug abuse, drunkenness, rape, and child-molestation were common. Little tolerance was given to Jews, and yet, in the midst of ugliness and violence, Piercy finds beauty in her own backyard. She writes of a garden rampant with tomatoes, beans, lettuce, onions, and Swiss chard. She notes the pansies, iris, mock oranges, wisteria, hollyhocks along the alley fence, the black-eyed susans and the goldenglow, its stems red with spider mites. “Nothing,” Piercy writes, “will ever be more beautiful than the flowers in that yard, except my mother when I was young.”

Two things illumine this reflection. First, Piercy's method of observation and commentary. She dredges the ugly for social utterance and never spares the ways it limits and destroys human growth and development. Yet simultaneously she sees beauty that thrives in the midst of and in spite of oppression, violence, internal and external disruptions: Second, the role of the mother is a major theme that occurs throughout her work. In My Mother's Body (1985), written after her mother's death, an entire section is devoted to elucidating the mother-daughter relationship. It is one fraught with ambivalence, with love and with the less tolerated feelings of hate. “A woman must reconcile herself to her mother and to the mother within her, if she is not to become her,” Piercy remarked in a discussion of her poem “Crescent moon like a canoe,” a poem that appeared in the 1980 volume of The Moon Is Always Female. It deals with how the poet and her mother “fought like snakes, biting / hard at each other's spine to snap free,” and in an angry accusation directed to her mother, she rails that “You burned my paper armor, rifled my diaries, / sniffed my panties looking for smudge of sex, / so I took off and never came back.” Leaving home, however, was more geographical than psychological, and the poet reflects:

My muse, your voice on the phone wavers with tears.
The life you gave me burns its acetylene
of buried anger, unused talents, rotted wishes,
the compost of discontent, flaring into words
strong for other women under your waning moon.

My Mother's Body reiterates the old concerns, but it seems that death has brought a reconciliation and buried the long years of ambivalence that were often voiced in earlier poetry and prose. The final poem of the section “What Remains” addresses the mother's body, and asks:

What is it we turn from, what is it we fear?
Did I truly think you could put me back inside?
Did I think I would fall into you as into a molten
furnace and be recast, that I would become you?
This body is your body, ashes now
and roses, but alive in my eyes, my breasts,
my throat, my thighs. You run in me
a tang of salt in the creek waters of my blood,
you sing in my mind like wine. What you
did not dare in your life you dare in mine.

It is from this core that individuation occurs, that a woman moves beyond the concerns of the mother to the self and to other human relationships, to the significance of sex, to political concerns, to the world beyond the confines of family and geographical location.

An overview of Piercy's work chronologically gives the reader insight into sociological interests and recurring psychological themes. Piercy's first published book, significantly entitled Breaking Camp, is a compilation of the best of her early poems. It lacks the cohesion, the synthesis, of her later work but establishes the pattern of political concern that will reoccur in later poetry and fiction.

Going Down Fast, a first novel written from 1965-1967, followed the publication of Breaking Camp. It shows the least women's consciousness of any Piercy novel and reflects her Chicago experience. Concern with the ruthlessness of urban renewal, police brutality, and university politics made it difficult for a woman to establish herself as a writer. Going Down Fast features a male rather than a female protagonist. Piercy explains that at the time of the book's publication in 1969, feminist concerns were not popular. Editors would return manuscript after manuscript with comments such as “I don't believe in these people,” and “I don't want to read about people like these.” Serious fiction about being a woman was hard to place, and the five novels written prior to Going Down Fast were rejected because of their stance, it seems, not because of any lack of quality.

In Hard Loving, also published in 1969, political themes merge with female consciousness and with the difficulty of forging relationships. The poems were written at a time when Piercy was involved in SDS activities, with the antiwar movement, and with living in a matrix of four relationships that united her political and personal concerns. Walking slowly into love rather than falling in love marks the initial sequence of six poems. It is followed by “The death of the small commune” which marks the disintegration of SDS and what Piercy feels to be one of the best schools of political organizers that existed in twentieth-century America. “What we wanted to build,” she says in the title poem, “was a way station for journeying to a new world, / but we could not agree,” and nothing remains “but a hole in everything.” The poems in Hard Loving, represent a “learning experience,” a time when the author was teaching at the Gary extension of Indiana University. A boy sits in her classroom “in boredom thick and greasy as vegetable shortening,” and Piercy has come out on the train from Chicago to talk / about dangling participles.” The poet says “I am supposed / to teach him to think a little on demand,” but:

The boy yawns and does not want to be in the classroom in Gary
where the furnaces that consumed his father seethe rusty smoke
and pour cascades of nerve-bright steel
while the slag goes out in little dumpcars smoking,
but even less does he want to be in Today's Action Army
in Vietnam, in the Dominican Republic, in Guatemala, 
in death that hurts.
In him are lectures on small groups, Jacksonian democracy,
French irregular verbs, the names of friends
around him in the classroom in Gary in the pillshaped afternoon
where tomorrow he will try and fail his license to live.

Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970) continues to explore the bewilderment and rebellion of youth in their attempt to build a visionary new society. Piercy was driving herself hard at the time she was working on this novel— getting up at 6:30 A.M. in order to find time to write. She was living in New York with her second husband, Robert Shapiro, and writing came second to political activities. Although she would often give poetry readings for SDS benefits and cultural events, life revolved around the concerns and activities of the movement. In the autobiographical commentary Piercy wrote for Contemporary Authors, she describes the years in New York as “extremely intense, full, densely populated times” and says:

Rarely did Robert and I stay alone in the big sunny rent-controlled apartment on 98th and Broadway. At least fourteen other people lived there at various times for various lengths of time, and every night for supper I was cooking for up to twelve people. I have never been quite so fully involved with numerous people as I was during those years. For Robert and I to be alone, we had to make appointments with each other and arrangements with the others living with us.

It is not surprising that Piercy's health broke and that she became critically ill. Lungs damaged by habitual smoking since the age of twelve gave way to chronic bronchitis, to illness, and a physician's death sentence if she did not stop. An accidental fall complicated earlier back injuries derived from a beating by American Nazi men during an antiwar demonstration in Central Park and from injuries received during a demonstration against the Foreign Policy Association. “A body can grow used / to a weight, / used to limping / and find it hard / to learn again / to walk straight,” Piercy asserts in 4-Telling (1971).

In both the novel Small Changes and To Be of Use, a book of poems published in the same year, Piercy returns to predominant feminist concerns and begins an exploration of women's struggle to achieve autonomy. Small Changes, Piercy says, is “the equivalent of a full experience in a consciousness-raising group for many women who would never go through that experience.” The issue of what it means to be a “real woman” is revealed in the liberation of the novel's protagonist, Beth Phail. The novel begins with Beth preparing for her wedding as she looks in the mirror of her mother's vanity and becomes the image of her mother's pride, her mother's attitudes, expectations that shape her identity, and vision of herself. “This is the happiest day of your life!” her mother exclaims, “the happiest day!” The way that language functions to preserve stereotypes on one hand and to liberate on the other is an essential feature of Small Changes. The issue is one of definition, that is what it means to be a real woman. Mrs. MacRae, who lived upstairs during Beth's childhood, was not really a woman, Mrs. Phail said, because she had had her organs removed, and that was why she did not have children like everybody else. Although having females organs is an essential qualification for being a real woman, men assert that there are additional requirements. A real woman must be available when a man wants her, and Beth's husband insists that she make herself available or he will end their relationship. Finally Beth is able to define herself according to her own standards and to forge a different kind of relationship, a lesbian involvement with another woman.

The poems in To Be of Use continue to address the evolution of women's social and political consciousness. The first section, “A Just Anger,” begins in exploitation and dependence and works through the difficult task women have in bonding with other women, a necessary prerequisite to fuller consciousness and deliberate action. The use of such consciousness is the concern of “The Spring Offensive of the Snail,” part two of the book. It addresses the issue of what to do after feminine consciousness is raised, and finally, in “Laying Down the Tower,” Piercy takes a feminist perspective in interpreting the symbolism of the ancient Tarot. Myth, history, and politics are united in these poems to examine womanness, its mystery, power, and capacity for growth and change.

With Woman on the Edge of Time Piercy moves into futuristic feminist fiction and creates a different utopia. Masculine visions of the time have dealt with governmental concerns, with economics, and with social classes. Piercy instead sets up a feminist revolution. No longer is childbirth the procreative inheritance of a woman; test-tube babies have arrived. Child bearing is done in brooders for the community, and Luciente, the woman who reaches across time from the future, explains it thus:

It was part of women's long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for more power for everyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we'd never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers. Every child has three. To break the nuclear bonding.

Piercy seeks to create a future that is free from the stereotypes of gender, but she is not fooled that Connie can be a savior; she is poor, speaks Spanish, has lost her daughter to a foster home, and has been involved in taking drugs. What's more she is held against her will in a mental institution and must fight her way to a future that promises more than oppression. But Piercy shows that there is hope for individuation, a hope that becomes personal in Living in the Open (1976).

For the first time Piercy gives an autobiographical account of her life. She tells how she came to live on the edge of a fresh-water marsh on Cape Cod, of how it came to be a particular place to be healed. “Finally I have a house / where I return,” she says, a “House half into the hillside, / wood that will weather to the wind's gray, / house built on sand / drawing water like a tree from its roots / where my roots are set / and I return.” It is a place where she is “Kneeling and planting,” “making fertile,” and putting some of herself back in the soil. But it is not utopia, and there are “rough times.” “Those who speak of good and simple / in the same sandwich of tongue and teeth / inhabit some other universe.”

The personal and the political, the emotional and intellectual are inseparable in Piercy's life, and The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing (1978) exemplifies this synthesis. The poetry is organized around the sequence of a year, the diurnal turn from winter to spring, the ease of summer into fall. The seasons of political ferment and activity are joined with the seasons of love and friendship, the seasons of the land. The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing is a solar book with cosmic significance. Everything takes place under the wheel of the sun, including the twelve-spoked microcosmic wheel flashing its earthly seasons. The wheel with its twelve monthly spokes turns year after year but never returns the same way to the same place.

The High Cost of Living, also published in 1978, is a book that deals specifically with the dead-end desperation of some lesbian relationships, and it may be classed as Piercy's least successful novel. Even a critic as positive as Joanna Russ posits reservations. Perhaps it is a too stark and authentic rendition of female homosexuality and as such lacks the humor, the play, of Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, which was well received despite the similarity of its thematic content. Piercy has always seemed to be ahead of her time in dealing with contemporary social and political issues, and she has done this with some risk to popular acclaim, but with an authenticity that should merit more lasting critical recognition and attention.

In Vida (1979), the underground world of the 1960's and 1970's is probed through the eyes of a female protagonist. Vida, in an attempt to work out her political commitments to SAW (Students Against the War) and a fierce separatist group called the Little Red Wagon, comes to terms with an untenable marriage and attempts to establish a more viable relationship, one in which sex is mutual satisfaction instead of supply and demand. Her lifestyle is portrayed in contrast to her sister's more traditional orientation toward marriage, family, and mothering. Vida is in pursuit of individual interests, political commitments, and social awareness. Two aspects of womanhood are thus surveyed in Vida, and the novel is a commentary on how difficult it is to set aside the indoctrination of past attitudes, behavioral patterns, and psychological conditioning in order to establish a new order of feminine integration into a political, often violent, and dangerous world.

This world is rent by revolution and war on one hand and by a refusal to change, by clinging to a dead past on the other. In The Moon Is Always Female (1980), Piercy recognizes, as did Anna Freud, that the voice of the intellect is a soft one. Intellectual claims to gain insight and transform experience fail to right the wrongs of the world, set order against chaos, or provide an easy means of dealing with fear, pain, anger, lust, or loss. There must be another way of knowing, and the numinous poems of The Moon is Always Female open a doorway to comprehending the nonrational aspects of being a woman. “There is knowing with the teeth as well as knowing with the tongue,” Piercy says, “and knowing with the fingertips / as well as knowing with words and with all / the fine flickering hungers of the brain.” Women are the first healers; they are the gatherers of herbs and roots, the dispensers of foxglove, thyme, valerian and poppy, of herbs that cure. Harking back to the lunar calendar, the natural evolution of time's turning, the history of woman moves with tidal ebb and flow into a kind of negative capability, the capacity or ability to tolerate, in Keat's definition, uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. In the title poem, “The Moon is Always Female,” Piercy phrases the concept thus:

I am waiting for the moon to rise. Here
I squat, the whole country with its steel
mills and its coal mines and its prisons
at my back and the continent tilting
up into mountains and torn by shining lakes
all behind me on this scythe of straw,
a sand bar cast on the ocean waves, and I
wait for the moon to rise red and heavy
in my eyes. Chilled, cranky, fearful
in the dark I wait and I am all the time
climbing slippery rocks in a mist while
far below the waves crash in the sea caves;
I am descending a stairway under the groaning
sea while the black waters buffet me
like rockweed to and fro.

Earth is the archetypal mother who generates birth and whose seasons typify a girl's development into a woman. It ushers in a bloom of life when a woman is able to choose who will become the flesh of her flesh, a time when “life is a non-negotiable demand.” It is not an easy achievement Piercy notes in “The wrong anger”; there is “infighting,” “gut battles,” “carnage in the fish tank.” There are “Alligators wrestling in bed. / Nuclear attack / across the breakfast table. Duels in the women's center. The fractioning faction fight.” Women face their failing again and again; they grow out of and beyond their mothers and strive toward reconciliation. The poems of The Moon Is Always Female reveal a woman who is secure in her sexuality, a mature woman whose energy and vision are in harmony with her nature.

In 1982 Piercy's career took on new momentum with the publication of two significant works: Circles on the Water and Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Circles on the Water is a composite selection of poems from previous works: Breaking Camp, Hard Loving, 4-Telling, To Be of Use, Living in the Open, The Moon is Always Female, plus an addition of seven new poems. This collection provides an overview of Piercy's poetry in a volume that may serve as a text for an integrated study of her major poetic works. The University of Michigan's “Poets on Poetry” edition of Marge Piercy's Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, adds a critical approach through a collection of articles, interviews, book reviews, and commentary.

Braided Lives, also published in 1982, is set in the 1950's and in it Piercy again demonstrates her ability to reveal American conscience and consciousness. Strictures on women place strictures on an age that needs to move beyond such narrow confines. Braided Lives shows how divisions of class and gender shape future generations.

It is obvious by 1983 that the discipline of art has relegated any polemic to secondary significance, and the question asked in Stone, Paper, Knife—“Who shall bear hope back into the world?”—places Piercy among those active women writers who would like to see man, woman, and the earth joined in warm, interdependent relationships. “Poetry is an utterance that heals on two levels,” Piercy says in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. It heals the psyche by blending ways of knowing:

Poetry is a saying that uses verbal signs and images, sound and rhythm, memory and dream images. Poetry blends all different kinds of knowing, the analytical and the synthetic, the rational and the prerational and the gestalt grasping of the new or ancient configuration, the separate and fused hungers and satisfaction and complaints and input of the senses, the knotted fibrous mass of pleasure and pain, the ability to learn and to forget. … Poetry has a healing power because it can fuse for the moment all the different kinds of knowing in its saying.

Poetry can also heal as a communal activity, and Stone, Paper, Knife is a statement of faith that follows an attack on the destructive power of bombs, the pollution of water, the waste of disease. How can we “open our hands and let go / the old dangerous toys we clutch hard,” she asks. “How can we with only stone and paper and knife build with imagination a better game?” Piercy answers that human beings, male and female, need to accept the burden of responsibility. “We must begin with the stone of mass / resistance, and pile stone on stone, / begin cranking out whirlwinds of paper.”

The tone of hope represents several changes in Piercy's personal life, a move to Wellfleet, putting down roots, and finding sustenance and strength in the establishment of home and a marriage to Ira Wood.

The novel, Fly Away Home (1984), also marks Piercy's turn to bearing hope back into the world. The protagonist of her story, Daria Walker, divorces, establishes her independence, moves toward a more creative and fulfilling relationship and recognizes, at the end of the book, that she is a better woman than she used to be before she was on her own.

It seems that both Piercy's marriage and the death of her mother have marked a period of growth and development in her work. My Mother's Body resolves old dilemmas and affirms an outlook of hope, a capacity for joy. The first series of poems concerns burial and resurrection. A body is put to rest, but what transcends that body lives—in memory, in giving, in being and becoming. The second half of the book represents a new union, a marriage, a going forth.

The lyrics of the 1960's song “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” provide a touchstone for examining Marge Piercy's World War II novel, Gone to Soldiers.

Although the song lyrics differ among various recordings, the major questions and answers are: “Where have all the flowers gone?” Answer: Young girls pick them, every one. “When will they ever learn?” This question is never answered. It is followed by another question: “Where have all the young girls gone?” The answer: Gone to young men—or gone to husbands. “When will they ever learn?” “Where have all the young men gone?” Answer: They have gone for soldiers. The reason for picking flowers is clear with an additional question: “Where have all the graveyards gone?” Answer: Gone to flowers the young girls pick. But the terrible abiding question is left unanswered still. When will they ever learn?

Although World War II was “the war to end all wars,” mankind has not learned its lessons. The Sixties song attests to the terrible cycle of repetition—to the fact that history repeats itself. The final words of Piercy's novel are haunting and prophetic: “The End of One Set of Troubles Is But the Beginning of Another.” Will we ever learn? Gone to Soldiers is a lesson on the consequences of failure. It defines what our failures have been and reinforces the stark refrain—“will we ever learn?”

Because Marge Piercy is a major American poet as well as novelist, it is fitting that the preface to this epic work on war should be a poem about the past carried into the present, about ancestors. Piercy writes:

The survivors have written their own books
and those who perished are too many and too hungry
for this to do more than add a pebble to the cairn
So this is for my grandmother Hannah
who was a solace to my childhood
and who was a storyteller even in the English
that never fit comfortably in her mouth 
for the moment when she learned that of her
village, none and nothing remained
for her weak eyes, strong stomach and the tales
she told, her love of gossip, of legend
her incurable romantic heart
her gift for making the past
walk through the present

Marge Piercy, like Grandmother Hannah, is a story-teller, but her audience is not just a granddaughter, the members of her immediate family; it is, instead, the world. And far more than entertainment is involved. Survival is at stake; lessons must be learned—lessons about the consequences of war and violence, lessons about prejudice and religious intolerance and interpersonal relationships. In our humanness, we fail others, and we fail ourselves. Wars are external and internal too.

In reviews of Gone to Soldiers, critics stress the fact that “A woman writer treads on male turf,” that Marge Piercy, in writing about war, has entered into an area reserved for Men. But Piercy, in all of her novels and poems, has seen the world as whole. Her world is one inhabited by women AND men, and its violence affects everyone regardless of gender, age, or race.

Marge Piercy is a humanitarian and as such, there should be no question of gender, of male or female turf. War kills—male and female, adult and child, on the front line, in a classroom or factory, in a residence or a department store. The “Who” that is involved names every human being that inhabits the earth. The “Where” is the United States; it is Germany, Russia, England, Iran, Japan, the World. What have we learned? Will we ever learn?

In 1941, the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation was instructed by the Permanent Committee for Literature and the Arts of the League of Nations to arrange for exchanges of letters between representative intellectuals on subjects deemed of common interest; they asked Albert Einstein to pick a topic for discussion and to choose a person with whom to exchange letters. Einstein chose “Why War?” and in a letter written at Caputh near Potsdam, the 30th of July, 1932, to Professor Sigmund Freud, he asked:

Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? It is common knowledge that, with the advance of modern science, this issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for civilization as we know it; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown. (Sigmund Freud, ed., James Strachey, 1964)

Einstein's letter is long, but it is worth quoting, at least in part, because it not only illumines Piercy's theme that the end of one set of troubles, namely war, is but the beginning of another, it also explores the seemingly unanswerable question that Einstein raised: “Why War?”.

The lack of success in solving the problem, Einstein wrote, “Leaves us no room to doubt that strong psychological factors are at work, which paralyze these efforts.” He explains:

The craving for power which characterizes the governing class in every nation is hostile to any limitation of the national sovereignty. This political power-hunger is wont to batten on the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary lines. I have specially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority.

The question follows of how a seemingly small clique can bend the will of the majority when they stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, and Einstein comments that he does not exclude “soldiers of every rank who have chosen war as their profession, in the belief that they are serving to defend the highest interests of their race and that attack is often the best defense.” The obvious answer, he says, “would seem to be that the majority, the ruling class … has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb.” This enables the clique “to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and make its tool of them.”

In exploring the cause of this situation, Einstein believes that there is only one explanation as to what would rouse “men to such wild enthusiasm, even to sacrifice their lives” and that is “because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction.”

“Is it possible,” Einstein asks Freud, “to control man's mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness?” And he concludes by saying he had been speaking of wars between nations—international conflicts—but that he was aware also that the aggressive instinct operates under other forms and circumstances. He names “the persecution of racial minorities” as an example.

Piercy's Gone to Soldiers might well be called a 1987 answer to Einstein's question. It is a monumental work of ten novels woven into one collection. Its base is World War II, but individual wars between man and man, woman and woman, between woman and man, between families, within the self, are all played out in the lives of ten major characters, each one presenting his or her own individual point of view. Yet each part becomes integrated into the larger anatomy of war. Gone to Soldiers is a hard lesson. But will we ever learn? Perhaps, if we make use of the past, and perhaps part of the lesson could be reading Piercy's important masterpiece of craft and design. Gone to Soldiers should establish Piercy as one of the leading novelists of our time.

Available Light, published by Knopf in 1988, is Piercy's tenth book of poetry. It celebrates political, religious, seasonal, and personal revolutions. Again themes of coming into selfhood, forgiving one's parents, and growing into love are displayed with celerity. The poet, at 50, assesses her life. She examines and affirms her Jewish identity and in doing so, seeks to reconcile religion with her embrace of the ancient earth goddess. She confronts her ambivalence toward her father in “Burial by salt” and says “What was between us was history, not love. / I have striven to be just to you, / stranger, first cause, old man, my father, / and now I give you over to salt and silence.”

In Available Light, Piercy confronts problems of aging, menopause, making love, her own Detroit childhood, society's concern with being forever young, even the annoyance of answering machines. Though she extols country pleasures, Piercy asserts that “life makes women crazy.” “We lose and we go on losing as long as we live,” she says. Yet Piercy's vision is a clear and available light that informs a triumph of understanding one's self, one's relationships, and one's place in the world.

Piercy's Summer People, published in 1989, moves from the political arena of Gone to Soldiers to the social set of summer people on fashionable Cape Cod. The focus is a ten-year-old menage a trois and its tortuous disintegration. It examines the bonds of love that exist between Dinah, a 38 year-old Jewish musician and her bisexual lover, Susan. Dinah is also involved with Susan's husband, Willie, and an avant-garde composer, Itsak Raab. The novel explores, through triangular and one-sided relationships, the difficulty involved in becoming a separate person who is able to fulfill his or her own needs while establishing a healthy reciprocal relationship with another person. Stephen Schiff, in his review of the novel in The New York Times Book Review, calls the novel a “red-hot pastorale” and questions if amid the novel's painful lurching, “we ever begin to understand how a happy, bisexual triangle might work?” Although the bisexual triangle of Dinah and Susan, Dinah and Willie, Willie and Susan, is central to the novel, other relationships are explored as well: Dinah and Raab, Susan and Tyrone Burdock, the wealthy New York art speculator who summers on the other side of the pond; Jimmy and Tyrone's daughter, Laurie. Summer People is a study of codependency. It does not intend to address itself to how a happy bisexual triangle might work—for if such a relationship works and is happy, why explore it further? A primary psychological issue in 1989 is codependency, and Piercy is right on target in showing how addictive relationships destroy the love they intend to nurture.

Throughout her career as novelist and poet, Piercy addresses the hard issues that affect the way people live and love. In the 60's and early 70's this was the issue of feminism and women's rights. In the 80's, it is codependency, but Piercy has not limited herself to the vicissitudes of love. She has addressed issues of religion and culture, and in particular how a Jewish heritage directs one's life. She addresses the psychology of mother-daughter and father-daughter relationships, attitudes toward youth and aging, and on a global scale, Einstein's question of “Why War?” The canon of Piercy's work is impressive in both poetry and fiction. Piercy is a literary force with which to reckon.

Malcolm Bosse (review date 22 December 1991)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052

SOURCE: “A Cyborg in Love,” in The New York Times Book Review, December 22, 1991, p. 22.

[In the following review, Bosse offers negative assessment of He, She, and It.]

Her highly praised novel Gone to Soldiers and her other works of fiction, essays and poetry attest to Marge Piercy's achievement. But her ambitious new novel, He, She and It, is not likely to enhance her reputation.

In the high-tech world of A.D. 2059, people live under protective domes because of an ecological disaster and plug into computers through sockets located in their foreheads. This society, although it is described in the lingo of science fiction (gruds, stimmies, security apes, fused user syndrome), still has a familiar assortment of domestic problems. The brilliant young scientist Shira battles her former husband for custody of their son, Art, but unfortunately for Shira the despotic, male-dominated multinational corporation that employs her—and administers justice—rules against her. She moves to a “free town” where she stays with her grandmother and works on an artificial-intelligence project concerned with the construction of cyborgs.

Malkah, Shira's grandmother, opens a second narrative line by explaining to Yod, a newly created cyborg, what life for oppressed Jews was like in 16th-century Prague. Malkah's narrative includes complex disquisitions on astrology, the cabala, medieval science and the intellectual fervor of Central Europe during the Renaissance. But her tale focuses on Judah Loew, the head rabbi of Prague, who creates a golem, a man made from clay and invested with life, “as tall and broad as the strongest soldier.” The rabbi names his creation Joseph and charges it with protecting the city's Jews (gathered together in a walled ghetto) from intruders.

Malkah has been recruited to work with the cyborg by its creator, her old lover Avram. Yod is unique, far superior to any other cyborg. Much like the golem in Malkah's tale, he has been created to protect an endangered community—in this case the town to which Shira flees. As Yod explains to Shira, “I am not a robot. … I'm a fusion of machine and lab-created components.” He is dark-haired, “of medium height, with a solid compact build,” and, he explains to an astonished Shira, “anatomically male.”

Shira is given the job of civilizing the cyborg. And—much as in Malkah's tale of 16th-century Prague, in which a young woman takes pity on the golem and his “beautiful hunger” for knowledge and teaches him to read—she finds herself fascinated by Yod.

Assassins from an enemy coalition, Yakamura-Stichen (recalling the Axis of World War II), who can strike through a computer to kill its user, attack Malkah. She is saved by Yod. Shira and Yod begin a steamy love affair. Because the free town is now under siege, Shira's mother, Riva, returns to help out. Riva is an information pirate (“She finds hidden knowledge,” Malkah explains to Shira, “and liberates it”) who brings with her a formidable accomplice, Nili, a Ninja-like woman warrior who comes from an underground cave beneath Israel, where a community of Jewish and Palestinian women live together in harmony. From this complex and rather funky domestic setting, a plot emerges to rescue Shira's child from her former husband.

Both Joseph the golem and Yod face violence and must kill to protect their charges. The golem fights off the forces threatening the Jews of the Prague ghetto: Yod first helps the women penetrate an enemy base through its computer to track down Shira's son, then proves essential in saving the boy.

Once Joseph has heroically saved the Prague ghetto from a vicious mob, the rabbi, through ritual chanting, returns the golem to inanimate clay. The fate of Yod is similar, although it is he who destroys himself, along with the laboratory in which he was created, so that enslaved machines won't be made to act as weapons against their will.

Shira is initially determined to create a new lover from a data base, but she finally decides that enough tampering with free will has already been done, so she destroys the records that would allow the creation of more cyborgs like Yod.

Marge Piercy confronts large issues in this novel: the social consequences of creating anthropomorphic cyborgs, the dynamics of programming both humans and machines, the ethical question of our control of machines that might feel as well as think.

At the present time, virtual reality experiments promise many startling changes in society. But Ms. Piercy's high-tech world of the near future is filled with wonders that stretch credulity. People transform their looks within a computer program, then emerge with their shapes permanently changed. Or they are zipped physically by some kind of teleportation from one place to another.

Perhaps one problem is that the details of He, She and It are cribbed, as Ms. Piercy acknowledges in an afterword, from the genre of science fiction known as cyberpunk, without the introduction of believable characters, men and women acutely aware of the extraordinary possibilities of a computer-mediated world. Most of the figures in this novel are described as being brilliant, their scholarship great, their minds superior, yet they behave like rather ordinary characters, exhausted by domestic and romantic problems, in a plot that is intermittently frenetic and weird and that is frequently reminiscent of a video game. Surprises abound, though the rationale behind them is often contrived and only too familiar. Shira's mother, killed before Shira's eyes in a raid, surfaces again; someone else's corpse had been substituted for hers. Love affairs develop easily and quickly in a game of musical beds that fails to engage our interest.

Some of the prose belies Ms Piercy's reputation as a poet: “Her heart collapsed like a crushed egg”; “She felt a roiling hot mixture of emotions, like a pot of thick fudge about to boil over”; “Nili cracked her knuckles sensually”; “It is a torment like fire in his mind.”

The parallel stories of the golem and the cyborg, both created by men to serve humankind, initially offer a welcome strategy for varying the book's time and setting. Yet the heavy symbolism, unrelieved by humor, retards the pace of both narratives until He, She and It, despite its complicated plot and use of Buck Rogers fantasy, often reads more like an extended essay on freedom of conscience than a full-rigged work of fiction.

Billie Maciunas (essay date March 1992)

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SOURCE: “Feminist Epistemology in Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time,” in Women's Studies, Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4, March, 1992, pp. 249-58.

[In the following essay, Maciunas relates Sandra Harding's delineation of feminist epistemology and scientific bias to Piercy's vision of society in Woman on the Edge of Time.]

Sandra Harding's view of science as a social activity leads her to propose critical interpretation as a mode of knowledge-seeking, useful in particular for theorizing “the effects on the natural sciences of gender symbolism, gender structure, and individual gender.” Early in her book, The Science Question in Feminism, she suggests that novelists and poets may provide an “intuitive grasp” of the emancipatory theory needed to get beyond the categories of “science-as-usual,” which she regards as indistinguishable from bad science. Harding names Marge Piercy and Anne McCaffrey as two such visionaries whose respective work explores a culture without gender institutionalization and the ambiguous relation between human and machine. Accordingly, I have chosen Piercy's novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, with a view toward discovering how a contemporary American feminist writer envisions a non-gendered society. Specifically, I will examine some of the ways in which Piercy's imaginary culture relates to Harding's discussion of feminist epistemologies that are emerging as a response to sexist, classist and racist policies in science.

For Harding, science-as-usual, while functioning under cover of a supposed value-neutral ethics, is inherently sexist, racist and classist. She identifies three types of feminist epistemologies whose nascent practice has the potential for producing “a politics of knowledge-seeking that would show us the conditions necessary to transfer control from the ‘haves’ to the ‘have-nots.’” Harding labels these epistemologies feminist empiricism, the feminist standpoint, and feminist postmodernism.

Feminist empiricism, working for the reform of “bad science,” reveals the incoherencies of empiricist epistemologies by subverting the notion that the social identity of the observer is irrelevant to the results of the research. Harding points out, for example, that women in science are “more likely than men to notice androcentric bias.” In spite of their commitment to empiricist principles, feminist empiricists argue that “as a group \they] are more likely to produce unbiased and objective results than are men (or nonfeminists) as a group.”

The second type of feminist epistemology, the feminist standpoint, is based in Hegelian “thinking about the relationship between the master and the slave” as elaborated in the writings of Marx, Engels, and G. Lukács. The proposal of the feminist standpoint is that subjugated knowledge provides the grounds for unravelling the “partial and perverse understandings” of a science based on the interests of dominant groups. Unlike feminist empiricism, the feminist standpoint regards the social identity of the inquirer as a variable.

The third type of feminist epistemology, feminist postmodernism, would begin from the perspective of inevitable fragmentation. As a part of the general postmodernist movement, feminist postmodernism would seek a solidarity of oppositions to the myth of an essential human being, a being conceptualized in fact by historical males. Feminist postmodernism shares with the feminist standpoint the view that the fiction of the “uniquely human” has generated distorted and exploitative policies. However, postmodern suspicion of holistic epistemologies precludes acceptance of a single feminist standpoint.

For Harding, the epistemological foundations of our present science practices are history-specific. She divides the emergence of the “New Science Movement” of the fourteenth century into stages. The final stage the “moment of mythologizing,” coincides with the development of Descartes' method for the production of a “value-neutral” science. Instrumentalist in its outlook, Cartesian science “compromised the political goals of the New Science Movement,” whose organization of social labor stood in opposition to church dogma. As Harding herself points out, her argument follows that of Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolution in which Kuhn shows how “normal science” and its methods are merely the after-effects of revolutionary paradigm shifts. Moreover, defenders of normal science “rewrite its history in a way that often hides the nature of its early struggles.”

Harding compares the practices of women scientists (presumably feminist empiricists) to the practices of those artisans of the New Science Movement. Their “new kind of labor made possible the ensuing widespread appreciation of the virtues of experimental observation.” She lists five kinds of critiques which have helped in forming an emancipators theory in response to normal science. They are:

1) equity studies that identify and document the ways that de facto discrimination is maintained even after formal barriers have broken down. Motivation studies, for example, show a difference between boys' and girls' interest in excelling in such subjects as science, engineering, and mathematics. To the point, Harding asks why women would want to be “just like men” in interesting themselves in questions “skewed toward men's perception of what they find puzzling.”

2) studies documenting the abuses of scientific technologies in biology and the social sciences. Such abuses include the perpetration of reproductive policies that are oppressive to women (doubly so in the case of poor women, including women of color). As an example of such abuse Harding mentions

the resuscitation of scientifically supported sentimental images of motherhood and nuclear forms of family life for some at the same time that social supports for mothers and nonnuclear families are systematically withdrawn for others.

3) challenges to the idea of the possibility of a “pure science.” Harding relates this challenge to the process of selection of problems to be solved by science. The hierarchical structure of the science profession assures that a white male elite (“less than 0.01 percent of scientific workers”) is privileged with decision-making, while the technicians and domestic staff who carry out the work are composed for the most part of white middle class women (in the upper ranks of technicians) and minority men and women (among the lower ranks of technicians and domestic staff). The case for value-neutral results is damaged when one considers the gap in knowledge between “the scientist” in his search for truth and the workforce that implements the research into problems deemed worthy of inquiry.

Harding questions whether the selection of problems to be solved will not always reflect the interests of dominant groups. But given this necessarily value-laden bias she considers whether some value-laden research projects may not be “maximally objective” within the structure of an already existing overtly sexist, racist, and classist program. For example, would not self-consciously anti-sexist and/or anti-racist inquiries be more objective than “sex-blind” ones?

4) “\T]he related techniques of literary criticism, historical interpretation and psychoanalysis” have unveiled the social meanings of metaphors used in the founding of modern science. In addition, the familiar dichotomies, reason vs. emotion, mind vs. body, etc., are related to masculinity and femininity, especially in the context of a supposed necessity to control emotions, the body, and “the feminine” in the interest of human progress

5) Finally, as mentioned, feminist epistemologies have emerged that reflect more accurately “shifting configurations of gender, race, and class. … ”

Marge Piercy's novel, published in 1976, offers contrasting visions between the present world view (perhaps the early 1960's) and a “possible” future (2137) in which the feminist epistemologies described by Harding help to form the world view. This possible future can emerge only through the imagination and intentional actions of Connie, a 37 year old Chicana mental patient. Connie's visions take her into the world of Luciente, who may be imagined as a possible version of Connie herself, given a world in which gender socialization and the concurrent division of labor along gender and/or class lines is abolished. Luciente is a plant geneticist whose work involves reconstructing species of plants that have been destroyed by pollution, as well as creating plants that are useful for food and other human needs. Most of the other characters in Piercy's novel also mirror each other in terms of present and future. For example, Sybil, who is confined to the hospital for being a witch, is mirrored by Erzulia, a black woman in the future who practices both witchcraft and traditional surgery.

When Luciente first appears to Connie she is mistaken for a man. The narrator says

Luciente spoke, she moved with that air of brisk unselfconscious authority Connie associated with men. Luciente sat down, taking up more space than women ever did. She squatted, she sprawled, she strolled, never thinking about how her body was displayed.

By contrast, women in Connie's world are absurdly socialized according to men's conceptions of their reality. Connie's niece, Dolly, for example, is a prostitute who changes her appearance so that she will look more like the white male's idea of a beautiful woman. She says

I got to stay skinny, carita. The money is with the Anglos and they like you skinny and American-looking. It pays more if you look Anglo, you know.

The nightmare of such a reality is glaringly shown in Piercy's image of another possible world into which Connie stumbles by accident while trying to contact Luciente. In the near future Connie encounters Gildina, Dolly's exaggerated double. Gildina is “a built-up contracty … \c]osmetically fixed for sex use.”

Piercy shows, too, the contradiction inherent in the socialization of women strictly for motherhood. Connie and her niece can afford to raise their children only at the cost of dependence on men who are for the most part abusive. At the same time, the women in Connie's world are subject to the abusive technology connected with reproductive policies that deny them the achievement of the ideal of motherhood. Both Connie and her mother, for example, after being admitted to the hospital for other reasons, were given hysterectomies “because the residents wanted practice.” Connie's sister is given sugar pills instead of birth control pills after her sixth child because of an experiment. Her seventh child is then born with deficiencies that require costly treatment, “All because Inez thought she had a doctor, but she got a scientist.”

For Piercy, egalitarianism necessitates women giving up their exclusive right to bear children, in order that men may participate in the community as mothers (children are laboratory created; men are administered hormones so that they can nurse their children). Luciente explains

It was part of women's long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we'd never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers.

In this instance, Piercy imagines a future whose grounding is in feminist postmodernism. Feminist postmodernism does not ostensibly seek to reform science or to raise subjugated forms of knowledge to higher status. Rather, like postmodernist theories in general, it seeks an end to globalizing discourses in which an elite avant-garde is empowered to define and administer the tenets of “truth.” One type of feminist postmodernist theory is object-relations theory. Object-relations theory considers philosophy to be the site of the problematization of “the relationships between subject and object, mind and body, inner and outer, reason and sense. … ” It proposes that men's preoccupation with objectivity stems from infantile separation from the mother. Men, more than women, remain “frozen in a defensive infantile need to dominate and/or repress others in order to retain … individual identity.” Women's experience thereby becomes the opposite pole of the duality by which men “take their own experience as paradigmatically human rather than merely as typically masculine.” Mothering (caring work), then, must be incorporated as a human experience and located at the center of culture, rather than remaining at the margins of culture as “women's work,” under-valued and/or sentimentalized.

Feminist postmodernism, as Harding notes, proposes reciprocity as a more desirable way of knowing than defensive gendering. In Woman on the Edge of Time Piercy imagines a world in which interpersonal relations are valued as a form of community activity. Members of this intentional community participate in “wormings” in order to discover and eliminate the sources of hostility between individuals. Connie, visiting from the past, complains, “Don't you people have nothing to worry about besides personal stuff?” One of the community members then points out the connection between individual and national warfare:

\W]e believe many actions fail because of inner tensions. To get revenge against someone an individual thinks wronged per, individuals have offered up nations to conquest.

Thieves in this society are given presents to relieve feelings of neglect and poverty (there is no private property). Likewise, crimes of violence are regarded as treatable by healing. However, if a person commits such a crime for a second time, they are executed. Parra, the Hispanic woman who is selected as referee (judge) for a worming explains, “We don't want to watch each other or to imprison each other. We aren't willing to live with people who choose to use violence. We execute them.”

Piercy's valuation of interpersonal relations (to the point of an absolute intolerance for violence) reflects the feminist standpoint epistemology in which relational forms of knowing are regarded as morally preferable to the objectification of individuals and groups. In opposition to Cartesian dualisms, interpersonal caring as community work unites the “manual, mental, and emotional (‘hand, brain, and heart’) activity characteristic of women's work. … ” It also recalls the craft labor necessary for the emergence of the “New Science Movement” of the fourteenth century. As Harding points out

The organizational forms of the women's movement, unlike those of capitalist production relations and its science, resist dividing mental, manual, and caring activity among different classes of persons. And its project is to provide the knowledge women need to understand and manage our own bodies: subject and object of inquiry are one.

The intolerance of violence in the possible future can be read as Piercy's reaction to the disproportionate number of violent crimes committed by men in our present society, particularly when many of the most violent are committed as a matter of course by men against women. Piercy shows a parallel between violent crimes against women and the practices of science-as-usual. The white male doctors privileged to define Connie's reality on the ward label her as violent. The description, however, is ironic since Connie's violence consists in her defending herself against physical abuse by her niece's pimp, referred to as the niece's “fiance” by the doctors. The interpretation of Connie's actions as “violent” is used to justify forms of research into behavior control, called “treatment,” such as forced isolation, administration of soporific drugs, shock therapy, and brain implants for the control of “patient's” emotions by electrical impulses administered from outside.

In order to avoid “treatment” Connie tries to prove her normalcy by volunteering to do housework on the ward. Likewise, in order to persuade her brother (who has committed her) to let her visit him, Connie must agree to do the housework for him and his Anglo wife. Thus Connie's labor is extracted on the basis of definitions of normalcy for women that posit a natural genesis for women's caring, as opposed to a social one. These definitions of women and their reality help to naturalize their victimization. In Piercy's book, Connie is aware of the connection:

\T]he pressure was to say please and put on lipstick and sit at a table playing cards, to obey and work for nothing, cleaning the houses of the staff. To look away from graft and abuse. To keep quiet as you watched them beat other patients. To pretend that the rape in the linen room was a patient's fantasy.

Reading the above passage from a feminist standpoint, it is easy to see that the rape fantasy is that of the white male doctors. The parallel drawn earlier between the division of labor in the sciences and in society makes clear that ruling conceptual schemes do not include categories adequate for defining women's reality, although the attempt is nevertheless made, with an arrogance that is both ignorant and invasive. Regarding women's work of personal maintenance Harding says,

Men who are relieved of the need to maintain their own bodies and the local places where they exist can … see as real only what corresponds to their abstracted mental world.

Piercy's novel is hopeful in its images of a possible future in which the revolutionary feminist epistemologies described by Harding are instrumental in creating a more egalitarian world. As Harding suggests, change is a labor intensive activity. The emergence of the “New Science Movement” in the early Renaissance required a new type of individual who was both educated and willing to perform manual labor: “artisans, shipbuilders, mariners, miners, foundrymen, and carpenters.” When Connie imagines revolution as “Honchos marching around in imitation uniforms,” she is informed that

It's the people who worked on the labor-and-land intensive farming we do. It's all the people who changed how people bought food, raised children, went to school!

Sybil, the mental ward image of Erzuha, the healer, manages to make contact with the future in such a concrete way. Near the conclusion of the book Sybil notes that some of the college girl volunteers on the ward are interested in the healing properties of herbs. Although Sybil could not go to college, much less study witchcraft there, she is told by the college girls about “a class in a women's school” where they learned, among other things, to cure infections with lovage compresses. Thus, Sybil can be seen as a “foremother” of the emerging movement in which forms of medicine that have been suppressed as “voodoo” and “witchcraft” are practiced along with surgery and genetic engineering. One of the most renowned “healers” in Piercy's possible future is a black woman, Erzulia, who is famous for developing a method of setting bone fractures in the aged and who practices mental telepathy in the control of physical processes. Connie asks, “How can anybody be into voodoo and medicine? It doesn't make sense!” Luciente, her guide, responds, “Each makes a different kind of sense, no?” Piercy's vision reflects the emergence of feminist epistemologies in that forms of subjugated knowledge stemming from suppressed practices are accepted in her future world. In addition, the valorization of a black woman as a professional healer indicates an interest in redressing the imbalance of the division of labor discussed by Harding as the position of feminist empiricists. In this instance, Piercy is imagining a reform of science such that the presence of women scientists works to eliminate androcentric bias that prohibits useful forms of medicine. Further, the character of Erzulia addresses the issue of the absence of black women (and men) in the upper strata of the science profession's hierarchy and the forms of knowledge consequently lacking in science for any sort of “objective” knowledge about the world we inhabit.

Piercy's novel reveals the emergence of the three feminist epistemologies as detailed by Harding. It does not, however, offer a Utopian vision, nor does it show an “intuitive grasp” of any emancipatory theory. Piercy simply imagines a possible world given the intentionality of people receptive to change. Connie's “receptivity” in contacting Luciente is a metaphor for the ability to comprehend and implement change for those whose ways of knowing and forms of knowledge have been denied reality. Piercy's metaphor for implementing these changes, however, is war. She concludes her book with the certainty that Connie will be forced to undergo a brain implant in spite of her model behavior. Such an event bodes the emergence of Gildina's world and the possibility of melding human and machine for use and control by the empowered.

At the conclusion of Piercy's story, as at the beginning, Connie's choice is to defend herself against violence with violence. After losing her appeal to the doctors that she be allowed to forego the brain implant, Connie poisons four of the doctors with a pesticide that she has stolen from her brother's nursery. Her method of murder underscores the tragedy of her being thwarted in her potential development as a member of a caring community. As mentioned, her mirror image in the future, Luciente, is a plant geneticist who is concerned to create and use plants for the growth of the community, not its destruction. Moreover, Sybil and her future counterpart, Erzulia, show how the development of their knowledge of plants can lead to cures. Connie's solution of murder with the very tools that could be used for good reflects the dominant culture's own misuse of technology in its objectifying view of the environment.

As soon as Connie has poisoned the doctors, she understands that she is no longer receptive to Luciente's world. Piercy thus seems to conclude that the possibility of the world that she imagines is closed off by violence. Although Connie was receptive to change, she could not escape the confines of the reality defined for her by the dominant white male culture. But neither was she active in the political struggles (like Sybil, for example) that would have created a more ambiguous relationship with that culture than definitions of mother and/or mental patient could provide. Instead, Connie's resistance is confined to conforming to her doctors' expectations of her in order to buy time and gain privileges, attempting to escape, and finally committing murder.

While this paper is unable to address in detail all of the issues raised in Harding's and Piercy's books, it is hoped that it nonetheless demonstrates the relationship between sexist, classist, and racist policies in science and in society at large. For Harding, such policies are not a result of bad science as much as they are a consequence of science-as-usual, whose epistemological foundation of value-neutral, objective inquiry is skewed toward the needs of a white male elite. As both Harding's and Piercy's texts argue, feminist epistemologies indicate revolutionary changes in knowers, ways of knowing, and the world to be known. They ought to and do show us “the conditions necessary to transfer control from the ‘haves’ to the ‘have-nots.’”

Patricia Volk (review date 20 March 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Three of Them,” in The New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review, Volk offers tempered praise for The Longings of Women.]

Why is it that women who think they can't survive without a man invariably pick the wrong one? In her 12th novel, The Longings of Women, Marge Piercy explores the tragic female myth—“I'm nothing without him”— and how lives get trapped by it. Alternating chapters focus on three wildly different people who intersect, bounce off one another and dramatically change course.

Divorced by her husband, at 61 Mary Burke has spiraled down from tennis at the country club to the nightmare of homelessness. She is a chilling reminder that having no place to live can happen to anybody. On bad winter nights in Boston she sweeps leftovers from the food court at the mall into her shopping bag and winds mufflers around her thighs so she won't freeze to death.

A good night is not much better. Mary squats at homes where she does day work, having rifled her employers' desks, dressers and appointment calendars to check when they'll be out of town. You may think twice about leaving a cleaning lady the key when you learn that Mary knew “Mr. Douglas coddled an ulcer and liked dirty movies of women together. … Mrs. DeMott had had liposuction. … Mrs. Anzio was on tranquilizers. … Mr. Landsman was unfaithful to his wife.”

Mary is a world-class snoop but she's admirable, too, nurturing her self-respect by wearing found lipsticks and caring about homeless women even worse off than she is.

On Wednesdays Mary cleans for Leila Landsman, an associate professor at Lesley College in Boston whose work with incest survivors is “only marginally respectable academically.” Self-probing yet myopic, Leila suspects that her husband, an actor turned director, is cheating on her for the 16th time. Still, she calls Nick “Beloved” and doesn't worry about AIDS. Terrified of feeling anger, she believes “love was not a constant. It swelled and shrank. It grew weak and recovered into vigor.”

That's a good observation because it's true. It becomes pivotal to the novel when Ms Piercy lets Leila use it to deceive herself.

Becky Burgess enters the picture when Leila gets a contract to write a book about her. Details of Becky's character appear to be based on Pamela Smart, the New Hampshire high school teacher who was convicted of conspiring with a student to murder her husband and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1991.

Becky also torments her adolescent lover until he kills her husband. She even puts the dead man's clothes in a garbage bag and drops it off at the in-laws', just as Pamela Smart reportedly did. If you're familiar with the case, co-opting details so specific might break the fictional spell, but I got right back under it as Becky's grisly single-mindedness steered her toward the slammer.

Marge Piercy can seat 15 strangers around a Thanksgiving table, and by the time dessert is served you'll know all of them. Her paragraph on Leila's interview techniques for talking with battered women is a miniature master class. These characters are so authentic, you'll want to shake them: “Leave that creep!”; “Get a shrink!”; “Work at Legal Seafood!”

But do we really need to be told, “Leila aimed to be a good woman and a dependable human being”? A novel this generous requires no work, but robs the reader of those participatory moments when a truth is discovered on its own. Yet Ms Piercy's take on victimization is deliberate: these women engineer the terrible things that happen to them. They don't happen to them because they are women.

Fiction doesn't have to have a message, but The Longings of Women throbs with one. Nobody's security should depend on somebody else. Ladies, are you listening? Get a job. Never long for men who long for other women. And if, God forbid, you're ever homeless, get out of the Snow Belt, fast.

Constance Casey (review date 27 March 1994)

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SOURCE: “Yearning for a Home,” in Washington Post Book World, March 27, 1994, p. 5.

[In the following review, Casey offers qualified praise for The Longings of Women.]

If this tale of three heroines is to be believed, then the answer to the question “What do women want?” is, simply, a house. According to Marge Piercy, what women long for is shelter with an affordable mortgage. If this doesn't sound particularly literary or inspiring, you should understand that Piercy doesn't give a damn about literary or inspiring. Harsh truths are what Piercy cares for; she has no taste or talent for what John Updike calls “fiction's shapely lies.” The plot—for each of Piercy's heroines—is: Woman Meets House. Woman Loses House. Woman Gets House. (In one case, perhaps The Big House.)

Piercy's three heroines appear in descending order of net worth and ascending order of interest. The most well-off and least engaging is Leila, 45, who teaches sociology and writes about women in prison. Her husband is a theater director who has affairs—close to one a year over the course of 20 years of marriage—which Leila tolerates.

Piercy's second heroine, Becky, 25, was one of seven children growing up in a poor New Bedford household with one bathroom. The first in her family to go to college, Becky marries a dull man (with well-heeled parents) to gain respectability—specifically, a sunny shingled condo on the Cape, where with joyful proprietariness she cleans the bathroom grout with a toothbrush. A Becky Sharp for our era, this Becky, derives her values from the Shopping Channel and inane motivational tapes. She is certainly calculating and self-centered (her brother's death at sea makes her feel like a celebrity) but we're not so sure she's capable of plotting with her teen lover to kill her husband. Becky and Leila meet when Leila begins a book about the case; Piercy keeps Leila and the reader in suspense for a while about Becky's guilt.

The poorest of the novel's characters is Piercy's star. Mary, 61, has been house-cleaning for Boston families, including Leila's, since she was left by her husband and lost her clerical job. She's dependable, respectably dressed and hard working. So hard-working that she can finish a six-hour cleaning job in three hours and lie down for the rest of her time alone in the house. A necessity because Mary is homeless, burned out of her apartment. Her clients think she lives with her daughter somewhere in Boston. In fact, her daughter lives with spouse and children in Chevy Chase and sends the occasional check to Mary's post-office box.

When concentrating on Mary, Piercy's militant sympathy and her eye for concrete detail are used to best effect. Mary usually sleeps at Logan Airport or in a church basement. She takes care always to keep her few possessions in an unwrinkled bag (crumpled shopping bags draw police attention). She subsists on spoonfuls of cornflakes or granola or leftover soup from clients' cupboards. A few nights a month she can afford a motel room; mostly she bathes with paper towels in restrooms.

Most vividly rendered is the tedium of having to kill time by walking around, of never being able to sit down for long. One of Mary's airport tactics is to seek out a delayed flight so that she can rest surrounded by other tired, dejected-looking people.

How did she end up homeless? It's a question many women ask themselves when they see women begging on the street, fearing that some misfortune could land them there, too. A college graduate, Mary was married to a civil-servant, and entertained his colleagues in her Bethesda Home. Her husband now lives comfortably with his third wife and second set of children; the injustice of the situation is not lost on Mary.

Marry a professional man, older women had advised Mary in her youth. Now, she thinks, “They should have said, be a caterer, buy a property and pay it off fast. Never mind the rest.”

With all the timely power of Mary's story, why should we care about the gracelessness of Piercy's writing? There are popularisms like, “Being married and having his own life and his own home were just not priorities.” There are Judith Krantzisms like, “She put on the red silk Victoria's Secret nightgown he had given her for her birthday two years before, rather than the flannel Eileen West she usually wore.” And there are even saccharine cute cat-isms. Of Leila's newly adopted tom, Piercy writes, “He did not feel it was too soon to begin that vital training that lubricated the loving relationship between the cat and the person he owned.” And there are chats we doubt ever got chatted. Establishing her credentials to a source, Leila explains: “I believe I've had a small influence in legislation concerning the rights of women in prison vis-a-vis their children in three states.” When the author's voice is this artless and humorless, it shakes the reader's faith in her judgment, especially her sense of proportion. (Not to mention that Piercy seems to lack sympathy for 49 percent of the human race. The lovable cat has been fixed.)

Piercy has always been an unapologetic ideologue. Her first popular book, Small Changes, brought to life the discontents outlined in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Interestingly, the best of her 11 novels is a work of science fiction, Woman on the Edge of Time, in which Piercy was freed from realism. Then her heroine was a mental patient who could escape forward in time. Reading Piercy's descriptions of Mary's life in The Longings of Women is like reading science fiction. In this case, science fiction about time travel to some nearly unthinkable future in which people have no homes and have to live on the streets. More than unhappily, this does occur in our present and is no fiction. The Longings of Women is not a book for the ages, but it is a book for this exact moment.

Judith Wynn (review date 17 April 1994)

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SOURCE: “Marge Piercy Tells a Cautionary Tale of Women on the Edge,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 17, 1994, p. 3.

[In the following review, Wynn offers favorable evaluation of The Longings of Women.]

What do women want? Freud—for one—pondered the question. In The Longings of Women novelist-poet Marge Piercy gives a clear, ringing answer: A woman wants some space all her own-ask any bag lady. And Piercy does. Or, to be accurate, Mary Burke, one of the three heroines of this lively, densely textured novel, is almost a bag lady.

Mary started out a “normal girl from Normal, Illinois,” and spent 20-some years tending her husband and her two spoiled children in posh suburbia. But as Piercy knows—and most other women at least suspect—the stay-at-home housewife can be just one husband away from poverty.

Divorced in her mid-40s and then moved to Boston by her boyfriend/employer, who dumped her a few years later, Mary has joined the ranks of the homeless as Longings begins. Her life is a succession of semi-legal sleepovers in the houses she cleans for a living. Whenever one of her clients goes out of town, Mary lets herself in with her cleaning-lady key for a few precious nights of peace and shelter. If her client returns unexpectedly, Mary retreats to the garage. If the garage is locked, she sleeps in church basements or sitting up in the international terminal at Logan Airport. Institutionalized shelters for the homeless would destroy the feisty independence that Mary must maintain in order to fool both herself and her clients: “Her class drop would transfix and repel them at once.”

Mary's most baffling client is 40ish Leila Landsman, a professor at a small college next door to Harvard. Leila tolerates her theater-director husband's many affairs even though she pays most of the household bills. Mary can't figure it.

Leila, meanwhile, is writing a scholarly book about a young woman named Becky Burgess, who has murdered her husband for the insurance money. This, Mary can understand: “Thinking of doing violence to someone who was hurting you could be soothing in a minor way.”

The author's more political-minded, class-conscious fans will no doubt be pleased to see that Piercy has returned from the cyberpunk realms of her most recent novel—the sci-fi dystopia fantasy He, She & It—to the nitty-gritty, present-day struggle between the haves and the have-nots. Harking back to the Cambridge, Mass., of Piercy's first big feminist hit, Small Changes, The Longings of Women is a feminist cautionary tale—although its message is somewhat dated now that the economic realities of family life have put full-time housewifery well beyond the reach of the average family-and-career-juggling American woman.

What makes Longings such an arresting work, nevertheless, is the way Piercy yokes the homeless issue to the disturbing phenomenon of women who murder their spouses for cash. Becky is the fictitious counterpart of New Hampshire's true-crime villainess Pamela Smart, who drew a life sentence in 1991 for persuading her teenage boyfriend to murder her husband.

Piercy does a fine job of digging beneath the sleazy surface of the boy-seducing vamp to the blue-collar murderess' yearnings for respect and for a nicer, more spacious home than her overburdened parents were able to provide for her. Though Piercy supplies some hot and heavy sex scenes, she makes it clear that Becky's real love affair is with the pretty condo that comes with her unhappy marriage.

“I won't lie down and let you shovel me off the porch,” Becky silently promises her scornful, philandering husband. “This is war.”

Leila is the most stable and analytical of the novel's three main characters. A solid career and a few loyal friends are her hedges against the misfortunes that hobble Mary and Becky.

Dismayed by her own collapsing marriage, Leila considers love “a long and tedious delusion … a one-person brainwashed cult.” But love eventually finds Leila, even though it's a more provisional, autumnal love than the victorious unions of such earlier Piercy novels as Fly Away Home and Summer People.

Piercy shrewdly traces her three protagonists' small, crucial changes and their ambivalent triumphs. Cool and self-possessed in jail, Becky trims her ambitions to suit her new circumstances. Mary gets a new chance, too. Although she appears to be setting herself up for the same old letdowns, it's heartening to see that the women-centered options created by quiet feminists like Leila may make a difference after all.

Piercy is not an elegant writer. Interesting, swift-moving plots and careful social observation are her main strengths. Although she has been criticized for writing didactic potboilers, The Longings of Women gives its characters plenty of space to play out their truest instincts, right or wrong.

M. Keith Booker (essay date November 1994)

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SOURCE: “Woman on the Edge of a Genre: The Feminist Dystopias of Marge Piercy,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 21, Part 3, November, 1994, pp. 337-50.

[In the following essay, Booker discusses Piercy's fusion of utopian and dystopian literary conventions to present a distinct feminist perspective in Woman on the Edge of Timeand He, She, and It.]

Marge Piercy's science-fiction visions of the future have made important in-roads into what has been a traditionally masculine territory. Woman on the Edge of Time has become a contemporary classic, and the recent He, She, and It (winner of the 1992 Arthur C. Clarke Award) is already gaining considerable attention as well. These works, similar in their imaginative power and political commitment, are otherwise quite different, and Piercy's move from the first to the second can be taken as indicative of the increasingly complex intermixture of utopian and dystopian moods that has informed feminist imaginative fiction in the last few decades. Woman on the Edge of Time was written in the mid-1970s and reflects some of the utopian optimism of the women's movement of that era, though it has a significant grim side as well. He, She, and It, meanwhile, was written at the end of the 1980s, for many a decidedly dark decade for women's causes. As might be expected, the latter book contains a much larger portion of dystopian images than does the former. At the same time, and curiously, the overall mood of He, She, and It is in many ways far more positive than that of its predecessor. Still, both texts include a mixture of positive and negative imaginative projections of the future. Indeed, they gain much of their energy precisely from the dialogic combination of these perspectives, a combination that acknowledges the complexity of history itself while at the same time suggesting important generic interrelationships between utopian and dystopian fiction.

In some ways dystopian fiction would seem to be a natural genre for feminist writers, despite the fact that such writers have more typically been associated with utopian fiction. Centrally concerned with the clash between individual desire and societal demand, dystopian fiction often focuses on sexuality and relations between the genders as elements of this conflict. For example, the governments of dystopian societies like those described in We, Brave New World, and 1984 all focus on sexuality as a crucial matter for their efforts at social control. And it is also clear that this focus comes about largely because of a perception on the part of these governments that sexuality is a potential locus of powerful subversive energies.

On the other hand, despite this consistent focus on sexuality in dystopian fiction, the major works of the genre have done relatively little to challenge conventional notions of gender roles. Despite giving frequent lip service to equality of the genders, literary dystopias (and utopias, for that matter) have typically been places where men are men and women are women, and in relatively conventional ways. As in many other ways, More's original Utopia sets the tone for this trend. In contrast to his belief that social and economic inequality is the source of most of the ills of his contemporary European society, More's Raphael Hythloday describes an ideal Utopian society where equality is emphasized above all else, even to the point of suppression of individual liberty and imposition of a potentially oppressive conformity. However, despite this demand for complete social homogeneity, More's Utopia is still a strongly patriarchal society. The principal political unit is the family household, and households are generally ruled by the eldest male member of the family. Upon marriage women transfer to the household of their husband's family, while males remain members of their own family for life. Within the household, meanwhile, the hierarchy of authority is clearly defined: “Wives are subject to their husbands, children to their parents, and generally the younger to their elders.”

It is important, however, to recognize that More is not unusual in his vision of the subservience of women in his otherwise homogeneous society. Indeed, it seems clear that More sought to include women in the egalitarian basis of his society—women have opportunities for education and employment in his Utopia that far outstrip those available in early-16th-century England. That More was unable to imagine a society in which women were genuinely the equals of men thus stands as a reminder of the profound embeddedness of gender prejudice in Western society. The idea that men should be regarded as inherently superior to women was apparently for More such an obvious and natural one that it never occurred to him that gender inequality should be among the various other social hierarchies leveled in his ideal society.

Most of the literary utopias that followed in the next four centuries after More similarly failed to make the imaginative leap required to envision true equality for women, even though utopian thought itself is centrally concerned with the imagination of alternative societies that surmount the prejudices and conventions of the status quo. But some prejudices and conventions are more difficult to overcome than others, and the lack of genuine attention to gender issues in so many utopian and dystopian works right up to the present day suggests that patriarchal habits are among the most ingrained of all of the characteristics of Western civilization. Feminist thinkers of the last century or so have been well aware of this fact, of course, and among other things they have responded with their own alternative utopian tradition that has been centrally concerned with demonstrating the possibility of thinking beyond thousands of years of patriarchy. Women like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Mary E. Bradley wrote late-19th-century utopian works with feminist affinities, and the early-20th-century work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Moving the Mountain, Herland, and With Her in Ourland) can be regarded as the beginning of a full-blown feminist utopian tradition.

This tradition gained considerable energy with the feminist movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s. Indeed, during this period writers like Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delany, and Joanna Russ produced works that reenergized the utopian genre as a whole, moving toward an open-endedness that sought to overcome the tendency toward monological stagnation that had long haunted conceptualizations of utopia. Tom Moylan argues that such writers attempted to create in their works what he calls “critical utopias,” retaining an “awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition, so that these texts reject utopia as blueprint while preserving it as dream.” Such utopias are able to function effectively as critiques of the status quo, while maintaining a self-critical awareness that prevents them from descending into empty utopian cliché.

On the other hand, in the context of a 1980s America dominated by Reagan-Bush conservative politics and highlighted (if that is the word) by the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, feminist writers found it more and more difficult to see better times ahead. Of course, the writers of feminist utopias have always been aware that their positive visions were imperiled by the existing patriarchal order and have thereby often included dystopian warnings within their utopian texts. Suzy McKee Charnas, for example, sets up her utopian Motherliness with Walk to the End of the World, an earlier dystopian fiction. Meanwhile, both Piercy and Joanna Russ (The Female Man) present alternative futures that suggest multiple possibilities, some utopian, some decidedly dystopian. And by the mid-1980s Margaret Atwood produces The Handmaid's Tale, a feminist text that is almost purely dystopian. Indeed, as Fitting notes, feminist visions of the future tended in general to show a dark turn in the 1980s, probably due to political reverses that damped the feminist optimism of the 1970s: “More recent fictions no longer give us images of a radically different future, in which the values and ideals of feminism have been extended to much of the planet, but rather offer depressing images of a brutal reestablishment of capitalist patriarchy.”

Piercy's work is particularly interesting because of its ability to maintain clear links to the tradition of feminist utopias while at the same time opening important dialogues with the masculine utopian classics and with the traditionally masculine dystopian genre. For example, Woman on the Edge of Time closely parallels More's Utopia in form. More's book includes two parts, the first of which describes the social ills of early-16th-century England and the second of which outlines an alternative society in which the problems of Part One have been solved. Indeed, the book's satirical and critical effect derives largely from the contrast between these two societies, which in essence casts More's England as a sort of dystopia. Similarly, Woman on the Edge of Time presents Piercy's contemporary America as a society that is already a dystopia for marginal members of society like her protagonist Connie Ramos, then contrasts this dystopian America with an ideal 22nd-century utopia based on tolerance, nurturing, communality, ecological responsibility, and the complete effacement of conventional gender differences.

Piercy's Ramos is a 37-year-old Chicana woman who has been a victim of the white male power structure in America throughout her life. Her status as an outsider to mainstream American society thus places her in much the same position as the protagonists of numerous dystopian fictions. And her victimization becomes particularly vivid when she is wrongly diagnosed as a violent paranoid schizophrenic and incarcerated in a nightmarish mental institution that serves as a sort of microcosm of the oppressively carceral society in which she lives. Meanwhile, Ramos's telepathic trips to the future utopian community of Mattapoisett place her very much in the vein of the classic visitor to utopia, and what she encounters there is an idealized vision that clearly grows out of a number of political movements in Ramos's (and Piercy's) own time, including feminism, socialism, and environmentalism. This utopian community manages successfully to integrate advanced technology, social planning, individual liberty, and a close connection to nature, based on Third World cultures and the culture of the Wamponaug Indians. All citizens of Mattapoisett are valued and loved, and all are treated equally regardless of race, gender, or other differences. In short, this society accepts and even welcomes precisely the differences that have marginalized Ramos in her own world.

The contrast between Mattapoisett and 1970s America is reinforced by the presentation of a second possible future, a dystopian one that grows out of an intensification of the already-existing problems of oppression, environmental destruction, class difference, and sexual exploitation. Piercy's dystopian alternative occupies only one chapter (the fifteenth) of Woman on the Edge of Time, but it is a striking vision that ranks in power with the classic dystopias of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell. In its treatment of gender issues (as in the depiction of the woman Gildina as a mutilated sexual object), it goes well beyond any of these predecessors in power. In this society women function only as the property of men and the men themselves are little more than machines. The message seems clear: we can continue the way we are going until we reach this dystopian state, or we can change our ways and work toward utopia.

In Woman on the Edge of Time Piercy draws the lines between utopia and dystopia quite clearly, and the resultant dialogue between the two is an important source of energy for her book. Indeed, recalling Mikhail Bakhtin's emphasis on the importance of generic heterogeneity as a source of dialogic energy in the novel, a great deal of the power of Woman on the Edge of Time arises from confrontations among genres and the worldviews they imply. In addition to the opposition of utopian and dystopian genres, Piercy's vivid depiction of the present-day experiences of Connie Ramos introduces the genre of realistic fiction into this dialogue. And the book ends with a supposed reproduction of some of Ramos's medical records from various mental institutions, thus introducing still another genre. This last genre involves a direct statement of the official ideology of the medical establishment and of the social values it represents. Meanwhile, the content of the realistic passages in the novel conducts an explicit critique of this official ideology, even as the realistic form itself is in constant danger of being co-opted by that ideology. After all, realistic fiction involves a relatively straightforward reproduction of official reality that tacitly acknowledges conventional assumptions about the nature of that reality. By attacking the mental health system through what appears to be a transparent, “rational” narration of its treatment of Ramos, Piercy runs the risk of subtly reinforcing the ideology of rationalism that makes it possible safely to contain Ramos's potentially subversive energies simply by declaring her mad. But Piercy's mixture of realism with fantasy of both utopian and dystopian kinds is clearly designed to challenge that ideology by presenting explicit defamiliarizing alternatives. In particular, she projects a utopia based on fundamentally different principles than those which inform her contemporary society, then depicts a nightmarish dystopia whose principles are in fact recognizably similar to those of present-day America.

There are, of course, pitfalls in this procedure. In particular, as Bakhtin points out, dialogue in the novel is greatly influenced by the perspective of the reader. Though Piercy's position in Woman on the Edge of Time is clear, the line between utopia and dystopia can be a fine one. Many of the practices of the society of Mattapoisett are rather extreme, and some readers may not find conditions there ideal at all. Indeed, Mattapoisett shares many characteristics with classic dystopias. And it is always possible that a given reader will focus on the realistic portions of Piercy's text, which might then undermine the fantasy sections rather than the other way around. Among other things, the book leaves open the possibility that both the utopian and the dystopian futures are merely projections of Ramos's fantasies. A doggedly literal reader might then conclude that the alternative futures presented in the book are nothing more than hallucinations which prove that Ramos is indeed mad.

Piercy, in short, avoids a repetition of oppressive practices by refusing to demand that her book, however didactic, be interpreted in any given way. The ending of the book is similarly ambiguous. Ramos fatally poisons several members of the hospital staff, which might be (and has been, by most critics) taken as Piercy's endorsement of necessary political violence. But there is certainly some question as to the political effectiveness of this multiple murder, though it might be read as an indictment of a system that insists so blindly on defining Ramos as violent and dangerous that it eventually makes her that way. As Carol Farley Kessler suggests, Ramos's eventual violent reaction to the violence that has been done to her might be taken as a comment on the way violence in our society triggers more violence, showing “the violence that our dystopian present perpetrates upon the innocent and sensitive powerless in our midst.” But one could also read this ending simply as a demonstration that the diagnosis of Ramos was in fact right all along.

Such ambiguity in what is primarily a didactic work is obviously risky, but on balance the openness of Woman on the Edge of Time to variant readings is a point in its favor that allows the text to escape the finality and stasis that have traditionally been associated with utopian thought. Moreover, if Piercy's novel gains a certain dynamism from its internal dialogue among different genres and styles, it also picks up considerable energy from dialogues with other related texts. For example, the openness of Piercy's text can trace its genealogy back to H. G. Wells's A Modern Utopia, which set the tone for many modern utopian works with its insistence that the ideal society of the future “must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful state, leading to a long ascent of stages.” Indeed, Wells's modern utopia, like Piercy's Mattapoisett, is highly open to diversity and difference, and one of its central characteristics is its dynamism. Moreover, Wells's text itself is structurally and rhetorically complex, including different and sometimes contradictory voices that tend to keep interpretation of the text from being finalized.

Of course, Woman on the Edge of Time shows much more awareness of feminist issues than does Wells's text, though Wells does include a chapter entitled “Women in a Modern Utopia.” However, while Wells pays lip service to the notion of equality between men and women, his solution to the “woman problem” would mostly involve programs of planned parenthood and of the payment to women of maternity benefits, projects that might ease the suffering of individual women but that do not seem to address the fundamental attitudes toward gender that underlie that suffering. Indeed, that Well's discussion of marriage and childhood dominates the “Women in a Modern Utopia” section of his book indicates his acceptance of the fact that such issues are the principal ones with which women are concerned.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that Wells is writing in a turn-of-the-century climate far different from the one in which Piercy writes, and many of his ideas are firmly rooted in that context. In terms of its contemporary historical context, Woman on the Edge of Time clearly has more in common with modern “open” or “critical” utopias by writers like Russ, Delany, and Le Guin than with the earlier work of Wells. As Peter Ruppert notes, such open utopias typically achieve their openness through increased reader participation. In particular, he suggests that “in making the reader aware of his or her own role in shaping what the future will be, Piercy shows that the struggle for utopia depends on our actions in an open-ended historical process.” In this sense, the works of writers like Russ, Le Guin, Delany, and Piercy also have much in common with the plays of Brecht, which similarly employ complex literary strategies to engage their audiences in a critical examination of their roles in the historical process and which also avoid simplistic and unequivocal statements of any single ideology in favor of numerous voices that complicate, but enrich their messages. Indeed, an understanding of the resonances between Piercy's text and those of predecessors like More, Wells, and Brecht greatly enriches the reading of Woman on the Edge of Time, as does an appreciation of the similarities between Piercy and contemporaries like Russ, Le Guin, and Delany.

Interestingly, the intertextual dialogues that constitute such an important part of Piercy's text are later extended by Piercy herself, who rethinks many of the principles of Mattapoisett in her later He, She, and It. Like the earlier Woman on the Edge of Time, He, She, and It is considerably enriched by dialogues with other texts, including sf predecessors like Russ's The Female Man and the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson—as well as Woman on the Edge of Time itself. However, far from derivative, He, She, and It manages to effect a fascinating dialogic combination of these various sources to emerge with a voice all its own. Less angry (or formally innovative) than either Woman on the Edge of Time or The Female Man, He, She, and It differs from both in the patience with which it details a credible vision of the future, à la Gibson. However, where Gibson's postmodernist bricolage style is a highly visible element of his work, Piercy almost seems intentionally to present her future in a straightforward, matter-of-fact prose style that avoids intruding into the believability of her imaginative vision of the future. Meanwhile, this realistic prose style combines with the sf content to generate some of the same kinds of generic dialogues that inform Woman on the Edge of Time. In addition, Piercy's feminist sensibilities obviously contrast strongly with Gibson's, and she goes well beyond Gibson's high-tech cyberpunk world by drawing upon other genres and realms (like Jewish mysticism) that greatly enrich the dialogic power of her text.

Among other things, Piercy's later book undoes much of the antitechnologism of the earlier one. Granted, Piercy's Mattapoisett is actually quite high-tech, but its technology is decidedly kinder, gentler, and more biodegradable than that of the Western patriarchal tradition. Moreover, the contrast between the utopian and dystopian futures of Woman on the Edge of Time comes dangerously close to being a version of the opposition between nature and technological culture that has informed a number of feminist arguments in recent years. Acknowledging that technology has been a central tool through which the white male power structure has perpetuated its power, this argument in its purest form would suggest that those opposed to this power structure should reject technology altogether and attempt to escape its clutches by moving back to nature.

But the political wisdom of ceding something as powerful as technology to one's opponents is questionable in the extreme. As Donna Haraway argues in her now-famous essay “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” feminists and other oppositional groups would probably do better to contest the realm of technology rather than simply surrender technology and all the power that goes with it to the white-male-capitalist establishment. Piercy takes this suggestion to heart in He, She, and It by depicting a future oppositional culture that is if anything more technologically adept than the official society, much like the Mephis of Zamyatin's We. Indeed, Piercy has identified Haraway's essay as a major influence on He, She, and It. In particular, Haraway places special emphasis on the sf notion of cyborgs as an image of transgression of conventional boundaries (especially between human and machine) the problematic status of which challenges essentialist models of identity upon which the power structure of Western society has traditionally been based. And He, She, and It includes cyborgs as a central part of its dual utopian/dystopian message.

He, She, and It describes a mid-21st century society that has much in common with the dystopian vision put forth in Chapter 15 of Woman on the Edge of Time, liberally spiced with details taken almost verbatim from sources like The Female Man and the cyberpunk future of Gibson. For example, the feminist message of He, She, and It is enhanced and clarified through numerous parallels with The Female Man, while Piercy's challenge to the conventional traditions of dystopian fiction and science fiction is most specific in her appropriation of Gibson's high-tech masculinist fiction very much along the lines of the appropriation of conventionally masculine technology outlined in Haraway's cyborg manifesto.

Piercy's overt adoption of so many images and motifs from Gibson's work represents both a congratulatory nod to the power of Gibson's imaginative vision and a powerful reminder of certain gaps in that vision. In particular, Gibson has been criticized by numerous critics for the apparent masculine bias of his work. For example, Andrew Ross presents an extensive discussion of the rejection of the feminine in the work of Gibson and other cyberpunk writers, arguing that this work is centrally informed by typical white male fantasies and anxieties. Piercy's use of so much of Gibson's vision of the future as a framework for her own feminist fiction calls attention to the lack of attention to feminist concerns in Gibson's work and in that sense reinforces the critiques of Ross and others. At the same time, Piercy's demonstration that Gibson's vision is not necessarily inimical to feminist thought can be seen as a valuable supplement to Gibson's work. Indeed, Piercy's suggestion that feminists can make productive use of Gibson's ideas rather than simply rejecting them can be read as a literary equivalent of Haraway's argument that women should attempt to use technology for their own purposes rather than simply abandoning it as a masculine preserve.

In the future America of He, She, and It environmental degradation has left much of the continent virtually uninhabitable, while the population has been devastated by famines, wars, plagues, and other disasters. Conventional nations have ceased to exist, and most political power lies in the hands of the “multis,” large multi-national corporations (much like Gibson's zaibatsus) whose employees live and work either in domed cities on earth or on space stations. In addition to the corporate domes, there are a few “free towns” that have managed to remain independent of control by any one multi, usually because they produce some product in demand by several different multis. The rest of North America is covered by either barren wasteland or the “Glop”—a violent, dirty, crime-ridden, gang-ruled Megalopolis that stretches from what had been Boston to what had been Atlanta.

This Glop, like Gibson's “Sprawl,” is a sort of dystopian projection of contemporary urban problems. Drugs are rampant, conventional law and order have broken down almost completely, and masses of people live in abject poverty. In the anarchic atmosphere of the Glop, even the powerful multis have little direct political control, though they do exercise a subtle influence, especially through the workings of an Adornian Culture Industry (again re-calling Brave New World) that keeps the populace in thrall to a constant flow of images designed to avert critical thought. The staple of this industry is the drug-like “stimmie,” which—like Huxley's feelies and even more like Gibson's simstims—produces a wide range of artificial sensations that replace real experience with simulation and divert energy and attention from the real world.

But Piercy's vision is more hopeful than Huxley's or Gibson's. The anarchy of the Glop leads to a great deal of crime and violence, but the Glop's relative independence from direct domination by the multis makes it a potential source of social and cultural revival. This hope of revival is symbolized in the name of “Lazarus,” leader of the “Coyote Gang,” a rebel group that is actively working to unify the Glop work force in order to oppose exploitation by the multis. The Coyote Gang is a locus of utopian energies as its members seek, through education and cooperation, to build a better world within the dystopian climate of the Glop. And the gang's racial mix (recalling that of Mattapoisett) indicates the diversity from which the Glop draws much of its potential for cultural rebirth: “Most of the people were black-or-brown-skinned, but almost every combination was represented: red hair, brown eyes and black skin; light skin, black hair, blue eyes; and other permutations. Most people in the Glop were of mixed race nowadays.” This diversity is also inherent in the language of the Glop, whose inhabitants speak their own “patois, language rich and gamy with constantly changing slang.” This language, in short, is a sort of literalization of Bakhtinian heteroglossia that incorporates diversity and genuine historical change, both of which are anathema to the multis.

In contrast, the multis employ a sterile technical/business language that leaves little room for the expression of ideas contrary to official corporate policy. Their domed enclaves are clean, well-lighted places in which corporate employees live in material comfort, relatively safe from crime, disease, and the ravages of environmental devastation. But for Piercy it is the very orderliness of these enclaves—as opposed to the mess of the Glop—that represents the real dystopia, because this orderliness is indicative of a rigid corporate structure that leaves no room either for individual freedom or for the possibility of eventual change. Within a given class, individuals dress alike, live in identical housing, and even have themselves surgically altered to have similar physical appearances according to standardized models provided by their own Culture Industry, “faces as much like the one on the view screen as each could afford.” And this emphasis on physical sameness echoes the demand for ideological conformity in which all employees are expected to think and act in accordance with official prescribed corporate policies and goals. As in 20th-century corporations, employees of the multis occupy strictly-defined places in the corporate hierarchy. But the multi hierarchies extend beyond the workplace to include every element of social and cultural life, including sex: “Which persons you might make love to was as defined by your place in the hierarchy as the people to whom you bowed and the people who bowed to you. Sexual privileges depended upon your rank and place.” Such privileges also depend upon gender, with males enjoying decidedly more advantages than females. For example, while there are women professionals, there are also large numbers of “cosmetically recreated” women (à la Gildina of Woman on the Edge of Time, though less extreme) who serve purely as sexual perquisites for successful men. Corporate success dictates that positions within the hierarchy be determined to a certain extent by merit, but one of the greatest “merits” that one can have from the perspective of the multis is to be a white male.

The strongest utopian energies of He, She, and It are concentrated in Piercy's depiction of Tikva, a free town in New England that maintains its political and economic independence by producing high-quality security software that is very much in demand by the multis. Tikva echoes the Mattapoisett of Woman on the Edge of Time in many ways, though its citizens are oriented much more overtly toward technology and less toward nature, perhaps reflecting the influence of Haraway's warnings against the romanticization of nature as a locus of resistance to white male power. Indeed, the Tikvans prove more than able to hold their own in the high-tech future. When the giant Yakamura-Stichen (Y-S) multi launches a war against the town, it is the multi that suffers disastrous consequences, including damage to its crucial computer data base and the death of most of its top executives. Still, Tikva's inhabitants respect nature and keep in touch with it as much as possible, though environmental conditions dictate that the town itself remain inside an electronic “wrap” that wards off the killing rays of the sun in a world with no ozone layer and with a runaway greenhouse effect. Tikva is a mostly Jewish community (though it is characterized by tolerance in religious and other matters) whose strong communal spirit draws much from Jewish tradition. It is also highly democratic, with all citizens having an equal voice in the affairs of the town. In particular, Tikva is characterized by complete equality between the genders and by tolerance for all forms of non-exploitative sexuality.

As indicated by the title, gender issues are preeminent in He, She, and It. For one thing, the book features a number of strong female characters who avoid conventional stereotypes (both patriarchal and feminist) by contesting traditionally male areas of technology and warfare. Malkah, a brilliant software designer now in her seventies, has led an active heterosexual life with numerous lovers but has always insisted on remaining emotionally and intellectually independent of the men with whom she has been involved. Malkah's daughter Riva is an internationally-renowned Robin Hood-like data pirate who steals information from the rich (usually the multis) and gives it to the poor (usually in the Glop). Riva is intelligent, resourceful, and skilled in both computer science and martial arts. Her partner (and lover) Nili is a Jewish woman from a community founded in the ruins of an Israel destroyed by nuclear war. Recalling both Gibson's Molly Millions and Russ's Jael, Nili is a formidable warrior whose artificially-enhanced muscles and reflexes make her more than a match for the security forces of the multis. Finally, the book's central character is computer specialist Shira Shipman, the daughter of Riva and granddaughter of Malkah. As the book begins Shira has led a relatively conventional life as a wife, mother, and employee of the Y-S multi. Though as talented as her illustrious mother and grandmother, Shira has thus far been unable to fulfill her professional potential because of the patriarchal structure of the Y-S world and because Y-S considers her suspect due to the terrorist activities of Riva, activities of which Shira is entirely unaware.

Much of the plot of He, She, and It involves Shira's gradual declaration of independence from her conventional past and exploration of her own emotional and intellectual capabilities. A major element of this exploration concerns Shira's relationship with Yod, an android created by the Tikvan scientist Avram to aid in the defense of the town against the powerful multis. As a result Yod is a deadly weapon, programmed by Avram to be a master of both physical and computerized violence. Yod is also strictly illegal, weapons in general being legal only for the multi security forces and humanoid robots having been universally banned after early experiments led to violent demonstrations on the part of a human population afraid of being rendered obsolete. But, despite his status as an illegal weapon, Yod is also endowed with a very human-like capacity for abstraction and even for emotion. He has been programmed by Avram according to the masculine ideology of the Enlightenment. But he is intellectually androgynous, also programmed by Malkah with a “feminine” ability to feel and to share that counters the masculine drive for power and domination. Malkah explains:

“Avram made him male—entirely so. Avram thought that was the ideal: pure reason, pure logic, pure violence. The world has barely survived the males we have running around. I gave him a gentler side, starting with emphasizing his love for knowledge and extending it to emotional and personal knowledge, a need for connection.”

Yod thus transgresses not only the conventional boundary between human and machine, but between male and female as well. Yod's duality is also enhanced by his participation in both the high-tech tradition of science fiction and in the kabbalistic traditions of Jewish mysticism, to which he is linked through Piercy's inclusion of the parallel story of the “golem” Joseph in early-17th-century Prague. This story, told to Yod by Malkah in segments that run throughout the text, helps him to gain a sense of his own identity and background. Meanwhile, the invited comparison between Yod and Joseph adds to our understanding of the multiple traditions in which Yod participates while at the same time connecting the oppressive conditions of Piercy's future dystopian America (and, by extension, Piercy's contemporary America) with a history of past barbarisms that include the medieval and early modern pogroms and the twentieth-century Holocaust. Moreover, by linking Joseph and Yod, whose stories separately participate in the generic traditions of Jewish mysticism and science fiction, Piercy is able to effect a dialogic interaction between two ostensibly very different genres, enriching the dialogic texture of her book while at the same time suggesting that these two genres may have more in common than is immediately obvious.

But Yod's most important “dialogic” characteristic is his androgyny. In a reverse response to the notorious question of Alan Jay Lerner, in Yod Piercy has created a man who can indeed be more like a woman. Physically male, Yod is so human that he is able to engage in a torrid sexual relationship with Shira, who had previously thought herself incapable of sexual passion after a series of unfortunate experiences with sexually insensitive men. But the relationship between Shira and Yod is continually informed by gender role reversals in which she finds herself occupying the aggressive role that she has traditionally associated with males. Sex for Yod is a matter of intimacy rather than conquest or possession, and he derives his pleasure primarily from pleasing his partner, which he has been programmed by Malkah to do with considerable skill: “Yod was really a beautiful instrument of response and reaction. The slightest touch of pressure on his neck, and he understood what she wanted and gave it to her.” As a lover he is tender, considerate, and indefatigable. His penis becomes erect on command and stays so as long as necessary for Shira's satisfaction, even after his “small discharge” of innocuous fluid. Moreover, this marvelous organ is scrupulously clean, with “no tang of human or animal scent.” Yod's entire body is free of the kind of physical imperfections that characterize human men:

His tongue was a little smoother than a human tongue but moist. Everything was smoother, more regular, more nearly perfect. The skin of his back was not like the skin of other men she had been with, for always there were abrasions, pimples, scars, irregularities. His skin was sleek as a woman's but drier to the touch.

Yod is, in short, an “ideal” man, and in that sense he resembles Haraway's notion of the cyborg as a product of both “social reality” and fictional expectations. However, in his conformance to a variety of stereotypes of the ideal sensitive male, Yod differs substantially from Haraway's notion that the problematic gender of the cyborg is considerably more “dangerous” than that of the sensitive male, whose very androgyny may in fact involve an attempt subtly to appropriate power. Read literally as an idealization, Piercy's Yod is certainly a less interesting figure than Haraway's cyborg. It seems clear, however, that Yod can usefully be read not as an ideal figure but as a parodic reversal of traditional Western fantasies of the “ideal” woman. For example, his lack of any sort of physical messiness can be read as a comment on the traditional male fear and loathing of the physicality of women—a phenomenon embodied, for example, in the distaste for “meat things” shown by many of Gibson's male characters. And Yod is clearly a sort of male parody of those artificially-created ideal women who, from Galatea forward, have functioned as central images of the objectification of women in Western civilization. In the end, however, Piercy eschews such fantasies and thereby declines to reproduce in reverse the tradition of attempting to define women according to masculine specifications. When Yod is destroyed during a mass assassination of Y-S executives, Shira has all of the necessary data and material to recreate him (maybe even with a little fine tuning of her own), but she declines to do so, recognizing that no one has the right to create sentient beings according to one's own specifications. Rather than seek fulfillment in an ideal man, Shira learns to find fulfillment in her own emotional and intellectual capabilities.

In general, Piercy's book gains a great deal of energy from its dialogue with masculine texts and traditions of the past. The specific content of her utopian and dystopian visions directly confronts a number of masculine stereotypes (most specifically the science fiction of Gibson), and her deft use of the genres of dystopian fiction and science fiction contests traditionally masculine territory much in the way Haraway suggests marginal groups should contest the control of technology. Piercy also emphasizes the presentation of utopian alternatives to complement her dystopian vision, and in this she continues to participate in the modern tradition of women's utopias. But her dystopian fictions claim a place for feminist statement in that traditionally male genre as well, demonstrating that utopian and dystopian visions need not be incompatible. The recent feminist appropriation of dystopian fiction indicates that the genre is extremely flexible as a mode of social commentary. Moreover, the mixture of utopian and dystopian energies that characterizes much recent feminist imaginative writing shows that dystopian warnings in no way require the complete surrender of any hope of a better future.

Elham Afnan (essay date Winter 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5150

SOURCE: “Chaos and Utopia: Social Transformation in Woman on the Edge of Time,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 37, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 330-40.

[In the following essay, Afnan discusses parallels between utopian fiction and chaos theory in Woman on the Edge of Time, particularly the significance of nonlinearity and indeterminacy surrounding social change.]

The existence of utopia is based on a pun: it is at once “eutopia” (good place) and “outopia” (no place). Thomas More exploited the contradiction inherent in the term when he chose the title for his account of the imaginary island that enjoyed perfection in laws, politics, and economy. However, this paradox has also helped create a dichotomy with far-reaching consequences for modern readers for whom utopia is often synonymous either with totalitarian social engineering or with impractical wishful thinking. Utopian works are often denigrated or dismissed as unrealistic and dull because readers insist on approaching them as either blueprints for creating a perfect, and therefore static, society or as purely fictive works of imagination that can be realized “nowhere.”

A common usage of the term equates utopia with impractical idealism. This is probably the dominant view of utopia as something illusory, unrealistic, and ineffective. In a world struggling with overwhelming social, political, economic, environmental, and moral problems, “utopian” is more often than not a derogatory epithet suggesting naiveté and escapism. Given this view, the enemies of utopia fall into two main categories: those who scorn utopia because it is an unattainable dream and those who fear that it can be attained and will turn out to be a nightmare. The polemical attacks of Marx and Engels on “utopian” as opposed to “scientific” socialism were an example of the first response. They viewed non-Marxist socialists as utopians because “they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action. … They endeavour … to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms. They still dream of experimental realization of their social Utopias.” Their main objection to utopian thought was that it diverted revolutionary energy into fantasy and escapism. Much of the satire directed against utopianism also arises out of this same impulse. Gulliver's Travels and Samuel Butler's Erewhon, to name two of the better known utopian satires concern themselves with the futility of utopian aspirations in the face of human absurdity and inconsistency.

The second response, fear of utopia realized, can be discerned in the widespread identification of utopia with such twentieth-century phenomena as social engineering and totalitarian government. Utopia has to a large extent “become synonymous with totalitarianism … \it] has become anathema, a nightmare of political repression and total uniformity to be avoided at all costs” (Ruppert). Where at one time it was a vision of an alternative far removed in time or space, an ideal to strive for, utopia in the modern world has become a real possibility looming ahead of us and around us. The result has been a preoccupation with dystopia, the “bad place.” The dystopian nightmare takes different shapes, of course, depending on the version of utopia against which it is reacting. Some writers, such as George Orwell, warn against the dehumanization and enslavement that result from rigid centralization and bureaucratic behavior control. Others, like Aldous Huxley, fear the deadening effects of materialism and hedonistic excess on human creativity and endeavor.

Variations on this kind of pessimism characterize many of the attitudes toward utopia in this century to the extent that it has become a commonplace to proclaim the death of utopia. As Peter Ruppert puts it, “two world wars, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and Vietnam, … the failure of socialism … the emergence of consumer capitalism … have produced political situations in which inertia, complacency, and a general satisfaction with things as they are have repressed the desire to contemplate any kind of significant social change.” The faith in progress implied by utopia is hard to sustain in the face of such developments. With the perceived failure of utopia as concept, utopia as narrative has become “a residual literary form” (Tom Moylan).

Perhaps all of these various criticisms of the literary utopia have arisen because readers generally insist on approaching it from one of two diametrically opposed viewpoints. Those whose primary interest is in the “sociopolitical function of these texts … tend to read all utopias as proposals for social reform”; those whose interests are primarily literary “tend to read utopias first and foremost as fictions, as products of the imagination that may or may not be intended for realization” (Ruppert). However, as blueprints for social action, utopias are usually vague, reductive, and impractical. As fictive works of imagination, they can be static, stereotypical, and dull. There is little in either description to recommend the genre. The general view has been that the utopian impulse is at best naive and at worst dangerous and that utopian writing is irrelevant and of limited practical or literary value.

And yet the last two centuries have witnessed a burgeoning of utopian literature. The problem lies not in the utopias themselves, but in the binary logic that many readers apply to them. By always defining utopias in opposition to something else, they suppress their true value as agents of transformation. This is an unproductive approach to works that in fact require a more creative response from the reader. This realization has led critics to explore new ways of approaching utopia that suggest that utopian literature can indeed be relevant to the human effort to understand the world and change it for the better. Interestingly, it is H. G. Wells, one of the most prolific of utopian writers, who suggests a new approach to the topic. In A Modern Utopia, Wells writes, “Utopia must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage, leading to a long ascent of stages.”

Darko Suvin provides a useful starting point for exploring the dynamic qualities inherent in utopia: “Neither prophecy nor escapism, utopia is, as many critics have remarked, an ‘as if,’ an imaginative experiment. … a heuristic device for perfectibility, an epistemological and not an ontological entity. … If utopia is, then, philosophically, a method rather than a state, it cannot be realized or not realized—it can only be applied.” There are two ideas here that are important to my approach to the topic. First is the recognition that the most important question to ask about utopia is not what shape it will take when realized or even whether or not it can be realized, but rather what processes of change it entails. In Suvin's terms, what is significant is utopia as method, not utopia as state. Secondly, as a heuristic device, the literary utopia can be achieved—or “applied”—only through the reader's participation.

A number of critics, for instance Chris Ferns, have argued that utopian fiction has an “essentially hybrid nature” since “its aspirations are both political... and aesthetic.” I would argue that for this reason it makes sense that the critical approach used to analyze utopia should also be hybrid. The field of science and literature, which locates in both discourses the need for multivalence, provides the basis for just such an approach. A new understanding of utopia requires a move from the static to the dynamic. Chaos theory, the site of a major paradigm shift in modern science, can suggest a way of discerning a similar paradigm shift in literature because of its concern with process and method. Like utopia, which is “a method rather than a state” (Suvin), so too chaos theory is “a science of process rather than state, of becoming rather than being” (Gleick). Clearly, there is a point of intersection between utopian fiction and chaos theory that promises new insights into both.

The work of Marge Piercy provides a good example of this intersection. In a lecture on her conception of “politically conscious” writing, Piercy said, “If we view the world as static, if we think ahistorically, we lack perspective on the lives we are creating. … We must be able to feel ourselves active in time and history.” Such activity is at the center of Piercy's vision as expressed in Woman on the Edge of Time, a novel that has become a classic of feminist utopian writing since its publication in 1976. In its emphasis on the process of social transformation, Piercy's novel affirms the didactic, social function of utopian writings: it “acknowledges the power of the word to move an audience to action” (Carol Farley Kessler). The novel begins with the first contact between Connie, a mental patient and the time traveler of the title, and Luciente, her guide to the utopian future she visits. Luciente's role is analogous to that of the author: both of them not only present the distinguishing features of a new society, but they also try to stimulate in their auditor/reader the activism that will bring that society into being.

The most obviously relevant aspect of chaos theory in relation to Woman on the Edge of Time is the concept of nonlinearity. In mathematics, nonlinear equations are those that express relationships that are not strictly proportional; non-linear systems generally cannot be solved. But nonlinearity may be more broadly defined: in James Gleick's words, “\it] means that the act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules.” Piercy's notion of historical “cruxes” is clearly akin to this concept, for it implies that history is nonlinear: it does not have one solution, one necessary outcome. One of the inhabitants of the utopian world of the year 2137 tells Connie, “at certain cruxes of history … forces are in conflict. Technology is imbalanced. Too few have too much power. Alternate futures are equally or almost equally probable … and that affects … the shape of time.”

In physical systems, nonlinearity translates into a high degree of unpredictability. There is often great incongruity between cause and effect such that a small cause can give rise to a large effect. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions is thus another characteristic of nonlinear or chaotic systems. In such systems, small uncertainties, even at the subatomic level, are quickly brought up to macroscopic expression. By stressing the methods of nonlinear dynamics, chaos researchers have observed that “a small change in one parameter … could push … \a physical] system across a bifurcation point into a qualitatively new behaviour” (Gleick). Piercy seems to apply a similar principle to social systems. At crucial points in time, small acts can have great repercussions that will change the course of history. This is the reason why the utopians of the future have perfected a method of time travel that enables them to reach receptive individuals in the “crux time” of the late twentieth century. They believe that it is not the powerful who make revolutions, but rather ordinary people who “changed how people bought food, raised children, went to school. … who made new unions, withheld rent, refused to go to wars, wrote and educated and made speeches” (Woman). They repeat again and again that their very existence is precarious because Connie and those of her time may fail to engage in the struggle that will bring about the necessary changes.

Mattapoisett, the utopia depicted in Woman on the Edge of Time, is based on principles of community and equality. The people work together to provide the necessities of life for everyone, but they have no money and no concept of ownership. They have their own private spaces, but most of their activities are communal. Their government is highly decentralized and based on consensus decision making in local and regional councils. Their education combines study and work and involves a system of mentorship that makes learning personal. They are profoundly conscious of their place in “the web of nature,” and their sense of responsibility toward the environment is heightened by their awareness of the damage done to it by the excesses of the twentieth century. They believe in cultural diversity and, above all, in gender equality. Women and men are equal in all things: education, work, sexual expression (“all coupling, all befriending goes on between biological males, biological females, or both”) and even parenting. Children are grown in “brooders” and upon birth are given three “mothers,” of either sex and biologically unrelated to them, who share all responsibilities, including breast-feeding. As Luciente puts it, “It was part of women's long revolution. When we were breaking up all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return to no more power for anyone … the power to give birth.” The revolution has also included the reform of language so that the pronouns “he” and “she” are now replaced by “person” or “per.”

However, unlike many of its utopian predecessors, Mattapoisett is not a static, finished object. Its inhabitants are still in the process of determining its laws and engage in controversies about matters of public policy, such as social engineering. But even more importantly, they are constantly fighting to protect their way of life against the dystopian alternative that exists side by side with them. Their enemies are the remnants of the old multinational corporations (with names like Texaroyal and Mobilgulf) who have taken twentieth-century consumerism and technological excess to their logical conclusion. They consist “mostly of androids, robots, cybernauts, partially automated humans” and their weapons are those of “the biological sciences. Control of genetics. Technology of brain control. Birth-to-death surveillance. Chemical control through psychoactive drugs and neurotransmitters.” It would seem that their biggest victims are women, whose only choice is between becoming surgically altered prostitutes or turning into “duds,” who are nothing more than “walking organ banks” to be used by the “richies” wanting to prolong their lives indefinitely.

Having introduced us to the salient features of an ideal society in the first half of the novel, Piercy goes on in the second half to develop the idea that we must fight to make this society real. Utopia will win over dystopia only “if history is not reversed.” In the war to achieve utopia, “the past is a disputed area.” After accidentally visiting the dystopian territory, Connie realizes that “that was the other world that might come to be. That was Luciente's war, and she was enlisted in it.” The rest of the novel is concerned with how Connie becomes involved in this “war.” Back in her own time, her final act, which she considers a necessary act of war, is to poison the doctors and psychologists who have been experimenting on her with drugs and brain implants. The ending of the novel has, understandably, been controversial, since Connie's solution seems hardly utopian. And yet there is something fitting about it, particularly if we keep in mind the idea suggested by chaos theory that a small cause can give rise to a large effect. Connie's act is one whose ramifications will alter the future. Her success in averting one particular form of biological engineering will retard or even halt the development of the dystopian world populated by automated beings and will thus contribute to the emergence of the utopian Mattapoisett where human potential is valued.

Also present is the element of unpredictability inherent in the concept of nonlinearity. As Ferns puts it, “in Piercy's hands, the normally static utopia has become kinetic with a vengeance,” and in order to remain so, it must remain open to change and motion. Once she has committed the murders, Connie can no longer reach over to Mattapoisett: “She had annealed her mind and she was not a receptive woman. She had hardened.” Her inability to see the future any longer underscores the personal cost of committing an act of violence, even if is for a good cause. Symbolically, however, the loss of contact with the future also emphasizes the unpredictability of the utopian project. The openness of the ending discourages us from trying to reduce utopia to something fixed and permanent.

The idea of nonlinearity is not only a central theme of Woman on the Edge of Time, but it also determines its structure. Though fairly obvious, it bears pointing out that Piercy's narrative, “unlike the traditional guided tour format of earlier utopias, proceeds by alternating utopian episodes and a narrative set in something resembling contemporary reality” (Ferns). Ferns observes that the alternating format is significant because it shows that “the utopian ideal is itself a product of the present, and that it changes as the nature of the present changes.” The nature of Connie's initial visit to each of the two alternative futures is determined by what she is going through in her own time immediately before-hand.

The first encounter between Connie and Luciente takes place at Connie's apartment, before she is committed to the psychiatric hospital. At this point, however, it is Luciente who comes to Connie's time. Connie travels to the future only some time after her admission to the hospital when she is locked in seclusion because she resists taking the numbing drugs given to her. The world she steps into is in every way the opposite of the confined place she inhabits. The initial description of Mattapoisett emphasizes its rural, natural setting: a river, vegetable gardens, animals. Even the buildings are compared to “long-legged birds with sails that turned in the wind.” A little later, Connie visits Luciente's “space,” which contracts with both the crowdedness and the isolation of Connie's life. As a member of a poor Chicano family, Connie has grown up living with many siblings in a crowded home. In the hospital, she oscillates between two extremes: she is either denied all privacy in the general ward or denied any human contact in the seclusion cell. The utopian alternative, as Luciente explains it, combines personal freedom with a sense of community: “We each have our own space! … How could one live otherwise? How meditate, think, compose songs, sleep, study? … We live among our family.”

Connie's visit to dystopia is also related to her experiences in her own time. After a dialytrode—a device for administering psychoactive drugs directly—has been implanted in her brain, she travels to the future, only to find herself not in Mattapoisett but in the other part of the future where everyone is mechanically enhanced. The link between what she sees in the future and her own experience of being controlled by a machine is obvious. As more and more people on the ward are subjected to the same procedure, Connie begins to fight back so that they will remove her implant. At this point, she visits a third place in the future: the front where the two sides are fighting their war. As she joins Luciente and others in the battle, she seems to recognize among the enemies of Mattapoisett the faces of “all the caseworkers and doctors and landlords and cops, the psychiatrists and judges and child guidance counsellors … who had pushed her back and turned her off and locked her up.” Interestingly, Luciente later tells her that she had not been at the front. Connie's experience thus points to the uncertainty and precariousness of the future and its sensitive dependence on her present condition.

The link between present and future also extends to what Libby Falk Jones calls a “web of character relationships radiating from Connie.” Parallels between sets of characters in the novel indicate that ultimately utopia is about fulfilling individual potentials that are denied and suppressed in contemporary society. There are a number of pairs or groups of characters that represent the utopian/dystopian versions of the same person. One example is the parallel between Connie's daughter, Angelina, and Luciente's daughter, Dawn. After an incident of child abuse, Angelina has been taken from Connie and placed in a foster home, forever beyond her mother's reach. Dawn, beautiful, happy, and well loved, reminds Connie of her lost daughter and thinks of her as what Angelina would be if she lived in utopia: “Suddenly she assented with all her soul to Angelina in Mattapoisett, to Angelina hidden forever one hundred fifty years into the future. … She will be strong there, well fed, well housed, well taught, she will grow up much better and stronger and smarter than I.” Dawn thus becomes the fulfillment not only of Angelina's but also of Connie's own potential.

Another parallel is that between Skip and Jackrabbit. Skip is one of Connie's fellow patients in the hospital, committed after several botched attempts at suicide. He is intelligent and witty but has been in mental institutions since he was thirteen because he is homosexual and, as he says, “My parents thought I didn't work right, so they sent me to be fixed.” Jackrabbit, who lives in Mattapoisett, is about the same age as Skip, and he represents the fruition of all that has been blighted in Skip's life. Jackrabbit is a highly respected artist and a fully integrated member of his family and his community. He, like most of the others around him, has sexual relations with both women and men and is beginning to prepare for his mothering duties. But the two are also linked in that they struggle against a common enemy, that of dehumanizing technology. Skip finally kills himself after receiving the brain implant. Shortly thereafter, Jackrabbit, who has gone on defense duty, is killed in the war against the robots. They are both casualties, but both die fighting. At Jackrabbit's wake, Connie's mourning explicitly joins the two young men: “Slowly tears coursed down her face, perhaps more for Skip than for Jackrabbit, perhaps for both.”

The most significant parallels, however, are between several of the characters and Connie herself. Connie and Luciente are obviously closely linked, as together they create the bridge between the two times. Luciente's child reminds Connie of her own daughter; Luciente's two lovers remind Connie of the two men she has loved in her own life. She thinks of Luciente “as a fraction of her mind, as a voice of an alternate self.” She also sees herself in Parra, a woman who is people's judge for Mattapoisett. They are “roughly the same size and complexion” and come from the same place. As they talk, Connie feels increasingly fascinated by Parra: “She was serving as people's judge. Doctor of rivers. She herself could be such a person here. … Then she would be useful. She would like herself.” She would become what she cannot be in her own time.

Significantly, however, Connie also meets an alternate self when she visits the dystopian side of the future. Gildina, the woman she talks to there, is “a cartoon of femininity,” surgically altered and implanted to conform to the fantasies of the men to whom she is contracted for sex. But underneath the cosmetic surgery, she too is a Chicana like Connie. And like Connie, she has potentials of which she is unaware. Connie recognizes that “Gildina has a special mental power, even if she doesn't know it,” because it is her receptivity that has enabled Connie to travel to her time and place. Connie's relationship to Gildina is similar to Luciente's relationship to Connie. Connie initially mistakes Luciente for a man because she moves with “that air of brisk unselfconscious authority Connie associated with men … taking up more space than women ever did.” Similarly, the guard who finds Connie with Gildina tells her, “You look me in the eyes, unlike a fem.” The people of Mattapoisett are, as one of them tells Connie, “potentialities in \your loved ones] that could not flourish in your time.” Witnessing the fulfillment of these potentialities transforms Connie and enables her to start fulfilling them herself and thereby influencing the future.

The shifts back and forth between the present and the future, between utopia and dystopia, and between different versions of the same character suggest that Connie is a “woman on the edge” in more ways than one. Her life, as depicted in the novel, has been chaotic in the conventional sense of the term. She has been exploited and abused, raped and beaten, deprived of education and meaningful work. She has lost the men she has loved to violence and her child to a harsh, uncaring system. She has finally lost her freedom and control over her life by being confined to one mental institution after another. But seen from another perspective, Connie's life is also filled with chaos in its new, positive sense.

The traditional opposition between chaos and order is being reevaluated by chaos theory. Katherine Hayles attributes the negative valuation of chaos in the Western tradition to “the predominance of binary logic in the West” and invokes instead the four-valued logic of Taoist thought where “not-order is … distinct from and valued differently than anti-order.” Chaos is no longer synonymous with disorder in the traditional sense. It is rather, to quote Gleick, “order masquerading as randomness.” There are two main approaches in the scientific community to the relationship between chaos and order. One approach, which is the focus of Gleick's book, finds order hidden in chaos. Physicist Doyne Farmer sees chaos theory as an operational way of defining free will in a way that reconciles it to determinism: a chaotic system is “deterministic, but you can't say what it is going to do next.” Nonlinearity is what combines determinism with unpredictability. It also accounts for the spontaneous emergence of self-organization in the world, which is at the center of the second approach to chaos. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, the best-known proponents of this idea, redefine chaos as a space of creation where being and becoming are reconciled.

Clearly concepts of order, particularly order concealed within or arising out of disorder, are central to the creation of a utopian society. Chaos theory offers an understanding of the dynamics of emergent order that is applicable not only to physical systems but also, analogically, to cultural situations. Of particular relevance to Woman on the Edge of Time is the idea of the boundary between order and chaos. Gleick describes a computer program that generates fractal shapes by saying that “the boundary is where \it] spends most of its time and makes all of its compromises.” The boundary serves as a threshold where the system “chooses between competing options” (Gleick). Connie spends much of her time in the novel in a similar region as she crosses and recrosses the “edge of time” separating her from utopia.

Frances Bartkowski observes that “Piercy's novel is narratively structured through a process of gaining and losing consciousness.” The mechanism whereby Connie travels to the future involves her letting go of her own consciousness and receiving that of Luciente. Luciente explains that she is “a super-strong sender” and Connie “a top catcher” and that this is what enables them to communicate. “If I was knocked on the head and fell unconscious,” she says, “you'd be back in your time instantly.” The novel begins with Connie's dawning awareness of the boundary between her world and utopia, but at this point her awareness is passive. She attributes it to dreams or the hallucinatory effects of the drugs she has to take. Initially, her movement across this boundary depends entirely on Luciente. Gradually, however, she becomes more adept at tapping into Luciente's consciousness and crossing the boundary to the future at will. At one point Luciente tells her, “you could be a sender too. What a powerful and unusual mix!” As the novel progresses, Connie travels to different parts of the future increasingly independently. The merging of her consciousness with that of the utopians is a process of empowerment whose direct outcome is Connie's ability to take control of her actions at the end, to decide not merely to visit the future but to take part in creating it.

Writing about her fiction, Piercy has said, “I am involved in showing people changing through struggle, becoming, always in process.” Connie's experience of “becoming” illustrates that the realization of utopia can be understood as a chaotic process. The movement, within the novel, from contemporary reality to utopian ideal is in one sense deterministic: Connie, and the reader, witness the final achievement and so it must exist. At the same time, however, they are told that this is only one possible future and that they must make the choices that will lead to its attainment. The paradox can be resolved only in that boundary between consciousness and reality, between chaos and order, where the process of change occurs. Jones describes this process well when she writes, “Interacting with the future allows Connie to rescue her present as well as to preserve and even reinvent her past. Rather than establish past, present, and future as a logical continuum, the novel blends them in Connie's consciousness. The movement is not linear, but spiralling.” By integrating her memories of the past, her present experience, and her expectation of the future, Connie succeeds in recreating her own—and, by extension, her society's—reality. The emphasis on consciousness reminds us that the primary locus of utopia is in the mind. Once we are conscious of utopian possibilities, we can then realize them in the world, but their greatest significance remains in the conception rather than the execution.

In discussing Piercy's fiction, critics generally focus on her feminism. It is of course entirely appropriate to do so since Piercy herself says that she is “writing politically, writing as a feminist, writing as a serious woman.” This paper has not dealt with this issue in detail because my concern has been with Woman on the Edge of Time as a utopian novel. However, I agree with Frances Bartkowski that “utopian thinking is crucial to feminism” in that both “declare that which is not-yet as the basis for … practice, textual, political, or otherwise.” The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a burgeoning in both utopian fiction and criticism. The best of the fiction has been written by women: Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ. A feature of particular interest in these works is that while strongly critical of contemporary society, and particularly of the prevalent patriarchal ideology, their outlook is generally positive. Russ and Bartkowski both note “the predominance of pessimism in contemporary science fiction, which is not, however, shared by women writing in this genre” (Bartkowski). Another characteristic of these works, related to the first, is their use of utopia and dystopia together in the same work. Like Woman on the Edge of Time, LeGuin's The Dispossessed and Russ's The Female Man depict two or three parallel worlds, each of which embodies some of the potentialities present in contemporary society. Their purpose is not to give the reader the blueprint for a new society but to engage her in the activity of bringing about social change by making a choice between utopia and dystopia. For these writers and, as we have seen, especially for Piercy, the transformation of existing society into utopia is a precarious enterprise attainable only through a process of making choices and crossing boundaries.

Elayne Rapping (review date February 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2369

SOURCE: “Les Ms.,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIV, No. 5, February, 1997, pp. 5-6.

[In the following review, Rapping offers positive evaluation of City of Darkness, City of Light.]

Marge Piercy writes a lot of novels. Each is refreshingly political, in the most blatant (as opposed to subtly subtextual) sense. Each is passionately feminist. Each—most remarkably—is written, and successfully marketed, for a mainstream audience.

I am, I confess, a Piercy admirer and fan. But I read each new novel with my fingers crossed. For as admirable as her efforts are, she doesn't always hit the mark. Works like Woman on the Edge of Time, Small Changes and her recent The Longings of Women are to me classics of feminist fiction which can open a reader's heart and mind to radically new views of the world. But others simply fail to catch fire. Their characters remain abstractions, their ideas prosaic and preachy

As I read City of Darkness, City of Light—an ambitious, dense and demanding rewriting of the history of the French Revolution which includes and integrates the roles and perspectives of some of the many women involved—I could not decide, for quite some time, which category it belonged in. Was it a work that large numbers of readers would find engrossing enough to stick with and learn from, or a misfire, doomed to be put aside in frustration and confusion—as I was tempted to do more than once? But one hundred or so pages into the book, I found myself, finally, riveted.

Piercy centers her narrative on six historical figures, from whose rotating points of view the revolution—and what precipitated and ensued from it—is seen. Pauline Léon is a Parisian chocolate shop owner who, as a child, witnesses the torture and execution of those who riot for bread, and goes on to become a leader of the radically feminist Revolutionary Republican Women. Beautiful Claire Lacombe escapes provincial poverty by joining a theatre group, and works with Pauline to make the voices of women and the poor heard during the Revolution. Manon Philipon—better known as Madame Roland—is a worshipper of Rousseau and the life of the mind who marries an aging bureaucrat and becomes a political force as his ghost-writer, strategist and salon hostess.

The men's names are more familiar: Maximilien Robespierre, the utopian idealist who, once in power, becomes the author of the bloodbath called the Terror; Georges Danton, opportunist and compromiser, Robespierre's comrade and sometime opponent; and Nicolas Condorcet, aristocrat, feminist and intellectual, who believes in the principle of constitutional law above all. Through these six characters, diverse in class, gender and political perspective, Piercy brings the blood and guts, the ideas and passions, of the revolution to life, with all its idealism, its contradictions and its ultimately horrifying failures.

The narrative begins with key incidents from each character's childhood. The earliest chapter is dated 1765, and the last 1812, some eighteen years after the story proper ends. Some events are familiar from the history books: the women's march on Versailles; the brief period of the Paris Commune, before the tragic decline of the revolution into the Terror; the execution of the radical Marat by the Girondin Charlotte Corday. Other incidents are personal, often marking formative moments in key characters' lives. We see the child Manon, taken to the home of an aristocratic lady, feeling shock and contempt at the superficiality of this supposedly superior being. We share young Max's disappointment and disillusion when he is chosen to represent his school at a celebration for Louis XVI and his queen, only to be sprayed with mud as the royal carriage, hours late, speeds past the waiting crowd without stopping. We listen in at the salon of the Condorcets, where such notables as Lafayette and Tom Paine gather, and on meetings of the radical Cordeliers and Jacobins, where political liaisons and strategies are hammered out. Each episode is clearly intended to reveal the characters' developing political agendas, as well as the human traits, values and flaws that drove them.

Every major and minor character, event and document has been prodigiously researched and portrayed in factual detail; Piercy even translates (with uneven success) actual speeches into contemporary English. As she explains in her “Author's Note,” she has imagined dialogue, thoughts and feelings with the help of diaries and letters from the period. A lengthy appendix summarizes key details about each character and organization.

Piercy has chosen to present this mass of emotional, historical and philosophical material in brief—three-to four-page—chronologically overlapping chapters of rotating personal narrative, a structural device that is often cumbersome and confusing. So much detail is stuffed into so limited a space that the reader must concentrate mightily to keep track of it all. It is particularly difficult, until far into the narrative, to get a sense of the key characters themselves, and the textures and intricacies of their relationships. One longs to linger on the emotional and dramatic meat of each situation, to see the nuances of political and emotional conflict and contradiction spun out into deeper, richer dramatic patterns.

These are the novel's flaws. But they are largely, if gradually, compensated for by Piercy's masterful employment of shifting points of view. We see and hear each event, often several times, from different characters' perspectives, revealing the nuances of class and gender difference that are the meat of the story.

Danton, for example, portrayed as an uncouth sensualist used to manipulating and conquering women of his own circle, is thwarted in his attempts upon both Manon and Claire. Recognizing Manon as the political force behind her increasingly conservative Girondin husband, he sets out to seduce her in order to win her over politically. “She has a gorgeous bosom. Nice arms. Nice eyes. Her husband doesn't fuck her, I can tell. I'll get her on our side,” he tells a more radical Cordelier comrade. But Manon's version of their relationship is very different: “She could hardly bear to look at him. … Several times he put his huge hot hands on her shoulder, her arm. Once he dared touch her posterior, giving her a pat as though she were a pack animal. She almost slapped him but political considerations … prevented her. Instead she glared and he withdrew at once, looking, she could swear, slightly puzzled.”

With the sexually independent Claire, Danton manages a night in bed, but again is left unsatisfied and puzzled. “She was sensual without being jaded, accomplished without a hint of whorishness,” he thinks. “But she did not admire him as he liked to be admired … She had a critical eye he disliked in a woman … She was good at sex, but he did not think she would be good at loving.” And, to further his bewilderment, “She left early in the morning, not lingering for breakfast or expecting a present.”

Piercy dwells on the subtleties and contradictions of this revolution, in which women and the working classes, participants for the first time in politics, continuously confound and finally enrage the male leaders—aristocrats as well as those, like Robespierre and Danton, who have risen to power from the middle class.

Social and political differences become emotionally concrete through Piercy's use of these rotating points of view. The gulf between the relatively elitist, anti-feminist Manon, who dislikes all women's groups and prefers to wield power from behind the office of a man, and the independent, necessarily self-sufficient working-class Pauline and Claire, is dramatic. So are the shortcomings of the aristocrat Condorcet: a true feminist in his own marriage and a believer in equality for all in the abstract, he nonetheless cannot fathom the rage, nor stomach the uncouth style, of those for whom bread and price controls mean so much more than the linguistic elegance of his painstakingly written constitution.

Piercy, here as always, remains true to the ideals which drove her as a feminist and New Left activist in the sixties. “Why write about the French Revolution?” she asks in her “Author's Note.” “For me, modern politics, the modern left began there as did the women's movement … I have been passionately involved in left and women's politics,” she writes, “and I knew all of these characters very well, under other names of course. What went wrong, personally and politically, is thus fascinating to me, and I hope to you.” For “women have fought again and again for causes that, when won, have not given us the freedom, the benefits we expected.”

As Piercy sees the revolution, it is at once heroic and tragic. Committed to an abstract belief in radical democracy, it is nonetheless flawed by its leaders' inability to see beyond their own class and gender interests, and by the propensity of those in power—like the despots they overturn—to resort to brutality in the interest of maintaining their own position.

Each of the major male characters, and Manon among the women, is viewed by Piercy with a mixture of respect, admiration and growing disdain, as youthful idealism gives way to hypocrisy, self-aggrandisement and a narrowing of vision. Manon, for example, is a model of what present-day feminists would call a token woman, content to serve a male order as long as she herself prospers and rises to power and influence. Only the radical women, Pauline and Claire, represent what seems to be Piercy's own position on the revolution and on democratic politics generally. Only they fight unreservedly for true democracy as it would be practiced in a world in which both male and class privilege disappeared, but not at the price of committing random, inhuman violence.

It is not only the past that Piercy hopes to illuminate, but also the present. “Americans live in an increasingly violent society that is inured to violence (as eighteenth-century France was) and one in which the top is growing ever richer and further in every way from the vast bulk of the population,” she writes. “I thought looking at a society in crisis so very strange in some ways and so familiar in others might illuminate our own situation.” Thus while gender issues are highlighted in the book, they, like everything else, are seen and understood most dramatically through the lens of class and in the context of violence—its roots, its dynamic and its results—as practiced by those in power and those permanently disempowered. For it is the failure of the middle and upper-class revolutionaries to hear and respond to the demands of the women and the poor that fuels the downward spiral of mass violence, turning the ideals and hopes for democracy into a massive bloodbath of uprisings and executions.

Piercy understands the frustrations of the poor and voiceless, and why they turn, inexorably, to violence. But she also documents the hopelessness of such desperate measures. There is something truly terrifying in her incessant, graphic chronicling of one bloodbath after another, one brutal execution after another. So fully does violence ultimately take over the narrative that the famously symbolic death of Marie Antoinette is barely given a moment's notice, so inconsequential is it among the multitude of executions of the lesser-known. Instead, it is the guillotining of Manon Roland, and then of Robespierre, whom we have come to know intimately and view with shifting emotions of admiration, affection, contempt and compassion, that is most shocking and unforgettable.

It is not on this note of tragedy and defeat that Piercy chooses to end her narrative, however, but one of feminist idealism and hope. For in the coda, we find Claire and her longtime female lover, now retired to a farm, entertaining Pauline, now the conventional wife of the radical comrade she has married. “We did make a new world,” says Claire. “Just not exactly the one we intended. It's a bigger job than we realized, to make things good and fair. It won't be us who finish it. But we gave it a pretty good start before we lost our way.” And Pauline agrees. “I remember and I make sure my daughters know, it was old biddies like we are now and young women who brought the King down. We are the Revolution, ladies, and we carry it in our blood to the future.”

Having come to the end of the narrative, the reader is struck by a methodological, or perhaps ethical, problem. Piercy has constructed out of the stuff of eighteenth-century history a story which is meant to say something about our own time—something which may or may not be true. Is hers a fair reading of the French Revolution? Unlike her other historical fictions—Gone to Soldiers comes to mind immediately—this book portrays real people, not fictional constructs. What are the sources for Piercy's ambitious, perhaps presumptuous, reconstructions of so many events and ideas and motivations, experienced by so many historical personages? Whose reading of the period is she drawing upon? Where are the footnotes?

As a reviewer who is in no sense an expert on the French Revolution, I confess to feeling somewhat uncomfortable about this. City of Darkness, City of Light presents a version of history that reads and feels— intentionally—like a reading of our own 1960s history as told by a militant Left feminist, which of course Piercy was. Is it good history? Is Piercy justified in giving radical feminism so early and clearly articulated a life? Are the various factions and leaders of the time really as similar to those of our own recent past as she portrays them? I admit that I don't know.

But putting those thorny issues aside, one may still ask if Piercy has written a good novel. I think for the most part she has. If it is fair to use a past age, and the lives of those who created it, to make a statement about the politics of the present, then Piercy has done well by her material. She has illuminated and dramatized the failure of our own radical history, even as she has reminded us—at a time when it is difficult to recall such realities—of the truly idealistic and visionary impulses that fueled our activism, and especially of the centrality of feminism to that vision.

John Taylor (review date January 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of What Are Big Girls Made Of?, in Poetry, Vol. CLXXI, No. 3, January, 1998, pp. 221-4.

[In the following review, Taylor provides positive assessment of What Are Big Girls Made Of?.]

Marge Piercy is a versatile poet with broad interests, and What Are Big Girls Made Of?—her thirteenth collection—invokes several public and private issues that have long haunted or angered her. Opening with seven intimate “Brother-Less Poems,” Piercy draws us inside a “family snapshot” in which she hugs “the two pillars” of her “cracked world”: her “cold father” and her “hot brother,” the latter also described as “the dark pulsating sun of \her] childhood, / the man whose eyes could give water / instead of ice.” Graphic evocations of this half-brother (who has recently died) follow, beginning with flashbacks to the end of the Second World War, when he returns stateside, “still a Marine, crazy on experimental / drugs for malaria.” Piercy delves further into their common past, recalling their coming-of-age within a family that resembles “a pit lined with fur and barbed wire; / roast chicken and plastique, warmth / and bile, a kiss and a razor in the ribs.”

Later, as the half-brother passes from divorces and real-estate speculations through troubled relationships with his estranged stepchildren (and an inability to communicate with his half-sister), a fragmentary portrait emerges of a tormented man in whom collide the desperate impulses of his innermost will and the violent outside forces of history. This theme in fact characterizes the entire collection. “We both felt the world as a great pain,” remarks Piercy, “… and we each / set out to change it: our separate ways.” Yet after formulating this insight, the poet must admit, in the final poem, that she lacks a real hold on the man whom her half-brother became. “It is hard // to say goodbye to nothing / personal,” she concludes, “mouthfuls bitten off / of silence and wet ashes.” While constructing his portrait, Piercy has likewise sought to deconstruct his myth (in her eyes); and her words trouble us because, as she herself confesses, she fails in both endeavors. Yet in her failing are disclosed truths. It is paradoxically the poet's inability to define her half-brother and the exact borders of their relationship—whence the interpretative openness of these verses—that is sincere and moving.

Her half-brother's “self” is half-authentic—“built of forged documents, / stories lifted from magazines, / charm, sweat and subterfuge”—and Piercy's postulate (here and elsewhere) is that these chaotic intersections of the public and the private constitute what all “big girls” (and boys) are made of. From a number of vantage points, she tries to perceive how these perilous, if inevitable, crossroads arise in our bodies and minds. After dissecting her family background (tenderness for her parents manifests itself in later poems, although even soft feelings can be offset by bluntness), she draws back—in the second section—from her own self's preoccupations. Engaging poems on current topics ensue, the most memorable of which narrates in unadorned sextains the everyday routines of an abortion-clinic receptionist. The woman's day begins at four a.m. with a telephone call: “Of course she does not / pick up, but listens / through the answering machine / to the male voice promising / she will burn in hell.”

Other committed poems poke fun at administrators, describe looming mortgages (in the form of birds “with heavy hunched shoulders / nesting in shredded hundred dollar bills”), and bring out the banal gruesomeness of a talk show in which the speaker's voice “roars … / like a freight from a tunnel,” every car carrying “the same / coke load of fury.” Piercy also takes a stand on a woman's right to “choose” (“to be pregnant / … childless / … lesbian / … to have two lovers or none”) and satirizes men's views of sexual harassment.

These feminist poems may stir listeners who hear them read aloud (“Stand up now and say No More. / Stand up now and say We will not / be ruled by crazies and killers”), yet their language resembles that of rallying cries. It is a language confident in its power to designate and deplore, which is to say that Piercy no longer pushes language, haltingly, to its fragile, uncertain limits so as to more genuinely interrogate, speculate on, and explore the equally uncertain frontiers of the perceptible and imaginable worlds with which she challenges herself. These engaging verses are unsubtle when compared to the half-brother sequence, the evocative erotic poems (in the section entitled “Salt in the Afternoon”), and especially the metaphysically rich nature poems collected in “A Precarious Balance.”

This latter group reveals Piercy to be a precise, sensitive observer, a quality that disappears whenever her diction waxes ideological. Poems here describe a blizzard, several different does, morning moths, and, most originally, grackles whose “cries are no more melodious / than the screech of unadjusted / brakes, and yet I like their song / of the unoiled door hinge creaking, / the rusty saw grating, the squawk / of an air mattress stomped on.” Two arresting poems depict the same early-morning car accident when “a doctor with Georgia plates / \comes] roaring over the hill far too fast” and kills one of two young deer darting across the road. Piercy, who has witnessed the accident, must close her hands over the windpipe of the dying deer in order to put it out of its suffering. Elsewhere, meditating on garter snakes, the poet observes that “we see everything except that swift / archaic beauty brushing over the earth.” Yet Piercy has indeed grasped this beauty, and her nature writing consistently seeks such aeon-spanning glimpses, yearns for a cosmic wholeness, and—thereby rejoining her political concerns—suggests that our fundamental duty is to care. This responsibility is well summed-up in her last lines, from a long-poem entitled “The art of blessing the day”:

What we want to change we curse and then 
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can 
with eyes and hand and tongue. If you 
can't bless it, get ready to make it new. 

Fred Moramarco and William Sullivan (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “‘A Whole New Poetry Beginning Here’: The Assertion of Gender,” in Containing Multitudes: Poetry in the United States Since 1950, Twayne, 1998, pp. 163-94.

[In the following excerpt, Moramarco and Sullivan provide an overview of the central themes and preoccupations in Piercy's poetry.]

I am an instrument in the shape of a woman trying to translate pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind.

—Adrienne Rich

Although many of the central poets of the modernist movement were women, including Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, H. D., and Marianne Moore, for many male writers, the idea of a “women's poetry” in the late 1950s and early 1960s still conjured visions of genteel lyricism by what were then called “poetesses,” such as Sara Teasdale, Josephine Preston Peabody, or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Some of it was skillfully crafted and memorably expressed, but it did not seem to embody the realities of many women's situation in life. Not until poets like Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde, and Marge Piercy and, more recently, emergent writers like Sharon Olds, Olga Broumas, Louise Glück, and Marilyn Hacker became established did the phrase “women's poetry” come to imply resistance to the social limitations placed on women's lives.

Rukeyser, Brooks, Rich, and Plath opened new worlds for a whole generation of women who became empowered to speak what had previously been unspeakable. The dissatisfactions of motherhood, the stifling conformity of suburban housewifery, the dominance of male intellectuality, the dismissal of female perceptions of reality, the objectification of women's bodies, the social tolerance of rape and sexual harassment of all kinds, the politics of abortion, the blatant economic inequality of the sexes, and many other subjects previously ignored or actively repressed began to be dealt with openly and in depth. Ironically, “women's poetry” became in some ways the opposite of what it had previously been. No longer genteel and lyrical, it began to carry a political edge. Much of this poetry was controversial and rejected, especially by male critics, who often viewed it as self-indulgent and artless. But as its body began to gather heft and momentum throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, it could no longer be ignored as a dominant force in contemporary poetry.

Women were demonstrating that gender is an important component of poetic value, although many writers, both men and women, continued to resist that idea. Elizabeth Bishop, for example, refused to be anthologized in any women-only poetry anthology because she believed that the art of poetry transcends gender. And although Diane Wakoski clearly writes a “woman-centered” poetry that focuses especially on relationships between men and women, she believes that any gender adjective that precedes the word poet diminishes it. But to say that gender is a component of poetic value is not to argue that it is the only component. Writing is related to life experience, and the experiences of men and women in our society are significantly different in many respects: childbearing, childrearing, domestic responsibilities, military experience (until recently), and economic opportunities are just a few differences that create the foundation for a poetry influenced by gender.

Some women take the gender issue a step further and talk about a “female poetics” that informs the women's poetry of note in our time. In her important revisionist history of women's poetry in America, Alicia Suskin Ostriker writes about “an assertive desire for intimacy” that she believes characterizes this poetics: “As the poet refuses to distance herself from her emotion, so she prevents us \as readers] from distancing ourselves.” For Ostriker and for other feminist writers like Adrienne Rich, Suzanne Juhasz, and Audre Lorde, a woman-centered poetry has emerged that has as its project the definition of a “female self” unmitigated by the assumptions and cultural priorities of male writers. This poetry intends to transform literary culture as well as the social culture it both grows out of and affects. Consequently, much of the women's poetry of our time is involved in revising traditional myths, whether explicitly, as in Anne Sexton's Transformations, or implicitly, as in Marge Piercy's reconstruction of male-female relationships. In addition, Adrienne Rich sees “a passion for survival” as one of the great themes of women's poetry today and finds it ironic “that male critics have focused on our suicidal poets, and on their ‘self’-destructiveness rather than their capacity for hard work and for staying alive as long as they did.” Combining a desire for intimacy with the shaping of a new female identity based on revising the myths of the past and transforming the realities of the present has produced an intensely personal poetry that is also pointedly political. In fact, the distinctive contribution of contemporary women's poetry is that the personal and political are identified with each other and conjoined.

In addition to the women mentioned above, many other writers have been instrumental in creating this new kind of “woman-centered” poetry that departs from the constricted sensibility often associated (usually by men) with feminine norms. These include Sonia Sanchez, Gloria Anzaldúa, Paula Gunn Allen, Wendy Rose, and others who are creating what Adrienne Rich calls “a whole new poetry beginning here.” Those women who also broadened the context of writing in the United States by underscoring their ethnic and cultural heritages will be explored more fully in chapter 7. Here we will look at how the assertion of gender reshaped American poetry in the seventies and eighties. …

Born to a working-class family in Detroit, Marge Piercy now lives on two acres in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and both her midwestern urban roots and her New England village present are important factors in her poetry. A prolific writer, she has published more than a dozen collections of poetry as well as many works of fiction, including Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), an important feminist work that influenced a generation of women and encouraged their involvement in the women's movement. Piercy also edited an anthology of American women's poetry in 1987 called Early Ripening, in which she argues that women's poetry in late twentieth-century America is characterized by a fused rather than “dissociated” sensibility—emotion and intellect working together rather than at war with each other. Women's poetry in our time, according to Piercy, tends also to be a poetry of “re-invention” that is often confrontational vis à vis traditional social institutions and structures. There is in much of the work included in Early Ripening “a remaking, a renewing, a renaming, a re-experiencing, and then recasting.”

This understanding of contemporary women's poetry permeates nearly all of Piercy's own work. Though that work is diverse and reflects different stages of her life, it is important to her that poetry be useful, particularly to other women who will recognize themselves in various aspects of her life journey. Several kinds of poem make up the bulk of Piercy's canon. First there are feminist-oriented poems on topics like rape, abortion, abused women, and working-class women that tend to speak directly to other women with the idea of enrolling them in the “we” of the poem. Second, there are poems of social criticism that deal with issues other than those exclusively concerned with women: automation, technology, war, inhumanity, indifference to suffering, and many others that constitute the “cancers” of modern life that need to be exposed and rooted out. Third, there are poems about Piercy's Detroit working-class childhood, especially family poems about her troubled relationship with her mother and father. Fourth, there are love poems, especially apparent in the later work, either celebrating the renewal of love or lamenting its demise. A persistent theme that crosses the boundaries of several of these subjects is the need for transformation, particularly the transformation of relationships between men and women.

Piercy's best work through 1980 is collected in Circles on the Water: Selected Poems (1982). Most of these poems were written in the sixties and seventies phase of the contemporary feminist movement and are predominantly political in orientation and militant in tone, although they also deal with the status of male/female relationships in the period. In “Doing it differently,” Piercy makes a dramatic attempt to alter the status quo. She wants to reconstruct male-female relationships and move them out of the wasteland that many have inhabited. Although the poem is preachy, it is also affecting, and very much a document of its time. The lovers in the poem are “bagged in habit,” but the woman feels they have the power to choose their destiny and not simply accept the conventions handed down to them. The woman appears vulnerable as she crawls into the man “as a bee crawls into a lily,” but while the woman is always vulnerable, the man is vulnerable only when he is making love. The narrator asks if men and women can ever be free of the roles of dominance and submission. Sounding surprisingly apolitical, Piercy evokes the image of a rose as a symbol of male-female union.

I am a body beautiful only when fitted with yours.
Otherwise, it walks, it lifts packages, it spades.
It is functional or sick, tired or sturdy. It serves.
Together we are the rose, full, red as the inside
of the womb and head of the penis,
blossoming as we encircle, we make that symmetrical fragrant emblem,
then separate into discrete workday selves.

Can this rosy picture actually become the norm? Can there be a “new man and woman” committed to this kind of beautiful union? The woman in the poem feels powerless to make it happen because her inferiority is encased in the language, laws, institutions, and traditions of society. To create this kind of equal union, men need to take positive steps toward change:

We are equal only if you open too on your heavy hinges
and let your love come freely, freely, where it will never be safe,
where you can never possess.

(Circles)

In the books published since Circles on the Water, Piercy's poetry is even less politically programmatic, more complex. Stone, Paper, Knife (1983), My Mother's Body (1986), and Available Light (1988) contain some of her strongest work. The central elements of these books are an insistence on dealing with the specifics of her experience; a willingness to see both men and women as individual, real people rather than as stereotypical role models; an introspective sense of self-discovery; and an attempt to understand the roots of the anger that permeates so much of her life and work. For like Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, Piercy values anger as a spur for her muse and almost fears its dissipation. In a poem called “How divine is forgiving?” from Available Light, she sees forgiveness as a weakness—a recognition of our imperfections rather than a large, magnanimous gesture:

We forgive because we too have done
the same to others easy as a mudslide;
or because anger is a fire that must be fed
and we are too tired to rise and haul a log.

(Circles)

My Mother's Body, written shortly after her mother's death, locates the source of that anger very specifically:

The anger turned inward, the anger
turned inward, where
could it go except to make pain?
It flowed into me with her milk.

(Circles)

Rummaging through her mother's things after her death, she finds artifacts that connect her to her mother's experience. Piercy, a middle-class woman, a successful writer, looks back at her mother's working-class life with a feminist eye, venting what she believes were her mother's repressed feelings of anger. She notices that her mother, like so many women of her generation, used “ugly” things for everyday and kept her beautiful things locked in storage. They were never used because “no day of hers was ever good enough” to use them, and so they become an emblem of the repressed beauty and creativity of the women of her mother's generation.

In the lovely title poem of this collection, mother and daughter become interchangeable:

My mother is my mirror and I am hers.
What do we see?

(Circles)

Looking back from the vantage point of a mature and seasoned life, the narrator realizes that the two women are less mother and daughter than twin sisters who happen to live in different times. Her feelings of youthful rebellion and resentment give way to mature self-recognition as the narrator takes on her mother's anger as her own:

I will not be the bride you can dress,
the obedient dutiful daughter you would chew,
a dog's leather bone to sharpen your teeth.
You strike me sometimes just to hear the sound.
Loneliness turns your fingers into hooks
barbed and drawing blood with their caress.
My twin, my sister, my lost love,
I carry you in me like an embryo
as once you carried me.

(Circles)

My Mother's Body is also notable for its sequence of love poems called “Chuppah,” after the canopy used in Jewish wedding ceremonies. These poems were written for Piercy's marriage to writer Ira Wood, and she includes two poems by Wood in the sequence.

Available Light continues in this vein of self-discovery and retrospection. More than any of her books it chronicles the transformation of a “bad girl” from the inner city into a successful woman and widely respected writer. The poem “Joy Road and Livernois,” though clearly feminist in its depiction of the lot of working-class women, is also a very personal poem about Piercy's Detroit upbringing and the grim fate of some of her girlfriends, dead from accidents or drug overdoses, dying of cancer, or trapped in a mental institution. Offering short biographical sketches of each of these women—Pat, Evie, Peggy, Theresa, Gladys—in the vein of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology—Piercy emerges as a survivor of a world nearly impossible to transcend.

In a poem called “I see the sign and tremble,” inspired by a “Self Storage” sign glimpsed from the highway advertising a company offering storage lockers, Piercy creates a metaphor for the evolution of her poetry. She thinks of her poems as places where she has stored her various “selves” at different parts of her life. The poem itself is a catalog of Piercy's various identities, from “the gang girl running over the tarred / roofs sticky under her sneakers” through “the New York femme fatale dancing through a maze of mirrors” to “the woman alone / in the Midwest of a rented room sent into exile.”

Available Light is also a very sensuous book, containing some of Piercy's best love poems, rich in the physicality of an opulent sexuality yet also tempered by the actual ups and downs of a long-term relationship. She chronicled the end of one love affair and the beginning of another in Stone, Paper, Knife, and here she writes about both the abundance of a happily married sex life as well as the bumpy road to reconciliation after horrendous arguments:

Eat, drink, I am your daily bread
and you are mine made every morning fresh
In the oven of the bed we rise and bake
yeasty, dark, full of raisins and seeds
… … … … … … … … 
You have come back from your hike
up the sandblasted mountains of ego
and I have crawled out from my squat
in the wind caves of sulk

(Circles)

Finally, a poignant poem, “Burial by Salt,” is an important landmark in Piercy's work, representing her attempt to let go of her anger about her father's distant silence and lack of personal support. The iciness of the father-daughter relationship is captured in two lines that underscore the tragedy of too many American families:

To you I made no promises. You asked none.
Forty-nine years we spoke of nothing real

(Circles)

Although desperate for her father's love, Piercy never felt it. The two have between them, as Piercy sees it, only “history / not love,” and as she scatters his ashes to the wind (as she did with her mother's ashes, recorded in an earlier poem, “What remains”), she tries finally to come to terms with that limitation.

Her poetry published in the 1990's, Mars and Her Children (1992) and What Are Big Girls Made Of? (1997) carry on her lifetime concerns, showing a growing awareness of the “precarious balance” between the social and natural worlds. A poem like “The ark of consequence,” which organizes the sections of the former volume according to the colors of the rainbow, deals with ecological issues (the consequences of an oil spill). The title poem of that book, “For Mars and her children returning in March,” laments the threat humanity poses to the humpback whale. Animal rights issues surface as well in the latter book. “Death of a doe on Chequesset Neck” projects the narrator into the pain of a dying animal, and “Crow babies” sees the society of crows as superior to our own.

Piercy's poetry is uneven, often raw and unfiltered by a concern for formalist constraints. One critic even describes her poetry as seeming “for the most part to have been poured out and then cut up into lines.” That assessment does capture something of the “I must get all of this down” quality of Piercy's work. Yet despite the unedited feel of many of the poems, they also contain what Marianne Moore called “a place for the genuine.”

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

CRITICISM

Carnes, Pauli. “Chasing Their Tales.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 April 1994): 5.

A positive review of The Longings of Women.

Gould, Jean. “Marge Piercy.” In her Modern American Women Poets, pp. 297-305. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1984.

Provides an overview of Piercy's life, literary career, and poetry.

Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. “Mothers Yesterday and Mothers Tomorrow, But Never Mothers Today: Woman on the Edge of Time and The Handmaid's Tale.” In Mother Without Child: Contemporary Fiction and the Crisis of Motherhood, pp. 158-83. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.

Examines the significance of maternal loss and the ideology of reproduction, motherhood, and female identity in Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Lauret, Maria. “Seizing Time and Making New: Marge Piercy's Vida.” In her Liberating Literature, pp. 144-64. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Provides analysis of the narrative presentation, historical context, and radical political and feminist themes of Vida.

Mesic, Penelope. Review of Stone, Paper, Knife, by Marge Piercy. Poetry CXLIII, No. 5 (February 1984): 299-300.

Provides unfavorable assessment of Stone, Paper, Knife.

Orr, Elaine Neil. “Negotiated Motherhood: Contradictory Leanings in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.” In her Subject to Negotiation: Reading Feminist Criticism and American Women's Fictions, pp. 105-26. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Examines conflicting feminist interpretations of motherhood, biological identity, and female social experience in Woman on the Edge of Time.

Pacernick, Gary. “Interview with Marge Piercy.” Prairie Schooner 71, No. 4 (Winter 1997): 82-6.

Piercy discusses the craft of poetry and the Jewish, mythological, and personal themes in her work.

Rapping, Elayne. “Vintage Piercy.” Women's Review of Books XI, Nos. 10-11 (July 1994): 46.

A review offering qualified praise for The Longings of Women.

Redding, Arthur F. “The Fantasy Life of the Movement: The Rhetoric of Violence on the New Left and After.” In his Raids on Human Consciousness: Writing, Anarchism, and Violence, pp. 160-212. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Discusses the failure of leftist political radicalism during the 1970s, drawing upon Piercy's Vidaas a fictional illustration.

Rodden, John. “A Harsh Day's Light: An Interview with Marge Piercy.” Kenyon Review XX, No. 2 (Spring 1998): 132-43.

Piercy discusses her personal life and related political, feminist, and autobiographic aspects of her poetry.

Shands, Kerstin W. The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

A comprehensive, book-length critical study of Piercy's novels.

Sizemore, Christine W. “Masculine and Feminine Cities: Marge Piercy's Going Down Fast and Fly Away Home.Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies XIII, No. 1 (1992): 90-110.

Examines Piercy's presentation of female characters and their relationship to urban settings in Going Down Fast and Fly Away Home.

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; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120; and Major 20th-Century Writers.

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