Artwork by Dan Goldman
ESSAY ON MARGE PIERCY
By Susan Brennan
I want to personally thank Marge Piercy.
High school, 1982. My mother gave me Piercy’s collection of poems, The Moon is Always Female. My mother knew this was knowledge I needed, but she did not want her own despair to overwhelm me. By giving me this book of startling poetry, I think my mother was saying “Here are words that can inform and inspire you without dimming your light. Here is womanhood – and you can still have the strength and love to inhabit it.”
I want to say over the names of my mothers
like the stones of a path I am climbing
rock by slippery rock into the mists.
Marge’s words awoke my consciousness towards injustice (feminism, classism, racism) and I’m glad I got a somewhat early start. Marge’s life and words helped steer me through the 80’s backlash against feminism; a very gas-lighty era for women. Ronald Reagan, uber-frilly gunny sack dresses, Jerry Falwell, the extreme Right’s attack on the ERA.
Throughout my life, I, as many women have, weathered deep insults towards my womanhood from daily street harassment to callous office behavior to impersonal media depictions to emotionally abusive intimate relationships. I have struggled to voice my personhood while navigating the social currents that bend to confine women to something manageable. I know many women who have defied the roles society heaves on us, and I know many women who have relinquished their hope. I too have relinquished in ways I never expected.
But I won’t say, “Now more than ever we need feminist dystopian literature” – because let’s face it, we’ve needed feminist dystopian literature all along. Creating a well-crafted, imagined world so that women’s full dimensional voice can be heard (and exist!) has, through its relative brief life, bolstered a crucial dialogue about the brutal and unfair conditions of women’s lives. It has also kindled acts of bravery for individual women, both public and private.
And thank god writer, Marge Piercy, has been a big bad river of novels and poetry – often speaking to and for the female underdog. Marge Piercy’s writing has been imperative to social change – if only we could time travel and send it back say a few thousand years and change things sooner.
Marge’s own life is a victory story. Born in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan she grew up in a tough neighborhood steeped in racism and poverty. The first of her family to attend college, she won a scholarship to the University of Michigan, earned her M.A. from Northwestern University and has received four honorary doctorates.
Marge’s first of nineteen books of poetry was published in 1968, and her first of seventeen novels, in 1969. She has written a memoir, a play, a collection of short stories and four non-fiction books, as well as been included in over 200 publications worldwide. She has presented her work in over 400 universities around the world.
She has been a devoted activist – a member of Students for a Democratic Society, the New Left, the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, involved in the civil rights movement and anti-war movements.
She has written many voices – clearly, powerfully. She has created a worldwide audience for decades and that audience has, in turn, augmented her dialogue by continuing to read her and recognizing themselves in her characters and poems. It is through this recognition that individual readers have been inspired to inhabit a very active role in their own lives. To bout the despair that comes with being marginalized and to step beyond what has been relinquished.
Oh – and by passing her books onto their children. Thanks, mom.
OK. Trump era. No woman U.S. president (yet). Not total equal pay or equal representation in the media. Or access to free birth control. Sexual violence. Rape-splaining… OK. Maybe now more than ever we do need to hear these words:
Chilled, cranky, fearful
in the dark I wait and I am all the time
climbing slippery rocks in a mist while
far below the waves crash in the sea caves…
POEMS BY MARGE PIERCY
Her rack of fancy shoes
My mother was vain about her feet,
small, always sore. I can see her
soaking her feet in some smelly
combination of household products.
She had few dresses but many shoes.
samples she called them, bought cheap
at some specialty place. And where
did she manage to go in them? Once
she had danced but no more. They
traded dinners with other couples;
mostly the guys worked at Westing-
house with my father in the shop.
But the women got dressed up. It
was for most of them their only
chance to put on make-up, high
heels, a dress smelling faintly of dry
cleaning, scent from a bottle kept
dusted on their vanity. Mille fleurs
my mother had all my childhood.
I think it was my older brother’s gift.
She loved to get fancy, reminding.
herself of long past happy days
when she could dab hope behind
her ears and onto her wrists
and go laughing into a night
that surely would romance her.
She still imagined then some man
would whisk her into a rainbow.
The goddess who can evaporate
Water, water –substance of which
I am mostly made. Always people
complain there is too much of you
or too little. We need you but take
you for granted like air or dirt. You
flow downhill, even as the Romans
understood, for miles with the slightest
inclination rushing over aqueducts.
I immerse in you each morning, some
times later after getting dirty, muddy,
sweaty, smelly. You make me clean,
sufficient to draw lips to my skin.
You freeze hard enough to walk on
hard enough to crush a house.
You turn into bullets of hail. You
entice us to glide bladed over you.
You look blue, you look green, grey,
brown, even black—but unless you
bear debris, a glassful is transparent
as glass. The mother of us all, we
are not precious to you but you
should be to us. Without you in us
we die. With you all around us, we
die. You are the goddess who gives
and takes with many hands reaching
up, reaching down, held straight out:
I don’t know why people worship old
men with beards instead of you.
Visions depend on us
When eyes are unbandaged
light thunders in. It hurts
but who cares? Sight is back.
Fear of blindness drowned.
When I wake in hotel rooms
at first I am shipwrecked, lost.
This is not my bed. No cats
sleep at my feet. All wrong.
When dawn creeps into strange
rooms, objects solidify out of
the dark. A bear becomes
a chair. A bureau resolves
from truck. A hanging robe
is no longer intruder. Eyes
report but the brain interprets
making monsters from drapes.
People see only skin instead
of a person and create stories,
threats. If it’s not a mirror
how frightening is the other.
Witnesses are unreliable. Prisons
swallow mistaken faces, bodies.
We see what we think we see.
Occasionally that’s harmless.
World that doesn’t lack an ending
World without end, they say
but everything comes to its ending
my life, my body, everyone I love
my cats, the weeping beech, hem-
lock, the maples and white fir
I planted decades ago.
This land the sea will take
back into itself. The rock
far down, the sun itself.
But we are hastening all
burning the world as we sit,
as we drive, as we eat.
After us, not the deluge
but the desert. Antropocene
bringing to dust not just
us but lions and tigers
polar bears, Monarchs,
warblers, right whales.
We must worship death
though we never look straight
into its sockets. Still we
court it so passionately
War is a constant. Waste,
greed, it’s Saturday night.
So much will die with us that
never lit a match, never built
a nuclear power plant or bomb,
invaded a country, never stored
hate in the dark cave of their
hearts like a sacred flame.