by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
March is Women’s History Month, so I’ll be talking about women poets this month. Ask two hundred people on the main streets across America to name American women poets — if they came up with anyone, almost certainly it would be Emily Dickinson, and most would stop there, though perhaps a few might know Maya Angelou’s name. Emily Dickinson is certainly one of the Great Names in English-language poetry from any country, but so many other wonderful women poets languish little known or long forgotten.
So, in this month’s blog “I’d like you to meet . . .” poets you may or may not know. Women in all branches of the Arts are still playing catch-up with their male counterparts, since opportunities for women outside the narrow world of “Kinder, Küche, und Kirche” (kids, kitchen, and kirk, which is another word for church) were rare before the mid-19th century.
This week’s subject is Marge Piercy (1936 — ), who was born in Detroit, Michigan, on March 31st. Her working-class parents were Jewish, living in a predominately black neighborhood, where the Great Depression hit hard. She became the first in her family to go to college, on a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where she joined and became an organizer for political movements like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Anti-Vietnam War/Pro-Peace groups. She’s a feminist, a Marxist and an environmentalist. Piercy is also a prolific writer, with almost 20 novels and 20 books of poetry published. She’s written plays, several volumes of nonfiction, a memoir, and edited the anthology Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now. Piercy also explores Jewish issues, and was poetry editor of Tikkun Magazine.
The Air Smelled Dirty
Everyone burned coal in our neighborhood,
soft coal they called it from the mountains
of western Pennsylvania where my father
grew up and fled as soon as he could, where
my Welsh cousins dug it down in the dark.
The furnace it fed stood in the dank
basement, its many arms upraised
like Godzilla or some other monster.
It was my job to pull out clinkers
and carry them to the alley bin.
Mornings were chilly, frost on windows
etching magic landscapes. I liked
to stand over the hot air registers
the warmth blowing up my skirts.
But the basement scared me at night.
The fire glowed like a red eye through
the furnace door and the clinkers fell
loud and the shadows came at me as
mice scampered. The washing machine
was tame but the furnace was always hungry.
“The Air Smelled Dirty” from Third Wednesday, (Vol. X, No. 1, 2017), © 2017 by Marge Piercy
She has spoken publicly about falling in love in college, finding herself pregnant, with no money or connections for an abortion, illegal at the time. She knew too many girls in high school who had to leave school, with no job, no husband, and, with a baby to support, facing a lifetime of hardship and poverty. Desperate, she self-aborted, and nearly bled to death. She is an outspoken supporter of the right of women to choose.
Love felled me
like a tree the ax
bit through and I
came crashing down
in a waterfall
of green leaves
“First Time” from Circles on the Water, © 1982 by Marge Piercy – Alfred A. Knopf
Doors have been used as symbols of opportunity, denial and change for centuries.
Doors opening, closing on us
Maybe there is more of the magical
in the idea of a door than in the door
itself. It’s always a matter of going
through into something else. But
while some doors lead to cathedrals
arching up overhead like stormy skies
and some to sumptuous auditoriums
and some to caves of nuclear monsters
most just yield a bathroom or a closet.
Still, the image of a door is liminal,
passing from one place into another
one state to the other, boundaries
and promises and threats. Inside
to outside, light into dark, dark into
light, cold into warm, known into
strange, safe into terror, wind
into stillness, silence into noise
or music. We slice our life into
segments by rituals, each a door
to a presumed new phase. We see
ourselves progressing from room
to room perhaps dragging our toys
along until the last door opens
and we pass at last into was.
Copyright © 2015 by Marge Piercy, originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 21, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets
This is one of the first poems of Piercy’s I ever read, because the title caught my eye. It’s a phrase used by several 19th century authors I admire, which has always resonated with me.
To Be of Use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
“To Be of Use” from Circles on the Water, © 1982 by Marge Piercy – Alfred A. Knopf
Marge Piercy is a gardening enthusiast. She and her husband, novelist Ira Wood, live in a small town in Massachusetts, not too far from Cape Cod.
Tomatoes rosy as perfect baby’s buttocks,
eggplants glossy as waxed fenders,
purple neon flawless glistening
peppers, pole beans fecund and fast
growing as Jack’s Viagra-sped stalk,
big as truck tire zinnias that mildew
will never wilt, roses weighing down
a bush never touched by black spot,
brave little fruit trees shouldering up
their spotless ornaments of glass fruit:
I lie on the couch under a blanket
of seed catalogs ordering far
too much. Sleet slides down
the windows, a wind edged
with ice knifes through every crack.
Lie to me, sweet garden-mongers:
I want to believe every promise,
to trust in five pound tomatoes
and dahlias brighter than the sun
that was eaten by frost last week.
“Winter Promises” from Circles on the Water, © 1982 by Marge Piercy – Alfred A. Knopf
My mother was raised on The South of her mother’s imagination, which never really existed, but was full of debutantes and chivalrous young gentlemen. During the depression, this antebellum fantasy got squashed pretty badly, but my mom was always trying to make this “dream” come true for me. She sent me to an early 1960s version of charm school, where our lady instructor’s mantra was, “You have to suffer to be beautiful.” It was one of the many things which made me a feminist.
What Are Big Girls Made Of?
The construction of a woman:
a woman is not made of flesh
of bone and sinew
belly and breasts, elbows and liver and toe.
She is manufactured like a sports sedan.
She is retooled, refitted and redesigned
Cecile had been seduction itself in college.
She wriggled through bars like a satin eel,
her hips and ass promising, her mouth pursed
in the dark red lipstick of desire.
She visited in ’68 still wearing skirts
tight to the knees, dark red lipstick,
while I danced through Manhattan in mini skirt,
lipstick pale as apricot milk,
hair loose as a horse’s mane. Oh dear,
I thought in my superiority of the moment,
whatever has happened to poor Cecile?
She was out of fashion, out of the game,
disqualified, disdained, dis-
membered from the club of desire.
Look at pictures in French fashion
magazines of the 18th century:
century of the ultimate lady
fantasy wrought of silk and corseting.
Paniers bring her hips out three feet
each way, while the waist is pinched
and the belly flattened under wood.
The breasts are stuffed up and out
offered like apples in a bowl.
The tiny foot is encased in a slipper
never meant for walking.
On top is a grandiose headache:
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.
The hats were rococo wedding cakes
that would dim the Las Vegas strip.
Here is a woman forced into shape
rigid exoskeleton torturing flesh:
a woman made of pain.
How superior we are now: see the modern woman
thin as a blade of scissors.
She runs on a treadmill every morning,
fits herself into machines of weights
and pulleys to heave and grunt,
an image in her mind she can never
approximate, a body of rosy
glass that never wrinkles,
never grows, never fades. She
sits at the table closing her eyes to food
hungry, always hungry:
a woman made of pain.
A cat or dog approaches another,
they sniff noses. They sniff asses.
They bristle or lick. They fall
in love as often as we do,
as passionately. But they fall
in love or lust with furry flesh,
not hoop skirts or push up bras
rib removal or liposuction.
It is not for male or female dogs
that poodles are clipped
to topiary hedges.
If only we could like each other raw.
If only we could love ourselves
like healthy babies burbling in our arms.
If only we were not programmed and reprogrammed
to need what is sold us.
Why should we want to live inside ads?
Why should we want to scourge our softness
to straight lines like a Mondrian painting?
Why should we punish each other with scorn
as if to have a large ass
were worse than being greedy or mean?
When will women not be compelled
to view their bodies as science projects,
gardens to be weeded,
dogs to be trained?
When will a woman cease
to be made of pain?
“What Are Big Girls Made Of?” from Circles on the Water, © 1982 by Marge Piercy – Alfred A. Knopf
In Judaism, Rosh HaShanah is the beginning of the Jewish New Year, but it is also a celebration of the birthday of the world. It is a time of self-evaluation, leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The birthday of the world
On the birthday of the world
I begin to contemplate
what I have done and left
undone, but this year
not so much rebuilding
of my perennially damaged
psyche, shoring up eroding
friendships, digging out
stumps of old resentments
that refuse to rot on their own.
No, this year I want to call
myself to task for what
I have done and not done
for peace. How much have
I dared in opposition?
How much have I put
on the line for freedom?
For mine and others?
As these freedoms are pared,
sliced and diced, where
have I spoken out? Who
have I tried to move? In
this holy season, I stand
self-convicted of sloth
in a time when lies choke
the mind and rhetoric
bends reason to slithering
choking pythons. Here
I stand before the gates
opening, the fire dazzling
my eyes, and as I approach
what judges me, I judge
myself. Give me weapons
of minute destruction. Let
my words turn into sparks.
“The Birthday of the World” from The Crooked Inheritance, © 2006 by Marge Piercy – Alfred A. Knopf
So many poets have written wonderful poems about cats. I think this one by Marge Piercy is particularly fine.
The cat’s song
Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing
milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.
Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.
You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?
Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
walking round and round your bed and into your face.
Come I will teach you to dance as naturally
as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word
of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg
and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.
“The cat’s song” from Mars & Her Children © 1989, 1992 by Marge Piercy – Alfred A. Knopf
It is impossible to encompass here all the aspects of a poet who has been writing for over 6 decades, so this is just a hint of Piercy’s depth and range. I hope it will inspire you to seek out more of her work.
- Going Down Fast, 1969
- Dance The Eagle To Sleep, 1970
- Small Changes, 1973
- Woman on the Edge of Time, 1976
- The High Cost of Living, 1978
- Vida, 1980
- Braided Lives, 1982
- Fly Away Home, 1985
- Gone To Soldiers, 1988
- Summer People, 1989
- He, She And It(aka Body of Glass), 1991
- The Longings of Women, 1994
- City of Darkness, City of Light, 1996
- Storm Tide, 1998 (with Ira Wood)
- Three Women, 1999
- The Third Child, 2003
- Sex Wars, 2005
- The Cost of Lunch, Etc., 2014
- Breaking Camp, 1968
- Hard Loving, 1969
- “Barbie Doll”, 1973
- 4-Telling ( with Emmett Jarrett, Dick Lourie, Robert Hershon), 1971
- To Be of Use, 1973
- Living in the Open, 1976
- The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing, 1978
- The Moon is Always Female, 1980
- Circles on the Water, Selected Poems, 1982
- Stone, Paper, Knife, 1983
- My Mother’s Body, 1985
- Available Light, 1988
- Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now(ed.), 1988; 1993
- Mars and her Children, 1992
- What are Big Girls Made Of, 1997
- Early Grrrl, 1999.
- The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems With a Jewish Theme, 1999
- Colours Passing Through Us, 2003
- The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010, 2012
- Made in Detroit, 2015
- Sleeping with Cats, 2002
- Marge Piercy with cat
- Furnace, circa 1912
- Tree branch silhouette
- Tall wooden doors
- Subsistence farmers in Africa
- Seed catalogs
- 18th century full ball dress
- Blowing the Shofar
- Sleeping cat
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud