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Piercy, Marge

PIERCY, Marge

Nationality: American. Born: Detroit, Michigan, 31 March 1936. Education: The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Hopwood award, 1956, 1957), A.B. 1957; Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, M.A. 1958. Family: Married Ira Wood (third marriage) in 1982. Career: Instructor, Indiana University, Gary, 1960-62; poet-in-residence, University of Kansas, Lawrence, 1971; visiting lecturer, Thomas Jefferson College, Grand Valley State Colleges, Allendale, Michigan, 1975; visiting faculty, Women's Writers' Conference, Cazenovia College, New York, 1976, 1978, 1980; staff member, Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1976-77; writer-in-residence, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1976; Butler Professor of Letters, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1977; Elliston Professor of Poetry, University of Cincinnati, 1986. Member of the board of directors, 1982-85, and of the advisory board since 1985, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines; since 1988 poetry editor, Tikkun magazine, Oakland, California. Awards: Borestone Mountain award, 1968, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1978; Rhode Island School of Design Faculty Association medal, 1985; Carolyn Kizer prize, 1986, 1990; Shaeffer Eaton-PEN New England award, 1989; New England Poetry Club Golden Rose, 1990; May Sarton award, 1991; Brit ha-Dorot award, Shalom Center, 1992; Arthur C. Clarke award, 1993; Notable Book award, American Library Association, 1997. Agent: Lois Wallace, Wallace Literary Agency, 177 East 70th Street, New York, New York 10021. Address: Box 1473, Wellfleet, Massachusetts 02667, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Going Down Fast. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1969.

Dance the Eagle to Sleep. New York, Doubleday, 1970; London, W.H. Allen, 1971.

Small Changes. New York, Doubleday, 1973; London, Penguin, 1987.

Woman on the Edge of Time. New York, Knopf, 1976; London, Women's Press, 1979.

The High Cost of Living. New York, Harper, 1978; London, Women'sPress, 1979.

Vida. New York, Summit, and London, Women's Press, 1980.

Braided Lives. New York, Summit, and London, Allen Lane, 1982.

Fly Away Home. New York, Summit, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1984.

Gone to Soldiers. New York, Summit, and London, Joseph, 1987.

Summer People. New York, Summit, and London, Joseph, 1989.

He, She and It. New York, Knopf, 1991; as Body of Glass, London, Joseph, 1992.

The Longings of Women. New York, Fawcett, and London, Joseph, 1994.

City of Darkness, City of Light. New York, Fawcett Columbine, 1996.

Storm Tide (with Ira Wood). New York, Fawcett Columbine, 1998.

Three Women. New York, William Morrow, 1999.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Crossing over Jordan," in Transatlantic Review (London), Fall1966.

"Love Me Tonight, God," in Paris Review, Summer 1968.

"A Dynastic Encounter," in Aphra (New York) Spring 1970.

"And I Went into the Garden of Love," in Off Our Backs (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1971.

"Do You Love Me?," in Second Wave (Cambridge, Massachusetts), vol. 1, no. 4, 1972.

"The Happiest Day of a Woman's Life," in Works in Progress 7 (New York), 1972.

"Somebody Who Understands You," in Moving Out (Detroit), vol.2, no. 2, 1972.

"Marriage Is a Matter of Give and Take," in Boston Phoenix, 3 July and 10 July 1973.

"Little Sister, Cat and Mouse," in Second Wave (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Fall 1973.

"God's Blood," in Anon, no. 8, 1974.

"Like a Great Door Closing Suddenly," in Detroit Discovery, March-April 1974.

"The Retreat," in Provincetown Poets (Provincetown, Massachusetts), vol. 2, nos. 2-3, 1976.

"What Can Be Had," in Chrysalis 4 (San Diego, California), 1977.

"The Cowbird in the Eagles' Nest," in Maenad, Fall 1980.

"I Will Not Describe What I Did," in Mother Jones (San Francisco), February-March 1982.

"Spring in the Arboretum," in Michigan Quarterly Review (AnnArbor), Winter 1982.

"Of Chilblains and Rotten Rutabagas," in Lilith (New York), Winter-Spring 1985.

Play

The Last White Class: A Play About Neighborhood Terror, withIra Wood (produced Northampton, Massachusetts, 1978). Trumansburg, New York, Crossing Press, 1980.

Poetry

Breaking Camp. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan UniversityPress, 1968.

Hard Loving. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1969.

A Work of Artifice. Detroit, Red Hanrahan Press, 1970.

4-Telling, with others. Trumansburg, New York, Crossing Press, 1971.

When the Drought Broke. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1971.

To Be of Use. New York, Doubleday, 1973.

Living in the Open. New York, Knopf, 1976.

The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing. New York, Knopf, 1978.

The Moon Is Always Female. New York, Knopf, 1980.

Circles on the Water: Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 1982.

Stone, Paper, Knife. New York, Knopf, and London, Pandora Press, 1983.

My Mother's Body. New York, Knopf, and London, Pandora Press, 1985.

Available Light. New York, Knopf, and London, Pandora Press, 1988.

Mars and Her Children. New York, Knopf, 1992.

Eight Chambers of the Heart. London, Penguin, 1995.

What Are Big Girls Made Of?: Poems. New York, Knopf, 1997.

The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme. New York, Knopf, 1999.

Early Grrrl: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy. Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Leapfrog Press, 1999.

Recordings:

Marge Piercy: Poems, 1969; Laying Down the Tower, Black Box, 1973; Reclaiming Ourselves, 1973; At the Core, 1976; Reading and Thoughts, Everett Edwards, 1976; At the Core, Watershed, 1976.

Other

The Grand Coolie Damn. Boston, New England Free Press, 1970.

Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor, University of MichiganPress, 1982.

The Earth Shines Secretly: A Book of Days. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Zoland Press, 1990.

Editor, Early Ripening: Young Women's Poetry Now. London andNew York, Pandora Press, 1987.

*

Bibliography:

In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1985; Marge Piercy: An Annotated Bibliography by Patricia Doherty. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997.

Manuscript Collection:

Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Critical Studies:

"Marge Piercy: A Collage" by Nancy Scholar Zee, in Oyez Review (Berkeley, California), vol. 9, no. 1, 1975; Ways of Knowing: Critical Essays on Marge Piercy edited by Sue Walker and Eugenie Hamner, Mobile, Alabama, Negative Capability Press, 1986; The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy by Kerstin W. Shands, Connecticut, Greenwood, 1994; The Broom Closet: Secret Meanings of Domesticity in Postfeminist Novels by Louise Erdrich, Mary Gordon, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Jane Smiley, and Amy Tan by Jeannette Batz Cooperman, New York, Peter Lang, 1999.

Marge Piercy comments:

Each of my novels appears to me a different miniature world, in which the style, the language appropriate to the characters, is worked out of my understanding of them and their universe of action and discourse. My intention is always appropriateness, and when I do what is usually seen as "fine writing," I do my best to strike it out. My impulse to autobiography is given ample play in my poetry, and thus has little reason to shape my novels. My novels divide into those which are placed in the present; those which are placed in speculative time; and those which occur entirely, or largely, in the past. My interest is always centered on the results of choice through time.

I start with a theme, and then work through character. Fiction is as old a habit of our species as poetry. It goes back to telling a tale, the first perceptions of pattern, and fiction is still about pattern in human life. For me, writing fiction issues from the impulse to tell the story of people who deserve to have their lives revealed, examined, clarified, to people who deserve to read good stories. To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. I have been particularly although not exclusively concerned with the choices open toor perceived to be open towomen of various eras, races, and classes. I am one of the few contemporary American novelists consciously and constantly preoccupied with social class and the economic underpinnings of decision and consequence.

In the end, I suspect my novels find readers because they create full characters easy to enter, no matter how hard they might be for the reader to identify within actuality, and because I try to tell a good story.

* * *

Marge Piercy is (with Lisa Alther) one of the best known of that group of American women writers who have created popular fictions about the changing face of radical America, and, in particular, about changing perceptions of and about women. Piercy writes about, and on behalf of, radical political causes, but her main interest is in (and she is most interesting on) sexual politics. Taken together her novels offer a feminist's eye-view of American history from World War II (Gone to Soldiers ), through the 1950s (Braided Lives ) to the heady days of 1960s student activism and anti-Vietnam war campaigns (treated retrospectively in Vida ), and the raising of consciousness of the women's movement of the late 1960s and 1970s (The High Cost of Living, Small Changes, and Fly Away Home ). Summer People is an affectionate (even self-indulgent) chronicle of a group of middle-aged people whose lives and values were shaped by the revolutions of the 1960s, and are now disturbed both by the passage of time and the more abrasive climate of the 1980s. At the very least these novels will provide the future social historian with an interesting perspective on radical chic and the countercultures of the mid-twentieth century. Indeed Piercy's novels are frequently quoted by feminists as documents in the history of the modern American women's movement. Among the most quoted in this context is Small Changes, which offers a guided tour of countercultural Boston as it charts the decline into marriage of the beautiful, clever, and independent Miriam, and the emergence of her friend Beth from an adolescent marriage into a new (consciousness-raised) sense of self.

These books are all loose baggy monsters, chunky blockbusters which mix together a variety of genres. Elements of the political thriller (Vida ) are combined with love stories of various kinds. There are portraits of the artist at various stages of development (Braided Lives and Summer People ), and stories of the late-adolescent quest for identity (The High Cost of Living, Braided Lives, and Small Changes ). There are mystery, intrigue, alternative "lifestyles," and above all sex, lots of it in all sorts of combinations. Piercy is no stylist. For the most part these are chronicle novels whose formal inventiveness is restricted to the frequent use of the flashback. Her aim seems to be to recreate the world-as-it-was and to draw her readers into it. Occasionally there seems to be an ironic gap between the reader's perceptions and those of the characters about whom she is reading. This is sometimes the result of Piercy's satiric focus on the way we lived thenwhether the "then" be the dark ages of the 1950s or the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Indeed some of the funniest (but also the most depressing) writing focuses on the elaborately entwined, and constantly changing, patterns of relationships in the omni-sexual post-1960s (pre-AIDS) world. Sometimes, however, the ironic distance appears to derive from the author's failure to offer a satirical or critical focus on her characters and their attitudes, which increasingly, especially in novels such as Small Changes and Vida, look dated and naive. Nevertheless, these last-mentioned novels which focus on 1960s radicalism and the women's movement, also give a very powerful sense of what it must have been like to be caught up in the excitement and confusions of those times.

There seems to be a general consensus that by far the most interesting and accomplished of Piercy's novels is one of her earliest creations, Woman on the Edge of Time. This book is usually grouped with other feminist utopian or dystopian fantasies such as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Woman on the Edge of Time is the story of Connie Ramos, a thirty-seven-year-old poor, Mexican-American woman, one of the have-nots who is defeated and discarded by a society which is geared towards the needs and interests of the haves. Her lover is killed, her daughter is taken away from her "unstable" mother, and Connie is incarcerated in a bleak public mental hospital where (as the pathway to release) she is subjected to a mind-control experiment involving electronic implantations in the brain. Connie is, however, also a "catcher" who is able to mind-travelunder the guidance of her "natural" Lucientefrom the confines of the "real" world of her hospital ward to the possible future world of Metapoisset, a new and better society. In Metapoisset the likenesses of Connie's lover, and her daughter Angelina live on in a new, fruitful life in a world of social and ecological harmony. The class and gender roles of Connie's America have been dissolved. These roles are simply not known in Metapoisset, where sexual relationships and the nuclear family have been replaced by a collectivism that respects and preserves the individual self. In short, Metapoisset reverses the values of the world that oppresses Connie and her kind in the present. The competitive individualism which is the creed of bourgeois America become the antivalues of Metapoisset, where notions of evil "center around power and greedtaking from other people their food, their liberty, their health, their land, their customs, their prides."

Woman on the Edge of Time finely counterpoints the utopianism of Metapoisset with the dystopian realism with which Connie's actual world is represented. Metapoisset is used to make a critique of modern America, but it is also offered as a vindication of the enabling power of fantasy. Connie's fantasy is not the infantile "womanish" regression that she herself suspects at the beginning of her period as a "catcher," but the vision of a new world of possibility which emphasizes human choice and agency. Like much contemporary feminist fantasy fiction Woman on the Edge of Time uses a science fiction genre to enact the vision of women overcoming oppressive social and psychological conditions by transcending both the physical and ideological constraints of patriarchal society. It is a profoundly disturbing, but also inspiriting novel.

Set during the French Revolution, City of Darkness, City of Light depicts the lives of three female revolutionaries, along with a number of historical figures: Danton, Robespierre, and the mathematician Caritat. A less loftyand less successfuleffort was Storm Tide, which Piercy cowrote with husband Ira Wood. The premise, at least, is an attractive one: a washed-up baseball star comes to a resort town, seduces the wife of a leading left-wing politician (who, when he learns of the affair, approves of it in progressive terms), and is persuaded by the same politician to run for a local office. Despite these details and others that accrue as the plot thickens, the book is lifeless in execution. In Three Women, however, Piercy offered a compelling portrait of three generations balancing political and personal commitments.

Lyn Pykett,

updated by Judson Knight

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