Monthly Review
June, 2004   

POEMS TO SHOUT

By Kimberly Bird

Marge Piercy, Louder, We Can’t Hear You (Yet!): The Political Poems of
Marge Piercy(
Wellfleet, Mass.: Leapfrog Press, 2004), $15.95 audio CD.

Poet, novelist, essayist, feminist, Marxist, environmentalist Marge
Piercy wants to know:

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?

These lines begin the poem “Choices” which she wrote in response to
Laura Bush’s invitation to Piercy and other poets to come to a literary
forum at the Whitehouse. That the invitation coincided with the beginning
of the U.S. war on Iraq and that the invitation was ultimately
rescinded for fear that these poets would want to bring politics into this
literary discussion, which happened to be focused on the quite politically
important poetry of Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Emily
Dickinson, is just the kind of irony that Piercy is so skilled at highlighting
in her poetry.

In fact choice is a major theme of this collection. Quite a few of these
poems deal with the issue of abortion and the violence against abortion
clinic workers and violence against women in general. Other poems deal
with different kinds of choices. “The Market Economy” uses a hypothetical
situation to bring to light the real life choices that our consumer society
is putting to us even when we think we are making no choice at all:

Suppose some peddler offered:
You can have a color tv
but your baby will be born with a crooked spine.
You can have polyvinyl cups and wash and wear suits
but it will cost you your left lung
rotted with cancer.
Suppose somebody offered you
a frozen precooked dinner every night for 10 years
but at the end your colon dies
and then you do
slowly and with much pain.

While these poems are not optimistic, they do express a hope and,
above all, communicate that the injustices of every historical moment are
not inevitable, but are the results of people with power making choices.
Yet, in “Let Us Gather at the River,” Piercy reminds us of our own choice:
“You can take your world back, if you want to.”

These poems are relevant even if not all were written in the present.
They respond to the war on
Iraq, the Patriot Act, mass murder at the
World Trade Center, rape, sexual harassment, the gendered and racial
division of labor, and labor in general. The one poem that she notes was
written during the Vietnam War, “The Nine of Cups,” describes a greedy
and insatiable “overlord” who consumes everything and everyone and
then sends us off to war to fight an enemy of the “hungry” who “want to
steal our tv sets.” “We,” the people, go out and “fight for god, country
and the dollar and then we come back home and he raises the rent.”
Vietnam seems not so far away from Iraq.

While some of these poems, such as “Right to Life” and “For Strong
Women,” read like eloquent and passionate speeches, and some of the
poems, such as “Let Us Gather at the River” or “If They Come in the
Night,” seem more of the ancient tradition of quiet wisdom poetry,
Piercy’s most powerful weapon is humor. Poems like “Sneak and Peek,”
“What’s that Smell in the Kitchen,” and “The Good Old Days” deal
with serious topics in ways that make laughter the path through which
we can understand them better. “Sneak and Peek,” which appeared in
the December issue of Monthly Review, is written in the voice of the
“bornagain FBI” addressing an unpatriotic citizen under surveillance:

You have turned off the television 48 times
while our President spoke
words of wisdom and Christian endeavor.
During the State of the Union address
you were observed on your couch
making derogatory faces and obscene
remarks. You have emailed quotes from our sacred leader
miscalling him Shrub.

By humorously cataloging the types of information and the degree of
surveillance codified in the Patriot Act, Piercy makes us laugh into outrage
punctuated by the abrupt and weighty last line: “Welcome / to the
New Inquisition.”

Louder is Piercy’s only collection limited to political poetry, and it is
significant that it is an audio recording rather than a printed book. The
medium is appropriate because these poems shout, grow quiet, express
sarcasm, and, at times, change characters. The poems engage the audience
as a conversation would. They ask questions and demand outrage, sadness,
laughter, and empathy. Written in everyday language, their beauty
lies not so much in how the syllables and words are put together but in
the human, natural, industrial, and state-sanctioned images Piercy chooses
to place alongside one another to form a particularly revealing view into
the contradictions and injustices of
U.S. society. It is not the poetry that
needs to be “Louder,” as the title of the CD incites, but the audience and
their audience and their audience. Piercy reminds us in her poem “The
Low Road” that, while one person fighting has little chance of surviving,

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time.
It starts when you care
to act. It starts when you do
it again, after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and Know who you mean, and each
day, you mean one more.


Kimberly Bird is a History of Consciousness graduate student at the University of
California
, Santa Cruz. In her dissertation and in her work as an interviewer and project consultant for the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Berkeley, she has been investigating the historical intersections of poetry and politics in California.

 


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