marge piercy | my mother’s body

5 10 2012

POETRY DISPATCH No.383 | October 5, 2012


Editor’s Note: We must remember to revisit our own bookshelves more frequently for lost books, lost authors, writers who once made a difference in our lives even though we’ve moved on to other places these days, other interests, other ideas, and the stories and poems and books which once spoke to us have been gathering dust for years. I find myself late at night searching for something among all my poetry titles—and find something else instead. An old friend. Hmmmmmm…Marge Piercy…where have you been, love?…it’s been such a long, long time…

Hmmmm, this is exactly the kind of poetry I had in mind…something I knew I had somewhere on my shelves. Exactly what the doctor would prescribe for a writing-friend to take to heart, mind, art…in a time of need.

Thumbing through the pages, rereading poems here and there, I recall putting this book in any number of hands: students, poets/writers who have never read it. Poets who are blocked, readers who just love to read poetry. Poets who are not quite beginners but new writers who have all the tools already at their disposal (perhaps born with them) yet are not sure what they should be making of everything. (For beginning poets…my preference would be ‘concrete’ imagery alone…haiku. Begin there.)

What Marge Piercy brings to the table in MY MOTHER’S BODY is an honest simplicity of language, such an everydayness of narrative welcoming one-and-all, layering, spreading into a poetry of resonance both recognizable and profound in the mystery of afterthought. It’s all so good, so satisfying, you want to read it again immediately, to taste it twice, to re-live the narrative, to allow the poem to inhabit you till you see everything so clearly, so differently.

This is the kind of poetry that works best. The skill, the workmanship, the artistry is there…yet the poet isn’t addressing the reader in a second language, as too many poets do these days. Nor does the poet speak down leaving you with chunks of prose, nothing that glows with an inner light.

So I take this book off the shelf, prepare to put it in my briefcase to either mail or hand to a friend tomorrow. But then, with books like these that I’ve rediscovered, poems like these that re-energize my faith in the written word once again—I just can’t part with it. I even catch myself entertaining the notion of not revealing my love for this book to anyone, let alone pass it on one to someone who needs it at the moment much more than I. It’s mine. I will never let it go. Who knows when I may need it again?

Instead I go to the computer…go to the internet…check the book dealers…find a good, affordable used copy…and send it to a friend who needs it. — Norbert Blei

The Listmaker

I am a compiler of lists: 1 bag
fine cracked corn, 1 sunflower seeds.

Thin tomato seedlings in hotbed;
check dahlias for sprouting.

Write Kathy. Call Lou. Pay
oil bill. Decide about Montana.

I find withered lists in pockets
of raincoats, reminders to buy birthday

presents for lovers who wear those warm
sweaters now in other lives. And what

did I decide about Montana? To believe
or disbelieve in its existence?

To rise at five some morning and fly there?
A buried assent or denial rots beneath.

I confess too that sometimes when I am listing
what I must do on a Monday, I will put on

tasks already completed for the neat pleasure
of striking them out, checking them off.

What do these lists mean? That I mistrust my memory,
that my attention, a huge hungry crow

settling to carrion even on the highway
hates to rise and flap off, wants to continue

feasting on what it has let down upon
folding the tent of its broad dusty wings.

That I like to conquer chaos one square
at a time like a board game.

That I fear the sins of omission more
than commission. That the whining saw

of the mill of time shrieks always in my ears
as I am borne with all the other logs

forward to be dismantled and rebuilt
into chairs, into frogs, into running water.

All lists start where they halt, in intention.
Only the love that is work completes them.

Peaches in November

On the peach’s wide sieve of branches
the buds crouch already in whitish caterpillar fur.

All winter they must hold tight, as the supple
limbs are strained wide by the snow’s weight,

as the ice coats them and turns them to glinting
small lights that splinter the sun to prickles.

Must hold tight against the wet warm tongue
of the thaw that lolls off the Gulf Stream

smelling of seaweed and the South, as if
not spring visited but summer in January.

Hold tight against the early March sun
with the wild tulips already opening

against the brown earth like painted mouths
when the ice will return as a thief

to take what has too widely trusted.
The news they carry can only be told once

to the bees each year. The bud is the idea
of sweetness, of savor, of round heft

waiting to build itself. As the winter
clamps down they hibernate in fur,

little polar bears on red twigs
dreaming of turning one sun into many.

Six Underrated Pleasures

1. Folding sheets

They must be clean.
There ought to be two of you
to talk as you work, your
eyes and hands meeting.
They can be crisp, a little rough
and fragrant from the line;
or hot from the dryer
as from an oven. A silver
grey kitten with amber
eyes to dart among
the sheets and wrestle and leap out
helps. But mostly pleasure
lies in the clean linen
slapping into shape.
Whenever I fold a fitted sheet
making the moves that are like
closing doors, I feel my mother.
The smell of clean laundry is hers.

2. Picking pole beans

Gathering tomatoes has no art
to it. Their ripe redness shouts.
But the scarlet runner beans twine
high and jungly on their tripods.
You must reach in delicately,
pinch off the sizable beans
but leave the babies to swell
into flavor. It is hide-and-seek,
standing knee deep in squash
plants running, while the bees
must be carefully disentangled
from your hair. Early you may see
the hummingbird, but best to wait
until the dew burns off.
Basket on your arm, your fingers
go swimming through the raspy leaves
to find prey just their size.
Then comes the minor zest
of nipping the ends off with your nails
and snapping them in pieces,
their retorts like soft pistolry.
Then eat the littlest raw.

3. Taking a hot bath

Surely nobody has ever decided
to go on a diet while in a tub.
The body is beautiful stretched
out under water wavering.

It suggests a long island of pleasure
whole seascapes of calm sensual
response, the nerves as gentle fronds
of waterweed swaying in warm currents.

Then if ever we must love ourselves i
n the amniotic fluid floating
a ship at anchor in a perfect
protected blood-warm tropical bay.

The water enters us and the minor
pains depart, supplanted guests,
the aches, the strains, the chills.
Muscles open like hungry clams.

Born again from my bath like a hot
sweet-tempered, sweet-smelling baby,
I am ready to seize sleep like a milky breast
or start climbing my day hand over hand.

4. Sleeping with cats

I am at once source
and sink of heat: giver
and taker. I am a vast
soft mountain of slow breathing.
The smells I exude soothe them:
the lingering odor of sex,
of soap, even of perfume,
its afteraroma sunk into skin
mingling with sweat and the traces
of food and drink.

They are curled into flowers
of fur, they are coiled
hot seashells of flesh
in my armpit, around my head
as if someone said, Close
your eyes and draw a picture.
Now open them and look.

5. Planting bulbs

No task could be easier.
Just dig the narrow hole,
drop in the handful of bone
meal and place the bulb
like a swollen brown garlic
clove full of hidden resources.

Their skin is the paper
of brown bags. The smooth
pale flesh peeks through.
Three times its height
is its depth, a parable
against hard straining.

The art is imagining
the spring landscape poking
through chrysanthemum, falling
leaves, withered brown lushness
of summer. The lines drawn
now, the colors mixed

will pop out of the soil
after the snow sinks from sight
into it. The circles,
the casual grace of tossed handfuls,
the soldierly rows will stand,
the colors sing sweet or sour.

When the first sharp ears
poke out, you are again
more audience than actor,
as if someone said, Close
your eyes and draw a picture.
Now open them and look.

6. Canning

We pour a mild drink each,
turn on the record player,
Beethoven perhaps or Vivaldi,
opera sometimes, and then together
in the steamy kitchen we put up
tomatoes, peaches, grapes, pears.

Each fruit has a different
ritual: popping the grapes
out of the skins like little
eyeballs, slipping the fuzz
from the peaches and seeing
the blush painted on the flesh beneath.

It is part game: What shall
we magic wand this into?
Peach conserve, chutney, jam,
brandied peaches. Tomatoes
turn juice, sauce hot or mild
or spicy, canned, ketchup.

Vinegars, brandies, treats
for the winter: pleasure
deferred. Canning is thrift
itself in sensual form,
surplus made beautiful, light
and heat caught in a jar.

I find my mother sometimes
issuing from the steam, aproned,
red faced, her hair up in a net.
Since her death we meet usually
in garden or kitchen. Ghosts
come reliably to savors, I learn.

In the garden your ashes,
in the kitchen your knowledge.
Little enough we can save
from the furnace of the sun
while the bones grow brittle as paper
and the hair itself turns ashen.

But what we can put by, we do
with gaiety and invention
while the music laps round us
like dancing light, but Mother,
this pleasure is only deferred.
We eat it all before it spoils.

[from MY MOTHER’S BODY, Poems by Marge Piercy, Pandora Press, 1985]



8 responses

5 10 2012

I’m just finishing my week at The Clearing – so nice to see you recognize Marge P, I love both her poems and prose.
Sent from my U.S. Cellular BlackBerry® smartphone

6 10 2012

Each one a beauty, truly. What a beautiful posting. You have let the poems go and keep the book. So human in all, you and Piercy. Thank you

6 10 2012
John Bennett

Norb … thanks much for the Piercy poems and your excellent intro…

6 10 2012

Norb: A wonder full reminder of one of the finest books of poetry by one of our great poets of the everyday and its emotional resonances. I had a similar need about two weeks ago, something outside the realm of my usual meanderings, and from one of the numerous piles around here appeared Robert Bly’s “Old Man Rubbing His Eyes.” A treasure, with soul healing balm … Don

6 10 2012

Thanks, for your comments, for Marge Piercy’s poems, sent out into the world!

6 10 2012
Paul Fericano

Joyful words. Yours and Piercy’s. Thanks, Norb.

7 10 2012
Patt Clark

I am excited that I have the book you chose poems from; discovered I have two other Piercy books–Mars and Her Children and The Moon Is Always Female. As usual, I am inspired by your words–I, too, cannot bear to part with books. I enjoyed the reference to the poem by Bly from Don. Thank you for the Piercy poem titles and all the time you put into teaching from Ellison Bay, sometimes more than once a week.

25 12 2012

My apologies, but “Sleeping with cats” contains here only the first two stanzas. The rest are missing.
Igor. Novosibirsk

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