Nationality: American. Education: Queens College, City University of New York, Flushing, 1964–69, B.A. 1969; University of California, Irvine, 1969–71, M.F.A. 1971. Family: Married; one daughter. Career: Visiting instructor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1974–75; instructor, Massasoit Community College, Brockton, Massachusetts, 1976–78; lecturer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Writing Program, 1978–79; instructor, Hellenic College, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1979; visiting professor, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1980; instructor, Wheelock College, Boston, 1983; adjunct professor, Emerson College, Boston, 1986–96; visiting professor and poet-in-residence, University of Massachusetts, Boston Harbor Campus, 1997–2000. Awards: Pushcart prize, 1978; Massachusetts Council on the Arts fellowship, 1983; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1984. Address: 24 Balfour Street, Lexington, Massachusetts 02421, U.S.A.
The Hardness Scale. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Alice James Books, 1977.
A Dog in the Lifeboat. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1991.
Mortal Education. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000.
Editor, The Ploughshares Poetry Reader. Watertown, Massachusetts, Ploughshares Books, 1987.*
Critical Studies: "Joyce Peseroff's 'The Hardness Scale'" by Robert Pinsky, in Ploughshares (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 4(3), 1978; "Feminism, Romanticism, and the New Literacy in Response Journals" by Deanne Bogdan, in Reading and Response, edited by Mike Hayhoe and Stephen Parker, Milton Keynes, England, Open University Press, 1990.* * *
An accomplished and productive poet, Joyce Peseroff writes about relationships, family members, nature, and New England, using direct, conversational language. Many of her poems ponder the female experience and include feminist insights.
The title poem of A Dog in the Lifeboat relates how a dog is thrown off a lifeboat because the survivors are not willing to share water and food. It observes that, while the dog faces death, so will everyone eventually. "My Mother's Wallet" praises the poet's mother for having earned her own money by working in a department store. This was money "not taken from a man but earned." Thus the poem has a feminist slant in finding value in women's economic independence. Other poems deal with sex and motherhood. "Fertility," for example, examines childhood musings about conception, and "Sheba's Wisdom" considers problems of motherhood, such as dealing with day care providers. Feeling torn about leaving her child in day care, the speaker talks of her "terrible milk dribbling love." Like Sheba, pregnant by Solomon, the speaker is "a woman willing to watch a child / divided," which illustrates her conflict. "Exercise," about human imperfection, describes an exercise class held in a church, with "a melancholy portrait / Of Christ staring down at us."
Poems about relationships include "The Glad Café," in which a couple sit looking out at the sea. The speaker muses that "soon will come the end of our little time together." Although life is short, the mundane "fractious life" continues in arguments about cutting the grass. In "Spring Dress" a young woman mends a dress in April. When a boy takes her on a motorcycle ride, she hopes that her dress will not need stitching, implying that it may be torn in a passionate encounter. The dress symbolizes the promise of spring and of sexual vitality.
A Dog in the Lifeboat contains poems about nature such as "Study," in which the poet speaks about winter and her work and links the creative process to the season. In "Bluebird" the speaker recalls her mother's advice, and she relates to her own daughter by choosing a song, "Bluebird at my window," and gains insight into the struggles of motherhood. "Alone—First Week of Summer," another poem that links nature and motherhood, reveals that the speaker does not know she is two weeks pregnant. After observing a phoebe who returns thrice to an empty nest, she speculates whether the bird does so because of instinct, distress, or forgetfulness. She wonders about the bird's maternal instinct and about that of a woman.
"The Red Rocker" recalls William Carlos Williams's "Red Wheelbarrow," an imagist classic. But because no one sits in Peseroff's rocker and there are no visitors, the poem evokes a sense of loneliness: "I feel the emptiness of something built for motion, stilled." In "Making a Name for Myself," from the collection The Hardness Scale, the poet sometimes whimsically calls herself W.C. Williams when giving her name.
The Hardness Scale deals with love and relationships and with personal experience and offers musings about life. Evoking Shakespeare, "The Dark Lady of the Sonnets" describes an attempt to change a man's head and heart in a revolutionary way. The contemporary woman wears provocative clothing and rides with guerillas, yet ironically she identifies with her role as a "dark lady." "Love Poem" takes an odd turn at the end when violence intrudes as the speaker unexpectedly remarks, "I think of you but find / the actual burglar / is beating me with sticks." "Anatomy," a witty poem about men's preference for large breasts like "melons" or small ones likes "lemons," notes that "no woman is average there." When the poet asks whether any woman would want a man without a penis, she answers that all would agree the idea to be insane. "This Poem Is for You" is addressed to a lover, but because the relationship is coming to an end, it has a sad, ironic tone. In spite of present happiness, the speaker in "Poem" realizes that all persons will die: "I remember we / will never get out / of this alive."
"The Long March," included in The Ploughshares Poetry Reader, has an isolated speaker whose only pet is a stuffed dog. The beginning stanza sets the stage for loneliness as the speaker describes a Torah scroll in the middle of a fence with a missing picket, like "a missing tooth / in the face of God." "The Hardness Scale" uses jewels to organize its message to a lover whose outrageous drunken episodes anger the speaker. Whereas diamonds are a ten on the hardness scale, he is an eleven. The speaker cannot give him diamonds because they are "forever," indicating the tenuousness of the relationship. In "Mortal" the poet meditates upon her own mortality, realizing that she has trusted nature instead of being aware of its dangers and the capriciousness of human survival.
Like Emily Dickinson, Peseroff uses concrete images and speech in the foreground while being concerned with the emotional effects of her juxtapositions. Her tone is conversational, direct, realistic, often provocative, and sometimes humorous. Like Williams, she adopts an American poetic line and diction. When her speaking voice examines feminine experience and conflicts, she resembles confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück.
—Shirley J. Paolini