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Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy was born in Detroit, Michigan, into a working-class family that had been hard-hit by the Depression. Piercy was the first member of her family to attend college, winning a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan. She earned an MA from Northwestern University. During the 1960s, Piercy was an organizer in political movements like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the movement against the war in Vietnam, an engagement which has shaped her work in myriad ways. Perhaps most importantly, though, has been Piercy’s sustained involvement with feminism, Marxism, and environmental thought. An extremely prolific writer, Piercy has published close to 20 books of poetry and close to 20 novels. Her novels generally address larger social concerns through sharply observed characters and brisk plot lines. Though generally focused on issues such as class or culture, and usually written from a feminist position, Piercy’s novels have taken on a variety of guises, including historical fiction and science or speculative fiction. Her novel He, She, and It (1991)—published as Body of Glass in the UK—won that country’s prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award; an earlier novel of speculative fiction, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) has been credited as the first work of cyber-punk.

Piercy’s poetry is known for its highly personal, often angry, and very emotional timbre. She writes a swift free verse that shows the same commitment to the social and environmental issues that fill her novels. The Moon is Always Female (1980) is considered a classic text of the feminist movement. Early Grrl (1999) collects Piercy’s earliest work and includes some unpublished poems. Of the autobiographical elements in her poetry, Piercy has said that “although my major impulse to autobiography has played itself out in poems rather than novels, I have never made a distinction in working up my own experience and other people’s. I imagine I speak for a constituency, living and dead, and that I give utterance to energy, experience, insight, words flowing from many lives. I have always desired that my poems work for others. ‘To Be of Use’ is the title of one of my favorite poems and one of my best-known books.” Piercy has also written plays, several volumes of nonfiction, a memoir, and has edited the anthology Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now (1988). Increasingly interested in Jewish issues, Piercy has also been poetry editor of Tikkun Magazine.

In 1971 Piercy moved to Cape Cod where she continues to live and work. She and her husband, the novelist Ira Wood, run Leapfrog Press. (Poetry Foundation)

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It was the last stanza of this poem I found so arresting and kind of in my face. This is a story not just of Motown, but of hundreds of cities across this country. Cities that, like Detroit in its prime, were thriving and providing a good living for folks. But not any more… I thought it especially poignant in light of our nation’s blighted plight at the moment. I need to read more of her stuff. I feel that anger and frustration at the end. And maybe it just seems so real to me because within the last few years the powers that be found that the ground water coming downhill from Hill AFB is full of chemicals that have seeped into our neighborhood causing several cases of bone cancer. We now have a water filtration system in place up above us, but you know the damage is already done… And this is a common occurrence with bases all over the states…

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Motown, Arsenal of Democracy

Fog used to bloom off the distant river
turning our streets strange, elongating
sounds and muffling others. The crack
of a gunshot softened.

The sky at night was a dull red:
a bonfire built of old creosote soaked
logs by the railroad tracks. A red
almost pink painted by factories—

that never stopped their roar
like traffic in canyons of New York.
But stop they did and fell down
ending dangerous jobs that paid.

We believed in our unions like some
trust in their priests. We believed
in Friday paychecks sure as
winter’s ice curb-to-curb

where older boys could play
hockey dodging—wooden
pucks, sticks cracking wood
on wood. A man came home

with a new car and other men
would collect around it like ants
in sugar. Women clumped for showers—
wedding and baby—wakes, funerals

care for the man brought home
with a hole ripped in him, children
coughing. We all coughed in Detroit.
We woke at dawn to my father’s hack.

That world is gone as a tableau
of wagon trains. Expressways carved
neighborhoods to shreds. Rich men
moved jobs south, then overseas.

Only the old anger lives there
bubbling up like chemicals dumped
seething now into the water
building now into the bones.

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Picture Source: Poetry Foundation