Friday, August 23, 2019

At Home With Marge Piercy

The 'radical rogue' is as relevant as ever.

At Home With Marge Piercy

The 'radical rogue' is as relevant as ever.
June 3, 2019 in Arts & Culture, Jewish World, Summer 2019 Double Issue
1 Comment

Marge Piercy doesn’t live that far off the beaten track—it’s only Cape Cod, after all—but it feels remote, especially in the off-season. The poet, novelist and longtime feminist activist, who’s now 83, has lived in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, since the 1970s. Flying there to see her in a 10-seat puddle jumper is like visiting a guru on a mountaintop. You land in Provincetown, at an airport so cozy that the departure lounge offers a stack of board games, and then drive a half hour to a house tucked far back from the road, among pine and oak woods, on the edge of a freshwater marsh.

From the front, the brown-shingled house looks small. Greenery swallows it up: Bushes climb a steep slope to the porch, a great pine tree hugs the roof. More green peeks from inside the broad windows, their sills jammed with plants. The gardens are, Piercy likes to say, “profuse”: Stone-flagged paths wind through the trees, past hosta plants with giant, nodding, fairy-tale leaves. Inside, the house rambles, from a cozy downstairs kitchen (ceramics, still more plants, two black cats) to a light-filled, wood-framed upstairs living room so filled with art that one painting (of more leaves) is mounted on the ceiling.

“I designed it,” Piercy says of the house. “I built it, and every time I published a book, I added a room. I stopped when I had enough rooms.” The caveat’s helpful, since she’s published, to date, 17 novels and 19 books of poetry, plus assorted plays and memoirs, and is still going strong. (Another novel is with her agent.) Although Piercy looks exactly as she does in every author’s picture going back to her 30s—the curtain of black hair, the apple cheeks and impish dark eyes—she has trouble getting around these days. Her back and replacement knees bother her, she tells me, and she walks with a cane, so I don’t have the heart to ask for a proper tour. But I imagine the different rooms opening out of the different worlds of her many volumes of prose and poetry, each with its distinctive vision: the bitterly contested kitchens and bedrooms in early feminist novels such as Small Changes (1973), in which a generation of women saw their own struggles mirrored as they searched for non-traditional relationships and identities; the harsh New York City mental hospital ward in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), from which the incarcerated protagonist, Connie, makes disembodied journeys to two possible futures, one an egalitarian agrarian utopia, one an urban dystopian nightmare. There are the rich historical landscapes of Gone to Soldiers (1987), Piercy’s World War II epic, and City of Darkness, City of Light (1996), her novel of the French Revolution, both books teeming with the stories of forgotten women. There’s the technologically advanced but environmentally wrecked future of the 1991 science fiction classic He, She and It, in which multinational corporations, or “multis,” build domes over their enclaves to protect the elites from a climate gone amok, while the masses scrape an existence in the “Glop,” the gang-ridden megalopolis, and a woman in one of the last free towns falls passionately in love with the cyborg she’s helping to program. You could wander through many more rooms, more landscapes, and still not capture the breadth of Piercy’s vision and career.

Piercy’s home is full of cats. Her grandmother used to tell her that her cat, Blackie, ate with a knife and a fork when guests weren’t around.

Instead, we end up in the kitchen, where Piercy shows off her “prophet plaque,” a framed certificate from the Reconstructionist Movement’s Shalom Center that awards her the Brit HaDorot, or Covenant of the Generations, and invokes the prophet Elijah, who will “turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest [God] smite the earth with utter destruction.” The link to Elijah seems appropriate for a writer whose poetry has enriched Jewish liturgy and whose work delves repeatedly into the relationships within families—particularly mothers and daughters—while spiraling outward to address the fate of the world.

“Jews and blacks were always lumped together when I grew up,” Piercy says. “I didn’t grow up ‘white.’ Jews weren’t white.”

Piercy’s life seems low-key today, but the remoteness is misleading. Waves of new visibility radiating out from the explosions of the Women’s March and #MeToo have lifted other longtime feminist icons to prominence; but while her contemporaries Margaret Atwood and the late Ursula K. Le Guin have been embraced and lionized by a new generation, Piercy has remained a constant presence, not just in literature but in many people’s lives. Her books are widely taught as feminist and science fiction classics, and her poems and blessings have entered the cultural bloodstream—what might even be called the common prayer language of a certain strain of liberal Judaism. They’re heard at weddings, funerals, namings; they hang on refrigerators. When I studied creative writing in college, her poem about creativity, “For the young who want to,” was thumbtacked to many a department bulletin board. That poem hints at the work ethic that may partly explain her prolific output:

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…

Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Nowadays, Piercy writes four days a week, reads poetry on college campuses and maintains a full schedule of local political activism, mainly on environmental issues. “Writing is the core of my life,” she told an interviewer in 2010, “but there’s always a lot else going on.” With her husband, Ira Wood—who appears frequently in her poems as “Woody”—she organizes anti-nuclear protests and speaks and writes on the issues of gentrification and development that grip the outer Cape. “I’m fully engaged,” she says. “I just can’t march anymore. I can’t walk that far.”

Piercy has done her share of marching. Her work as a poet and novelist has always been tied up with activism—feminism, antiwar, antiracism, abortion rights. She grew up poor in Detroit, in a rough, mostly black neighborhood—the only place, she says, that Jews could buy homes at the time—in an “asbestos shack” that figures in many of her poems. Her Orthodox Jewish grandmother lived with the family half the year and gave the young Marge her deep connection with Jewish ritual. Her non-Jewish father scorned religion and tyrannized her mother, who struggled to manage her rebellious daughter. A good woman appeared to me/indistinguishable from a dead one/except that she worked all the time,” Piercy wrote later in the poem “My mother’s body.”

Along with Jewish identity came a strong sense of solidarity with other victims of prejudice. “Jews and blacks were always lumped together when I grew up,” Piercy says. “I didn’t grow up ‘white.’ Jews weren’t white. My first boyfriend was black. I didn’t find out I was white until we spent time in Baltimore and I went to a segregated high school. I can’t express how weird it was. Then I just figured they didn’t know I was Jewish.”

Piercy became a voracious reader after a fever confined her to bed rest at age eight. She read for escape, and she started writing fiction and poetry at age 15—right after the death of her grandmother, who had also been the family storyteller. “I was very close to her,” Piercy says. “Then, a girl I was also close to died of a heroin overdose. Her pimp had her on heroin, and she died, and I was furious at everything. At around the same time, my parents had finally saved enough money to buy a brick house, and the shack we’d lived in was sold to a black doctor. The white neighbors on one side were furious about that, so they poisoned my cat. He died horribly. And all these things started me really seriously writing, because the contrast between how things were supposed to be, Dick and Jane and Spot, and the way the television depicted things was just so different from what I saw.”

Fans of Piercy will observe that she is nothing if not consistent. This origin story (which she tells often) contains every significant element of her later work: religion, violence, feminism, an outraged sympathy for the victims of injustice and, of course, cats. Her grandmother, she says, had a cat named Blackie who had a seat at the seder table; for years, she believed her grandmother’s insistence that when guests weren’t around, Blackie ate with a knife and fork. Cats move sinuously through Piercy’s poetry and prose, including a 2001 memoir titled Sleeping with Cats. In one of her utopias, set in 2137, people have finally evolved far enough to be able to talk with cats. When the cats meet the time-traveling protagonist from the 1970s, who can’t speak with them, they snub her as only cats can.

Piercy attended college against steep odds, graduating from the University of Michigan on a scholarship and returning there to join an early chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. With her first husband, a French Holocaust survivor and leftist activist, she protested the Vietnam War before it was a popular stance. The marriage eventually failed: He thought of her writing as a hobby, and “he wouldn’t really talk to me,” she says. “He always had excuses—‘I can’t talk during the cyclotron run!’” Such husbands make frequent appearances in Piercy’s books; there’s nothing really wrong with them except that they can’t or won’t connect. “I left him,” she says of hers, “and I felt very guilty about it.”

Meanwhile, she was publishing novels: Going Down Fast in 1969, about three young artists facing the destruction of their neighborhood by gentrification; Dance the Eagle to Sleep in 1970, about rebellious high schoolers; the breakout Small Changes in 1973, Woman on the Edge of Time in 1976, The High Cost of Living (about a gay love triangle) in 1978. The same decade saw her first six volumes of poetry, a pace she has kept up ever since, with major anthologies appearing in 1982 (Circles on the Water) and 2011 (The Hunger Moon).

“This world is run by more fat, bald 70-year-old men than it is by runway models, but I don’t see women trying to look like fat 70-year-old men.”

She didn’t slacken politically, either. With her second husband, she worked in “the movement” in New York in the 1960s, was a precinct captain for JFK—“but I was always a radical rogue, never really a Democrat”—and moved to Cape Cod in part because, she says, repeated gassings at protests had ruined her lungs. It’s one of many stories she tells with an unexpected twinkle, an eye for the comic side.

“Besides the gas, I had smoked from the time I was a street kid, and I got bronchitis,” she says. “I was being treated free in New York by a movement doctor. One day he said to me, ‘It’s not worth my time to treat you. You’re gonna be dead in two or three years.’ I walked out of there and never smoked another cigarette. But because I’d waited till I got sick to quit, I’m allergic to tobacco smoke. And to be allergic to tobacco smoke in 1970s New York, well—I was so unpopular, people called me a fascist. It wasn’t just movement people. There are poets who hate me to this day because I asked them not to smoke.”

In Wellfleet, her lungs healed. With health came another rich vein of creative inspiration—her connection to gardening, animals and the land. And happiness: The second marriage ended in divorce, but in 1982 she married an old friend, Woody, in a rapturous romance that produced much of her most lush and sensual poetry. That decade saw the publication of Stone, Paper, Knife, with poems that trace their relationship, and in 1985 the lyrical My mother’s body, which begins when Piercy suddenly senses the moment of her mother’s death, 1,500 miles away, and is moved to explore the patterns of female influence: “This coat has been handed down, an heirloom/this coat of black hair and ample flesh,/this coat of pale slightly ruddy skin.” Through memory, Piercy’s harsh rejection of everything in her mother’s life ultimately ends in reconciliation: “What you/did not dare in your life you dare in mine.”

The life that Piercy and Wood lead in Wellfleet is threaded through her poetry in other ways. Domesticity brings out her wit. Some of her funniest poems are about zucchini and eggplant (“And thus the people every year/in the valley of humid July/did sacrifice themselves/to the long green phallic god”). Others are about homemaking and cooking—although never just. Consider, for instance, the 2015 “Marinade for an Elderly Rabbit: Note on a recipe in a cookbook:”

I could use some time in a marinade
    myself. . .
Yes, prepare me a marinade, dear.
Soak me in it overnight. Tomorrow
you’ll find me far easier to digest.

“I’m still a radical,” she says. “I’m not a radical feminist because I’m not a lesbian, although I was bisexual. I guess I gave it up because women didn’t tend to fall in love with me the way men did. They found me too outspoken, or something. But at a certain point I gave it up, and when I got together with Woody, we wanted to be monogamous. I’m monogamous now. But still radical.”

If there’s a single word used most often about Piercy’s poetry, it’s “accessible.” In some academic settings this can be a put-down, of course, but in Piercy’s case it’s merely an acknowledgment of the extraordinary extent to which her poems have been taken up for use in everyday life. “I think poetry ultimately is a more communal activity than fiction,” she wrote in 1999, “but I love both equally.” The 1982 poem “To be of use,” a resonant meditation on the honor of work, is much used at funerals, especially for teachers and union organizers and other activists: It ends, “The pitcher cries for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.”

It isn’t the only Piercy poem in heavy rotation. The sequence of poems she wrote for her 1982 marriage ceremony with Woody is used widely in weddings. She often tells the story in interviews about the wedding guest who asked her whether her poem “The Chuppah” was part of the Jewish wedding service—he’d heard it recited at four weddings that year:

The chuppah stands on four poles…
The marriage stands on four legs…
We have made a home together
open to the weather of our time.
We are mills that turn in the winds
of struggle
converting fierce energy into bread…

A more roguish poem in the same sequence, “Why marry at all?” is also popular:

Why register with the state?
Why enlist in the legions of the
respectable?. . .

Why license our bed at the foot
like our Datsun truck: will the
mileage improve?

The political, feminist poems may be beloved because, even at their angriest, they can be wickedly funny. The early “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” concludes, “Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.” A stinging 1971 poem about body image, “Barbie Doll,” isn’t funny at all, ending in an open casket. (“Doesn’t she look pretty? everyone said./Consummation at last./To every woman a happy ending.”) But Piercy’s own comment on the poem a few years ago was droll: “This world is run by more fat, bald 70-year-old men than it is by runway models, but I don’t see women trying to look like fat 70-year-old men.”

More often, the standard misogynist metaphor is neatly vivisected, turned into something more interesting: In “Apple Sauce for Eve,” a take on the Eden story, Eve represents not sin but curiosity. She’s no tragic villain but a bumbler, bound for a wholly human, almost comic disaster: “How many last words/in how many dead languages,” the poet wonders, “would translate into,/But what happens if I, and Whoops!”

Piercy came late to organized prayer, despite her early immersion in ritual. “At my grandmother’s funeral, I revolted against Judaism because the rabbi turned her into a sort of stock figure, a yiddishe mama,” she says. “But I went back to it years later, when my mother died. I was saying Kaddish for her, because my brother wouldn’t, and realized I didn’t know what I was saying. I couldn’t stand that.” At the age of 50, she took up the study of Hebrew. Then, active in a long-running Wellfleet chavurah she helped found, she was invited to join the committee that rewrote the Reconstructionist prayer book Or Chadash.

“The language of the Hebrew is very poetic, but the English of most siddurs is no more inspiring than the directions for setting up a home entertainment system,” she says. “I wanted to create something beautiful, something that was reminiscent of the Hebrew but also could be relatable. It’s very different writing liturgy than it is writing poetry. The images cannot be far-fetched or too original. And it has to have a certain rhythm to it.”

A volume called The Art of Blessing the Day appeared in 1999 with her versions of classic prayers such as the Shema, Aleinu and Amidah. Her version of the Ne’ilah prayer for the waning moments of Yom Kippur, published in 2006, reads in part,

When I was little I cried
out I! I! I! I want, I want.

Older, I feel less important,
a worker bee in the hive
of history, miles of hard
labor to make my sweetness.

Sitting at Piercy’s kitchen table as cats saunter in and out feels serene and timeless. I think about how poetry floats outside history, while novels intersect with it. Perhaps that explains the way Piercy’s novels—particularly the 1976 Woman on the Edge of Time and the prize-winning 1991 He, She and It—have suddenly leapt back into political and cultural relevance. Woman on the Edge of Time was reissued in 2016. It astonished readers not so much because its vision of the utopian society in 2137 is feminist, sustainable and back-to-nature—indeed, in that sense it bears the marks of the 1970s it hails from—but because, prophetically again, it all but abjures the gender binary. Connie, the visitor to this utopia from the 1970s present, at first thinks her guide Luciente is a young man. Eventually she catches on that Luciente is female, though it’s hard to tell, since people dress generically, mate in triads, raise children collectively and use the pronoun “per” for all genders.

Once, seeking to “visit” her utopian friends, Connie accidentally enters an alternative dystopic future that appears in one nightmare sequence as shockingly contemporary. In it, the human race lives in towering high-rises amid pollution so thick that only “richies” can see the sun. The lower orders work as surgically enhanced sex slaves. Gloria Steinem, commenting on the reissued novel for an online forum in 2018, observed, “This was written before girls were getting breast implants for 16th birthdays, and before entire villages of women in India were surviving economically by gestating foreign embryos, and before terrorists of all stripes, from those bombing abortion clinics here to those beheading and bombing in Syria, were enshrining the cult of masculinity. I urge you to read Marge Piercy now—while we are still on the edge.”

Piercy relaxes with a book—and a cat—in the light and art-filled room of the home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, that she shares with her husband.

Piercy shrugs these comments off. “It astonishes me that there’s so much interest in [Woman on the Edge of Time] right now. People should be more interested in He, She and It. It’s far more relevant.” Because of artificial intelligence? I ask. “No! Because of global warming and its effect. And politics having become a spectator sport. And the immense and growing power of corporations, and the gulf between the affluent and regular people. The Glop comes closer every year.”

She’s got a point. This book, too, is uncannily visionary. (It won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction in 1993.) It tells the story of Shira Shipman, high-tech employee of one of the “multis” that have taken over governance in a climate-destroyed, megalopolis-dominated future. Shira divorces her husband, loses custody of their son and returns in despair to her home and her grandmother in Tikva, one of the few “free towns” that retain a precarious independence. The story’s power comes not so much from its setting as from the intricately layered double plot, in which Shira undertakes to train an illegally produced cyborg—an artificial entity with human characteristics, designed as a protective weapon for the settlement—in chapters interleaved with her grandmother’s poetic retelling of the parallel 16th-century tale of the Golem of Prague. Her grandmother, it turns out, also programmed the cyborg, and the stories come together in a moving conclusion that profoundly undermines the notion that technology will let us do whatever we like.

Piercy denies having invented these futures. “I saw things happening, that’s all,” she says, echoing her contemporary, Margaret Atwood, who has said of her wildly popular Handmaid’s Tale that she included in it only things that had already happened somewhere in the world. Piercy and Atwood evidently saw some of the same portents in the 1990s; although there are obvious differences in the two writers’ sensibilities—notably Piercy’s Jewish content—their visions overlap, especially in Atwood’s own near-future climate dystopia, the Oryx and Crake trilogy. (The form has so many later imitators that it now has a nickname, “cli-fi.”)

Piercy and Atwood were friendly in the 1990s, Piercy says, though they’ve lost touch. “I think she finds me a little peasant-y, and she’s more middle-class than I am in origins and sensibility. But I love her work. Something I wrote about her back then is just now getting collected in some critical anthology, something I wrote because at that point I thought she wasn’t getting enough attention.” She grins. “That got fixed.”

I ask Piercy if she’s surprised at how accurately she predicted the future. She says, “I’m sorry about it.” 

As the afternoon light begins to slant through the windowsill’s tangle of plants, I rummage through the Piercy books I brought with me for a sentence I want to read to her, a sentence that, it seems to me, could serve as a mission statement for all of her novels. When I tell her what I’m looking for, she waves her hands and says impatiently: “Just read it, and I’ll see.” The sentence is from her preface to the 2016 edition of Woman on the Edge of Time: “When I was a child, I first noticed that neither history as I was taught it nor the stories I was told seemed to lead to me. I began to fix them. I have been at it ever since. Does she feel as if she has succeeded, I wonder out loud.

“Of course not! Nothing is ever fixed,” she retorts. “I set a novel in the French Revolution, because that’s where modern feminism started. And we still haven’t won half the things they were fighting for, the women in the French Revolution. Like equal pay. Like access to health care. Like freedom to act upon our own desires and choices. Basically, women have always worked their asses off. And yet it wasn’t written about. It looked as if women weren’t there. Here, I’ll read something to you.”

She flips to a poem, “All that remains,” in The Hunger Moon, her 2011 collection, and reads aloud:

A pillar of salt would slowly dissolve
in the season of rains, as women
have so often melted from history
so many nameless, wife of, daughter
of, maidservant of . . .
Diving through the letters
Into the white light between
I seek them out, wife of,
daughter of, maidservant of—
their silence deafens me.

After so much work and writing, after a lifetime of writing novels and poetry, does Piercy herself at least feel heard? “To some degree,” she says. “Not in the mainstream anymore, not in New York. However, every other day I get a letter or an email or something on Facebook about how my work has helped someone. It got them through a divorce. Got them through a disease. Got them through being in prison. Got them through their husband betraying them with their best friend. The other day someone wrote to me, ‘I gave this poem to my fiancé, and we decided to get married.’”

The New York Times recently ran a piece about the prominence of women over 80; indeed, what with Atwood and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one could almost say her generation is having a cultural moment. Piercy declines to be gratified. She’s just as angry, she says, as when she was younger.

Some things, she concedes, are not as they were. She has more choices than her mother had, more than her grandmother. She’s written about them repeatedly, but when she talks about them, her anger sounds fresh. “My great-grandmother was murdered in a pogrom. My grandmother had very little choice—you know, to live in the shtetl in the danger of pogroms and in utter poverty, or to run away with my grandfather and raise 11 children in poverty, always one jump ahead of the police or the Pinkerton Guards. My mother had to quit school in 10th grade to become a chambermaid. She had no skills. Basically, her idea was to marry out of it, which she did three times. She was so miserable with my father, but when he said, ‘Why don’t you leave me?’ she said, ‘What could I do? How could I live?’ I made choices for myself, and I was able to live the life for the most part that I wanted to live.”

So she does see some progress? I want to believe she does. I ask her again.

“Yes,” she says, “but it didn’t happen. People worked to make a change. If you don’t work for the changes you want, the people in power work for their changes. They call up their Congressman, they call up their bank, they call up the mayor and say, ‘Let’s get rid of these houses. It’s a slum anyhow. There’s no income coming in from it. You know, I could build a casino there. I could build a hotel or a resort or condos, and there’d be much more taxes for the town.’ That’s the lesson: If you don’t work, they work.”

Then she shoos me out, nicely, and goes back to work.

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  • Davida Brown 13:53h, 22 June Reply

    Thank you for this article on such an interesting lady. Having traveled in different circles, I have not been exposed to her writings. She is definitely a seeker and a mover. I admire her energy and “fruitfulness” in her craft. I relate to her on certain levels, having been a “born Cape Codder”, cat, art, & poetry lover. She reminds me, in looks and soul searching style, of another Jewish female artist, Sally Klein O’Connor. Sally is strictly a West Coaster and writes/sings/produces music, as well as books. I can’t help but see a prophetic insight and curiosity in Marge Piersy that echoes the heavenly body/existence. There is no sexism or male/female agendas. There is total equality. However, it surely won’t happen here, no matter
    how revolutionary or rebellious we might become. Why? Because we aren’t living in that zone. Period!

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