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Meet Novelist and Poet Marge Piercy

If, as Marge Piercy writes, words are “magic to open the sky and the earth,” she herself is a Merlin of sorts, using her gift to craft 15 books of poetry and 15 novels that sweep history, politics, contemporary life, eroticism, feminism, Judaism and much more into the arc of her universe.

She is an unpretentious Merlin, her black hair worn Cleopatra style despite her 64 years. On a book tour to New York from her Cape Cod home, she gives precise, no-nonsense answers; she has probably reiterated many from three previous interviews the same day. She is impatient with questions about herself, preferring to talk about her work and some of her passions: her five cats, gardening, and Jewish renewal. To save her voice for an evening reading, her husband, Ira Wood, who accompanies her, answers some questions. “We’re a unit,” Piercy explains. “Unapologetically,” adds Wood, also a writer.

From her poetry, it might appear that Piercy would enjoy self-revelation. In her latest volume, The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems With a Jewish Theme (Knopf), Piercy’s strong, spiritual, humorous, poignant first-person voice divulges that she was fifty before she learned to read Hebrew, that she carries fruit on all her journeys, and counts “Jews, feminists, lefties and writers” as those who “might watch our backside so it won’t fall off.” She introduces her grandmother, Hannah, the daughter of a Lithuanian rabbi; her zaydeh, a Yiddish word for grandfather, who was a union organizer murdered while organizing bakery workers; and her mother, Bert, with whom she had a bittersweet relationship and whom she credits with making her a poet.

Although Piercy says her poetry allows her to “exorcise her autobiographical impulses,” she distinguishes the source of her material from the process of creating a poem. “When you’re writing a poem it isn’t intimate,” she says. “Your ego isn’t engaged. Though I work with material from my life, it’s as if it were clay or molten ore.”

Whatever its personal side, her lush, sensitive poetry has been used in settings from weddings to rallies. Read it, and it’s no wonder:

“The discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”
(From “The Art of Blessing the Day”)

Piercy received the Golden Rose, the oldest poetry award in the country, in 1990. She has even written liturgy for Or Hadash, the Reconstructionist prayer book (Nishmat, Shema, Meditation before reading Torah, Amidah, Kaddish, Havdalah, included in The Art of Blessing the Day). At a recent wedding she attended, she chuckles, after one of her love poems was recited, a guest asked her if that poem was now part of the Jewish wedding service. It was the third wedding he’d been to in which it had been used.

Her fiction, on the other hand, explores the choices in other people’s lives, fueled by empathy and imagination. In her latest novel, Three Women (Morrow), Piercy examines generational conflict, responsibility and rapprochement through the eyes of Suzanne, a divorced lawyer approaching 50; her 20-something daughter Elena, who moves back home when she’s unable to pay her rent; and her mother, Beverly, a political activist who suffers a stroke. “The novel is not about me,” stresses Piercy, who has no children of her own, but whose mother and brother died of strokes. “I see many women caught in that sandwich situation, being responsible for their children long after they become adults, and becoming caretakers to their own parents.”

Piercy’s innate curiosity has driven her to plumb diverse universes in her fiction: the French Revolution in City of Darkness, City of Light; a 21st century cyborg intertwined with the story of a 17th century golem in He, She and It, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award; World War II in Gone to Soldiers; and a contemporary Cape Cod community in Summer People.

Each novel is a small world I research and inhabit for two or three years, and then I move on to another small world,” she says, noting that she writes poetry while she writes fiction, usually alternating between the two. It took time for her work to be accepted by mainstream publishers: she wrote six novels from a feminist viewpoint before her first book, Going Down Fast, in which she switched to a male perspective, was published in 1969. “You simply couldn’t publish serious fiction about the lives of ordinary women then,” says Piercy.

She is a feminist, she says, because she “was born a woman. I can’t imagine not wanting things to be better, safer, more fun and less dangerous for myself and other women.” She worries about issues of economic justice, domestic violence, families becoming impoverished by illness, and “excessive concern with body image that programs every woman for failure because she gets old.” The constant in all the issues she espouses is simple: choice. That’s also the backbone of her own writing and of the books published by the small literary press she and Wood began last January. Leapfrog Press has produced eight titles so far, both original and repackaged out-of-print works for talented writers who do not produce best-sellers.

When asked to describe herself, Piercy chooses the words “poet” and “novelist.” Pressed further for personality traits, she turns to Wood. “Brilliant, feisty and spunky,” he says. “Feisty and spunky are too similar,” Piercy demurs. “How about warm?” “Warm is something I was thinking of,” he agrees. “Okay, that’s fine,” she concludes.

Born in Detroit to a family deeply affected by the Depression, Piercy began writing when she was 15, “right after my family moved into a house where I had a room of my own with a door that shut–in other words, when I had privacy for the first time.” Her first piece of fiction was about a pregnant woman who rented out a room in the family’s house. “She miscarried almost in my arms,” Piercy recalls.

Although her father was not Jewish, her mother and grandmother educated her in Judaism. Both were great storytellers, Piercy says, but their versions of the same stories never coincided. In her early years as a writer, Piercy supported herself with a variety of part-time jobs: secretary, switchboard operator, department store clerk, artist’s model and faculty instructor. She married twice before she met Wood; lived in Chicago and Brooklyn and got heavily involved in the civil rights, anti-war and women’s movements. In 1971, suffering from chronic bronchitis and tired of city life, she moved to Cape Cod.

Her house in Wellfleet is on a freshwater marsh, surrounded by mixed oak and pine woods. She takes enormous pleasure in gardening, growing raspberries, grapes, blueberries, pears, red currants, gooseberries, and hundreds of pounds of tomatoes–yellow, orange, pink, purple, red, even tiger-striped. Wood describes their New Year’s ritual, when they pore over seed catalogs; later in the year, he says, when the crop is ripe, they listen to opera, and can and preserve the fruit. Piercy also loves to cook, walk, hike, and take care of her cats–Dinah, Oboe, Max, Malkah and Efi.

“The seasons are very vivid and real to us,” she says. “Living seasonally is part of what I love about Judaism, as well as the tradition of social conscience, and the historical, religious and spiritual aspects of Jewish holidays.” She became involved in Jewish renewal while looking for a balance between her grandmother’s Orthodoxy and the Reform Judaism she found “dry” in college. When her mother died in 1981, she said Kaddish (the prayer extolling God that is said by mourners) for a year, but since she had never learned Hebrew, had no idea what she was saying. She became interested in ritual, started lighting Shabbat, Sabbath, candles and observing holidays at home, and became a Bat Mitzvah at 50. She writes a new poem for her Passover seder every year; there’s one for every symbol on the seder plate in “The Art of Blessing the Day.” In 1985, she and Wood founded a havurah (a gathering of Jews to worship and study together) on the outer Cape.

Writing liturgy requires her to express a unifying chord rather than the individual voice of her other poetry. “The language has to be rhythmic so people can say it together and not get lost. The images have to be common to people’s experience, instead of striking or terrifically original.” Her “Kaddish” never mentions God, since she wanted to write a mourner’s prayer that “expresses a sense of eternity and mortality for all Jews, even those who may not necessarily believe in God.”

What does Piercy herself believe in? “My whole work is an answer to that question. Freedom and individual responsibility are both terribly important. We’re far more connected to other people than our society encourages us to realize. We’re taught to think of ourselves as separate beings but we’re part of a people, part of a history, part of each other.”

From “Kaddish“:
“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.”

Rahel Musleah

Rahel Musleah is the author of Why on This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration (Simon & Schuster). She presents programs on the Jewish communities of India, where she was born.