Apple Sauce for Eve
Apple sauce for EveIntroduction
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Marge Piercy 1998
"Apple sauce for Eve" appears in Marge Piercy's The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, published in 1998. As the title of the collection suggests, one source of inspiration for this work was the poet's connection to Judaism, but it is hardly a typical religious poem. Perhaps an even greater motivating factor was her unwavering belief in feminist causes and a determination to reevaluate the traditional concepts found in biblical stories.
Piercy applauds Eve, the biblical first woman, for her quest for knowledge and her disregard of any divine retribution for eating the infamous apple. To enhance the effort to promote logic, rationale, and intellectual pursuit over superstition and fear, Piercy uses scientific metaphors to describe Eve's desire and her decision to commit the "original sin." Eve and Satan are likened to "lab partners," and Eve is deemed "the first scientist."
In spite of any apparent sacrilege a synopsis of this poem implies, readers should not condemn and cast it off as such. In fact, its inclusion in a book dedicated to exploring Jewish belief, doctrine, and history points to just the opposite. The Art of Blessing the Day celebrates the poet's Jewish heritage—sometimes with pious reflection, sometimes with humor, and sometimes with candid attacks on established and questionable protocol.
Marge Piercy was born on March 31, 1936, in Detroit, Michigan. She grew up in a racially diverse working-class neighborhood. Her father was in and out of work for several years, and the two never developed a strong father-daughter bond. Her mother was a high-strung but imaginative woman who Piercy credits with inspiring her to be a writer. Piercy's mother told her daughter odd tales and folklore and encouraged her to read voraciously. Although their relationship became strained as Piercy grew into young adulthood, she and her mother reunited later in life and were close until the older woman's death in 1985.
One of the most influential people in Piercy's life was her maternal grandmother, who was born in Lithuania, the daughter of a rabbi. Grandmother Hannah preserved a strict Jewish heritage regardless of some of her descendents' marriages to Christians. Piercy was raised Jewish by her mother and grandmother, even though her father was from a Presbyterian family. The combination of strong women in her life, working-class values, and a rich Jewish tradition served to influence not only the person Piercy would become but also the writer she would develop into.
Piercy was the first person in her family to go to college. In 1957, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan; in 1958, she received a master's degree from Northwestern University. In school, she was a bit of an aberration with her unconventional attitude about gender roles and her radical views toward authority and government policies. As a result, she had trouble publishing her work—mostly fiction—throughout the 1950s.
In 1958, Piercy married her first husband, a Jewish French scientist, but she divorced him a year later because he did not accept her feminism nor take her writing seriously. In 1962, she married a computer scientist, and this marriage lasted fourteen years, ending in divorce in 1980. In 1982, she married for the third time, to Ira Wood, a writer and publisher.
During the 1960s, Piercy became active in the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the women's movement. Her fiction and poetry began to receive recognition. Piercy has published prolifically, beginning with her first collection of poetry, Breaking Camp (1968) and her first novel, Going Down Fast (1969). Piercy's publications include over a dozen novels and fifteen volumes of poetry.
Piercy is considered one of the strongest, most profound voices for feminist causes. While her work has been labeled controversial, radical, and opinionated, it is also considered vital and honest. In 2000, she was awarded the Paterson Poetry Prize for The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme (1999), the collection in which "Apple sauce for Eve" appears.
An analysis of "Apple sauce for Eve" should actually begin with the title. The accepted spelling of "applesauce" is as one word, so there must be a reason that Piercy chose to separate it into two. The subject and themes of the poem suggest that the word "apple" needs to stand alone for its significant allusion to the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The word "sauce" becomes significant for its indication that the Eve in this poem is doing something more with a piece of fruit than the Eve of religious lore was given credit for.
In the first line, "Those old daddies" refers to the writers of the first books of the Old Testament and of other religious doctrine that relates the story of humankind's original sin, perpetrated by a woman. Note that the word "daddies" is chosen instead of "fathers," perhaps because it connotes a slightly wry, less respectful attitude on the part of the speaker, an attitude she maintains throughout the poem. The daddies cursed not only Eve but "us in you," meaning all women in general. In lines 2 and 3, the reason for Eve's damnation is revealed: "curiosity," or the "sin" of "wanting knowledge."
These lines describe some of the ways in which Eve approaches her quest to learn, beginning with the last few words in line 3: "To try, to taste, / to take into the body, into the brain." There is a correlation between the body and the mind, because both are necessary for examining new knowledge and not just in passive ways. Instead, Eve will "turn each thing, each sign, each factoid" in various directions to see how it changes. In other words, Eve's approach is scientific; she gains her knowledge through objective experimentation.
The final lines of the first stanza use scientific imagery to show the seriousness and insatiable quality of Eve's longing for knowledge. The notion that "white / fractures into colors" refers to the fact that white reflects nearly all the rays of sunlight and is actually made up of all the colors of the rainbow. As a result, the "image breaks / into crystal fragments that pierce the nerves / while the brain casts the chips into patterns." These last two descriptions suggest that science may have a stinging, yet stimulating, effect on the physical being, but the informed mind can take the fragments and chips and crystals and shape them into definable patterns. This statement is a clear assertion of the human—and particularly the woman's—will to use intellect over physicality to discover new truths.
These lines allude to the nursery rhymes "Little Jack Horner" and "Little Boy Blue." Little Boy Blue is summoned to "come blow your horn" in order to herd his farm animals, but he neglects his duties for a nap under a haystack. In Piercy's poem, it is "Each experiment" that "sticks a finger deep in the pie" and that "blows a horn in the ear / of belief." It is science that "lets the nasty and difficult brats"—referring to the naughty boys in the nursery rhymes—loose on a complacent and motionless world. Here, though, the "brats" are "real questions," and the world is likened to a "desiccated parlor of stasis."
These lines are arguably some of the most poignant in the poem, and it is important to understand what they are saying. Eve's decision to gain knowledge by experimenting on her own, as opposed to just absorbing what she has been told and accepting her role as a docile, submissive female, shakes up the male-dominated status quo. She knows that having the guts to speak up and ask "real questions" is shocking to those who adhere to tradition and established customs of behavior along gender lines. But, she does not care. The "desiccated" (dried out, lifeless) world, she decides, needs a swift kick.
Here, the speaker continues defending the need for testing, trying, and experimenting with current knowledge because the things "we all know to be true, constant" right now may be incomplete, if not altogether false. She uses an effective metaphor to make the point, as one can easily picture how quickly frost on a window melts when a jet of warm steam hits it. Current beliefs will also melt away when science provides new knowledge.
The final lines of the second stanza pose a rhetorical question regarding what may have happened if the quest for knowledge had been encouraged and celebrated in ancient times instead of being squelched, at least in the case of curious women. The reference to "dead languages" means those languages no longer in popular use, such as ancient Egyptian, Latin, or biblical Hebrew. The phrase "But what happens if I" suggests an attempt to try something different or to experiment with something to see what results. Following this phrase with "Whoops!" is whimsical, but it also implies a mishap or a less than desirable result. The suggestion that these words are translations of the "last words" of dead languages insinuates "too little, too late" on the part of old customs making way for new possibilities.
In line 20, the biblical first man is diminished to the status of a simple-minded, happy puppy. While Eve and Satan "shimmy up the tree" of knowledge to tempt fate and learn something, Adam stays on the ground, "wagging his tail" like a "good dog."
These lines describe Eve and Satan as "lab partners" whose pursuit of the tree's forbidden apple appears as a "dance of will and hunger." The speaker points out that their desire is not sexual but a yearning that is "of the brain." The contrast between Adam and Eve is obviously exaggerated in the first lines of the third stanza—he the doltish, acquiescent pet, and she the daring, unstoppable champion of learning. The speaker makes no apology for such labeling, perhaps because she feels the tables have been too long turned in the other direction.
The speaker continues her assault of men, accusing men of "always think[ing] women are wanting sex." She abruptly throws in allusions to male genitals, "cock, snake," to show her disgust with such shallow thinking and possibly to tout her readiness to use words long considered impolite and inappropriate for females. She chastises men for believing a woman can be satisfied with romance and passion "when it is the world she's after." Eve cannot accept that the tree of knowledge is off limits, so she willingly goes after that knowledge.
In these four lines, Piercy turns the poem toward a secular, or worldly, philosophical viewpoint. In his classic Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637), mathematician and philosopher René Descartes states, "I think; therefore, I am." This famous line summed up his belief that he had proven his own existence through mathematical and scientific reasoning as opposed to through theological or traditional philosophical thought. The speaker in "Apple sauce for Eve" refers either to Descartes or to Eve herself as the "first conceived kid / of the ego," which may seem derogatory but which reflects her concept of defining the self by use of the mind more than the heart or soul. Taking Descartes's theory a few steps further, the speaker says, "I / kick the tree" (meaning the tree of knowledge). The speaker then asks the age-old philosophical question, "who am I," followed by "why am I." Note that the latter three words play a dual role. The question "Why am I?" can stand on its own to suggest an individual pondering the reason for his or her existence, but the question actually continues into line 29: "why am I, / going, going to die, die, die." In essence, Eve wants to know the answer to the larger question, not of why she exists but of why she is going to be condemned for wanting knowledge.
The final stanza of this poem is more upbeat, hopeful, and celebratory than the previous three stanzas. The familiar phrase "necessity is the mother of invention" (meaning when a human need arises for something, somebody will create a solution for it) takes on new power when it is Eve who is "indeed the mother of invention." She is also credited as "the first scientist," a bestowal that supersedes even being the first woman. These descriptions herald Eve not for her meek obedience to a master or acceptance of her position in the Garden of Eden but for her higher, more logical aspirations.
The name "Eve" is said to be derivative of the Hebrew chavah, to breathe, or chayah, to live. The speaker states bluntly, "Your name means / life." She then refers back to images from the first stanza in describing Eve's determination to learn and to see the world from an intellectual, logical viewpoint. Experimentation requires "tasting" and "testing" and often "swimming against / the current" instead of going along with the flow of one's own time and place. Knowledge, for Eve, is as necessary and nutritious as food and water—all the things one needs to stay alive.
The "We" in these lines could refer to all of humankind, male and female, but more likely it specifies women. Eve's "bright hunger" and her "first experiment" gave birth to succeeding generations of women who followed in her path of defiance, determination, and unyielding quest for knowledge.
The metaphor that ends this poem is perhaps the most jubilant image in the entire poem. The speaker concedes that the forbidden apple may have contained the "worm" of "death," a worm that Eve set loose on humankind, but the apple also contained seeds. Seeds connote new beginnings, new life, and growth. They are the beginnings of "freedom" for women and the eventual "flowering of choice," a chance for women to make their own decisions and pursue whatever goals they desire. These lines ultimately champion the feminist voice, and they credit Eve with having paved the way for all her descendants.
In Hebrew, the word darash means to seek out or to look further, and it provides the root for the word midrash, which is the premise for Piercy's writing "Apple sauce for Eve." Midrash is commonly a creative attempt to answer questions or fill in the blanks left vacant by traditional, stark biblical text that goes only so far in explaining a historical event. Originally, midrash referred to a specific body of work written before and during the Middle Ages by rabbis who made commentaries on the five books of the Torah. Today, midrash means any imaginative work—such as stories, poems, artwork, or even dance—that tries to round out or give substance to vague or missing explanations in biblical text.
Examples of historical accounts that may elicit midrash are Abraham's journey with his son Isaac up Mount Moriah to where the boy is to be sacrificed, and the story of Lot who offers his daughters as appeasement to an angry group of men surrounding their home. Someone interested in these events for the sake of midrash may create a work that attempts to address critical issues that are not explored within the histories: Where was Isaac's mother when his father took Isaac to be killed? How may she have felt about this act? What did Lot's daughters really think about their father's offering them up to a mob? Midrash is often subversive, daring to question the highest authority and to suggest controversial answers, as Piercy's poem demonstrates.
In this work, the question is perhaps more rhetorical than precise: What if Eve's surrender to temptation was viewed positively instead of negatively? In the first two lines, the speaker acknowledges the commonly held belief about the Bible's first woman, that she was a sinner who deserved to be "cursed" for centuries to come by the "old daddies." The remainder of the poem examines Eve's defiant act in a different light: she is praised for her "curiosity" and cheered for "wanting knowledge." She rises above the presumed desire for physical pleasure to show that "it is the world she's after," not sex with a man. The speaker calls attention to Eve's name itself; her name "means / life." The irony is that the original writers of Eve's story concluded that she introduced death and condemnation to humanity.
The point of Piercy's midrash on the story of Adam and Eve is not to simply ruffle feathers among the Jewish status quo but to stimulate discussion on established doctrine and to encourage a rethinking of the story's message. Why condemn Eve to an eternity of blame and disgrace when all she wanted was to be smart? How would the history of women's roles in the world be different if Eve had been called a heroine instead of a heretic? Questions such as these are at the heart of contemporary midrash, particularly feminist midrash, and feminism is clearly another important theme in this poem.
- Research the traditional place of women in Judaism and in one other organized religion. How does the place of women in the two religions compare and contrast? Would the sentiments in "Apple sauce for Eve" be relevant if looked at in the context of the other religion you researched?
- Some readers may consider "Apple sauce for Eve" an "accusatory" feminist poem, and others may find it a humorous feminist poem. What elements make you think its point is simply to accuse men of sexism, and what elements suggest humor or fun?
- How would this poem be weaker or stronger if it used religious imagery throughout instead of scientific imagery? What is the advantage or disadvantage of relying on metaphors that come from a field so different from the main subject?
- What does Descartes's famous line, "I think; therefore, I am," have to do with a feminist poem? Research the life of Descartes, and write an essay on what he meant by his comment and how it is or is not relevant to "Apple sauce for Eve."
Celebrating Feminism "Scientifically"
Readers need not be familiar with Piercy's devotion to feminist causes to recognize "Apple sauce for Eve" as a feminist poem. From the mocking opening lines to the jubilant finish, this work speaks to the strength, willingness, intelligence, and ultimate victory of women in a world hostile to their goals. As such, it is not particularly rare or shocking, since the women's movement established itself as a vibrant social and political force more than three decades ago and has produced countless feminist writers since. What makes this poem memorable is the methodical and consistent use of science metaphors (metaphors are figures of speech that express ideas through comparison to other things, implying a likeness between them) to relay the theme. In this case, Eve's daring to eat the apple from the tree of knowledge is compared to a scientist's quest for exploration and discovery.
The metaphor is introduced subtly in the first stanza, where Eve is described as a woman who wants "To try, to taste, / to take into the body, into the brain," implying her desire for something different, something new. The science imagery strengthens in the following lines; Eve does not simply want to be a passive recipient of whatever her body and brain take in, but to "turn each thing . . . round and round" and to observe "white / fractur[ing] into colors" while her "brain casts the chips into patterns." In essence, she prefers a scientific approach.
The metaphor defines Eve's desire for logical, rational thinking. Readers need only note the language to see it in action: "Each experiment," "real questions," "lab partners," "mother of invention," "first scientist," "finite, dynamic," "testing," "products of that first experiment." These descriptors characterize Eve's quest to gain knowledge by relying on intellect instead of emotion. But why is this metaphor significant to a feminist cause? Because women were not traditionally viewed as being scientific. Piercy's use of science metaphors flies in the face of what centuries of strict gender roles have taught. Science is bold and dares to question established thought. Science is frequently at odds with religion. Science is likely the last thing that the biblical Eve would have had in mind when she took her first bite of the apple. For all these reasons, science is an appropriate metaphor with which to celebrate feminism. Comparing Eve to a scientist affords her a place in the world of inquiry, innovation, and discovery, a place where only men traditionally have been allowed.
Contemporary Free Verse
First established by noted French poets during the late nineteenth century, free verse has been a popular form of poetry for over a hundred years. Rimbaud, Laforgue, Viele-Griffin, and other French poets began a literary revolt against the strict rules of their culture's verse, which dictated specific patterns of rhyme and meter. Free verse has no "rules" per se, although many poets who use it may create their own patterns within poems, usually in regard to controlled rhythm as opposed to rhyme or meter.
Contemporary free verse is a label that addresses content more than style. By the mid-twentieth century, poets, fiction writers, and other artists started expressing themselves through language and subject matter previously considered taboo—most notably, references to sexual activity, violence, and personal emotions, as well as the use of slang words to describe them. In sum, free verse is more liberal than traditional verse forms, and contemporary free verse is yet more liberal than the free verse of old.
In "Apple sauce for Eve," Piercy does not restrict her lines with any guided rhythm. Instead, she lets the text flow as continuous units of thought, just as sentences in a prose piece do. Like most free verse poems, this one could be put into paragraph form and read just as well.
Like many contemporary writers, Piercy is free with her use of graphic language, undisguised subject matter, and vivid metaphors—or, figures of speech that express ideas by comparing an object or image to a different object or image. For example, she calls Eve and the snake "lab partners" to suggest their shared goals, as well as to reinforce the science imagery in the poem. Piercy also uses the word "snake" as a reference to male genitalia, a metaphor demonstrating that she does not shy away from controversial statements nor candid descriptions, and, most likely, feels that the poem is all the more effective for it.
During the latter part of the twentieth century, Jewish women in America confronted the same challenges that many women, regardless of religion, confronted: how to find harmony between the desire for personal growth, freedom, and, for many, a career and the more "traditional" expectations of being a wife, mother, and homemaker. This issue has presented a conundrum for women in great numbers at least since the beginnings of the women's movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But, it has been especially problematic for those whose religions and cultural histories dictate traditional gender roles. While some age-old restrictions began to ease for Jewish women during this time—such as having greater opportunities to work outside the home and having a stronger voice in religious services—many were still expected to put family duties ahead of any personal aspirations and to accept the fundamental patriarchal nature of Judaism.
The main rift over the issue of gender roles in Judaism is between the Orthodox and Reform factions of the faith. According to Jewish orthodoxy, the original Holy Scriptures prescribed the roles of men and women, and, therefore, to stray from their instructions would be the same as rejecting them. Orthodox Jews do not feel that their beliefs are based on a desire to oppress the female gender but simply to carry out the word of God. Followers of this most conservative sect of Judaism have endured the greatest struggle between Old World tradition and New World culture, and one of the most controversial issues they have encountered is the possible ordination of women as rabbis. For many, the question is not considered even debatable by humans because it is the law of a higher authority that forbids women to be rabbis.
Members of the Reform faction, however, have seen the greatest increase in women's rights and privileges within the Jewish faith. In this more liberal denomination, women have been earning the title of rabbi for more than three decades—the first, Sally Priesand, was ordained in 1972. Aside from gaining acceptance in positions of religious authority, women in Reform Judaism have also enjoyed a greater sense of personal freedom and independence, much the same as their non-Jewish counterparts. In essence, they have found a way to blend their respect for conservative Jewish cultural values—such as family, children, and religious ritual—into a liberal, contemporary environment without compromising either.
It is likely the stricter Orthodox denomination of her faith that provided the impetus behind Piercy's writing "Apple sauce for Eve." The arguments regarding feminism for this most conservative sect of Judaism are obviously more theological than philosophical, and, therefore, more difficult to reinterpret or reform. In 1998, however, some Orthodox Jewish congregations began to employ female "congregational interns" who are permitted to perform some tasks usually reserved for rabbis, such as preaching, teaching, and consulting on Jewish legal matters. Still, the interns are not allowed to lead worship services, so the feminist idea of "equality" is left unsatisfied. Some, though, would argue that the gap between conservative historical practice and contemporary cultural change has been narrowed, at least a bit.
For decades, Piercy's work has fascinated, flabbergasted, intrigued, angered, and shocked readers, but it is rarely overlooked. As a young writer, Piercy had trouble publishing her fiction and poetry because of its controversial nature—1950s America was not ready for it. However, the 1960s ushered in a new American era. Suddenly, Piercy's views on feminism, racism, and politics were shared by a great number of people. Critics began taking her work seriously and, for over thirty years since, have lauded her work for its powerful voice, striking metaphors, and direct address of contentious subjects that some writers avoid.
In Judaism, critic Steven P. Schneider writes:
Piercy displays the full range of her voice and poetic imagination in The Art of Blessing the Day. Although she claims that being a woman and a Jew is "sometimes more / of a contradiction than I can sweat out," she shows in this volume that she is adroit enough to walk the tightrope between those identities that intersect in surprising and unusual ways in these poems.
In a review in Poetry of Piercy's What Are Big Girls Made Of, which was published two years before The Art of Blessing the Day, critic John Taylor asserts, "These feminist poems may stir listeners who hear them read aloud . . . yet their language resembles that of rallying cries. It is a language confident in its power to designate and deplore." If any one word may be used to sum up the general character of Piercy's poetry, it is "confident." Despite her dubious beginnings in the publishing world, she is today a strong voice in contemporary American poetry.
Pamela Steed Hill
Hill is the author of a poetry collection, has published widely in literary journals, and is an editor for a university publications department. In the following essay, Hill examines the various comparisons of women to children in Piercy's poem and contends that these associations make up the core of the poem's celebratory spirit.
Claiming a link between women and children is as old as motherhood itself and usually entails the natural physical bond between mother and child, as well as centuries of social mores that have assigned child care to the female gender. Poems addressing the ties between women and children are also commonplace and often sentimental and tender, not contentious and controversial. Piercy's "Apple sauce for Eve" is not a typical mother-and-child poem; there is not even a typical "mother" or typical "child" in it. Instead, the link here lies in the childlike innocence, curiosity, and determination that Piercy applies to Eve's quest for knowledge. Eve is not only all women, but the mother of all women; ironically, her exuberance and resolve are that of a "difficult brat," "kid / of the ego," and bouncing baby all wrapped up into one.
The first line of the poem establishes the flippant attitude of the narrator with her reference to the biblical Jewish forefathers as "old daddies." But "daddy" is also an endearing term, especially when used by a child to call her father. While the most likely intent of the word here is to mock the writers of the Old Testament who condemned Eve in the Garden of Eden tale, it also sets the tone for succeeding metaphors in the poem that use child imagery to praise Eve.
The allusion to nursery rhyme characters in the second stanza enhances the association between childlike enthusiasm and Eve's excitement over learning new things. She is as persistent and naughty in her pursuit as mischievous little boys who shirk their duties in order to do whatever they want to do. Here, Eve wants to eat the apple. She wants to see what comes of it, what knowledge she will gain, what new truths will be revealed to her. In essence, she is one of the "difficult brats" who dares to buck the system. She is as defiant and determined as a child who screams to get her way until she gets it.
Eve's attributes thus far may not seem like something to be proud of, much less praiseworthy, yet there is an air of jubilant vigor in her resolve to experiment, to "turn each thing . . . / round and round" until "white / fractures into colors," until "the image breaks" and the "chips" fall where they may "into patterns." She does not claim to know any answers, only that the ones she has been handed so far by Adam and by a God considered male in the annals of Jewish doctrine fall far short of what she believes may be out there. Like a rebellious kid who will not take "because I said so" for an answer or like an inquisitive scientist who is not satisfied with only one result, Eve forges ahead with her decision to try something new. If she ends up saying, "Whoops!" in the end, so be it.
Even the famed thinker René Descartes has nothing on Eve in her pursuit of knowledge. After all, the world's first woman is not content to sit around and think about her existence; she needs to get up and "kick the tree" to see what falls from it. She does not stop at discovering why she lives; she wants to know why she is "going, going to die, die, die." In the hard-hitting third stanza, in which the speaker levels blatant accusations against men and calls her God-given mate a "good dog," the child imagery is still present. Whether it is Eve or Descartes who is the "first conceived kid / of the ego," the allusion supports the notion that youth and innocence lay the groundwork for many relentless endeavors.
The reality of the question Why am I going to die because of my desire to become knowledgeable? is ominous at best. The fact that the question must be asked by Eve, or by the speaker in the poem, drives home her frustration in having simple human curiosity in a world that dictates curiosity is for men only. She possesses the same intellect, skills, inquisitiveness, and determination as any male counterpart and yet her gender requires a separate path. Eve may be "the first conceived kid" to recognize a desire for something more than life has allotted her, but she also is well aware that acting upon that desire may mean doom. But like a little girl who knows her daddy will punish her for eating the extra cookie, Eve takes a bite of the forbidden treat anyway, relishes its taste, and waits for the penalty to come.
The final stanza of "Apple sauce for Eve" is the most celebratory of the poem and the one in which the speaker plainly states, "We are all the children of your bright hunger." Metaphorically, women are the "products of that first experiment," and the retribution Eve suffers for her daring is worth it because it brings "freedom and the flowering of choice" to succeeding generations of females. In spite of the obvious odds against Eve's success (odds meted out by the status quo) the initial and final tone of the poem is one of ovation and victory. The speaker is energetic and passionate in affirming Eve's achievement: "You are indeed the mother of invention," "Your name means / life," "We are all the children," "We are all products," "the seeds were freedom." It appears that the bitterness and sarcasm of the speaker's earlier details are diminished in the sheer joy of celebration.
Not surprisingly, some readers of Piercy's work are uncomfortable with both the subject matter and the poet's seemingly irreverent handling of it. Is this not blasphemy? Can a Jewish poet ridicule Jewish teachings and still be a devout Jew? The opinion here is yes. The practice, or art, of midrash has been around for centuries. Its intent has always been to enhance standard, traditional writings, to fill in the blanks left open by official doctrine, and that is Piercy's intent as well with "Apple sauce for Eve." (The section of The Art of Blessing the Day that includes this poem is called "Toldot, Midrashism [Of History and Interpretation].") If the poem seems crude and ribald, or just humorous, its tone is simply a reflection of the period in which it was written. Contemporary midrash takes on contemporary issues in a contemporary manner. In praising Eve and in allotting her a playful innocence and childlike determination to show her resolve, the speaker is not mean-spirited or hateful. She pokes fun at some of the fundamentals of religious teachings but she never steps over the line. In essence, Piercy does not defy God in this poem, only the men who interpret God's word.
- Piercy's poetry collection Colors Passing through Us (2003) concentrates on what is valuable in her life: love, feminism, Judaism, politics, and sensual pleasure. She uses both humor and sorrow in writing about the transition into the twenty-first century, and she includes a moving piece on loved-ones who suddenly disappear, such as the victims of September 11, 2001.
- Like Piercy, Alicia Ostriker is a contemporary feminist poet from a Jewish background who does not shy away from addressing matters of womanhood, sexuality, and Judaism in her poems. Her fairly comprehensive collection The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968–1998 (1998) provides a thorough look at thirty years of her work, showing both the natural maturity of a poet as well as deep-seated convictions that withstand the test of time.
- Voices of Thinking Jewish Women (2003) includes intriguing essays from forty-two successful women in the fields of science, politics, literature, history, finance, feminism, entertainment, government, and more. Edited by Prudence Wright Holmes and Doris B. Gold, this collection of diverse thought and perspective covers topics as wide-ranging as the Holocaust, Zionism, sexism, war, civil rights, and financial matters.
- Piercy maintains a personal Web site at http://archer-books.com/Piercy/ with more than thirty links to book reviews, critical essays, interviews, and excerpts of her work, as well as personal pages, including her resume, biography, and an up-to-date schedule of readings and workshops. For a general introduction to the poet and her work, this is a good place to start.
- Editor Joyce Antler collected the works of four generations of women authors in America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers (1990). The twenty-three stories, including works by Tillie Olsen, Cynthia Ozick, and Edna Ferber, depict what it means to be both a woman and a Jew, with topics ranging from the Holocaust to emerging sexual and emotional freedom.
Perhaps the use of child imagery to portray both the naughty and the innocent nature of Eve serves to soften the blunt language that some readers find distasteful. Though she is described as a "lab partner" of Satan's, she is also a curious kid filled with awe and excitement at all the possibilities the world holds. Though she takes a shot at the "old daddies" who condemned her, she also paves the way for centuries of women and men to come who, like her, would dare to question and experiment and discover rather than remain static and void of imagination. If Eve is not wholly innocent here, she is allowed just enough "sin" to prove her devotion to a cause she believes is just. She is strong-willed and steadfast but not blasphemous or profane.
Any reader still uncomfortable with Piercy's poetic midrash on the story of Adam and Eve may want to read the entire collection in which this work appears before passing final judgment on it. There, one will find serious, somber poems on faith and Judaism; tender yet candid accounts of family and love and passion; and, wry, no-holds-barred examinations of Jewish tradition set against contemporary culture with a bit of humor thrown in to lighten the load. Perhaps after placing "Apple sauce for Eve" within the context of the complete volume, one may understand why Piercy's biblical first woman could never be content with a simple, ordinary apple. She is bound to make sauce of it.
Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on "Apple sauce for Eve," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Perkins is a professor of American literature and film. In this essay, Perkins explores the poem's focus on the hunger for knowledge.
In her review of The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, Judy Clarence writes that in this collection, "in many ways [her] best yet," Marge Piercy "brings together poems written to celebrate [her] Jewishness, reflecting and expressing the joy, pain, passion, and elegance of this rich culture." Donna Seaman and Jack Helbig, in their review of the collection for Booklist, note that Piercy dedicated these works to the Grrrl movement, "a feisty form of feminist expression found in zines and music and on the Web—because Piercy had been Grrrl long before Grrrl got its name."
One of the finest poems in this collection, "Apple sauce for Eve" reflects Piercy's Jewish heritage as well as her dedication to feminist expression. The poem centers on the story of Eve eating the apple from the tree of knowledge and the consequences this action had on Jewish women. Yet, the statements the poem makes about oppression of women and the desire for freedom are universal. Felicia Mitchell, in her article on Piercy for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, insists that "Piercy's liturgical poems follow the Jewish mystical tradition for some readers and appeal to others on a different level, [which] affirms her appeal to an audience as diverse as her poems." "Apple sauce for Eve" becomes a call to all women to break the bonds of tradition and satisfy their hunger for knowledge.
Piercy's voice becomes personal and universal in "Apple sauce for Eve" as she encourages women to recognize their ancestral link to Eve. She addresses, much like Langston Hughes does in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," an entire community, tracing its continuity over the centuries. While Hughes speaks of the black race's strength and endurance, reaching back to the beginning of time, Piercy maps out Jewish women's desire for knowledge, a need first expressed by Eve as she eats the forbidden apple. The struggle against the restraints of Jewish orthodoxy becomes a universal one for all women living under patriarchal systems who share the dream of self actualization and freedom. "Apple sauce for Eve" presents alternatives to oppressive traditions and celebrates communal solidarity and significant change.
Piercy announces this theme in the poem's title, which, along with the title of the collection, becomes an ironic statement of Eve's independence. Applesauce, made with honey and apples, is served on Jewish holy days to sweeten the year. The apple, however, was forbidden to Eve. God denied her knowledge much like Judaism denies women the highly esteemed position of scholar in its community. Jewish orthodoxy promotes scholarship as one of the highest callings, but this role is reserved for men, not women. Piercy celebrates Eve's challenge of this doctrine by rewarding her with the celebratory applesauce. The collection's title, The Art of Blessing the Day, which derives from the Jewish custom of reciting daily blessings, reinforces the praise for Eve's courageous actions.
The poem chronicles and honors Eve's challenge throughout its free-verse stanzas, an appropriate form for a poem that centers on individual and collective freedom. In the first, the speaker addresses the curse suffered by Eve and her descendents after she disobeyed God's law by eating the apple, which granted her knowledge. Piercy insists that Eve was "damned for [her] curiosity." She was punished not only for her disobedience but also for "wanting knowledge," which the "old daddies," God and the male rulers of the entrenched patriarchies that have ruled women for centuries, forbid her and all women—"the us" in Eve. This is the paradise that she and her descendents have been denied.
This stanza also begins to outline the innate desire for knowledge, which Piercy likens here to a crystal of many facets that fracture into fragments as each "factoid" is taken into the brain. The speaker notes Eve's need "to try, to taste, / to take into the body" this life-sustaining knowledge. The result of this activity is also chronicled. Alliteration in these lines forecasts the harmonious relationship that will emerge during this process between self and world. As the mind engages in the act of understanding and interpreting, as it casts "the chips into patterns," the white facets of each piece of information break into colors. Here Piercy suggests that one's world will gain depth and color through the process of gaining knowledge.
The second stanza reinforces the lure of knowledge acquisition, recognizing the power of this process to blow "a horn in the ear / of belief." Knowledge can challenge the personal, the "dead languages" of Jewish orthodoxy, as well as the universal, as it helps pose "real questions into the still air / of the desiccated parlor of stasis." Tradition regards these questions as "nasty and difficult brats" challenging "what we all know to be true, constant." Yet the speaker argues that consistencies are desiccated or frozen, "like frost landscapes on a window." Each experiment, like Eve's biting into the apple, that "dares existence" by posing real questions brings steam to melt the frost. Questions like those that examine instincts and behavioral patterns, the speaker suggests, can debunk old myths that impose conventional notions of a woman's place or of her abilities. Consistency leads to death; the active mind's persistent examination and interpretation of the world leads to life.
Piercy illuminates the dehumanizing consequences of stasis in her third stanza in which she juxtaposes Adam's actions in Eden with those of Eve. Adam, initially the obedient servant to God's decrees, wags his tail like a "good dog," expecting praise and reward for shying away from the forbidden fruit while Eve and the serpent "shimmy up the tree," ready to face the penalty of their rebelliousness. Piercy extends the metaphor of the experiment here, the questioning that must occur if understanding is to be gained, as Eve and the snake become "lab partners in a dance of will and hunger." Eve questions God's decree that the knowledge obtained by eating the apple should be denied her. Revealing the strength of the female spirit, she refuses to allow her will, in this case her hunger for knowledge, to be suppressed and so joins the snake in a quest for freedom.
The speaker notes that this act in itself involves a double challenge to tradition. Eve challenges God's control over her as well as conventional notions of what women want. In a clever play on the symbolism of the serpent, the speaker scoffs at the established conviction that women are interested in the body, the phallic "snake," and not the mind, "when it is the world she's after." Here, Piercy debunks the myth of Eve as temptress, insisting that her "thirst" is "not of the flesh but of the brain."
Eve suffered the consequences of her challenge to authority when God banished her from paradise and decreed that she and her female descendents must endure the pain of childbirth. The speaker insists that this suffering would lead to an ultimate state of freedom. By eating the apple and facing the consequences of her actions, Eve experienced "the birth trauma for the first conceived kid / of the ego"—the brain engaged in the active pursuit of knowledge. Piercy insists that women cannot exist without this dynamic engagement with the world, without the constant "kick[ing] of the tree" of knowledge to make the apples fall to the ground, without the participation in the quest to discover "who am I." She argues that women have the right to ask why the punishment for a woman's pursuit of knowledge was a death decree for her and all of her descendents.
In the final stanza, Piercy elevates Eve to the highest position in Jewish orthodoxy and celebrates her ancestral link to all women as the "mother of invention, / the first scientist." Eve becomes a "dynamic" symbol of life as a result of her experiment, "tasting, testing" experience. She ate the apple of knowledge, "like any other nutrient," rebelling against God's decree, which forced her to swim "against / the current of time." The speaker notes that this desire for knowledge, this "bright hunger," is shared by all women through their common ancestor.
Eve's heroic rebelliousness has survived throughout generations of women, "products of that first experiment." Piercy acknowledges that God punished Eve for eating the apple by banishing her from Eden and denying her and her descendents the gift of eternal life, which became "the worm in that apple." Yet she champions Eve for her independent spirit, which provided women with a greater gift—"freedom and the flowering of choice."
In "Apple sauce for Eve," Piercy acknowledges the bleak decree Eve and her descendents have suffered under as a result of her eating the apple of knowledge. Yet, the poem becomes a celebration of this inherited rebellious spirit that has inspired women to throw off the bonds of oppression. Jean Rosenbaum writes in her essay on Piercy's poetry in Modern Poetry Studies that "Piercy strikes out at the attitudes, institutions, and structures which impede natural growth and development and thus destroy wholeness." Piercy infuses "Apple sauce for Eve" with a hopeful perspective, of the spiritual renewal gained through the life-sustaining pursuit of knowledge.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on "Apple sauce for Eve," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Contemporary Authors Online
In the following essay, the critic discusses Piercy's career.
Feminist poet/novelist Marge Piercy writes about the oppression of individuals she sees in society, infusing her works with political statements, autobiographical elements, and realist and utopian perspectives. "Almost alone among her American contemporaries, Marge Piercy is radical and writer simultaneously, her literary identity so indivisible that it is difficult to say where one leaves off and the other begins," wrote Elinor Langer in the New York Times Book Review. A prominent and sometimes controversial writer, Piercy first became politically active in the 1960s, when she joined the civil rights movement and became an organizer for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). After a few years, she concluded that the male power structure associated with the mainstream capitalist society was also operating in the anti-war movement and that women were being relegated to subservient work. In 1969 Piercy shifted her allegiance to the fledgling women's movement, where her sympathies have remained.
Piercy openly acknowledges that she wants her writing—particularly some of her poems—to be "useful." "What I mean by useful," she explained in the introduction to Circles on the Water, "is simply that readers will find poems that speak to and for them, will take those poems into their lives and say them to each other and put them up on the bathroom wall and remember bits and pieces of them in stressful or quiet moments. That the poems may give voice to something in the experience of a life has been my intention. To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. We can hear what we hope for and what we most fear in the small release of cadenced utterance."
Piercy's moralistic stance, more typical of nineteenth-than twentieth-century writers, has alienated some critics, producing charges that she is more committed to her politics than to her craft. The notion makes Piercy bristle. "As a known feminist I find critics often naively imagine I am putting my politics directly into the mouth of my protagonist," she told Michael Luzzi in an interview collected in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. "That I could not possibly be amused, ironic, interested in the consonances and dissonances.... They notice what I have created and assume I have done so blindly, instead of artfully, and I ask again and again, why? I think reviewers and academics have the fond and foolish notion that they are smarter than writers. They also assume if you are political, you are simpler in your mental apparatus than they are; whereas you may well have the same background in English and American literature they have, but add to it a better grounding in other European and Asian and South American literatures, and a reasonable degree of study of philosophy and political theory."
Fellow feminist and poet Erica Jong sympathized with Piercy's dilemma, writing in the New York Times Book Review that Piercy is "an immensely gifted poet and novelist whose range and versatility have made it hard for her talents to be adequately appreciated critically. "Piercy's sense of politics is deep-rooted. She grew up poor and white in a predominantly black section of Detroit. Her mother was a housewife with a tenth-grade education and her father a millwright who repaired and installed machinery. From her surroundings, Piercy learned about the inequities of the capitalist system: "You see class so clearly there," she told Celia Betsky in the New York Times Book Review. "The indifference of the rich, racism, the strength of different groups, the working-class pitted against itself."
Piercy wrote candidly about those early years in her 2002 memoir, Sleeping with Cats. One of the title felines is Fluffy, the author's childhood pet, and the two would spend hours curled up together on the creaking porch swing. While inquisitive and intelligent, Piercy found that school was no haven from her hardscrabble home life; she recounts "the stench of urine and the yellow dirty halls" of her elementary school, the "old books, old desks, and the contempt of the teachers for us and themselves." Her parents, taking a disinterested stand in the girl's education, made it clear that they would have preferred their daughter to be a "healthy flirtatious little girl, a sort of minor-league Shirley Temple," as Pierce wrote in Sleeping with Cats. Rebelling, Piercy became a shoplifter and sexual adventurist instead. But the young girl's academic success overshadowed the negative images; she went on to win a scholarship to the University of Michigan and became the first in her family to attend college.
An enthusiastic undergraduate, Piercy was encouraged in her writing by winning several Hop-wood awards. Still, professional success did not come easily. Ten years elapsed before Piercy was able to give up a series of odd jobs and support herself by writing. Her first six novels were rejected, and she suspects that Going down Fast found a publisher largely because of its lack of women's consciousness and its male protagonist. The narrative features a Jewish teacher, Anna Levinowitz, who sees issues of class and sexual politics while watching her childhood home being razed: "The outer wall and circle of windows were gone to dust. The pale blue walls were nude to the passerby. She felt a dart of shame." In an essay for Dictionary of Literary Biography, Sue Walker saw Going down Fast as a book that "confronts the questions, 'what have I done with my life? where am I going?'" Anna's role as a sexual object for her lover is depicted in a kitchen scene, where the man pinches Anna as she prepares his meal. "Piercy finds that men often see their relations to women as taming and dominating," noted Walker.
Piercy kept writing political novels featuring female characters, often with backgrounds similar to her own. In 1973, she published Small Changes, a novel that New Republic contributing critic Diane Schulder labeled "one of the first to explore the variety of life-styles that women . . . are adopting in order to give meaning to their personal and political lives." Addressing women's issues head on, this book conveys what New York Times Book Review contributing critic Sara Blackburn called "that particular quality of lost identity and desperation, which, once recognized as common experience, has sparked the rage and solidarity of the women's liberation movement." In an essay she wrote for Women's Culture: The Women's Renaissance of the Seventies, Piercy describes the book as "an attempt to produce in fiction the equivalent of a full experience in a consciousness-raising group for many women who would never go through that experience."
To demonstrate the way female subjugation cuts across social strata, Piercy includes both a working-class woman, Beth, and a middle-class intellectual, Miriam, as main characters in Small Changes. In her depiction of these women, Piercy concentrates on what Catharine R. Stimpson of Nation called "the creation of a new sexuality and a new psychology, which will permeate and bind a broad genuine equality. So doing, [Piercy] shifts the meaning of small change." Stimpson continued: "The phrase no longer refers to something petty and cheap but to the way in which a New Woman, a New Man, will be generated: one halting step after another. The process of transformation will be as painstaking as the dismantling of electrified barbed wire."
Widely reviewed, Small Changes received qualified praise. No critics dismissed the novel as unimportant, and most commended Piercy's energy and intelligence, but many objected to the rhetoric of the book. "There is not a good, even tolerable man in the whole lot of characters," observed Margaret Ferrari in her America review. "While the women in the novel are in search of themselves, the men are mostly out to destroy themselves and anyone who crosses their paths. The three main ones in the novel are, without exception, stereotyped monsters." For this reason, Ferrari described her reaction to the novel as "ambivalent. The realistic Boston and New York locales are enjoyable. The poetry is alluring and the characters' lives are orchestrated so that shrillness is always relieved. . . . In short, the novel is absorbing despite its political rhetoric." After praising Piercy's "acute" social reportage and her compelling story line, Richard Todd raised a similar objection. "What is absent in this novel is an adequate sense of the oppressor," he wrote in Atlantic. "And beyond that a recognition that there are limits to a world view that is organized around sexual warfare. It's hard not to think that Piercy feels this, knows that much of the multiplicity and mystery of life is getting squeezed out of her prose, but her polemical urge wins out."
Piercy challenges the validity of such criticisms. "People tend to define 'political' or 'polemical' in terms of what is not congruent with their ideas," she told Karla Hammond in an interview collected in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. "In other words, your typical white affluent male reviewer does not review a novel by Norman Mailer as if it were political the same way he would review a novel by Kate Millet. Yet both are equally political. The defense of the status quo is as political as an attack on it. A novel which makes assumptions about men and women is just as political if they're patriarchal assumptions as if they're feminist assumptions. Both have a political dimension." And a few reviewers conceded their biases. William Archer, for instance, speculated in his Best Sellers review that "the special dimension of this book becomes apparent only through a determined suspension of one's preconceptions and a reexamination of their validity."
If Small Changes delineates the oppression of women, Woman on the Edge of Time affords a glimpse of a better world. The story of a woman committed to a mental hospital and her periodic time travels into the future, the novel juxtaposes the flawed present against a utopian future. "My first intent was to create an image of a good society," notes Piercy in Women's Culture: The Women's Renaissance of the Seventies, "one that was not sexist, racist, or imperialist: one that was cooperative, respectful of all living beings, gentle, responsible, loving, and playful. The result of a full feminist revolution." Despite a cool reception by critics, Woman on the Edge of Time remains one of Piercy's personal favorites. "It's the best I've done so far," she wrote in 1981.
With Vida, her sixth novel, Piercy returned to the real world of the sixties and seventies, cataloging the breakdown of the anti-war movement and focusing on a political fugitive who will not give up the cause. Named for its main character, Davida Asch, the novel cuts back and forth from past to present, tracing Vida's evolution from liberal to activist to a member of a radical group called the Network. Still on the run for her participation in a ten-year-old bombing, Vida must contend with a splintered group that has lost its popular appeal as well as the nagging temptation to slip back into society and resume normal life. "The main action is set in the autumn of 1979," explained Jennifer Uglow in Times Literary Supplement, "as Vida faces divorce from her husband (turned media liberal and family man), her mother's final illness, her sister's imprisonment and the capture of an old colleague and lover. The pain of these separations is balanced against the hope offered by a new lover, Joel." At the story's close, Joel, a draft dodger, is captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Vida, for whom the loss is acute, is not certain she can continue. But she does. "What swept through us and cast us forward is a force that will gather and rise again," she reflects, hunching her shoulders and disappearing into the night.
A former political organizer, Piercy writes from an insider's point of view, and critics contend that this affects the novel. "There is no perspective, there are not even any explanations," said Langer in New York Times Book Review. "Why we are against the war, who the enemy is, what measures are justified against the state—all these are simply taken for granted." And while a state of "war" may well exist between American capitalists and American radicals, the 1960s revolutionaries are not of the same caliber as the French Resistance workers or the Yugoslav partisans, according to Village Voice contributing reviewer Vivian Gornick. "Vida Asch and her comrades are a parody of the Old Left when the Old Left was already a parody of itself," she stated.
Politics aside, reviewers find much that is praiseworthy in the novel. "The real strength of the book lies not in its historical analysis but in the power with which the loneliness and desolation of the central characters are portrayed," noted Uglow. Lore Dickstein calls it "an extraordinarily poignant statement on what has happened to some of the middle-class children of the Sixties," in Saturday Review. And Langer commended Vida as "a fully controlled, tightly structured dramatic narrative of such artful intensity that it leads the reader on at almost every page."
In Piercy's following novel, Braided Lives, she "reminds us, growing up female in the 1950s hurt," wrote Brina Caplan in a review for Nation. Jill Stuart, the protagonist, relates how difficult it was for women to survive this time period with esteem and independence intact. Jill describes the obstacles and events that challenged young girls coming of age in the 1950s, including attitudes toward sex, career, marriage, rape, abortion, lesbianism, verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment, and women in general. "Braided Lives affects us by contrast—by distinctions made between then and now, between those who have and have not survived and, most important, between the subtleties of individual development and the more general movement of history," stated Caplan.
In the novel, Jill finds life at home almost unbearable; her father is indifferent and her mother is manipulative. Her parents expect that she will follow traditional ways and get married after high school, have children, and be a homemaker. Jill manages to escape this prescribed female role when she receives a scholarship to college. At college she and her friends vow never to end up as their mothers. "I don't know a girl who does not say, 'I don't want to live like my mother,'" Jill asserts in Braided Lives. Jill and her female friends enjoy their initial independence at college; they discuss philosophy and politics and engage in sexual experimentation. But these women are ambivalent and unsure of what they really want out of life. "One moment they are declaiming the need for total honesty with men and vowing that they will never end up possessive and dependent like their mothers. The next, they will do something 'castrating' to their boyfriends, in whom they wouldn't dream of confiding their frequent pregnancy scares," pointed out New York Time's Katha Pollitt.
"Is it our mothers, ourselves, or our men who mold us?" Jill wonders as she watches some of her friends succumb to cultural pressures and follow the path of their mothers. Many of Jill's friends fare poorly under traditional female roles. Donna, her best friend and cousin, is "haunted by a despair that she believes only marriage can alleviate," according to Caplan. She marries a man who later secretly punctures her diaphragm because he thinks she should get pregnant; when Donna does become pregnant, she gets an illegal abortion and bleeds to death. Another friend, Julie, marries and exists discontentedly in domesticity, while Theo is committed to an institution, first by her psychiatrist who raped her and, again, when she is expelled from college for sleeping with another girl. Out of her circle of friends, Jill alone survives with independence and esteem intact, despite the cultural pressures.
Piercy considers Braided Lives one of her best and most original works. In general, critics liked the writing too, but some note that the novel deals too excessively with the problems of women. Caplan pointed out that Braided Lives seems "to accommodate almost every humiliation to which women are liable." Similarly, Pollitt found that Piercy "makes Jill & Company victims of every possible social cruelty and male treachery, usually more than once." Pollitt commended, however, Piercy's representation of female characters as fighters by noting that even those who did not survive the cultural oppression fought against the attitudes of the day. Pollitt concluded that the book "is a tribute to Piercy's strengths" and "by virtue of her sheer force of conviction, plus a flair for scene writing, she writes thought-provoking, persuasive novels, fiction that is both political and aimed at a popular audience but that is never just a polemic or just a potboiler."
A strong protagonist and an engaging plot are also the components of Fly Away Home, Piercy's eighth novel. Thanks to these strengths, this oft-told tale of a woman's coming to awareness because of divorce becomes "something new and appealing: a romance with a vision of domestic life that only a feminist could imagine," said Ms. reviewer Ellen Sweet. Though Daria Walker, the main heroine, is a traditional wife in a conventional role, Alane Rollings deems her "a true heroine. Not a liberated woman in the current terms of career-aggressiveness," Rollins continued in Chicago Tribune Books, "she is a person of 'daily strengths' and big feelings. When we first meet her, she is a success almost in spite of herself, a Julia Child-type TV chef and food writer, but more important to her, a loving wife and mother in a lovely home." Sweet concurred, calling Daria a "Piercy masterpiece."
Not everyone agreed with this assessment. Because Daria's self-awakening is tied to her growing awareness of her husband's villainy, and because Ross, the husband, is a sexist profiteer who exemplifies the inequities of the capitalist system, some critics suggested that "politics sometimes takes precedence over characterization," as Jeanne McManus put it in the Washington Post Book World. "Daria's not only got to get her own life together but also take on a city full of white-collar real estate criminals who are undermining Boston's ethnic minorities. And she's not just a full-figured woman in a society of lean wolfhounds, but also a bleeding heart liberal, a '60s softy, in an age of Reaganomics. It's a pleasure when Piercy lets Daria sit back and just be herself, frustrated, angry or confused." Piercy contends, however, that she does not try to control characters like Daria; the characters write themselves. In an interview with Luzzi, Piercy asserted that her "characters do have their own momentum and I can't force them to do things they won't do. Sometimes in the first draft, they disturb the neat outlines of the previously arranged plot, but mostly I try to understand them well enough before I start to have the plot issue directly out of the characters." And in the eyes of some critics, Piercy succeeds at this task in Fly Away Home. As Sweet observed in Ms.: "The real plot is in Daria's growing awareness of herself and her social context."
Piercy's 1991 novel, He, She & It, again deals with women's roles and participation in society at large. Rather than dealing with contemporary time periods, however, Piercy has events take place in the twenty-first century, also weaving in a myth from the sixteenth century. In the novel, the author creates a Jewish community of the future called Tikva where the scientist Shira has come to stay with her grandmother, Malkah, after losing a custody battle for her son. Malkah has recently helped develop a cyborg named Yod to protect their community from outside warring forces. While working with Yod, Malkah is reminded of an old Yiddish myth about a rabbi who creates a man of clay, a golem, and gives it life and socialization so that it will protect a Jewish enclave from their enemy. The golem saves the city and the Jews, and then is destroyed when he becomes uncontrollable. Like the rabbi, Malkah has given life to Yod and designates Shira the task of socializing him; eventually Shira falls in love with Yod. Yod saves Tikva, assists Shira in rescuing her son, and in the end, destroys himself and the workshop he was produced in so that his prototypes can not be used as weapons against their will. Shira considers recreating a new lover from the remaining data but concludes that, for the importance of free will, all the information should be destroyed.
Piercy's innovative technique in He, She & It was hailed by some critics. "Her approach is so lively and imaginative, her people so energetic, her two worlds realized in such stimulating detail that the novel is never a typical sci-fi adventure or a depressing account of disasters," commented Diana O'Hehir in her review for Belles Lettres. The distinguishing feature of the novel, according to London Times Literary Supplement's Anne-Marie Conway, "is the way Marge Piercy combines the story of Shira and Yod with the Yiddish myth of the Golem."
He, She & It received mixed reviews overall. Admiring Piercy's creativity, O'Hehir commented, "I was amazed at the fertility of Piercy's imaginings," but then pointed out that "what is lacking is an examination of the questions about creativity, science, and destruction that Piercy appears to be raising at the beginning of her book." "Marge Piercy confronts large issues in this novel: the social consequences of creating anthropomorphic cyborgs, the dynamics of programming both humans and machines, the ethical question of our control of machines that might feel as well as think," wrote Malcome Bosse in his review for New York Times Book Review. He then noted that Piercy's "ambitious new novel is not likely to enhance her reputation." Bosse finds Piercy's futuristic account beyond belief and contends the book "reads more like an extended essay on freedom of conscience than a full-rigged work of fiction." Conway found, however, that once the novel moves past the heavily detailed opening chapters, "Piercy relaxes and begins to enjoy telling her story."
In The Longings of Women Piercy returns to contemporary times in offering the stories of three women. Mary, at sixty-one, finds herself homeless following a divorce from her first husband and abandonment by a more recent lover. She stays alive by cleaning houses, typically sleeping at the airport or in churches. One of her clients, Leila, is the novel's second main character. A college professor, Leila is unhappily married to a philandering husband. The third protagonist, Becky, is a twenty-five-year-old woman accused of conspiring to murder her husband. Despite their different circumstances, all three women long for a place of their own—a place in which they can find privacy and from which they can seek love.
Critics once again noted Piercy's strongly feminist stance. Terming the novel "lively, densely textured" and "a feminist cautionary tale," Chicago Tribune Books reviewer Judith Wynn remarked that "Piercy is not an elegant writer. Interesting, swift-moving plots and careful social observation are her main strengths." Other critics found it more difficult to overlook Piercy's craft in favor of her message. Washington Post Book World contributor Constance Casey, for instance, called Piercy's writing "artless and humorless." And Pauli Carnes in Los Angeles Times Book Review focused on the author's creation of another "sorry lot" of men: "murderous; alcoholic; self-indulgent; irresponsible; immature; emotionally stunted." Still, Casey praised Piercy's "militant sympathy and her eye for concrete detail."
Piercy's 1998 Storm Tide, penned with her husband, Ira Wood, was described by Library Journal's Andrea Lee Shuey as "a well-written novel, where imperfect people do foolish things with unfortunate results." The novel focuses on David Greene, a former small-town baseball hero who years later returns to Cape Cod and begins an affair with a married lawyer, Judith Silver. David, at the request of both Judith and her husband (who doesn't mind the affair), decides to run for a position as town selectman. David's opponent is supported by one of the leading men in the town, Johnny Lynch, and David begins an affair with one of Lynch's employees, Crystal Sinclair, all of which contribute to disaster for David. "Sex is played like a weapon in [Storm Tide], and David's [the] perfect target," remarked Los Angeles Times contributor Thomas Curwen.
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called Storm Tide a "clunky, bloodless collaborative effort from two authors who have each produced better solo work," but added that "the novel does succeed on a lesser scale in its perceptive, stinging depiction of a parochial seaside resort." In Library Journal Andrea Lynn Shuey praised the work, explaining that Storm Tide contains a "well-constructed plot" with "characters [who] are real."
Three Women, Piercy's 1999 novel, tells the story of independent women covering three generations in a family. The main characters are Beverly Blume, a seventy-two-year-old civil rights activist and feminist who recently suffered a stroke; Beverly's daughter, Suzanne, a forty-nine-year-old attorney and mother of two daughters who is beginning a new relationship; and Suzanne's oldest daughter, Elena, who has returned home after facing several personal troubles, including drug use. The novel, showing the growing bond that develops between the three women, is told from each of the main characters' perspectives, though focusing on Suzanne. Francine Fialkoff in Library Journal deemed Three Women "a somewhat disappointing effort from an old stalwart [that] may nevertheless be in demand among her fans." A Publishers Weekly reviewer observed that "Piercy keeps the plot humming with issues of motherhood, Judaism, generational tensions, sexuality, and independence," doing so in a pacing that is "confident." The same reviewer concluded: "Piercy's insight into her characters' emotional lives is an accurate reflection of intergenerational tensions."
In addition to her novels, Piercy has published books of poetry, each of which reflects her political sympathies and feminist point of view. "I am not a poet who writes primarily for the approval or attention of other poets," she explained in her introduction to Circles on the Water. "Usually the voice of the poems is mine. Rarely do I speak through a mask or persona," she once told CA. "The experiences, however, are not always mine, and although my major impulse to autobiography has played itself out in poems rather than novels, I have never made a distinction in working up my own experience and other people's. I imagine I speak for a constituency, living and dead, and that I give utterance to energy, experience, insight, words flowing from many lives. I have always desired that my poems work for others. 'To Be of Use' is the title of one of my favorite poems and one of my best-known books."
Piercy's poetry recounts not only the injustices of sexism, but also such pleasures of daily life as making love or gardening. "There is always a danger that poems about little occurrences will become poems of little consequence, that poems which deal with current issues and topics will become mere polemic and propaganda, that poems of the everyday will become pedestrian," observed Jean Rosenbaum in Modern Poetry Studies. "To a very large extent, however, Marge Piercy avoids these dangers because most of her poetry contributes to and extends a coherent vision of the world as it is now and as it should be." Writing in New York Times Book Review, Margaret Atwood referred to Piercy's perception as "the double vision of the utopian: a view of human possibility—harmony between the sexes, among races and between humankind and nature—that makes the present state of affairs clearly unacceptable by comparison."
In her poems, Piercy's outrage often explodes. "You exiled the Female into blacks and women and colonies," she writes in To Be of Use, lashing out at the mechanistic men who rule society. "You became the armed brain and the barbed penis and the club. / You invented agribusiness, leaching the soil to dust, / and pissed mercury in the rivers and shat slag on the plains."
Some critics claim that Piercy at her angriest is Piercy at her best, but the poet does not limit herself to negativism. She also writes of sensuality, humor, playfulness, and the strength that lies buried in all women and the ways it can be tapped. In Hard Loving, Piercy describes the energy in women's bodies as it moves through their hands and their fingers to direct the world, while a verse from The Moon Is Always Female contains advice about writing.
In addition to social problems, Piercy's poetry focuses "on her own personal problems," Victor Contoski explained in Modern Poetry Studies, "so that tension exists not only between 'us' and 'them,' but between 'us' and 'me.'" Her poetry is both personal—that is, addressed from a particular woman to a particular man—and public, meaning that it is concerned with issues that pertain to all of society. "Doing It Differently," published in To Be of Use, stresses that the legal system still maintains laws that treat women as property, demonstrates that even private relationships are tinged by social institutions, and questions the equality between men and women.
Available Light and Mars and Her Children, Piercy's subsequent books of poetry, cover a diverse range of topics, including nature, eating fruit, kitchen remodeling, love, and death. In an interview with Los Angeles Times's Jocelyn McClurg, Piercy explained her range and diversity by stating, "I think I'm somebody who believes there are no poetic subjects, that anything you pay attention to, if you truly pay attention, there's a poem in it. Because poetry is a kind of constant response to being alive." Booklist's Donna Seaman viewed Available Light overall as expressing the confused feelings of growing older but described Mars and Her Children as a "spectrum of moods" dealing with Piercy's love for life.
What Are Big Girls Made Of?, Piercy's 1997 poetry collection, "invokes several public and private issues that have long haunted or angered her," according to John Taylor in Poetry. Several issues and subjects are examined in this collection, including marriage, Piercy's deceased older half-brother, dysfunctional families, sex, animals, society and politics, and feminism. Lara Merlin in World Literature Today commented of What Are Big Girls Made Of?: "The volume as a whole can be seen as Piercy's attempt to come to terms with the damage and waste she feels characterizes gender relations, and perhaps relations in general, in this country and then to begin to change them." Merlin also called the collection "a series of angry, often humorous, sometimes striking poems in an unabashedly feminist vein." Some critics appear to find Piercy's poems of a political nature in this work not as strong as those of other subject matter. For instance, a Publishers Weekly reviewer, though commenting that "less fully felt are poems with a social conscience," praised Piercy's use of "more transcendent subject matter." The same reviewer claimed that the collection is "as accessible and as crammed with experience as a novel." Judy Clarence in Library Journal stated, "Most of these poems are very effective, and magical moments abound." Clarence called the work a "strong collection" that she "highly recommend[s] for all libraries."
Piercy is also the author of two 1999 poetry collections: Early Grrrl: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy and The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme. Of the first of these works, Ellen Kaufman in Library Journal commented, "This selection may not include her strongest work, but will be important to those who follow her closely." Early Grrrl collects various pieces of Piercy's from the mid-1970s and earlier on, including pieces from works currently out of print. The Art of Blessing the Day "is in many ways the best [of her poetry collections] yet," according to Judy Clarence in Library Journal, who further added that the work "brings together poems written to celebrate Piercy's Jewishness."
In a Judaism review, Steven Schneider elaborated on that theme, pointing to one entry, "The Chuppah," concerning the hand-held canopy under which Jewish marriages are performed. In Piercy's view, the chuppah is a metaphor "for all the activity that takes place between Piercy and her third husband.... Just as the chuppah creates an open space beneath its canopy, so too does Piercy envision her marriage as an open space, where she and her partner live, eat, sleep, celebrate, and struggle together." These poems, said Schneider, "draw upon traditional Jewish symbols like the chuppah and the mezuzah [a portion of the Talmud, sealed to the front door of a Jewish home], and Piercy will use these as a springboard for lyrics that represent her own distinctive relationship to Judaism. She consciously makes such ritual objects her own by integrating them into her life and poetry."
In an essay for Guardian, Piercy compares fiction to poetry, and finds that each genre can inspire the other. When working on a novel, for instance, she explains that if stuck in a difficult passage, "I may jump ahead to smoother ground, or I may pause and work on poems exclusively for a time. If I lack ideas for one genre, usually I have them simmering for the other." The mind "wraps itself around a poem," Piercy continues. "It is almost sensual, particularly if you work on a computer. You can turn the poem round and about and upside down, dancing with it a kind of bolero of two snakes twisting and coiling, until the poem has found its right and proper shape." Her fiction, she adds, "comes from the same party of my psyche that cannot resist eavesdropping on strangers' conversations. I am a nosy person. I have learned to control that part of myself, but I am still a good interviewer and a good listener because I am madly curious about what people's lives are like."
Source: "Marge Piercy," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2004.
In the following essay, Musleah traces Piercy's life and works.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Source: Rahel Musleah, "Portrait of a Jewish Poet, Writer, Feminist: Marge Piercy," in Jewish News Weekly, November 3, 2000, http://www.jewishsf.com/bk001103/supmargie.shtml (last accessed January 13, 2005).
Clarence, Judy, Review of The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, in Library Journal, Vol. 124, No. 10, 1999, p. 120.
Mitchell, Felicia, "Marge Piercy," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120, American Poets Since World War II, Third Series, edited by R. S. Gwynn, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 248–53.
Piercy, Marge, The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, pp. 99–100.
Rosenbaum, Jean, "You Are Your Own Magician: A Vision of Integrity in the Poetry of Marge Piercy," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 8, Winter 1977, pp. 193–205.
Schneider, Steven P., "Contemporary Jewish-American Women's Poetry: Marge Piercy and Jacqueline Osherow," in Judaism, Vol. 50, No. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 199–210.
Seaman, Donna, and Jack Helbig, Review of The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, in Booklist, Vol. 95, No. 11, 1999, p. 959.
Taylor, John, Review of What Are Big Girls Made Of?, in Poetry, Vol. 171, No. 3, January 1998, pp. 221–24.
Piercy, Marge, Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
Published more than twenty years ago, this book has never been out of print. It is arguably the best overall introduction to Piercy's poetry, including some of her best-known work on heartfelt, often controversial topics. Titles include "Barbie Doll," "Rape Poem," "Right to Life," and "For Strong Women."
—, Sleeping with Cats, William Morrow/Harper-Collins, 2002.
This is Piercy's memoir in which she openly and honestly reflects on many aspects of her life, from love and marriage to creativity and death. A lover of cats, she uses them here to help divulge her innermost feelings. In the book, she notes, "Cats continue to teach me a lot of what is important in my life, and also, how short it is, how we need to express our love to those for whom we feel it."
Rodden, John, "A Harsh Day's Light: An Interview with Marge Piercy," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring 1998, pp. 132–43.
In this lengthy interview, Piercy discusses her political beliefs, her thoughts on Judaism, her involvement in the radical movement of the 1960s, and several other personal opinions. She relates most of the topics to an overall feminist agenda, both personal and political.
Walker, Sue, and Eugenie Hamner, eds., Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy, Negative Capability Press, 1991.
This is a well-rounded collection of writings on Piercy's work by critics from wide-ranging perspectives, but most critics applaud the poet's strong feminist voice.