Monday, June 20, 2011

About Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy came to Providence last April to judge the Philbrick Poetry Prize and to read from her work. I had the honor of introducing her, but did not know, to my regret, that she hates being introduced by people who quote from her work. So, my sincere and well-prepared remarks about this significant poet were somewhat curtailed. I just came across the text and thought I would share it, since Marge Piercy's work is truly outstanding. I know that our devoted poetry audience in Providence had gone out to the local bookstores and gobbled up every Piercy book they could find in anticipation of the event. So should you.

When I said, again and again to our judging committee and to various friends, “Marge Piercy.” I was told, “Watch out! She’s fierce! She has three husbands, lives on a compound with 120 cats and a pride of lions. She’ll snap your head off.” I said, “Now that’s the kind of poet I want to meet!” back in the early 1970s, when I started my little press in New York City, I published mostly women poets, and all of them, young and old, were always carrying Marge Piercy books around with them. They connected with her in an intense way: a female writer who, at an early point in her career, had “arrived” in a way that women accepted and admired, and which men acknowledged with the grudging admission that she did everything as well as, or better than, they did.
Along the way, Marge Piercy moved from being “that poet that women read and cling to” to a poet everyone read, and a novelist whose books you couldn’t put down. She rip-roared into science fiction, a veritable boy’s club, and made her mark there, along with Ursula LeGuin and the woman who called herself “James Tiptree, Jr.”
The poet is always the outsider. “When I flirt I feel like an elephant/ in a pink tutu balancing on a beach ball,/ a tabby wearing a doll’s dress.” Elsewhere she describes herself as a young girl:

I did not want to be a boy. Most
of them were imbeciles, I thought,
nor did I want to be a girl or woman.
Maybe I would grow up to be a cat.
Maybe I was an alien, a changeling.

She is a satirist worthy of the Roman Juvenal, often at her best when turning her focus on her own gender. She can mock women with giant purses, “women who hang leather hippos from their shoulders” but there is self mockery when she Whitman-lists the purse’s contents: “Ten pens, because the ink may run out … maps, a notebook in case” Of course only a writer would say this! “Women like kangaroos with huge purses bearing hidden  / our own helplessness and it s fancied cures.” When she mocks “The Beauty Myth” she describes “hair like a museum piece, daily/ ornamented with ribbons, vases,/ grottoes, mountains, frigates in full/ sail, balloons. Baboons, the fancy/ of a hairdresser turned loose” and reminds us “It is not for male or female dogs ... that poodles are clipped … to topiary hedges.” “If I had a $400 haircut,” she asks, “would people buy calendars just me on every month grinning?” Satire is an unlicensed firearm. When she writes about horrible gifts no one wants to receive and which no one can get rid of, she might have inspired,or may have been inspired by, the wicked Edward Gorey cartoon that shows Edwardian ice skaters hurling wrapped objects into a hole in the ice. The caption: “FRUITCAKE.”
Those wonderful flarings-up, as she confesses “but oh, oh, in me/ lurks a tyrant with a double-edged ax who longs/ to swing it wide and shining, who longs to stand/ and shriek, You Shall Do As I Say, pig bastards”. She can say, on spying an ex in a supermarket, “Now I could walk through him like smoke/ and only sneeze.” On the arrogance of America invading everybody: “The harder you push, the harder what you never bothered to notice pushes back.” On same-sex marriage: “In earlier times and different cultures and tribes, men married men and women married women, and the sky never fell …” On the Patriot Act, which results in an FBI interrogation, “collected receipts from your/ restaurant meals for the past five years. You have ordered hummus six times, falafel twice and lamb four times. … Welcome to the Inquisition!” In a poignant little grouping called “No one came home,” she recalls the horror and emptiness of never knowing what become of a loved one, from a single lost cat, to the thousands in Argentina “disappeared” by their own government. Her poem, “Buyer Beware,” on the cost of war, should be pinned to the lapels of certain former government officials should anyone have the god fortune to arrest them.
I love her poem about opera, the most artificial and intense of all art forms.  No skinny blonds here, she tells us: “The heroine is fifty and weighs/ as much as a ’65 Chevy with fins. She could crack our jaw in her fist. She can hit high C lying down.”
But who also comes to the peace and calm of rituals, of the year’s turning points, to the outer skin of ancestry we all wear and cannot really put off, coming home to her own Jewish heritage but in her own words, who can invert the old rabbinic saying of “Thank God I was not born a woman,” with  “Thank God I was.”
A social poet too, able to compress the evils of society into just a few words. Leaving urban Detroit, her family sold the house to a black family. The consequence, Piercy writes: “my old boyfriend next door poisoned/ my cat … It took him all night to die.” She writes of a women working in a women’s clinic,. Threatened with murder every day by an anonymous phone caller. Our penchant as a species to invent tortures made her write “We could erect a Smithsonian of pain’s / little helpers, racks, prods, all the mechanical, electrical, computerized/ vehicles for imposing hostile will.” When Piercy recalls, in detail, a Detroit neighbor who brutally beat his wife and children every payday, and how no one did anything about it because half the other neighbor men did the same, or worse, she packs the poetic payload of the poem into the title, “Family Values.”
She is a nature poet, proving that poets see, and know the names of things. “I can get drink on color, lured like a bee/ to drench myself in reds and blues and purples,” she says. She writes of Cape Cod, her adopted home since 1971, with the enraptured eye of the newcomer, the naturalist, the seeker. “Voice of the Grackle.” “A Long and Busy Night” “Tracks”  “Crow Babies.” Her poem, “The Rush at Equinox”, free as it is, is as compressed and cogent as the best of Robert Frost. Yet she does not flinch at nature’s cruel side. She knows her cat has gone to the coyote’s dinner, that life eats life, and that animals do not run about in Disney costumes. Writing of our mammal cousins, the great whales, she says “Each is a poet, a composer, a scholar of the roads/ below. They are always singing, and what they know/ is as alien to us as if they swim past Sirius.”
Writing of her mother’s death, she makes no claim to prophecy or premonition, an uncanny modesty for a poet. “That day,” she recalls, “opened like any ordinary can of tomatoes. … I was caught by surprise/ like the trout that takes the fly/ and I gasped in the fatal air.” Death seems repeatedly to arrive by surprise in Piercy’s poems, as when she encounters a wounded and drying deer, “the thing that strikes in the middle of the morning.” Even the Holocaust, which many of us feel compelled to document from its obscure origins to the last detailed survivor’s memory, sweeps across her poems like a whirlwind:

I remember my grandmother’s cry
when she learned the death of all she had
remembered, girls she bathed with,
young men with whom she shyly
flirted, wooden shul where
her father rocked and prayed…

Piercy resists death: “I go to charm death like Sheherezade / with stories I refuse to end until my wish is granted.”
There are some poets we know, and whom we trust to take us through pain and anger and loss, because they come to tell truth, to shed light on the dark inside us, ultimately, to heal. Piercy’s older brother, her Everyman, refused to read her poems of childhood memories. We can and must. What does she tell us when she recounts the Detroit father beating his wife and children, and everyone looking the other way?
That so long as we do so on the minutest level – person to person, man to woman, parent to child – then we shall continue to do as much, or worse to anyone we deem the Other.
If Piercy were only a social and political poet, we would owe her a great debt, but I am glad that she dwells in a place where sea and sun and all of nature fill her palette as well. Like Robinson Jeffers on the west coast, she embraces the long arc of geologic and ocean time and sees us a part of an animal spectrum.
Seldom it is that a poet knows, at the beginning of a career, the solemn mission ahead. Marge Piercy wrote,sometime before 1969, the last lines of her collection, Hard Loving:

It is time to loosen and make new.
We are sacs of mad cells that have forgotten how to grow.
It is time to close ourselves to the steel probes
of the corporate generals and devisers.
It is time to open ourselves to the other with respect …
Time to learn we are part of one wave and each other.
Sisters and brothers in movement,
we carry the wet cuneiform of proteins
the long history of working to be human …
We must be healed at last to our soft bodies
and our hard planet
to make live and conscious history in common.

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