On the Fiction and Poetry of Marge Piercy

Sunday, August 14, 2016

When the Insight of the Theme Is Less than the Sum of the Sentences: Marge Piercy and the Need to Write Less (and Better)

I first read Marge Piercy’s poems back in 1969, when I bought a copy of Breaking Camp at the UCLA Bookstore. Piercy was much younger than Philip Levine, whose Not This Pig had also been published by Wesleyan University Press the year before. I had purchased Levine’s book in large part because Glover Davis, his former student, had brought Levine to San Diego State to give a reading. It’s possible that Piercy’s book caught my attention because she, too, was born in Detroit and emphasized working-class themes of a struggle to keep one’s imagination intact in the face of numbing labor. In truth, though, despite the fact that I have been intermittently reading her poetry ever since, I have to confess that I would be hard pressed to name a specific poem of hers that I admire. I still buy her books, though, because there is something I admire about her gritty persistence. She is better known as a novelist than as a poet, though, so I will start with that portion of her body of writing.

I find myself writing about Piercy today because I have given myself a couple of hours of respite from the travail of assisting my 94 year old mother as she slips into dementia, and decided to work on my bookshelves, which are more chaotically organized than ever. One of the books I pulled off was Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York, which was published in the middle of the last decade. Perhaps the coinciding hand of historical events guided my hand to the shelf with that book, for one of its primary characters is Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Woodhull faced an overwhelming number of obstacles in converting her candidacy into an electoral victory, not the least of which was her inability to vote for herself, since suffrage for women was still decades in the offing.

I wish I could say that Sex Wars is worth reading, but as I browsed its paragraphs, I recollected that I had had a similar problem with other novels by Piercy that I have looked at in the past. Her sentences, as sentences, are just not very interesting. I suppose it is the case that many readers don’t care about the quality of a writer’s sentences, but I fear that remaining silent in the face of mediocrity carries more of a penalty than I want to be held accountable for. I have no doubt that her readership will call me a male chauvinist snob and an academic elitist, but before any of the readers of this blog join in their assessment, I ask merely one question: why is it that I have no hesitation in calling P.D. James a major novelist of the 20th century? My indifference to Piercy’s writing is not an issue of the gender of the author. P.D. James writes marvelous sentences, one after another, and the cadences of her narratives are alluring and ooze wisdom and wit. I am not worthy to touch the ribbon of her typewriter. In the limited time I have on this planet, I want to spend as much of it as possible reading only work that has earned my attention to every syllable. It’s all in the coil and recoil of one’s sentences, and I do not want to settle for anything less. Nor am I alone in this. In saying all this, I do want to add that it gives no pleasure to write such a grouchy critique. But what can one do when what I call the Charles Dickens’ Syndrome is so actively sedating the very consciousness that imaginative sentences are meant to revivify?

Perhaps, of course, Piercy does not care whether she is remembered as a writer. She has had a career as a prolific writer, and she has continued to publish poetry as well as fiction. If she is satisfied, then I congratulate her on a life that has fulfilled her original impetus. Some of her best writing, in fact, in her most recent book of poetry, Made in Detroit, is about those days as a youthful writer. “Why did the palace of excess have cockroaches?” is a fine haibun in which youthful folly is mocked with rueful, disenchanted nostalgia, and “My Time in Better Dresses” decants the bittersweet discrepancies that branded one’s self-awareness from the days of one’s first job. On the whole, though, there are just too many poems with predictable or unsatisfying outcomes.

In thinking of Piercy’s writing, I suppose one might remember the distinction visual artists make between painters and illustrators, with the latter category not being particularly admired. Piercy does seem more like an illustrator, though when she is at her best, it is well done. In fact, better than well done. As a counterbalance, therefore, to the dismay I have reluctantly shared in today’s blog, I would like to end with the first stanza of “The Late Year,” in which the image lingers long after the words are read. To do that even once in a writer’s life is no small accomplishment. Piercy has done it more than once, of course. I just wish she had reached this level with more consistency.

I like Rosh Hashanah late,
when the leaves are half-burnt,
umber and scarlet, when sunset
marks the horizon with slow fire
and the black silhouettes
of migrating birds perch
on the wires davening.
(from “The Late Year”; Made in Detroit, page 93)

This is not as skillful or well rendered as Sylvia Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” or Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” but it’s a like a small oil painting over in a quiet corner of a museum. I am grateful for the nearby chair and for the fact that the room is empty except for me. Maybe it doesn’t take my breath away, but it reminds me to breathe more slowly, and to be grateful for that breath. The rest of the poem is worth reading, too, and it will more than repay the time it took for you to find it.

(I wish to thank Bird & Beckett bookstore in San Francisco for having Piercy’s MADE IN DETROIT for sale on their shelves. It is always a pleasure to support such an enterprise.)