Marge Piercy Piercy, Marge (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Erica Jong

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Jean Rosenbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Victor Contoski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jerome Mazzaro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Anne Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Judson Jerome

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Renee Gold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Wendy Schwartz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ron Schreiber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Vickie Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Suzanne Juhasz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roger Scruton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Margaret Atwood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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