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Marge Piercy 1936–
American poet and novelist.
Piercy is a prominent and sometimes controversial author whose left-wing politics inform and shape her work. She has said that she became aware of social and political injustice at an early age. As her politics developed, Piercy's attitude and writing became more specifically feminist in focus.
Piercy has said that she doesn't "understand distinctions between private and social poetry"; the obliteration of that dichotomy—between "political" and "personal"—characterizes her fiction as well as her poetry. Her writing reflects a continual struggle to reconcile the disparity between an individual's attempt to realize his or her potential and the conditions of contemporary society working against such personal growth.
Although her novels are generally realistic reflections of contemporary society—for example, her recent Braided Lives (1983) explores the hardships encountered by a woman coming of age in the 1950s—Piercy has also experimented with science fiction. Her first attempt, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970), depicts a dystopia, drawing many parallels with the turmoil of the 1960s. Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) portrays a utopia set in the year 2137. In this novel Piercy restructures traditional institutions such as marriage, capitalism, and patriarchal power, offering an alternative equally beneficial to both men and women.
Piercy's voice, sometimes raw and angry, other times tender and warm, infuses her poems with a force so bold and immediate that it alienates some critics, while others praise her for her courageous and hearty energy. Her earlier volumes were marked by an outraged protest that has lightened with more recent works, notably The Moon Is Always Female (1980). In this volume her images draw on nature and commonplace objects to evoke not only anger, but also humor and a celebration of life.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 14, 18 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
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Marge Piercy is full of exhortation. Her first novel ["Going Down Fast"]—about urban "renewal," the radical community, the tab-top non-calorific managerial class in Chicago—seizes you by the lapels (or the dashiki) and flings you into a bomb site. Her "fate" is man-made, a compound of power and venality; her method, a relentless exactitude, a Doris Lessing like accumulation of raw detail.
"Going Down Fast" refers both to buildings under the wrecker's ball and to the people living in those buildings, the permanently evicted. From multiple points of view Miss Piercy tells the interconnected stories of two young female teachers (Jewish, black), a blues singer, a welfare caseworker, an underground filmmaker. Their deceptions and accommodations weave in and out of a political essay vividly describing how real estate promoters, social scientists and a university make war not for, but on, the poor.
Miss Piercy has previously published two books of poetry. Her gift attends her here, in evoking the awful grandeur of steel towns, the sexual magic of money, the claustrophobia of refuge, the desperation of the self-seeking and the self-deceived. That her characters should derive from their experience madness or death or radical commitment flows convincingly from the logic of the "fat" nation she examines.
Given our technology, Miss Piercy is saying, we no longer need a labor pool of the unskilled. Organized, such a labor pool (such Luddites, allied with ideologues) might inconvenience the mechanisms of consumption. We are, she says, prepared to rid ourselves of this inconvenience, while wearing our pieties like boutonnieres. I believe her, and her savage novel.
John Leonard, "Two Good Books. Two Different Realities," in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1969, p. 45.∗
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[Once inside Marge Piercy's "Going Down Fast"] you find a lively, vital montage of the protest establishment, Chicago style. The title implies a downbeat motif: a callously conceived university housing project slamming into a poor neighborhood thickly seeded with the intelligentsia. But before the walls come tumbling down, Miss Piercy exhibits some life styles that offer a low enough silhouette to survive urban demolition….
Miss Piercy fills a rapidly shifting scene with well-defined characters, and attunes them to the swing of the wreckers' ball…. [She] gets beneath the skins of her dramatis personae, black and white. Some transient trappings notwithstanding, the motivation of Rowley and Anna is as durable as what moved Tristan and Isolde.
Martin Levin, in a review of "Going Down Fast," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 9, 1969, p. 70.
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Writers who serve two muses—the muse of poetry and the muse of prose—often find that their passionate and intense lyrical outbursts find their way into poems, while their longer speculations on society and the way people interact with each other psychologically and politically, grow into novels. This is the case with Marge Piercy, an immensely gifted poet and novelist whose range and versatility have made it hard for her talents to be adequately appreciated critically. (pp. 12, 14)
Though her novel, "Small Changes," was rather too polemical for my taste, there is no denying that each of her novels has been breathtakingly ambitious and clearly the work of a major talent. I have followed her poems closely … and this new book, "Living in the Open," is undoubtedly the best. The style is the same style Piercy had grown into by her first book: powerfully rhythmic free verse which uses vivid, often surreal images…. Piercy's is a poetry of statement as well as a poetry of image; often, in fact, the image makes the statement…. It is a poetry remarkably free of artifice for artifice's sake, free of posturing of any sort. It is direct, powerful and accessible without being unsubtle…. (p. 14)
Erica Jong, in a review of "Living In the Open," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 12, 1976, pp. 12, 14, 16.
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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. (p. 194)
[As Piercy sees it, the] incredibly strong and vital woman inside the passive girl-child will eventually explode or bloom. The intense pressure demands resolution. The resolution is complex, however. Does the explosion preclude the bloom or does it cause it? What is destroyed by the grenade—the inner person or outward appearances and false, constricting assumptions? What is necessary for the flower to bloom? Using the same image of the flower [found in "The woman in the ordinary"], the poem, "The morning half-life blues," summarizes the situation by juxtaposing and contrasting the sterile, depersonalized, self-denigrating half-life endured by young working girls with the natural, productive lives for which they yearn…. In the poem, the world of metal and concrete assumes metaphorically the role of natural sustainer, but it cannot give real warmth or nourishment: The synthetic "fuzzy coats promised to be warm as fur," but they are not; the "grove of skyscrapers" should furnish a sheltering garden where individuals can cease being inanimate commodities, but here is no such garden. Piercy is not arguing for an isolated retreat from society but for a real community where "work is real" and life is not a half-life, where life can ripen into "sound fruit," not be frozen at its beginning.
If the fulfillment of healthy growth is the good to be striven for, then how can women—whose development is stunted at every stage by the culture in which they live, by the mothers and fathers and lovers and strangers with whom they interact, and by their own too passive acquiesence in the process—ever hope to achieve a mature strength, a unified wholeness? Piercy believes that first there must be a conscious experience of self-realization; a woman must become aware of herself as independent person. The woman must acknowledge that even though she has been formed in large part out of the pervading culture, she is still finally responsible for herself. She alone can initiate changing in her situation. The ability to do so, moreover, is already present in her, for she has great strength…. (pp. 195-97)
The birth of one's own world is an exultant event, but one which is often accompanied by pain. Part of the process of self-realization involves learning to be assertive, egotistical, convinced of one's own worth and independent strength. This is a positive, healthy development even though it may mean a slow and painful growth away from someone…. (p. 198)
The woman who has been her own magician, who knows and likes herself and accepts her inborn strength is magnificent to behold and deserving of praise. In her poem, "Icon," Piercy describes such a woman: powerful, alert, unsubjugated, with mind and body interacting harmoniously…. (p. 199)
In addition to being whole within her self, a woman must interact with others, both women and men. She must resolutely retain her personal integrity while simultaneously searching out and sustaining the integrity of others. This task demands the ability to be open to experiencing other people, to be able to reach out and touch, to trust, to risk hurt. All of these things are made especially difficult by a culture in which competition and possession are primary values and values which extend to personal relationships. (p. 200)
If, in the past, women have been betrayed by other women, they have also been betrayed by the very men they have fought so hard to please, and the betrayal has been of the mind and spirit as well as the body. In a particularly painful and bitter poem, "In the men's room(s)," Piercy describes a woman who has believed that she will be accepted as men's equal if she ignores the typical bread and babies concerns of women and joins instead in the high-minded, abstract, intellectual pursuits of men…. Her recognition that men perceive an offering of "breasts and thighs" no matter what the woman's intent leads Piercy to reject "abstract nouns" as the absolute good. Traditionally, a male/female dichotomy has been assumed in which the male has been viewed primarily as an objective, rational, abstract theorizer, too busy with the important intellectual progress of the world to be bothered by daily problems. The female, on the other hand, has been viewed primarily as an emotional, subjective, grubby doer of ordinary tasks. Man equals mind equals significant mode of knowing and being; woman equals body equals lesser mode of knowing and being. What Piercy wants to do is to change the value assigned to these two modes; and, in addition, she wants to synthesize and unify the separate parts to form whole people: thinking, feeling men and women, confident in mind and body.
The idea sounds absurdly simple and almost self-evidently commonplace. Who would disagree? And yet, the difficulty of living the idea is made apparent in particular situations, in isolated experience of everyday life, and it is the difficulty of this struggle for completeness which underlies Piercy's poems of men and women together. (pp. 201-02)
Jean Rosenbaum, "You Are Your Own Magician: A Vision of Integrity in the Poetry of Marge Piercy," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1977, by Jerome Mazzaro), Vol. VIII, No. 3, Winter, 1977, pp. 193-205.
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Because of Marge Piercy's strong views on social reform, from the very beginning her work has almost automatically divided people into two groups: those opposed to wide-sweeping social reform, and those in favor of it. Nevertheless she finds herself in the rather ambiguous position of being recognized, even embraced, by both the Movement, loosely-bound groups dedicated to radical change in American life, and the Establishment. She writes about radical living styles, communes, war protests, and women's liberation; yet her books are published by such institutions as Pocket Books and Doubleday. The standard technique of propaganda, over-simplification, separates "them" from "us" in her work; yet once this distinction has been made, her best work, while retaining elements of propaganda, notes similarities between the two groups as well as differences. While it focuses on the social problems of America, it focuses also on her own personal problems, so that tension exists not only between "us" and "them," but between "us" and "me."
Not content to wait for happiness and prosperity in some other life, she 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. In "The Peaceable Kingdom" (Breaking Camp …), she comments on the famous American painting by Edward Hicks wherein all animals live side by side in idyllic harmony. (pp. 205-06)
The poem contrasts Hicks's fantasy with the actual history of the United States…. This contrast between American dream and American reality motivates Marge Piercy's poetry. (pp. 206-07)
Her first book, Breaking Camp …, 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…. In "A Cold and Married War" she complains of her lover's indifference: "His cock crowed / I know you not." 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)
[This poem] 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 image of the poor housed in sewers and filing cabinets is a startling exaggeration which serves both poetry and propaganda. And 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. And the state, which throughout the poem is associated with the cold and the mechanical, has a "vast rumbling gut" which digests its members—and we are shocked by the natural imagery in its unnatural context.
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. "S. Dead," "Hallow Eve with Spaces for Ghosts," and "Landed Fish" (which concerns the death of her Uncle Danny) are other poems which treat the relationship between the living and the dead. 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 contrast "The Simplification" … presents a capitalist, who like the poet, burns—but with coldness instead of heat. And his "burning" moves the business world…. Rooms revolve (beautiful word!) around him like planets around a sun, and suddenly we move from the specific to the general. The basic opposition of the two systems results not only from their differences in America in the 1960's but from their elemental opposition throughout the galaxies of our universe.
But, as the title "The Simplification" suggests, the poet is not content to rest with such broad division between the good and the bad. In "The 184th Demonstration" … she notes uneasily similarities between the two. (p. 209)
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 vanished.
Hard Loving … bears a two line dedication: "from the Movement/to the Movement." The prefatory poem, "Walking into Love" …, which seems to continue the journey begun in the last poem of her previous book, sets a double focus.
The eyes of others
measure and condemn.
The eyes of others are watches ticking no.
My friend hates you.
Between you I turn and turn
holding my arm as if it were broken.
She seeks a personal and a social love, and both come hard. "Others" oppose the lovers. Even in her own group, one of her friends hates the lover (no half-way emotions in Piercy's circles). The poet is torn not only between society in general and her lover, but between him and a close friend; and this fragmentation of the radicals, the "we" of Piercy's elemental opposites, sets the tone of the book.
In the first of three sections, "The Death of the Small Commune," she shows the difficulties of building a new society. "Community" … presents a demonstration in front of the Pentagon, "our Bastille," where generals "armed like Martians" seem to lack even the appearance of humans. Yet the next two poems show the defenseless poet threatened not by generals but by those around her. She no longer distinguishes between "them" and "us" but between "them" and "me." In "Embryos" … she is so frail that the very size of the physical world menaces her…. Then come poems concerning other members of the small commune, and the last three poems in the section deal with falling out of love, first with an individual, then with the community itself. (pp. 210-11)
Then she withdraws from the commune into a new personal relationship. Her social sense, always present, seems less imperative. When love comes, it is simple, intense, and physical…. Such love restores the poet…. (pp. 211-12)
Yet she cannot conceive an idealistic love that transcends the flesh. In "Crabs" … she looks at coitus from the point of view of the insects, a technique well suited to mocking romantic love…. The final lines of this apparently whimsical poem show the poet's bitterness…. The boundary between the real and the ideal remains. Indeed, the title Hard Loving seems like an understatement.
The poet then returns to a social context in the third section, "Curse of the Earth Magician," striving to broaden her love so that she can share it with all her comrades. The symbol of the Pentagon returns. In spite of the failures in the first section, the poet here tries again to recapture at least part of the American dream, the Peaceable Kingdom. The man she loves serves not as a retreat into domesticity and the white suburbs but as a symbol of what society too can accomplish. Emboldened by her love, she speaks with a new certainty. A fatalistic Nordic philosophy runs through the section…. One must fight, though the battle and even the war might well be lost. Her fatalism, rage, and love make a haunting poetry, a poetry of propaganda such as we have not yet had in America. (p. 212)
The book ends with humanity at the point of making one of its most crucial choices. "Sisters and brothers in movement," she proclaims, "we carry in the wet cuneiform of proteins / the long history of working to be human." Mankind must either "fail into ashes, / fail into metal and dry bones and paper,/or break through into a sea of shared abundance/where man shall join man / in salty joy, in flowing trust."
But in To Be of Use … we find a different kind of fragmentation of the "sisters and brothers" of the Movement. Here men are equated with the mechanical life-destroying forces in the universe, women with the natural life-enhancing ones. The first section of the book, "A Just Anger," is composed of poems of outrage, an outrage directed, for the most part, against the male establishment that has condemned the poet and her sisters to secondary roles in life. Unfortunately most of the poems in this section fail as poetry because both oppressed and oppressors are utterly predictable. Yet if the level of poetry is somewhat below Piercy's usual standards because her rage is directed exclusively at "them," the poems are nevertheless important in that they present an aspect of the real world so far from the American dream that merely to describe it becomes a call for social reform.
The second section is more optimistic. The poet includes several love poems, although sex here is less a unification than a collision—sometimes an explosion…. In "Doing It Differently" she seeks new relationships between male and female, but social institutions intrude. The problem remains that personal equality cannot come without a corresponding change in institutions, which in turn cannot change without new personal relationships. (pp. 213-14)
The third section consists of eleven poems to woodcuts of tarot cards. Among the author's most ambitious work, they attempt nothing less than a remaking of some of the myths behind western culture…. [Her] emphasis on myth, as opposed to plain truth or lies, implies an emphasis on the non-rational, the subconscious, the archetypal, which hitherto have played but a small role in her work. (pp. 214-15)
The book ends with one of Marge Piercy's strangest poems, one which presents a mystic utopian vision of the future as a wondrous Child. But unlike her earlier glance at the Peaceable Kingdom, when she consciously reminded herself and the reader of the animals she had eaten, here is none of the rationality of the earlier experience. She who has always been so certain with words finds that she can describe her vision only in negative terms and questions. It blinds her, stuns her. (p. 215)
Marge Piercy's work as a whole shares much with propaganda: passionate commitment, power, and simplicity. Her poetry is emotional, righteous, and often clever, lacking, by and large, the subtle insights and revelations of wisdom, though it may be developing them. In her passion for a new order she sees motes everywhere, even in her own eyes, and casts them out with a vengeance—sometimes so violently she takes the eyes out with them. Much of her energy appears negative: she opposes more strongly than she supports; she hates more passionately than she loves. Yet in spite of these characteristics, or perhaps because of them, a vision of an ideal life, a Peaceable Kingdom, pervades her work, a vision that remains impressive precisely because she must work so hard to maintain it. (p. 216)
Victor Contoski, "Marge Piercy: A Vision of the Peaceable Kingdom," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1977, by Jerome Mazzaro), Vol. VIII, No. 3, Winter, 1977, pp. 205-16.
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In Marge Piercy's The Moon Is Always Female … interests in epistemology are reduced to interests in female and male consciousness. For Piercy, poetry becomes a masking or "lateral sliding" continually threatened by a "woman inside" and a lover's demands. Love presumably is a mutual wanting wherein both parties fight each other for their fulfillments, each wrestling to open the other up ("Arriving"). Individual poems, however, are likely to stress only the woman's role and anguish. "Excursions, incursions," for instance, describes a series of female/male encounters in which women are unwilling objects of sex fantasies, unwanted intruders into male domains, and betrayers of their mothers' dreams. Like its opposition of art and science, the poem is unsympathetic to male needs, programmatic, and conventional. Indeed, one gathers from these poems that, much as girls dress dolls, situations are continually adorned and readorned with apparel stamped not from Barbie patterns but from liberation cant. What Piercy wants ultimately is woman's choice—not only in goals and roles but also in childbearing. As a propagandist for these views, she may be excused for being polemical, two-dimensional, and sloganish, and the exaggerated oppositions and repetitions of the syntax may be seen as stemming more from oratorical technique than lyrical form. Her poetry is best when she is opposing either her lover ("A battle of wills disguised," "Season of hard wind," "Apologies") or her mother ("My mother's novel," "Crescent moon like a canoe"), but one never senses that, as Stein claimed for poets, she has "ever felt anything in words." The poems are earned; the rhythms flat, more a result of workshops than of ear; and the words appear chosen for accuracy rather than joy. (pp. 457-58)
Jerome Mazzaro, "At the Start of the Eighties," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1980 by the Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1980, pp. 455-68.∗
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Marge Piercy is known in England mainly as a novelist. That the author of Vida and Woman on the Edge of Time is also a powerful, distinctively American poet may come as a surprise, even to her admirers. As might be expected, The Moon is Always Female reflects the uncompromising bias of the committed feminist, of which some of us by now are weary. But Marge Piercy's poems are so energetic and so intelligent that weariness is out of the question. This is, in fact, her sixth book of poems, and it is an excellent one. A tough, often humorous, sometimes angry view of herself emerges from the poems, yet they are free of embitterment. They lack that harsh edge of hysterical accusation—as if with a few nasty words one could instantly abolish half the human race—which spoils so many poems by women these days. Here, finally, is a feminist artist for whom one need rarely blush.
The Moon is Always Female is gratifyingly longer than most poetry volumes, and absorbing throughout. In effect, Ms Piercy is still a novelist in her poems; she has perfected an easy-flowing unrhymed line in which she says what she means with few frills. If you object to poems that tell you things, then you will not like this book. As for myself, I cannot resist delighting in such lines as "All / things have their uses / except morality / in the woods" ("Indian pipe") or "I find it easy to admire in trees / what depresses me in people" ("The doughty oaks")….
Apart from some endearing poems about her cats, Piercy's work scarcely qualifies as tender. Her love poems are fierce, even vulgar (possibly she wants to sound vulgar; vulgarity defeats gentility). Energy and exuberance render her extremely likable, however, even when she is howling—or preaching….
It is possible, of course, to find all … [Piercy's] feminist rabble-rousing annoying. However good the advice, poetry may not be the best vehicle for it. Indeed, if Marge Piercy were only a rabble-rouser she would not be a poet. The fact is, she can be as subtle as anyone writing today…. All … [the poems here] are interesting, some are masterpieces. One called "At the well" borrows an aged witch from Celtic mythology and gives her a fight with an angel. The witch represents magic, if you like, or superstition; certainly fear of suffering and a longing for safety. The angel represents the trans-sexual spirit of existence itself: youth and age, pain and happiness, good and evil. In the course of the fight the witch thrusts the angel from her. "Get from me / wielder of the heart's mirages", she cries "I will follow you to no more graves." So the angel departs. The witch is left blind. Fortunately the moral is not drawn. The poem trembles with an ambiguity which is its power. "At the well" alone would convince me that Marge Piercy is one of America's major writers….
[The] strength of Piercy's work is its outwardness, its frankness. Even if you do not agree with her, you have to meet Marge Piercy half way.
Anne Stevenson. "The Heart's Mirages," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4060, January 23, 1981, p. 81.
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In my January column I promised I would return to the poetry of Marge Piercy. Now I'll tell you why. I had spent a rainy Sunday reading poetry—three volumes that day. The first two I read were by a member of the literary Establishment and were the kind of poetry I generally praise—for controlled metrical form, often with rhyme, understatement, wit, irony, rationality, a tone that is intellectual, genteel, delicately sensitive, precise. And I nodded half the day.
I was left with a throat dry with admiration….
It happened that I had checked out the only available volume of Marge Piercy's poetry from our local library. I had recently read her latest novel, Vida, and was so excited by that book that I wanted to know her poetry better (which I had seen only occasionally, scattered in little magazines). After doing my duty with those other volumes that Sunday, I turned to Piercy. She relieved my parched throat.
The reason is simple. Her poetry is readable. Poem after poem made sense, was moving, engaging, amusing, entertaining, insightful. Each made a human connection. I felt as if I were being spoken to by a person who really wanted me to hear her and to know why it was important that I hear. (p. 56)
Readability, incidentally, has nothing much to do with difficulty…. Most of the poetry through the centuries has been difficult—but if it endured, it was also readable. The poetry of Marge Piercy is not simple. But, unlike much poetry published today, it was intended to be understood.
In addition to readability, it has gusto. As a critical term, gusto has fallen out of currency…. [Gusto] is not mere exuberance, but exuberance channeled by an insistence on accuracy. The exact hurrah. Or the exact bellow—for exuberance is not always expressed in celebration.
You get a little of the bellow and the hurrah in ["What it costs"], from Piercy's latest collection, The Moon Is Always Female…. Consider the possibilities, those hundreds of you who send me poems of disappointed love each year. You can whine about it—and most of you do. You can lash out at the lousy lover who had such bad judgment in leaving you—and many of you do that. Or you might, as this poem does, say: "This is my problem. I have to survive." (pp. 56, 58)
It is enthusiasm for life, so intent that it cannot afford sloppy responses, that generates Piercy's celebrations of love, of gardening and nature, of other strong people (especially strong women)—and her anger at the corporate system that indifferently poisons our lives, at our imperialistic wars, at male domination that feeds those evils, at small-mindedness and hypocritical self-seeking, at the leeches who attach themselves to her career as poet and novelist, at life-destroying forces everywhere. That gusto generates her powerful imagery, the energy of her clear, direct, no-nonsense sentences, and the throbbing rhythm of her lines.
Her poems are saved from propaganda simplicities by the recognition of difficulty. Her love poetry (usually to one person, usually to a man, but sometimes to a woman, and sometimes to groups in which she is linked by love) is more convincing than most because it almost always acknowledges the problems, both in herself and others, that interfere with simple joy. (p. 58)
One never senses complacency. Reading one of her more strident poems, "For strong women," I was amused to think of it in comparison with Kipling's "If."… Instructing his "Son" to be a man, Kipling describes a superhuman cool, a calm, cautious superiority. Piercy's ideal of strong women is one of passionate involvement, vulnerable, agonizing, torn by the inevitable "weakness" of craving love. (pp. 58-9)
Kipling, though, has one advantage over Piercy. No daughter, however encouraged by her mother (or father), is likely to memorize "For strong women," and so not even such scraps of this poem will be preserved as have been those scraps of "If" that remain in my mind after 30-odd years when the text is not at hand. (p. 59)
Memorability may not be an important goal for Marge Piercy…. But I think we have reached the point at which the label poetry has been stretched into meaninglessness. We may need new forms. (pp. 59, 61)
Meanwhile, we live with what we get—and if you want the rare experience of reading through a book of poetry with the pleasure and engagement you would have reading a book of good prose, try the work of Marge Piercy…. (p. 61)
Judson Jerome, "Grabbing the Gusto" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Writer's Digest, Vol. 61, No. 7, July, 1981, pp. 56, 58-9, 61.
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The rise of feminism over the last 15 years has been accompanied by a proliferation of feminist novels—frankly didactic Bildungsromans whose subject is the education of a heroine, and of the reader, too, into the painful realities of woman's place. Some of these novels are complex and inventive…. Others are as pat as pamphlets. All, however, share a moral urgency, a zest for the role of tutor, that seem more characteristic of the 19th century than our own….
Fifteen years is a long time, though—long enough, you'd think, for everyone not enrolled in a Total Woman seminar to have gotten the message. As I cracked open Marge Piercy's fat new novel ["Braided Lives"], which is about growing up female in the 50's, I must say I wondered if she could possibly have anything to say that has not already been said—and said and said—before. Does she? Well, yes and no.
If you remember—or fantasize—the 50's as an era of innocent pleasures and social harmony, think again. For Jill Stuart, our narrator, and her friends, the 50's mean McCarthyism, an intellectual climate of stodgy conservatism, sex without birth control, and a vicious, though covert, struggle for power between the sexes. Jill is impulsive, rebellious, smart, an outsider from the start, a half-Jewish tomboy who hangs out with the local toughs in her working-class Detroit neighborhood, writes poetry, and worries that her sex play with her girl friends means that she is "an L." A scholarship to college is her chance to escape the life of female drudgery that has already claimed her best friend, Callie, pregnant and married off to a garage mechanic by 16. Jill's parents think such a life is good enough for their daughter—the father out of indifference (he had wanted a son), the mother out of resentment at her own balked life that has come in middle age to border on lunacy.
At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Jill discovers literature, politics and the rich female life of the dormitory. Her closest friend is her blonde, beautiful, boy-crazy cousin Donna, but there are others: sarcastic Julie; sad, hard-drinking Theo; Alberta Mann, the long-haired folk singer whose parents are Communists. Jill and her friends are the campus bohemians—they read Sartre, drink Chianti and scorn the "pink, plastic" girls who won't sleep with their boyfriends. Their hunger for experience, however, leads them smack up against the repressive sexual mores—and reality—of the day. One moment they are declaiming the need for total honesty with men and vowing that they will never end up possessive and dependent like their mothers. The next, they are worrying that they will do something "castrating" to their boyfriends, in whom they wouldn't dream of confiding their frequent pregnancy scares.
"Free love!" sneers Jill's mother, who sees men as powerful but stupid deities to be placated and deceived. And she is on to something. Jill's pretentious Existentialist-poet boyfriend Mike does dump Jill when her parents try to force him to marry her, just as Mrs. Stuart said he would. (p. 7)
Jill will recover from Mike's traumatic desertion and continue to look for a love that does not entail her subjection—with rich sinister Peter, with her townie thief, with warm intelligent Howie. We know from page one that Jill's quest is eventually successful—she will become the well-known poet and feminist activist who lives happily on Cape Cod with her lover and writes these memoirs. Not everyone fares so well. One friend will die of an illegal abortion. Another will become a civilrights worker and be murdered by racists in the South. Julie will marry dopey Carl and subside into domesticity. Others, however, will blossom in the political ferment of the 60's: Alberta will become a feminist lawyer. The women's movement will rescue Theo from her madness. Stephanie will open a hippie boutique. As Jill says, "We were all a little crazy in the 50's, but we've been getting clearer and clearer ever since."
Hear, hear. It's always refreshing to have someone speak up for the 60's, and I'm sure I'm not the only veteran of those years who takes a certain pleasure in books that point out how bad the bad old days that preceded them really were. Much of Piercy's material will be familiar, even platitudinous, to readers of, say, "The Bell Jar," "The Women's Room" or even Ms. magazine. But the accent is placed in a new and bracing way.
Too many heroines of feminist novels are privileged, fragile innocents. A discouraging professor, a patronizing boyfriend, a pushy parent are enough to make them resign their ambitions and sleepwalk into obedient housekeeping for a husband the reader can see from the start is a creep. Piercy's women are fighters. Jill is as eager to explore sexuality as any young man; she listens to Mike and her professors disparage her poetry and keeps right on writing; she breaks laws. Donna also actively seeks sexual pleasure, and even when married persists, however furtively, in asserting her will. Even Jill's ignorant, witchy mother has her weapons, the old-fashioned female ones of hysteria and subterfuge.
Piercy burns with anger and conviction, and much of the time it's catching. We are as outraged as she by the doctors who refuse to fit Jill with a diaphragm because she is unmarried, by the abortions without anesthetic or follow-up care, by vital young women producing earnest, self-castigating Freudian analyses of their failure to "adjust."
I wish Piercy had been content to let a part stand for the whole. But as though afraid we will overlook some facet of female misery if she doesn't drum it into our heads, she methodically makes poor Jill & Company victims of every possible social cruelty and male treachery, usually more than once. Besides her two abortions and the rape, Donna is seduced as a teenager by her sister's husband, betrayed by a married man who tells her he's getting a divorce, addicted to tranquilizers by her psychiatrist and beaten by her husband, who also purposely makes the tiny hole in her diaphragm that results in the pregnancy that dooms her…. Even Jill, who is tougher than her friends, is sexually attacked by her boyfriend at age 14, forced to make love by Mike when she doesn't want to, sodomized against her will by Peter. And so on. All right, all right! I wanted to shout, I get the point!
Because Piercy is an intensely dramatic writer, none of this is, scene by scene, incredible. Cumulatively, though, it does wear one down. Were there no loving fathers in the 50's? No honorable boyfriends? No professors who encouraged their female students? There were times when I suspected that the author was unwilling to edit autobiographical material—"But Theo really was raped by her psychiatrist!"—and times when I thought she simply felt she owed it to women to recite the complete catalogue of female suffering. Whatever her reasons, they give "Braided Lives" a lurid predictability, like a kind of feminist National Enquirer, and a tone, too, of patronizing the reader.
While it never quite loses its energy and forward motion, "Braided Lives" is less compelling than Piercy's last novel, "Vida."… (pp. 7, 30)
That "Braided Lives" is as interesting as it is is a tribute to Piercy's strengths. She is blunt, she is heavy-handed—she's certainly no prose stylist—and yet by virtue of her sheer force of conviction, plus a flair for scene writing, she writes thought-provoking, persuasive novels, fiction that is both political and aimed at a popular audience but that is never just a polemic or just a potboiler. "Braided Lives" won't win any literary prizes, but it will make its readers pay more attention to the current attack on legal abortion, and make them more eager to defend the imperiled gains of the women's movement. For a novelist whose aim is didactic, that's no small compliment. (p. 31)
Katha Pollitt, "A Complete Catalog of Female Suffering," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 7, 1982, pp. 7, 30-1.
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This is Marge Piercy's seventh novel, a fact that numerologists would have us believe augurs well for its success. A more substantial contribution to that success is the fact that Braided Lives is Piercy's best novel to date.
Those of us who have anticipated each of Piercy's offerings with increasing delight will not be disappointed; readers who are unfamiliar with Piercy's work but who enjoyed The Bell Jar or The Women's Room will need no further introduction to this novel. But the reader who has the most to gain in seeking out Piercy's work is the one to whom a blend of fiction and feminism seem anathema: Braided Lives offers a convincing and honest depiction of women's reality….
Braided Lives has a great deal to do with finding one's own voice, a personal style in life as well as art…. Just as Piercy gave us an unerring vision of the radical underground of the 1970's in Vida and of the alternative lifestyles of the 1960's in Small Changes, this novel is a pointed and unsentimental look at a decade that both taught women their place and set the stage for a reversal of that education.
Braided Lives is, above all, a novel of conscience. Its vision is direct and unclouded by nostalgia or apology for the way we were. The women in Braided Lives are complex and conflicted: the unfolding of their stories compels us to see how society—embodied in the family, schools, the workplace, and marriage—marks each of us. Piercy may not offer the same compassion in her depiction of the novel's male characters, but the villain here is not one individual or even a particular group but rather a system (call it sexism, although the term is never used here) that oppresses all those who accept its rules.
Piercy does not yield to the temptation of making the past over in light of the present but provides, in brief passages, the compassionate and knowing voice of the present-day Donna who, at the age of forty-three, lives a life that is content and whole. Donna is a survivor, and she chooses to examine her own past out of a strong commitment to the present….
The parallel voices of the young and middle-aged narrator remind us of how easily the hard-won advance of the women's movement—especially the availability of safe and legal abortion—may be jeopardized in a time of conservative reaction. Piercy does not flinch in her recital of a period that was both repressive to endure and painful to recall. But she also tells a story of personal courage and endurance, a statement about what some women and men have chosen to leave behind. That the journey back is honest and engaging is testament to Piercy's skill.
Renee Gold, in a review of "Braided Lives," in Wilson Library Bulletin (copyright © 1982 by the H. W. Wilson Company), Vol. 56, No. 7, March, 1982, p. 548.
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For her seventh and most poetically written novel [Braided Lives], Marge Piercy has chosen a subject often tapped by women in their first books—growing up in the '50s without becoming conventional or going mad….
Piercy gives up-to-date glimpses of her characters' lives in italicized passages, showing the beginning and the fruits of their political growth. She leaves the time in between, when ostensibly each went through great upheavals, to the reader's imagination. Piercy's previous works fill in the gap; she has made such changes her primary concern. Her power as a novelist, however, rests in her ability to present feminist radical politics in the context of a riveting story, and she hasn't really done that here.
The flash-forward biographical tidbits are tantalizing, for the events alluded to are fresher than those covered in more depth. They are, though, too sketchy to provide a satisfying picture of the characters "today." For example, after a horrifying account of Jill's self-induced abortion, Piercy offers in italics the information that she subsequently set up an illegal abortion service. A more complete and dramatic presentation of this later organizing effort would have had great power, and particular political relevance now.
But these pieces of the future elevate the predictable episodes of the '50s from the ghetto of personal experience to the foundations of the feminist realpolitik. Piercy has, shrewdly or unconsciously, used a revisionist process in choosing what to present; each scene obviously is a spark for later political development. Jill is taken through a series of unsatisfying and degrading relationships, but their importance becomes clear only when we are told, in italics, that she went through a period of rejecting men before finally accepting the love of a truly caring man.
In this novel, for the first time, Piercy presents her older characters in more than a perfunctory way, and uses her flash-forward technique, though to a lesser extent, to demonstrate growth in them as well….
Because we don't witness the personal and political transformations of the characters, with all the doubts and backsliding entailed, the struggle to reach enlightenment seems deceptively easy, and life after revelation unrealistically sweet. But this makes Braided Lives the most positive of Piercy's works—the only one in which she holds out hope for personal fulfillment.
Wendy Schwartz, in a review of "Braided Lives" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1982), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVII, No. 13, March 30, 1982, p. 42.
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Shortly after I agreed to review Marge Piercy's latest collection of poems, The Moon Is Always Female, two poets warned me that this was a disappointing collection. Two other friends told me they had not yet read the book but they had heard it was not very good. Maybe it's true this time, I thought. The title, after all, did not seem promising, and all poets—especially prolific poets with great technical facility—do tend to repeat themselves.
I should have known better….
The first two poems of "The Lunar Cycle" (the second section of the book) are alone worth the price of admission. The point is that when many magazines and publishers are printing poems and volumes of moderate technical proficiency and no energy at all, Piercy is continuing to write poems that matter to people's lives, men's lives as well as women's.
Some other things need to be said right off. There are three things that Piercy does technically as well as any American poet writing. She is the American master of the simile. In poem after poem similes continually startle a reader…. Secondly, she repeats phrases until they become litanies, but the phrases are colloquial, grounded in American speech…. Finally—and this is a more recent development—she has mastered long sentences that build, line after line, to a crescendo, and these she usually follows with short, simple sentences.
Yes, sometimes a simile seems contrived; it merely surprises. Like all prolific poets, Piercy sometimes does repeat herself, and a reader can say, "She has done that better elsewhere." Yes, some poems are relatively weak measured by the extremely high standards Piercy has set for herself. But Piercy writes with a learned intelligence. She simply knows more, in more detail, than most other poets know, and that knowledge may be the intimate experience of tides or the book knowledge of the behavior of dolphins. Both come alive in the poems. She is invariably passionate, even in quiet poems. And—what reviewers often forget because of the seriousness and political character of much of her work—she is a very funny poet. Auditors often laugh at Piercy's readings—not quiet, knowing chuckles, but roars full of gusto. An attentive reader of her books will do the same thing….
Piercy also writes quiet, sure poems of precise observation—of her cats, for example, or a spider in the garden. She writes many love poems, some of them tender, some poems of anger and struggle. Often humor comes into fierce poems unexpectedly. Most readers will find themselves laughing, sometimes in the midst of intense seriousness—maybe a bitter laugh in the middle of an angry poem, but often a laugh full of relief and release. Humor, after all, is perspective; it keeps us going….
"The Lunar Cycle" is an ambitious and, I think, successful sequence. There is a poem for each lunar month, and the poems range from "The Right to Life," which is primarily a public and political poem, to "The great horned owl," a poem about Piercy's own life and observations in late Cape Cod autumn, and "The longest night," based upon the poet's winter drive to Kansas City. Cumulatively, the poems reflect the various months of the lunar calendar, the year beginning with spring and ending with deep winter. They are variously private and public, among and within themselves. Piercy does not need to say that the personal and political are one; she illustrates the fact in poem after poem. So "The Lunar Cycle" is at once her personal year, the year of the seasons (especially on Cape Cod), and the year of public events. It is a feminist calendar and a far more comfortable one than that on which we base our dates….
Then why the attacks? Why even the second-hand comments that a new book is not so good? I don't know the answers to those questions, but, given some of my sources, I doubt the answer is jealousy. Piercy, after all, continually offends. She is obstinately uppity. She is consistently radical in her politics, whatever the national trends. She names enemies. She is scholarly but thoroughly unacademic. And she is a highly intelligent (and emotional) woman writer who often aggressively flaunts her sexual nature. Any one of these characteristics is enough to make a particular reader want to cut her down. But, like the oak tree she writes about in her own yard, Piercy just keeps sprouting new leaves.
Ron Schreiber, in a review of "The Moon Is Always Female," in The American Book Review (© 1982 by The American Book Review), Vol. 4, No. 3, March-April, 1982, p. 10.
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The title, Braided Lives, is far too nice for this story of a young Jewish woman who leaves her working class home in Detroit and goes off to the University of Michigan in the 1950's. The title does not convey the dynamism and the brutality of the book. Piercy has ripped off the veneer of the "quiet 50's". With a driving determination, she wants to set the record straight that life for women, for Jews and the working class was difficult. A more apt title might have been "Blood on the Tracks" which would have prepared the reader for a "coming of age" novel that is unusual….
If there are any readers who still swallow the phony "life is beautiful" mystique so carefully perpetrated by President Reagan, Piercy is ready to shove their faces into the despair of downtown Detroit and the selfish brutality of Grosse Pointe. She even destroys any illusions about loyalty among friends.
Yet, unlike so many novelists that elegantly write that life stinks, Piercy argues that love, politics, food, sex, and friendship make life irresistible.
She is very present in this book since it's written in first person with present day comments from the narrator. It becomes almost impossible not to believe the book is autobiographical….
Piercy doesn't want us to overlook any aspect of women's lives, even the details we would rather forget. Abortions, rapes, beatings—they're all packed into Braided Lives. Unlike The Women's Room which exposed sexism yet left the reader hanging. Piercy enthusiastically endorses politics as a solution. Make no mistake, though, this is not the book of a successful, self-satisfied writer who has found the answers. This is the book of a feminist who can honestly face the brutality in our lives and can still maintain a gluttonous appetite for life.
Two aspects of Piercy's writing which can't go unmentioned … are her views on lesbians and her portrayals of men. The main character in Braided Lives has her first sexual experiences with other girls. When this information gets out among her college friends, she never denies it or apologizes. She is very close to a woman in her dorm who is kicked out for a lesbian relationship. It is Jill who persists in learning the woman's address to write despite what eyebrows might be raised by this display of friendship. Jill is, though, only sexually involved with men as a college student.
In Vida and Small Changes, Piercy wrote dialogue between men and women which brought to life the men's subtle power plays. In Braided Lives Jill's first true love is the master of the artful tyrant. In the name of teaching her, he questions, undercuts, and dismisses her every idea. My regret is that Michael is the only man who does this. Other men are selfish or demanding yet Piercy holds back showing how they operate. This is regrettable since nobody can write these scenes the way Piercy can. Plus, we women need to have explicit examples of how our everyday relationships with men can eat at our self-respect.
Braided Lives is Piercy's most explicitly feminist book since Small Changes. This time, though, every character is fully drawn. The book is good. Piercy is telling our stories as if they were her own.
Vickie Leonard, in a review of "Braided Lives," in Off Our Backs (copyright © Off Our Backs Inc. 1982), Vol. XII, No. 4, April, 1982, p. 23.
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Marge Piercy has evolved through six books of poetry and seven novels … into the outstanding spokeswoman for the '60s generation. It is less her skill with language than her candor and her gutsiness that have earned her universal respect. Like George Sand, a political feminist of another era, Piercy embodies women's aspirations toward freedom and justice in their own lives and for the lives of others. Her selected poems ["Circles on the Water"] trace the integration of her public and personal roles into a single vision of the good—or perhaps useful—life. Her love poems, in particular, should be required reading for anyone contemplating a member of the opposite sex. In these parlous days of divorce between the sexes, we can think of no wiser teacher of the ways in which we can not only live together without bloodshed, but even overcome our pasts, our fears and our weaknesses, so we might finally come to love each other. (pp. 48-9)
A review of "Circles on the Water: Selected Poems," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the April 9, 1982 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1982 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 221, No. 15, April 9, 1982, pp. 48-9.
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For over a decade Marge Piercy's has been the vehement and scrupulous voice of a political woman coming to terms with her times and herself. Circles on the Water is Piercy's selection of her poetry to date and contains poems from seven published volumes as well as seven new poems. Activist and feminist. Piercy has recorded the thoughtful but equally sensory experience of a woman with the difficult intent to both work and love…. Yet while her sentiments are consistently apt and accurate, their polemical nature, no matter how grounded in personal experience, all too often results in statements more like speeches than poetry. Her work is strong in images but slight in music, and her language has a flatness that is at odds with the fullness of her life.
Suzanne Juhasz, in a review of "Circles on the Water: Selected Poems," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, July, 1982; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1982 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 107, No. 13, July, 1982, p. 1329.
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Marge Piercy is an established author, and presumably has an established readership—though it is very difficult to gauge from Braided Lives what qualities of commitment and literary endurance are required in order to belong to it. The book is written in a chatty, cluttered style, too reminiscent of a woman's magazine to sustain the feminist ideology of the text; at the same time the succession of mundane episodes so lacks urgency that only a kept woman would have the time and curiosity to read with interest beyond the first twenty pages….
At first we are treated to samples of [the protagonist's] poetry; later, poetry is exchanged for opinions. It is hard to say which is the more excruciatingly naïve. The author boldly assumes that one will have been so touched by her heroine's do-it-yourself abortion as to feel unquestioning sympathy for a woman's "right to choose", but this assumption is hardly consonant with the extreme crudeness with which the experience (like everything else) is described….
Braided Lives, however, is a memorable book: it contains about the worst examples of English prose that I have come across in a published novel. The following sentence is not untypical: "I also find myself hard in love in a way I have to search far back in my life to match." The machine-gun fire of monosyllables, the desperate cliché ("deep in love") avoided only by an absurd figure of speech ("hard in love"), the obscurity of grammar and sentiment, the unfeeling casualness of tone, the loss of all simplicity and directness—such is characteristic of the entire idiom of the novel.
Roger Scruton, "Bodily Tracts," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4138, July 23, 1982, p. 807.∗
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["Circles on the Water"] is gathered from 20 years of poetry and includes poems from seven books. Just cause for jubilation, since anyone who can survive 20 years of serious poetry writing in America right now deserves a medal of some sort. Also for retrospection: For those of Miss Piercy's age, this book will read like a cross section of their own archeology, for perhaps no other poet of this generation has more consistently identified herself with the political and social movements of her own times. (p. 10)
Miss Piercy has the double vision of the utopian: a view of human possibility—harmony between the sexes, among races and between humankind and nature—that makes the present state of affairs clearly unacceptable by comparison. The huge discrepancy between what is and what could be generates anger, and many of these are angry poems—which, for those who want poetry to be nothing but beautiful, will mean points off. Because her poetry is so deliberately "political"—which, for some, means anything not about ghosts and roses—how you feel about it will depend on how you feel about subjects such as male-female relations, abortion, war and poverty. Those who don't like these subjects will use adjectives like "shrill" to describe the poems. It's only during certain phases of American intellectual history that divisions are made between "poetry" and "politics," however; as Miss Piercy herself points out in her rather disarming introduction, the gap would not have been recognized by "Sophocles, Virgil, Catullus, Chaucer, Dryden, Wordsworth, Shelley, Arnold, Whitman, Blake, Goethe."
As Miss Piercy also points out, her poetry is both "personal"—that is, it has the recognizable speaking voice of an individual human being, not a voice issuing from behind a vatic ceremonial mask—and "public," meaning both that it addresses itself to public issues and that it is for a public. With some of these poems, one can almost hear not only the reading voice but the murmurs of response and the spontaneous applause at appropriate rhetorical moments. Taken as a whole—and I recommend you do so only slowly, as this is rich fare—this collection presents the spectacle of an agile and passionate mind rooted firmly in time and place and engaging itself with the central dilemmas of its situation…. Sometimes Miss Piercy's is a bewildered and lonely voice, albeit a voice that admits to such quailings. Her position has not been an easy or sheltered one. As she says, "a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid."
If poets could be divided into Prioresses and Wives of Bath, Miss Piercy would very definitely be a Wife of Bath. Low on fastidiousness and high on what Hazlitt called "gusto," earthy, bawdy, interested in the dailiness of life rather than in metaphysics, highly conscious of the power relationships between men and women but seeing herself by no means as a passive victim, she is ready to enter the fray with every weapon at her command. She is, in sum, a celebrant of the body in all its phases, including those that used to be thought of as vulgar. Surprisingly, her poetry is more humorous than her novels, although not all of it is what you'd call funny. The Wife of Bath was sometimes a savage ironist, and so is Miss Piercy. Neither has much interest in being ladylike. (pp. 10-11)
Essentially her poetry is a poetry of statement and story, and metaphor and simile are, characteristically, used by her as illustration rather than as structural principle….
Miss Piercy's emotional range is great, and at her best she can make you laugh, cry, get angry; she can inspire you with social purpose and open doors through which you may walk into lived reality…. Miss Piercy's scale, even in her "nature" poems, which are more likely to be about zucchini and lettuces and compost heaps than tigers and loons, is human and encompasses all the grandeur and trivia that scale demands. The sublime and the infernal for her are situated in the here and now.
In a collection with so many high points, it's difficult to single out one or two. But for me Miss Piercy in top form … is to be found in "Crescent moon like a canoe," a sad, courageous and moving poem that is not only about her own mother but about her own motives for poetry. This is poetry both wide open and fully controlled, flexible, tender, clear-sighted and compassionate, an act of forgiveness. Miss Piercy is finally a hopeful poet, but it's a hope that has been long and bitterly fought for. (p. 22)
Margaret Atwood, "Strong Woman," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 8, 1982, pp. 10-11, 22.
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Marge Piercy is a forceful, direct and widely read feminist poet. In ["Stone, Paper, Knife"], her ninth volume of verse, Piercy continues to write about the suffering of women, particularly at the hands of men, about love, sex, failed relationships, and living in the natural world. She voices the legitimate need for day care services, so that women with infants need not retreat from the world…. In many poems she strives for an understanding of love, calling it pleasure, work, studying, two rivers that flow together … and she bemoans the frequent cooling of passion after marriage…. And in "What's that smell in the kitchen?"—a poem for the subjugated women across America, full of hatred and hostility—she ventures that these women would really like to serve their husbands a dead rat, or grill them instead of a steak. These wry, tender, angry poems are accessible and at times moving, but often the point of view is predictable, the imagery redundant.
A review of "Stone, Paper, Knife," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the January 7, 1983 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1983 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 223, No. 1, January 7, 1983, p. 67.
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