Marge Piercy 7/9/11
It has been a while since I have done a shout out for any poet so I figure now is a good time to mention Marge Piercy. Probably like many leftists, I read her poetry and novels with pleasure. Because she was so of the period (60’s-70’s), she was always a fun read.
Given the way fame works in America, poets, older or younger, are not exactly news. General rule of thumb: if you are a poet, a critical thinker/writer or a left public intellectual, you will likely be relegated to obscurity. There are a few notable exceptions but not too many.
As a former Boston area resident (a lifetime ago), I enjoyed Piercy’s Cambridge-based novels. I did see her read once in Cambridge. Her poetry book To Be of Use was a classic. I haven’t looked at To Be of Use for many moons but it contained some wonderful political poems.
I have read a number of her novels. I thought Vida was good and also her World War 2 novel, Gone To Soldiers. I never read it but my wife liked He, She and It.
I think Piercy wrote some pretty forgettable stuff too. My old political friend Barbara used to call Woman on the Edge of Time, Woman on the Ledge of Slime. Still, nobody bats .1000 and I wanted to recommend her work especially to those who may never have heard of her. Given the amnesia machine that is America, that could be many.
I will share a few Piercy poems. I liked her book, The Art of Blessing the Day which includes poems with a Jewish theme. I guess I related to some of the same liturgy that inspired her. All the poems quoted are from The Art of Blessing the Day.
A candle in a glass
When you died, it was time to light the first
candle of the eight. The dark tidal shifts
of the Jewish calendar of waters and the moon
that grows like a belly and starves like a rabbit
in winter have carried that holiday forward
and back since then. I light only your candle
at sunset, as the red wax of the sun melts
into the rumpled waters of the bay.
The ancient words pass like cold water
out of stone over my tongue as I say kaddish.
When I am silent and the twilight drifts
in on skeins of unraveling woolly snow
blowing over the hill dark with pitch pines,
I have a moment of missing that pierces
my brain like sugar stabbing a cavity
till the nerve lights its burning wire.
Grandmother Hannah comes to me at Pesach
and when I am lighting the sabbath candles.
The sweet wine in the cup has her breath.
The challah is braided like her long, long hair.
She smiles vaguely, nods, is gone like a savor
passing. You come oftener when I am putting
up pears or tomatoes, baking apple cake.
You are in my throat laughing or in my eyes.
When someone dies, it is the unspoken words
that spoil in the mind and ferment to wine
and to vinegar. I obey you still, going
out in the saw toothed wind to feed the birds
you protected. When I lie in the arms of my love,
I know how you climbed like a peavine twining,
lush, grasping for the sun, toward love
and always you were pinched back, denied.
It’s a little low light the yahrtzeit candle
makes, you couldn’t read by it or even warm
your hands. So the dead are with us only
as the scent of fresh coffee, of cinnamon,
of pansies excites the nose and then fades,
with us as the small candle burns in its glass.
We lose and we go on losing as long as we live,
a little winter no spring can melt.
For she is a tree of life
In the cramped living room of my childhood
between sagging rough-skinned sofa that made me itch
and swaybacked chair surrounded by ashtrays
where my father read every word of the paper
shrouded in blue smoke, coughing rusty phlegm
and muttering doom, the rug was a factory
oriental and the pattern called tree of life
My mother explained as we plucked a chicken,
tree of life: I was enthralled and Hannah
my grandmother hummed for me the phrase
from liturgy: Eytz khayim hee l’makhazikim
bo v’kol nitee-voteh-ho shalom:
for she is a tree of life to all who hold her fast,
and the fruit of her branches is peace.
I see her big bosomed and tall as a maple
and in her veins the beige sugar of desire
running sometimes hard, surging skyward
and sometimes sunk down into the roots
that burrow and wriggle deep and far among the rocks
and clay and the bones of rabbits and foxes
lying in the same bed at last becoming one.
I see her opening into flushed white
blossoms the bees crawl into. I see her
branches dipping under the weight of the yield,
the crimson, the yellow and russet globes,
apples fallen beneath the deer crunch.
Yellow jackets in the cobalt afternoon buzz
drunken from cracked fruit oozing juice.
We all flit through her branches or creep
through her bark, skitter over her leaves.
Yet we are the mice that gnaw at her root
who labor ceaselessly to bring her down.
When the tree falls, we will not rise as plastic
butterfly spaceships, but will starve as the skies
weep hot acid and the earth chafes into dust.
Hear, Israel, you are of G-d and G-d is one.
Praise the name that speaks us through all time.
So you shall love what is holy
with all your courage, with all your passion
with all your strength.
Let the words that have come down
shine in our words and our actions.
We must teach our children to know and understand them.
We must speak about what is good
and holy within our homes
when we are working, when we are at play,
when we lie down and when we get up.
Let the work of our hands speak of goodness
Let it run in our blood
and glow from our doors and windows.
We should love ourselves, for we are of G-d.
We should love our neighbors as ourselves
We should love the stranger, for we
were once strangers in the land of Egypt
and have been strangers in all the lands of the world since.
Let love fill our hearts with its clear precious water.
Heaven and earth observe how we cherish or spoil our
Heaven and earth watch whether we choose life or choose
We must choose life so our children’s children may live.
Be quiet and listen to the still small
voice within that speaks in love.
Open to that voice, hear it, heed it and work for life.
Let us remember and strive to be good.
Let us remember to find what is holy
within and without.