Piercy, Marge 1936–
Piercy, an American novelist and poet, is one of the most talented of the "activist writers." She has said that she "[doesn't] understand distinctions between private and social poetry," and the obliteration of that dichotomy—between "political" and "personal"—also distinguishes her fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Marge Piercy will leave a … lasting mark with … Woman on the Edge of Time, although it is not a perfect book. There is nothing like a suburban condition for Piercy; she tackles concepts as large as femininity and temporality, and her work functions in extremes, polarities which conflict and crash to the sound of unmitigated suffering. Those collisions are captured in highly personal and sympathetic human portraits…. (p. 38)
Although jarring at times, the oppositions Piercy sets up between present and future, rich and poor, urban squalor and scientific pastoralism, imprisonment and freedom, never produce caricatures. In fact, her utopia is more believable and moving than many renderings of contemporary reality. Like a latter-day D. H. Lawrence, she sees the future as a revival of tradition, eternal values and human ritual…. The organic is stronger than the synthetic, the real invalidates what is fake, and community thus becomes a state of mind.
Manipulating time in the context of a Kesey-esque mental hospital, Piercy projects the ambiguity of whether reality or imagination is at work; she penetrates the relationship between science fiction and delusion. Woman on the Edge of Time addresses the possibilities of actuality and hallucination. Unfortunately, this gives her almost too many ideas—she has really written two books, the story of [her protagonist's] victimization and a feminist handbook for the 22nd century…. (p. 39)
Woman on the Edge of Time, expanding on the political consciousness of Piercy's other novels and offering a future, resembling something like the 1960s gone right instead of wrong, integrates and internalizes rhetoric by making it the subject matter of plot itself. And Piercy's people, crazy or imagined, are worth caring for. (p. 40)
Celia Betsky, "Books Considered: 'Woman on the Edge of Time'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 175, No. 15, October 9, 1976, pp. 38-40.
Marge Piercy now has eight books to her credit, four novels and four books of poetry. Her work has always had the courage both of her convictions and of its own (the difference between the two has occasionally been one of her problems), and [Woman on the Edge of Time and Living in the Open] are no exception. She is a serious writer who deserves the sort of considered attention which, too often, she does not get.
For instance, none of the reviews of Woman on the Edge of Time I've read to date even seems to have acknowledged its genre….
Some reviewers treated [the] part of the book [when the protagonist is visited by a being from the future] as a regrettable daydream or even a hallucination caused by Connie's madness. Such an interpretation undercuts the entire book…. Other reviewers did not see Connie as insane but took Luciente and her troupe to be a pointless exercise in "science fiction," an exercise which should have no place in a piece of social realism. But Piercy is not that stupid. If she had intended a realistic novel she would have written one. Woman on the Edge of Time is a utopia, with all the virtues and shortcomings of the form, and many of the things reviewers found irksome are indigenous to the genre rather than the author….
[It] is to Piercy's credit that she has...
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given us a very human and rather grouchy traveler and a guide who sometimes loses her temper. (p. 601)
Piercy expends a good deal of energy trying to get every last detail in, to get it right, and to make rather too sure we get the point.
Numerous dangers await the author of a utopia. For one thing, inhabitants of utopias somehow cannot help coming across as slightly sanctimonious and preachy; they've been like that since More. And in addition all utopias suffer from the reader's secret conviction that a perfect world would be dull, so Piercy is careful to liven things up with festivals, ceremonies, nice clothes, and a hopeful description of untrammeled sexual interchange….
This is a genre more at home in 19th-century England than in the America of the 1970s, where moral earnestness seems to have gone out of fashion. It's a daring thing for Piercy to have attempted, and it's entirely in keeping with her previous literary production that she should have done so. Woman on the Edge of Time is like a long inner dialogue in which Piercy answers her own questions about how a revised American society would work. The curious thing about serious utopias, as opposed to the satirical or entertainment variety, is that their authors never seem to write more than one of them; perhaps because they are products, finally, of the moral rather than the literary sense.
To turn from Piercy's utopia to her poetry is to turn from an imagined world to an imagination, from a sense to a sensibility…. I find the poetry more convincing. Piercy is committed to the search for honesty, however painful; to action, however futile; to getting it said and getting it done, however awkward the results may be. She's a feminist and a radical, but her poetry fleshes out these concepts in complex and sometimes startling ways, and she's no simple-minded sloganeer. "I ram on," she says of herself and her poetry; "I must make from this soft body some useful thing."…
Her poetry is "unfashionable," in that it is not flattish, understated, careful or bled. It reads as if she's never been in a creative writing class. The words crowd, lavish and lush, metaphors logjam, polemic rages, similes breed similes and sometimes unconscious puns, and its all part of Piercy's earthy aesthetic…. [Out] of all the surge and flux, the sometimes dutiful rhetoric, Piercy can build moments and sometimes whole poems that she would not have achieved with careful elegance. "People of the Shell," for instance, is superb, and it is not alone. Lines and aphorisms surface, flash and sink, poems transform themselves, words swirl. The literary ancestor here is not Dickinson but Whitman, and the vision is finally, despite the small ironies, a romantic one.
Like Whitman, Piercy must be read in chunks, not sips, and appreciated for her courage, gut energy and verbal fecundity, not for laconic polish. Dancing is hard and you may fall down, her poetry implies, but she is going to dance anyway. She rams on, and the reader can only applaud. (p. 602)
Margaret Atwood, "An Unfashionable Sensibility," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 223, No. 19, December 4, 1976, pp. 601-02.
I'd like to propose a program of civil rights for characters in novels. I don't think it is fair for authors to push them around or malign them just to make a point or put across a message….
Marge Piercy's … novel, "The High Cost of Living," leads me to these reflections. In it she creates just one interesting character—and then destroys him. Not because the logic of his life or his circumstances demands it, because it is dramatically inevitable, but for reasons that I can only conjecture, and that, from all appearances, would seem to be polemical.
In "The High Cost of Living" Leslie, a young lesbian, and Bernie, a young male homosexual, struggle for the affections of Honor, a pretentious 17-year-old virgin. Although neither Leslie nor Bernie will admit it, Honor is so stultifyingly silly that they are more or less forced into an appreciation of each other….
After some rather touching blundering, Leslie and Bernie make love. I found the scene appealing—not because they have "straightened out," but because their love-making develops out of a friendship that is strong enough to surmount difficulties. For a few hours, they are happy, which I am old-fashioned and sentimental enough to enjoy. Then Miss Piercy turns Bernie into an extremely unpleasant creature who is a contradiction of everything that has been happening to him. He becomes a tool for tightening the nuts and bolts of the author's sociology of sex. While Leslie is open to change, Bernie is the leopard, or leper, who cannot change his spots. When the three other men in the novel are exposed as compulsive lechers, one begins to sense a prejudice.
It would take a brave man, in the present social climate, to suggest that male homosexuals in novels tend to be wittier than female ones. Yet it does seem so emphatically true of Bernie and Leslie that I began to wonder whether Miss Piercy might not regard wit as a vice….
Miss Piercy herself does not often condescend to wit, and the felicities of a decent prose style are inconsistent with her seriousness….
At the end of the book, we leave Leslie, who has a black belt in karate, teaching militant women to defend themselves. Defend themselves against whom? I'm tempted to say against Miss Piercy.
Anatole Broyard, "One Critic's Fiction: 'The High Cost of Living'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 22. 1978 p. 14.
Marge Piercy's assumption about our modern confusions of identity seems to be that we hide in ill-fitting categories because they protect us from pain…. Piercy's singular achievement [in The High Cost of Living] is to make [a] prettily vulgar working-class girl [Honor] in Detroit attractive enough so that the other two [characters] are drawn to her…. Currently in a "French phase," [Honor] insists on such pronunciations as "Bernar," "Honorée" and Frenchifying sordid into "sor'id." It all fits perfectly in the sor'id setting of Detroit's forgotten French names like Gratiot, Livernois, and the like….
But Piercy's deeper concern lies with the cautiously-developed intimacy of Leslie and Bernard, which sends them each back into the past, questioning the anxieties and defenses of their sexual natures…. [The] mutual disappointments of Leslie and Bernard emerge almost palpably real. (p. 349)
Yet the novel isn't a test-tube for three characters who fail to resolve each other's problems, despite their final unhappy separateness. Its point of view belongs to Leslie: self-doubting yet fiercely self-disciplined, guilty if she doesn't work the Rape Hot Line or teach the womanly art of self-defense, but equally guilty if she doesn't slave for her Ph.D. in a male-dominated academic game where she also "must" succeed. Piercy captures her feminist anger in some of its predictable formulas ("she did not like the way men used bodies like hers to pin up on their walls and sell toothpaste and decorate glassware and magazines"), but we can't be consistently sure about the irony. Like her protagonist, Piercy it seems could go either way. Her loyalty to the Movement contests with a novelist's need for individual creative freedom, and that conflict riddles her novel with ambivalence. (p. 350)
Dean Flower, "The Way We Live Now," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 343-55.∗
Divided into four sections named for the seasons, [The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing] is rich in imagery, wit, and rhetoric; balanced in statement and detail. Piercy's writing is energetic, ranging from rage to passion to bitterness. She celebrates feminism, loving, nature; she condemns everything from war and sexism to pollution and food additives. She succeeds in what she sets out to do: to weld the personal with the political, the emotional with the intellectual.
"Notes on Current Books: 'The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing'," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1978, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 54, No. 4 (Autumn, 1978), p. 144.
The spirit most felt in ["The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing"] is generous love, but love combined with scrutiny and even humor. Arranged around the seasons, the book moves from city life to a Cape Cod retreat and back again; its concerns are the difficult balances that result when love, self-regard and moral concerns clash and reveal themselves. Like Adrienne Rich and Robert Lowell, but quite distinct from either, she turns her ego into the theater of operations. Politics, domestic tranquility and discord, supportive nature and nurturing art: all are plain-spokenly addressed, with an almost casual sense of form. As she says, "Like the Golem I am makeshift, lumbering." But the artistic ease is more than offset by the emotional drive: "You want only half / of me and I, / I want to be whole." Sometimes the figures go on a bit too long, and a metaphor begins to gasp, splitting its force between the clarity of feeling and the curve of beauty:
a theme from Liszt I cannot have heard since I played it on the piano at age seven: the sensuous honey of melancholy veined smoky with lust.
But there are times when the excess comes right, especially in the funny passages, as this arrival scene at an airport shows:
Either you are met by seven young Marxists who want to know at once What Is To Be Done or one professor who says, What? you have luggage. But I parked in the no parking zone.
The book spills over with a love of place, a restorative sense of home (perhaps its rarest quality), a need for growth and preservation. (p. 58)
Charles Molesworth, "Four Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 26, 1978, pp. 58, 60.∗
Marge Piercy's last book Living in the Open was an excellent one. [The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing] extends some of the themes of the book—of being a woman, a roving poet, a gardener—but not always successfully. The last book was—as the title implied—"open." Here she imposes a seasonal scheme on the poems which does little for the book except to make it look more ordered.
What I often admire in Marge Piercy's work is her ability to give lyrical yet tough-minded exposés of difficult relationships. Often, the emotional courage of her work and her flowing rhythms work together—as a shock, then a healing salve. The danger is that she sometimes over-writes. She is very good when she is cryptic and fanciful at the same time, as here in "the meaningful exchange." The poem teeters on the edge of the surreal and the absurd, but succeeds in making its point very economically and disturbingly.
Elsewhere in the book I sensed the need for further editing. The proliferation of her often very powerful images sometimes works against her; some poems with wonderful passages are marred because they go on too long. Yet Marge Piercy is an important writer in a number of ways: she is charting a world, for men and women, which is often as uncomfortable as it is immediate and neglected. Her particular skill is to make us remember. If it sometimes hurts, it is not out of a desire to shock, but out of the conviction that an honest confrontation with ourselves is the only proper ground for joy. (p. 239)
Keith Harrison, "A Round of Poets," in The Carleton Miscellany (copyright 1979 by Carleton College), Vol. XVII, Nos. 2 & 3, 1979, pp. 234-43.∗