Marge Piercy Piercy, Marge (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Jean Rosenbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Piercy's poetry reflects the immediate, specific experiences of daily life—eating breakfast, making love, going to work. It is concerned with the routine business of living and feeling and doing, and it is concerned with these things from a woman's point of view. There is always a danger that poems about little occurrences will become poems of little consequence, that poems which deal with current issues and topics will become mere polemic and propaganda, that poems of the everyday will become pedestrian. To a very large extent, however, Marge Piercy avoids these dangers because most of her poetry contributes to and extends a coherent vision of the world—as it is now and as it should be.

Piercy's desire is for a world of wholeness and completeness, where natural growth and development can lead to a satisfying participation in the fulness of life. As individual poems recount instances in which a sense of wholeness is attempted or gained or lost, they also explore the attitudes and actions necessary for a state of sustained community…. Each thing is connected with every other thing to comprise a unified whole. When one part of the organism is distorted, maimed, or broken off, the integrity of the whole is affected. In her poems, Piercy strikes out at the attitudes, institutions, and structures which impede natural growth and development and thus destroy wholeness; she also celebrates the moments when life is consummate and joyful.

As a woman, Piercy is particularly concerned about women and their ability to participate with integrity in a fully-realized life. In a number of poems, she examines the female growing-up process in America; in each case, the young girl is shown to possess great potential strength and individuality which is slowly but surely diverted or covered over. (pp. 193-94)


(The entire section is 766 words.)

Victor Contoski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Not content to wait for happiness and prosperity in some other life, [Piercy] is driven to find a social and personal happiness on this earth, and the driving force behind her poetry is a stubborn utopian vision. At the same time she remains aware—almost too aware—of the obstacles, social and personal, confronting her. (p. 206)

Her first book, Breaking Camp (… 1968), presents a rather strange mixture of styles. "Last Scene in the First Act,"… a clever, ironic meditation on a pair of lovers, shows the slick poetic technique of the academic poets of the 1950's…. There is even a sonnet. But in spite of such superficial cleverness, a breathing person moves behind the poetry. We know her life, her concerns.

The first poem in the book, "Visiting a Dead Man on a Summer Day" … shows the poet in Graceland cemetery in Chicago where she has gone to visit the tomb of Louis Sullivan. She compares his grave with the Getty tomb and sees the contrast as symbolic of American life. (p. 207)

Such poetry has much in common with propaganda. Its subjects, the country, the past, the poor, are so vast that the poet cannot hope to develop completely her thoughts about them. Instead she relies on a common interpretation of history which she assumes she shares with the reader…. [The] extreme imagery reinforces the basic divisions of the poem. On the one hand we have the heavy, the cold, the mechanical, and the closed-in darkness (mausoleum, iron, sewers, filing cabinets, and Chicago itself); on the other we have the light, the heat, and the organic (men, grass, meteor). Yet much of the impact of the poem comes from imagery that unexpectedly applies to both sides. People burn their body heat naturally, but they are also burned to death by mechanical means in Southeast Asia. (p. 208)

The basic imagery of "Visiting a Dead Man on a Summer Day"—even the title contains the basic contrast between cold and heat—is expanded throughout the rest of Breaking Camp, which itself progresses through summer and winter and ends with the approach of spring…. Body heat between lovers is reflected in the stars of the cosmos, and the image of the meteor, so seemingly casual in the last parts of "Visiting a Dead Man" and "The Peaceable Kingdom" underlies the entire book, indeed her entire utopian vision. Everything and everybody loses heat. People burn—literally in Vietnam, figuratively in love, and even mythologically when the sun god visits a sunbather and burns her to ashes. (pp. 208-09)

In the final poem of the book, "Breaking Camp" … spring begins, but it brings no corresponding regeneration to the human spirit. "Peace," the poet confesses, "was a winter hope." Civilization appears to be breaking up; an atomic holocaust threatens…. The poet and her lover, isolated from the rest of the world, follow their star, though significantly it is a private star, an inward light, "the north star of your magnetic conscience." The community seems to have...

(The entire section is 1247 words.)

Norman Shrapnel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Woman on the Edge of Time] is a telling sermon-novel, or rather two novels capably welded into one. [Piercy] takes the worst imaginable human situation, a woman committed to a mental hospital, bombarded by drugs and abused by experimental surgery, and sets it against the good life—options of the future into which the victim periodically escapes on a time-trip, as if on weekend leave from the battle of life. Battle?—it's a war. And I'm afraid it's the present hell on earth that brings out the best in Piercy, the purity of her range.

Norman Shrapnel, "Survival Path: 'Woman on the Edge of Time'," in The Guardian (© Guardian and Manchester Evening News Ltd, 1979), Vol. 120, No. 22, May 27, 1979, p. 23.

Although she is undoubtedly courageous, it is because of her faults—including a maddening self-righteousness—that Vida [title character of Vida] is a compelling character, one whose personal problems are achingly familiar and whose political dilemma seems only an extreme example of the powerlessness that has overtaken us all in the past decade. In fact, the force with which she is presented as she grapples with the issues of the seventies constitutes the chief strength of this book. But conviction is not art, and it is as an accomplished novel that Vida disappoints. Awkward dialogue, clumsy transitions, and clichéd descriptions only occasionally give way to passages of unselfconscious power, primarily in the flashback scenes. Many of the supporting characters are but names given to various aspects of cultural change, and thus Vida's reactions to them are peculiarly stiff and unilluminating.

Vida's real flaw, however, the one that undercuts its authority as political fiction, is its preoccupation with externalities. Piercy leaves so little to the reader's imagination that while she draws an acute picture of a certain way of life, she fails to convince us that anyone real could be living it.

"Life & Letters: 'Vida'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 245, No. 2, February, 1980, p. 96.

Judith B. Walzer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[For] all its length and its large cast of characters [Vida] tells us little that we don't already know about radical politics in America. The novel is named for its central character, Davida Asch, a radical political activist who has gone underground with the comrades of her sect and travels back and forth across the country, a fugitive. (p. 38)

It ought to have made an exciting book.

Instead, Piercy, who dedicates her work to "the street and alley soldiers," has written an excessively long, rambling, often tedious book, which depends on her sweeping, uncritical acceptance of the Network's version of radical politics….

Vida's work and that of her comrades in the Network, as reflected in the novel, is pathetically simple. In the 1970s, when the present novel takes place, only survival counts, both for each comrade alone and for the sect. Back in the more distant past of 1967 the sect was militantly active and the story recalls that time as a blur of chaotic events, with recognizable dangers but with no definable point to it. For Piercy, the approach of a political issue or argument signals a precipitous descent into slogans…. The characters rant more than speak, sounding like naive parodies of radicals.

It is hard to believe that this is serious business, especially when Piercy continually reduces politics from several simple notions to one basically crude one. Everything...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Vivian Gornick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vida Asch is the center of [Vida]. Beautiful, passionate, capable, the most popular of the Upper West Side revolutionaries, Vida has been a fugitive for nearly 10 years now…. As the novel progresses we see how unreal Vida has become to those in the world she left behind. She no longer exists except inside the fugitive life. (p. 43)

We experience Vida's exhaustion and confusion, her yearning for rest and legality, for an end to a life she knows is merely survival. But, dominated by the stubborn determination like that of a patriotic prisoner of war not to be taken, not to give up or give in, not to let "them" win, she hunches her shoulders and disappears into the winter night: a resister to...

(The entire section is 522 words.)

Elinor Langer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Almost alone among her American contemporaries, Marge Piercy is radical and writer simultaneously, her literary identity so indivisible that it is difficult to say where one leaves off and the other begins…. [She] has used her prose, particularly, to chronicle the lives of those society considers marginal—the young, the mad, the different—or those caught up in the forefront of movements for social change…. "Vida," which follows the life of a young woman radical from her emergence in the antiwar movement of the 1960's through her life in the underground network of the 1970's, evokes life in the radical movement so realistically that it seems at times more literal than imagined. Yet it is also a fully...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Betty Falkenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the whole, what is supposed to pass for honesty in [Vida], in both sexual and political matters, turns out, on closer inspection, to be a routine application of "liberated" attitudes to her characters and situation. The passages that ring true do so because of obsessively observed details….

From a writer who has published six volumes of verse, one might expect a closer attention to language. Piercy tortures adjectives out of nouns, as in "his misfortunate mother," and turns nouns into verbs. She is also guilty of unwittingly grotesque oxymorons…. (p. 18)

The sloppiness of its style betrays the book's underlying sloppiness of thought…. Piercy's book fails to...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Jennifer Uglow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a political novel Vida has certain weaknesses. The narrative is swollen by the need to do justice to the breadth of the counter-culture—everyone gets a mention, from hippies to draft dodgers, organic farmers to drug runners, gay rights activists to Hare Krishna freaks. Involvement is broken by the need to make connexions, place events and disentangle factions. A more serious charge is that the implications of the politics of action involved in "bringing the war home" are not fully confronted….

Indeed the real strength of the book lies not in its historical analysis but in the power with which the loneliness and desolation of the central characters are portrayed. Successors to the...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marge Piercy is a prolific novelist and poet, a one-time organizer for SDS, who has become a spokesman for radical feminism. Though she presents herself as a revolutionary, battling against orthodoxies of every kind—political, cultural, sexual—her novels are surprisingly conventional. In conception and style, in the grim determination of her didactic intentions, her work is reminiscent of the radical-proletarian fiction of the 1930's, in which the message out-weighed the manner of its telling. In each of her six novels, Miss Piercy seizes upon a problem that she regards as symptomatic of a sick, unjust, patriarchal society, and builds a heavily documented narrative around that problem to drive her moral home…....

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Edna Longley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Marge Piercy's drab style] is in fact a shabby raincoat draping [a] naked romanticism…. (p. 310)

The High Cost of Living reads more like a minority report from the margins, unaware of its own share in the pathos it evokes…. Ms. Piercy's identification with her heroine makes overtures towards objectivity. She unclamps Leslie from the rape hot line to test her in the straight world and the academic rat-race. Leslie can be a stern critic of lesbian and feminist introversion. She condemns ex-lover Val's refusal of "real-world skills" and retreat into "a woman's theatre course" and "classes in palmistry and doilymaking." Although Leslie's own pursuit of a further degree has tied her to the...

(The entire section is 451 words.)