I finished reading Marge Piercy’s latest book of poetry, The Crooked Inheritance, the other day. As I read I kept putting in markers at different poems thinking, “Oh! I’ll have to quote that one in the blog post!” But I’ve got so many markers in the book that there is no way I can quote them all without being taken to court for a little thing called copyright infringement.
Most poetry books are fairly slim, but Piercy’s comes in at 155 pages. She has broken the poems up into sections with titles like “Tracks,” “How to Make Pesto,” and “Mating.” All the poems in each section relate to each other in some way whether by theme, subject, purpose, or something else more obscure. Piercy writes about love and cats and food and travel, family and childhood and war and poverty, feminism and gardening and being Jewish. I don’t think Piercy is generally considered a poet of the caliber of Seamus Heaney or his ilk, but she is a good, solid poet. I like her poetry because it is accessible, tends to be short, often has a quiet spirituality about it, and sometimes a not so quiet politics. Oh, and she has a great sense of humor, often dark, that pops up now and then.
A good number of the poems in Crooked Inheritance wrestle with the past in some way. They aren’t necessarily an attempt to come to terms with the past, one’s “crooked inheritance,” but seem more to be an assessment of what has been gained, lost, overcome, dragged along for better or worse, given and received. The poems are a consideration of how, as Piecry writes in “Sur l’ile Saint Louis,” the past is a “palimpsest” and how
History stalks me as I search for it.
My eyes cannot help seeing
its shadows under every lamppost,
its shape misshaping my life.
And towards the end of the book in “A Horizon of Ghosts” she concludes,
So remembering is an act
of prayer, a time when you
wake from ashes and air
turning your face toward light.
But as I mentioned, Piercy has a sense of humor too. In the poem “The Lived in Look” she takes aim at housework and how
Everyone over fifty was born
to a world where ideal housewives
scrubbed floors to a blinding gloss
in pearls and taffeta dresses on TV.
Women came with umbilical cords
leading to vacuum cleaners. You
plugged in a wife and she began
a wash cycle while her eyes spun.
But, she insists, after spending years of feeling inadequate when compared against her mother-in-law and her pristine all white house, it’s not worth it:
Don’t apologize for walls children
drew robots on, don’t blush for last
month’s newspapers on the coffee
table under cartons from Sunday’s takeout.
This is the sweet imprint of your life
and loves upon the rumpled sheets
of your days. relax. Breathe deeply.
Mess will make us free.
I like her way of thinking!
While the poems tend to look toward the past, the past is not where one lives. The past affects the present and today contributes to tomorrow. We need to keep this in mind as we think of what inheritance we are creating to give to the future. Perhaps this is most evident in her poem “Choices” which I will give you in full:
Would you rather have health insurance
you can actually afford, or occupy Iraq?
Would you rather have enough inspectors
to keep your kids from getting poisoned
by bad hamburgers, or occupy Iraq?
Would you rather breathe clean air
and drink water free from pesticides
and upriver shit, or occupy Iraq?
We’re the family in debt whose kids
need shoes and to go to the dentist
but we spend our cash on crack:
an explosion in our heads or many
on the TV, where’s the bigger thrill?
It’s money blowing up in those weird
green lights, money for safety,
money for schools and Head Start.
Oh, we love fetuses now, we even
dote on embryos the size of needle
tips; but people, who needs them?
Collateral damage. Babies, kids,
goats and alley cats, old women sewing,
old men praying, they’ve become smoke
blown away like sandstorms
of the precious desert covering treasure.
Let’s go conquer more oil and dirty
the air and choke our lungs till
our insides look like stinky residue
in an old dumpster. More dead
people are obviously what we need,
some of theirs, some of ours. After
they’re dead awhile, strip them
and it’s hard to tell the difference.
If nothing else, Piercy’s poetry always provides food for thought. And she never lets the reader or herself off the hook, especially when it comes to asking what she–and we–have done to help make the world a better place. I highly recommend her poetry, in particular to those who find poetry intimidating.