Made in Detroit: Poems

Marge Pier­cy
  • Review
By – June 5, 2015

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 Detroits 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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.

Discussion Questions