They Sing Wild Songs In New Keys

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 Marge Piercy’s unflinching clarity of vision continues to be the kind of sturdy example so vital to literature. She has long been teaching and in the public arena, on the humane side of almost every contemporary issue.

Born in 1936, Marge Piercy has made decisions that serve as scaffolding for her poetry and fiction. She has stayed actively true to her progressive, feminist convictions. She has returned, with depth, to Jewish traditions she was born into. She has maintained a complicated appreciation for the natural world, especially the environs of her Cape Cod home. She has remained in a long, loving marriage of encouraging equals, to Ira Wood, her sometime collaborator, and co-instructor when leading writing workshops. She’s also kept her sense of humor.

She harnesses worldly concerns with matters of the soul, with a straightforward beauty that provides many examples from The Hunger Moon—New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010. It is her eighteenth volume of poetry.

“The visitation,” from What Are Big Girls Made Of? weaves in and out of the moment, making it exquisitely current :

The yearling doe stands by the pile of salt
hay, nibbling and then strolls up the path.
Among the spring flowers she stands amazed,
hundreds of daffodils, forsythia,
the bright chalices of tulips, crimson,
golden, orange streaked with green, the wild tulips
opening like stars fallen on the ground.

This, and more, before Piercy makes her point with language that is as right to see and hear as the deer is both lovely and a symbol of rough reality :

Graceful among the rhododendrons, I know
what her skittish courage represents : she
is beautiful as those sub-Saharan children
with huge luminous brown eyes of star-
vation. A hard winter following a hurricane,
tangles of downed trees even the deer
cannot penetrate, a long slow spring
with the buds obdurate as pebbles,
too much building, so she comes to stand
in our garden, eyes flowering with wonder
under the incandescent buffet of the fruit
trees, this garden cafeteria she has walked
into to graze, from the lean late woods.

Never be misled by forthright declarations in a Piercy poem. Each reverberates music it was meant to sound, as in “Wellfleet Shabbat” from The Art Of Blessing the Day:

The hawk eye of the sun slowly shuts.
The breast of the bay is softly feathered
dove grey. The sky is barred like the sand
when the tide trickles out.
The great doors of Shabbat are swinging
open over the ocean, loosing the moon
floating up slow distorted vast, a copper
balloon just sailing free.
The wind slides over the waves, patting
them with its giant hand, and the sea
stretches its muscles in the deep,
purrs and rolls over.
The sweet beeswax candles flicker
and sigh, standing between the phlox
and the roast chicken. The wine shines
its red lantern of joy.
Here on this piney sandspit, the Shekhina
comes on the short strong wings of the seaside
sparrow raising her song and bringing
down the fresh clear night.

“Shekhina” represents devine, female spirit in Jewish life, making this and other poems in the collection, read like prayers one’s foremothers might have wished for, had they time, not to mention a loving spouse who no doubt helps with the meal so that all at the table can be lit by the “red lantern of joy.” Generations of Jewish women fought to learn the language and rituals reserved for men, making Wellfleet Shabbat and its neighbors in these pages a kind of altar of acknowledgement and remembrance, sacred bricks and mortar.

Love poems. Poems confronting war. Poems about cats. All are notoriously difficult to write without falling into dogmatic babble or trite traps. Piercy avoids this, in selection after selection, as in this from “Implications of one-plus one” from Available Light:

Ten years of fitting our bodies together
and still they sing wild songs in new keys.

She suggests they’re still singing even after watching football together, deliciously possessing him and the game, announcing “Football is mine,” in “Football for dummies” a recent composition. The poem is pure fun, and you cheer for everyone.

“Peace in a Time of war,” quoted in part, makes my point about war poems and highlights Piercy’s versatility once more :

Ceremony is a moat we have
crossed into a moment’s
harmony as if the world paused —
but it doesn’t. What we must
do waits like coats tossed
on the bed for us to rise
from this warm table
put on again and go out.

And then there are the poems about cats. As someone who likes dogs and shares a bed with a man and one or more felines, I’ve written my share of terrible cat poems and am always on the prowl for good ones by others. In “Old cat crying,” as in all topics she seizes, Piercy is empathetically masterful, and in this case the mastery connects feline need to human need and loss :

He should not have died
before her. She cries
for him to come. She
sniffed his body and knew,
but she has forgotten
and he does not come.

Piercy apprehends what conventional wisdom sometimes disdains. We humans show emotion in ways, like sniffing (who among us has not sniffed a garment recalling scent of a long-gone love?) that can seem both feral and genuine.

Not surprisingly, for someone whose prose includes Sleeping With Cats, A Memoir, Piercy ends with a poem about the death of a cat. Like this entire collection, and like Breaking Camp, her first volume of poetry, published by Wesleyan in 1968, and well worth repeat visits, “End of days” engages the senses and enlarges them. Cats “see clearly/through hooded eyes, “we are informed, before being reminded how terrible it is to face the end of life while confined in “the silent scream of hospitals.”

Marge Piercy’s unflinching clarity of vision continues to be the kind of sturdy example so vital to literature. She has long been teaching and in the public arena, on the humane side of almost every contemporary issue. Lesser poets, lesser citizens have been appointed United States Poet Laureate. It’s her turn.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →