Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1127
“The Secretary Chant,” by the American writer Marge Piercy, is typical of this author’s work in many ways, particularly in its clearly feminist point of view. The poem is written in a simple, lucid, yet often whimsical style that emphasizes playful, bizarre, but in some ways depressing metaphors to suggest how secretaries often feel dehumanized. The humor of the poem contributes to the work’s success; a more strident, more obviously “propagandistic” tone probably would have been less effective. Instead, by displaying a sort of inventiveness that many readers will find witty, the speaker demonstrates the kind of intelligence that her job gives her little opportunity to express.
Significantly, the poem begins by emphasizing how the speaker’s body now seems comparable to an ever-lengthening series of lifeless objects. In fact, this focus on the body continues for much of the rest of the work; the speaker’s mind, heart, and soul are never explicitly mentioned, almost as if they no longer even exist. Her gifts of mind are implied, however, by the ever-lengthening list of metaphors she invents. If some of these strike some readers as strained or forced, perhaps that is part of the poem’s point: perhaps the speaker’s mind, deadened by monotonous work, struggles to be inventive without always quite succeeding. Either way—whether the metaphors are regarded as witty or as overdone—they imply something about the qualities of the speaker’s mind.
As the list of metaphors grows, the comparisons imply that the secretary is almost literally being consumed by her job. She is almost literally becoming the dead, inert things she works with. She is being absorbed by and into her merely professional environment, so that her being or self cannot easily be separated from her work. Her hips, for instance, are not merely like a desk: they “are a desk” (1; emphasis added). Rubber bands do not simply resemble her hair; instead, they “form” her hair (4; emphasis added). By using metaphors rather than similes, the speaker implies that she is losing any sense of independent identity. She is, in a very fundamental sense, being overtaken by, and totally possessed by, her job. Although the poem seems to suggest that this is a fate especially felt by female secretaries, many readers (such as the male factory workers or construction workers who were so common when this poem was written in the 1970s) have probably often felt the same way about their jobs as well. The poem, then, deals with feelings that transcend any particular time, place, job, or gender. Almost any reader can relate to some of the basic feelings this poem expresses.
Individually, the various metaphors provoke thought. For example, the comparison of hips to a desk takes a part of the female body especially associated with pleasure and reproduction and links it to boredom and lack of life. Hanging from the speaker’s ears are not the expected earrings that might symbolize beauty but instead “chains of paper clips” (3) that are associated with ephemeral, impermanent attachments. Hair, which is often associated with lustrous vitality and erotic attractiveness, is here compared merely to stringy “rubber bands” (4). Instead of being full of life-giving milk, the speaker’s breasts seem “wells of mimeograph ink” (5). They are thus associated with reproduction, but not with life.
Ironically, the poem is almost a parody of a “blazon,” a kind of poem (especially popular during the Renaissance) in which a speaker (usually male) would describe the beauties of an attractive person (usually female) by detailing every (or nearly every) aspect of her appealing body, including hair, eyes, lips, and so on. Piercy’s poem, however, is a kind of perverted blazon, offering an ironic self-description. Obviously the female speaker does not feel beautiful at all. Instead of sounding highly attractive, she sounds bizarre, almost monstrous. As each line is added to the poem, she sounds less and less human and more and more like a mere (and ugly) thing. Her (perhaps enforced) commitment to her job robs her of her life.
Notice, for instance, that she refers not to her brain or mind or psyche but merely to her “head” (8-9). She thinks of herself not as a person but as a body—mere flesh rather than real spirit. She even begins to sound like a machine: “Buzz. Click. / . . . Zing. Tinkle” (7, 14). Ironically, she uses metaphors associated with fertility, reproduction, and childbirth to suggest how dead she feels inside:
My navel is a reject button. . . .
Swollen, heavy, rectangular
I am about to be delivered
of a baby
Xerox machine. (15, 17-20)
Yet the sheer cleverness of many of the metaphors suggests that she is, at least for now, far from mentally lifeless or drained. She has enough independence of spirit left to protest, wittily, against her transformation into a kind of human machine.
The last four lines of the poem are particularly intriguing:
File me under W
because I wonce
a woman. (21-24)
Interestingly, no sooner does the speaker imagine giving birth (ironically) to a copying machine than she seems to imagine a kind of death, or at least a further stage in the dehumanization process. She imagines being filed away, as if she no longer possesses even the merely pragmatic usefulness the earlier metaphors had implied.
The crucial word in the final lines is the very final word: woman. The presence of this word (particularly in the last position, where it receives special emphasis) suggests that the speaker blames part of her condition on gender discrimination. In the period when the poem was written, secretarial jobs were held almost entirely by women, and so the speaker feels that she has, in a sense, been confined to the life she describes. Having been denied full employment options, her condition is one she did not choose entirely freely. In a sense, her choice was partly predetermined by the limited employment options available to her. Discriminated against because she is a woman, at the end of the poem, she feels that she has lost or is losing even that identity. Or perhaps she feels that she is being confined to that identity forever.
Why does the speaker spell the word once as wonce in line 22? Perhaps she wants to emphasize the letter w in every single line of the last sentence. Perhaps she thereby hopes to prepare us for the important final word. Perhaps she suggests that her mind has been so affected by her professional duties, such as filing, that it is no longer operating as it should. Or perhaps the wonce is a touch of sarcasm or even a final touch of wit, cleverness, or creativity. Whichever of these interpretive possibilities the reader chooses, the poem ends in a way that seems subtly thought-provoking.
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