Marge Piercy’s nineteenth collection of poetry — to go along with her seventeen novels — celebrates the working-class roots of a fierce American writer who became a voice at once strident and sensitive for social justice, the value of work, and humanity’s place in the embracing, injured natural world.
Her poems are often lean and tough, with sharp juxtapositions of words and images challenging the reader’s imagination and confronting complacency.
The book is divided into six sections, and in the first three Piercy’s references to her Jewish identity are sparse and defensive. In “City bleeding” she writes about learning to survive on Detroit’s “ashgrey burning streets / when as a Jew I was not white yet .…” Judaism seems a troubled reminder, in “What my mother gave me,” as the writer remembers “how cats would circle / your feet purring your Hebrew name.” In a prose poem, she remembers “feeling very alien, feeling very Jewish and judged.” She remembers her mother telling her not to put “Jew” on a job application in “My time in better dresses” — Jewishness as a burden.
How surprising and uplifting, then, to find the entirety of Made in Detroit’s fourth part a full-throated acceptance and affirmation of Jewish identity. This section, mostly a meditation on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), soars. These poems, at once personal and public, reveal an engaged Jewish consciousness, a woman who tells us, “I like Rosh Hashanah late, / when leaves are half burnt / umber and scarlet” and when “migrating birds perch / on the wires davening.”
In this section, called “Working at it,” Piercy takes hold of the opportunities offered by Jewish tradition to cast off sin, to transform herself into the honey and apples, to pause in memory of the dead in order to “pay them a prayer / placed like a stone on their graves.” In “N’eilah,” Piercy feels “The hinge of the year … closing on us,” and as she ages, she considers herself “a worker bee in the hive / of history, miles of hard / labor to make my sweetness.”
The title poem for the sequence recognizes the “tangled message” of scripture, our tendency to “pick and choose what to cherish / of those tales” in discovering our personal Jewish destinies.
Passover, Shabbat, and the longing for Jerusalem are also richly imagined and transformed into inspiring personal messages, distinctive poems that would enrich many a religious service if they could find their way there.
The last two sections of the book explore many concerns, including sexuality, the writing life, changes in ourselves, and changes in places we love. No topic is beyond Piercy’s intelligent probing and lyrical illumination. She is a great American master whose neshama does indeed repair the world.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.