Reading Fire: The Voice of Festival Poet Marge Piercy

by John Bonanni
This is the eighth in a series of stories on headliners of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3).
Attend Marge Piercy’s event at the festival.

Marge Piercy follows in a lineage of fierce contemporary female writers. Think Sylvia Plath. Denise Levertov. Adrienne Rich. To read through any of her biographical data, one can easily draw the conclusion that Piercy’s poetry persisted because she lived a life of unwavering demands for equality, both for herself and for those around her. She grew up among the wage slavery of working-class Detroit in the 1950s. She was an active member of the Civil Rights Movement and a rooted organizer of Students for a Democratic Society. She left a husband who didn’t take her writing seriously. She explored polygamy in a time when women were being policed to their bodies (they still are). Intersecting all of her roles, Piercy, through her writing, clearly arose as a rock in the foundations of the Women’s Movement.

Piercy is well-known for her feminism, and her voice was needed long before it was discovered (her first collection was published in 1968). In the title poem of her collection What Are Big Girls Made Of? Piercy, after cataloging a litany of gruesome female efforts to conform to social definitions of beauty, poses the question:

When will women not be compelled
to view their bodies as science projects,
gardens to be weeded,
dogs to be trained?

Much of Piercy’s work certainly reflects the political needs of our time. In this case, to burn down the abusive police state of patriarchy. Her poetry, particularly her politically charged poetry, is often accessible and narrative, spoken from a voice we can converse with, and which escapes the institutionalized classism inherent in much of contemporary poetry’s esoteric landscape. Thus, to label Piercy a “feminist poet” is entirely too compartmentalizing for the actual breadth of her work—in her poems, she exerts a reserve of style dependent on the subject matter. She is a writer not only of the feminist, but also the political, the elegiac, the confessional, the naturalist, and at times, particularly with her love poems, the post-surrealist.

From Piercy, we learn that 1. The moon is always female and 2. Her “lightest touch leaves blueprints, / bruises on your mind // Desire sandpapers your skin.” Piercy is unafraid of what desire feels like, sandpaper or otherwise. In fact, she’ll tell you with intense exactitude:

The clam shell opens.
The oyster is eaten.
The squid shoots its white ink
Now there is nothing but warm
Salt puddles on the flats.

--“Salt in the afternoon”

We’re talking about sex here. Hot, steamy, firey sex. And Piercy's voice remains fearless to address this natural human instinct, through selective imagery, both within her poetry and within her prose. She's also unafraid to escape the pigeonhole of the “feminist poet” by bringing spiritual and political desire to the forefront of poems that deal with religion, class, and race.

I met Ms. Piercy at a showcase of emerging artists in Wellfleet, MA. My painting was hanging in the show and I was mid-conversation with a friend, a manager of a bookstore, who shredded our dialogue in order to point Marge out of the crowd. My friend demanded that I talk to Marge and to give her a copy of the journal I had edited. Usually, I shy away from big names—they’re intimidating, and the hobnobbing of literary culture always makes me cringe—but I was peer pressured into this shameless act. I introduced myself, and I even had the audacity to give Marge our journal—we had only produced one issue, we had no financial backing, no major university affiliation, no ISSN. A week later, I had received three of Marge’s poems for our next issue. In one of these poems she regards a song on the radio, an oldie: "I am wrenched back into my past and sink / in its tar pit, trapped." Meaningful lives encompass struggle, and Piercy's latest work contains speakers who reflect on theirs. The poems we published contain a steady focus on aging, destruction and nostalgia in the realm of natural disaster and media absorption. She could have published them anywhere, but she chose a struggling lit journal.

The scope of Piercy’s work is large and, much like fire, when we turn our flammable pages, we encounter the unpredictable, the dangerous. In her poem, “Brother-less three: Never good enough,” Piercy addresses a brother who criticized her confessional poems: “You could not risk / one real word / for fear I would like a big bad wolf / blow your house down / with my voice of fire.” Indeed, Piercy characterizes her voice better than any of us can—it is changing, warming, elemental and, quite often, roaring.

John Bonanni serves as founding editor of the Cape Cod Poetry Review. He is the recipient of a scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and a residency from AS220 in Providence, RI. His poetry has appeared in Verse Daily, Cutbank, Assaracus, and Hayden's Ferry Review, among others.