Poet Marge Piercy was born into a working-class home in Detroit. Hard times produced strong convictions and loyalties. Her prose and poetry speak of memory and justice. But she writes of other things, too — tomatoes, zucchinis and oak trees, and circles on the water.
BILL MOYERS: She was born into a working-class home in Detroit. Hard times produced strong convictions and loyalties. Her prose and poetry speak of memory and justice. But she writes of other things, too — tomatoes, zucchinis and oak trees, and circles on the water. I'm Bill Moyers. Join me for the Sounds of Poetry with Marge Piercy.
Funding for this program is provided by the Herb Alpert Foundation and by The John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation. Corporate Funding is provided by Mutual of America, building America's future through pension and retirement plans, encouraging dialogue and discussion, the spirit of America, Mutual of America.
MARGE PIERCY: This is a poem that when I wrote it I thought it was about my mother. I've since learned it's about a lot of people's mothers, a lot of grandmothers, a lot of people.
"Putting the Good Things Away"
In the drawer were folded fine batiste slips embroidered with scrolls and posies, edged with handmade lace too good for her to wear.
Daily she put on shmattas, but only to wash the car or the windows, rags that had never been pretty
even when new: somewhere such dresses are sold only to women without money to waste on themselves, on pleasure,
to women who hate their bodies, to women whose lives close on them. Such dresses come bleached by tears, packed in salt like herring.
Yet, she put the good things away for the good day that must surely come, when promises would open like tulips, their satin cups
for her to drink the sweet sacramental wine of fulfillment. The story shone in her as through tinted glass of a mother
gave up and did without and was in the end crowned with that, scallions, crowned queen of the dead place
in the heart where old dreams whistle on bone flutes, where runover pets are forgotten, where lost stockings go.
In the coffin she was beautiful, not because of the undertaker's garish cosmetics, but because that face at eighty was still
her face at eighteen peering over the drab long dress of poverty, clutching a book. Where did you read your dreams, Mother?
Because her expression softened from the pucker of disappointment, the grimace of swallowed rage, she looked the white-haired girl.
The anger turned inward, the anger turned inward, where could it go except to make pain? It flowed into me with her milk.
Her anger annealed me. I was dipped into the caldron of boiling rage and rose a warrior and a witch
but still vulnerable there where she held me. She could always wound me for she knew the secret places.
She could always touch me for she knew the pressure points of pleasure and pain. Our minds were woven together.
I gave her presents and she hid them away, wrapped in plastic. Too good, she said, too good. I'm saving them. So after her death
I sort them, the ugly things that were sufficient for every day and the pretty things for which no day of hers was ever good enough.
BILL MOYERS: In talking about the creative sources of your poetry, you've credited your mother with making you a poet.
MARGE PIERCY: She made me very observant. For her it was absolutely important that you notice things. That you pay attention to things. That you not walk around, as she said "with your head in the clouds." You can't walk around with your head in the clouds." You have to pay attention. And she taught me to do that as a child.
BILL MOYERS: What kind of woman was she?
MARGE PIERCY: My mother was a woman who was not allowed to finish the 10th grade. She was sent to work. She came from a family of 11 children in the most dire poverty. My mother had no skills. My mother could not leave a bad marriage. My mother could not support herself. She'd never done anything but be a chamber maid. She, she was strong in some ways and completely helpless in others. It was observing that contradiction that taught me a whole lot about women's lives. She was tremendously gifted with animals and birds. She was a combination of tremendous gifts and power and tremendous weakness and vulnerability and anger.
BILL MOYERS: And those things became very strong in your poetry?
MARGE PIERCY: Yes. I've often thought that I was speaking for my mother whose life was so painful and so starved of so many things she wanted and needed. The affection that she craved or the dignity that she felt she had in her that the world did not accord her.
A lot of Jewish women have a particular fondness for the story of Ruth and Naomi, though it's sometimes a little startling when you go back and read it. The book of Ruth and Naomi; it's not really the Book of Ruth and Naomi, that's what I call it.
When you pick up the Tanakh and read the Book of Ruth, it is a shock how little it resembles memory. It's concerned with inheritance, lands, men's names, how women must wiggle and wobble to live.
Yet women have kept it dear for the beloved elder who cherished Ruth, more friend than daughter. Daughters leave. Ruth brought even the baby she made with Boaz home as a gift.
Where you go, I will go too, your people shall be my people, I will be a few for you, for what is yours I will love as I love you, oh Naomi my mother, my sister my heart.
Show me a woman who does not dream a double, heart's twin, a sister of the mind in whose ear she can whisper, whose hair she can braid as her life twists its pleasure and pain and shame. Show me a woman who does not hide
in the locket of bone that deep eye beam of fiercely gentle love she had once from mother, daughter, sister; once like a warm moon that radiance aligned the tides of her blood into potent order.
At the season of first fruits we recall two travellers, co-conspirators, scavengers making do with leftovers and mill ends, whose friendship was stronger than fear, stronger than hunger, who walked together the road of shards, hands joined.
BILL MOYERS: Did your mother live long enough to know you had become a poet?
MARGE PIERCY: Yes. Yes, my father never read anything, but my mother did. She liked my poetry much better than my fiction because she thought you should talk about sex but you shouldn't write it down. But the poetry she liked and we became very close toward the end. After I wrote — there was a poem that I wrote directly to her that was part of the lunar cycle, and it moved her so much that it changed our relationship to a more intimate one again.
BILL MOYERS: What does it mean to be at a festival like this? I mean, what, what's the power of a place and an event like this?
MARGE PIERCY: Well, poets largely work alone and not really very much so. I mean, you sit by a computer. It's — all readings where you give readings is the way that, poetry being a performance art, it's the way you get feedback. And the bigger the audience is, the more feedback you get. And the more other poets are there, the more fertile, cross-fertilization there is. Different poets speak to different people. We all belong to, to a great endeavor and the more good poets there are, the more people will read poetry.
"To be of use"
The people I love the best jump in to work headfirst 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 amphorae 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.
BILL MOYERS: These poems just — come in your imagination? Do they creep in like a little kitten? Or do you see something out there that-
MARGE PIERCY: Like a little kitten or like a nice big tiger, it depends.
BILL MOYERS: Well, with you it's a tiger.
MARGE PIERCY: But, no poems come for a whole variety of sources. When you're younger you believe in inspiration. As you get older, you most believe in — in receptivity and work.
"For the Young Who Want To"
Talent is what they say you have after the novel is published and favorably reviewed. Beforehand what you have is a tedious delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done after the play is produced and the audience claps. Before that friends keep asking when you are planning to go out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you had after the third volume of remarkable poems. Earlier they accuse you of withdrawing, ask why you don't have a baby, call you a bum.
The reason people want M.F.A.'s, take workshops with fancy names when all you can really learn is a few techniques, typing instructions and somebody else's mannerisms
is that every artist lacks a license to hang on the wall like your optician, your vet proving you may be a clumsy sadist whose fillings fall into the stew but you're certified a dentist.
The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.
MARGE PIERCY: This is my Kaddish. Kaddish never mentions the dead. It is my attempt to do in English something of what the rhymes of the Kaddish do in Hebrew. But there is one thing about this Kaddish, which is it never mentions God or any god names because this is a Kaddish designed for anyone who wants to commemorate their dead, no matter what they believe in a personal god, it should work in tradition.
Look around us, search above us, below, behind. We stand in a great web of being joined together. Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent passing through us in the body of Israel and our own bodies, let's say amen.
Time flows through us like water. The past and the dead speak through us. We breathe out our children's children, blessing.
Blessed is the earth from which we grow, blessed the life we are lent, blessed the ones who teach us, blessed the ones we teach, blessed is the word that cannot say the glory that shines through us and remains to shine flowing past distant suns on the way to forever. Let's say amen.
Blessed is light, blessed is darkness, but blessed above all else is peace which bears the fruits of knowledge on strong branches, let's say amen.
Peace that bears joy into the world, peace that enables love, peace over Israel everywhere, blessed and holy is peace, let's say amen.
BILL MOYERS: Do you find some deep subterranean link between poetry and religion, the spiritual life?
MARGE PIERCY: Everything to me is connected. The politics are connected, the religion is connected, the, the body is connected. Sexual love is connected. You're- how you relate to your environment, how you relate to other people. To me it's all one vision. I don't make those kind of categories — you're in love, you're allowed to write religious poems-
BILL MOYERS: Yeah-
MARGE PIERCY: -or you can't write political poems. You can write love poems but you can't write God poems or whatever. I don't — it's, to me, it's all of a piece.
MARGE PIERCY: Let's see, it's about half of women in the room, and I'll bet ninety percent of you think you're too fat.
"The Hunger Moon"
The snow is frozen moonlight on the marshes. How bright it is tonight, the air thin as a skim of black ice and serrated, cutting the lungs. My eyes sting.
Spring, I watch the moon for instruction in planting; summer, I gauge her grasp on the tides of the sea, the bay, my womb: now you may gather oysters, now lay
the white, the red, the black beans into the earth eyes rolled upwards. But winters, we are in opposition. I must fight the strong pulls of the body.
The blood croons, curl to sleep, embryo in a seed. Early to sleep, late to rise from the down cave. Even at seven, night squats in the pines. Swim in the womb of dreams and grow new limbs.
Awake at last, the body begins to crave, not salads, not crisp apples and sweet kiwis, but haunches of beef and thick fatty stews. Eat, whispers the crone in the bone, eat.
The hunger moon is grinning like a skull. The bats are asleep. The little voles Streak starving through tunnels in the snow and voracious shrews race after them.
Eat, make fat against famine, grow round while there's something rich to gnaw on, urges the crone from her peasant wisdom. she wants every woman her own pumpkin,
she wants me full as tonight's moon when I long to wane. Why must I fight her, who taught my mother's mother's mothers to survive the death marches of winters past?
BILL MOYERS: What do you think it does for people who are marginalized to find themselves in a poem? What does it give them?
MARGE PIERCY: I think, I know that, that for me, when I first found poetry that spoke to me, a street kid from Detroit, from a poor family, it, it was a validation that what I felt wasn't crazy. Wasn't bizarre. That I wasn't totally nutty. There were other people who felt the way I felt. There was validation for who I was. There was that, and I think that has to go on all of the time. The society tells you if you are not, if for instance, if you're female, if you're not 22, blonde and weigh about 92 pounds, you've had it. First of all, even, and even if you are blonde, 22 and weigh 92 pounds you're still gonna fail because you're gonna get older. And women aren't allowed to get older. So you're going to fail because women age into failure even if they are what the society defines as perfect when they are young.
MARGE PIERCY: This is called "Belly Good."
A heap of wheat, says the Song of Songs but I've never seen wheat in a pile. Apples, potatoes, cabbages, carrots make lumpy stacks, but you are sleek as a seal hauled out in the winter sun.
I can see you as a great goose egg or a single juicy and fully ripe peach. You swell like a natural grassy hill. You are symmetrical as a Hopewell mound, with the eye of the navel wide open,
the eye of my apple, the pear's port window. You're not supposed to exist at all this decade. You're to be fiat as a kitchen table, so children with roller skates can speed over you
like those sidewalks of my childhood that each gave a different roar under my wheels. You're required to show muscle striations like the ocean sand at ebb tide, but brick hard.
Clothing is not designed for women of whose warm and flagrant bodies you are a swelling par. Yet I confess I meditate with my hands folded on you, A maternal cushion radiating comfort.
Even when I have been at my thinnest, you have never abandoned me but curled round as a sleeping cat under my skirt. When I spread out, so do you. You like to eat, drink and bang on another belly.
In anxiety I clutch you with nervous fingers as if you were a purse full of calm. In my grandmother standing in the fierce sun I see your cauldron that held eleven children shaped under the tent of her summer dress.
I see you in my mother at thirty in her flapper gear, skinny legs and then you knocking on the tight dress. We hand you down like a prize feather quilt. You are our female shame and sunburst strength.
MARGE PIERCY: I've had a lot of experiences in my life. I've been a lot of places and done a lot of things. And they all inform who I am and where I live. All these experiences are part of living in our time. We live in time which can be very beautiful and which is very hideous also. In which human cruelty is something so real. And yet the world is something very beautiful. As we're sitting here talking there are geese walking by. A whole family of geese is walking by on the road, and they're beautiful.
BILL MOYERS: What you're saying is that to be a poet is just to open your eyes.
MARGE PIERCY: Well that's — to be alive is to open your eyes. So there's a line in the poem, in one of the poems I read last night, which says attention is love, and it is. Everything religious tells us you live in the now. You live looking. You live feeling. You live experiencing. You understand your connection. You have to know how connected you are. We have a very strange notion of the self. We think the self stops right here. My self doesn't stop here. It flows out into the people I love, into the people I have loved, the people I come from, the people I speak to. And sometimes in, in dream or in vision, we encounter each other without boundaries.
"Coming up on September" White butterflies with single black painted finger paint eyes on their wings dart and —, settle and made over the green tangle of vines in Labor Day morning steam. The year grinds into rightness and rot, great starkening; pears yellowing, the first Virginia creeper twining crimson, the grasses dries straw to burn. The new year rises, beckoning across the umbrellas on the sand. I begin to reconsider my life: where is the yield of my impatience? What is the fruit of my resolve? I turn from my frantic white dance over the jungle of productivity and slowly, and a glum slides cold water down my throat. I rest on a leaf spotted red. Now is the time to let the mind search backwards like the raven loosed to see what can feed us. Now is the time to cast the mind forward to chart an aerial map of the months. The new year is a great door that stands across the evening, and Yom Kippur is the second door, between our song and silence, stone and clay pot to be filled from within myself. I will find there both rightness and rot, what I have done and undone, what I must let go with the waning days and what I must take in. With the last tomatoes, we harvest the fruit of our lives.