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by Marge Piercy |

My Mothers Body


The dark socket of the year 
the pit, the cave where the sun lies down 
and threatens never to rise, 
when despair descends softly as the snow 
covering all paths and choking roads: 

then hawkfaced pain seized you 
threw you so you fell with a sharp 
cry, a knife tearing a bolt of silk. 
My father heard the crash but paid 
no mind, napping after lunch 

yet fifteen hundred miles north 
I heard and dropped a dish. 
Your pain sunk talons in my skull 
and crouched there cawing, heavy 
as a great vessel filled with water, 

oil or blood, till suddenly next day 
the weight lifted and I knew your mind 
had guttered out like the Chanukah 
candles that burn so fast, weeping 
veils of wax down the chanukiya. 

Those candles were laid out, 
friends invited, ingredients bought 
for latkes and apple pancakes, 
that holiday for liberation 
and the winter solstice 

when tops turn like little planets. 
Shall you have all or nothing 
take half or pass by untouched? 
Nothing you got, Nun said the dreydl
as the room stopped spinning. 

The angel folded you up like laundry 
your body thin as an empty dress. 
Your clothes were curtains 
hanging on the window of what had 
been your flesh and now was glass. 

Outside in Florida shopping plazas 
loudspeakers blared Christmas carols 
and palm trees were decked with blinking 
lights. Except by the tourist 
hotels, the beaches were empty. 

Pelicans with pregnant pouches 
flapped overhead like pterodactyls. 
In my mind I felt you die. 
First the pain lifted and then 
you flickered and went out. 


I walk through the rooms of memory. 
Sometimes everything is shrouded in dropcloths, 
every chair ghostly and muted. 

Other times memory lights up from within 
bustling scenes acted just the other side 
of a scrim through which surely I could reach 

my fingers tearing at the flimsy curtain 
of time which is and isn't and will be 
the stuff of which we're made and unmade. 

In sleep the other night I met you, seventeen 
your first nasty marriage just annulled, 
thin from your abortion, clutching a book 

against your cheek and trying to look 
older, trying to took middle class, 
trying for a job at Wanamaker's, 

dressing for parties in cast off 
stage costumes of your sisters. Your eyes 
were hazy with dreams. You did not 

notice me waving as you wandered 
past and I saw your slip was showing. 
You stood still while I fixed your clothes, 

as if I were your mother. Remember me 
combing your springy black hair, ringlets 
that seemed metallic, glittering; 

remember me dressing you, my seventy year 
old mother who was my last dollbaby, 
giving you too late what your youth had wanted. 


What is this mask of skin we wear, 
what is this dress of flesh, 
this coat of few colors and little hair? 

This voluptuous seething heap of desires 
and fears, squeaking mice turned up 
in a steaming haystack with their babies? 

This coat has been handed down, an heirloom 
this coat of black hair and ample flesh,
this coat of pale slightly ruddy skin.

This set of hips and thighs, these buttocks 
they provided cushioning for my grandmother 
Hannah, for my mother Bert and for me 

and we all sat on them in turn, those major 
muscles on which we walk and walk and walk 
over the earth in search of peace and plenty. 

My mother is my mirror and I am hers. 
What do we see? Our face grown young again, 
our breasts grown firm, legs lean and elegant. 

Our arms quivering with fat, eyes 
set in the bark of wrinkles, hands puffy, 
our belly seamed with childbearing, 

Give me your dress that I might try it on. 
Oh it will not fit you mother, you are too fat. 
I will not fit you mother. 

I will not be the bride you can dress, 
the obedient dutiful daughter you would chew, 
a dog's leather bone to sharpen your teeth. 

You strike me sometimes just to hear the sound. 
Loneliness turns your fingers into hooks 
barbed and drawing blood with their caress. 

My twin, my sister, my lost love, 
I carry you in me like an embryo 
as once you carried me. 


What is it we turn from, what is it we fear? 
Did I truly think you could put me back inside? 
Did I think I would fall into you as into a molten 
furnace and be recast, that I would become you? 

What did you fear in me, the child who wore 
your hair, the woman who let that black hair 
grow long as a banner of darkness, when you
a proper flapper wore yours cropped?

You pushed and you pulled on my rubbery
flesh, you kneaded me like a ball of dough. 
Rise, rise, and then you pounded me flat. 
Secretly the bones formed in the bread.

I became willful, private as a cat. 
You never knew what alleys I had wandered. 
You called me bad and I posed like a gutter 
queen in a dress sewn of knives. 

All I feared was being stuck in a box 
with a lid. A good woman appeared to me 
indistinguishable from a dead one 
except that she worked all the time. 

Your payday never came. Your dreams ran 
with bright colors like Mexican cottons 
that bled onto the drab sheets of the day 
and would not bleach with scrubbing. 

My dear, what you said was one thing 
but what you sang was another, sweetly 
subversive and dark as blackberries 
and I became the daughter of your dream. 

This body is your body, ashes now 
and roses, but alive in my eyes, my breasts, 
my throat, my thighs. You run in me 
a tang of salt in the creek waters of my blood, 

you sing in my mind like wine. What you 
did not dare in your life you dare in mine.

by Marge Piercy |

The Friend

 We sat across the table.
he said, cut off your hands.
they are always poking at things.
they might touch me.
I said yes.

Food grew cold on the table.
he said, burn your body.
it is not clean and smells like sex.
it rubs my mind sore.
I said yes.

I love you, I said.
That's very nice, he said
I like to be loved,
that makes me happy.
Have you cut off your hands yet?

by Marge Piercy |

A Work Of Artifice

 The bonsai tree
in the attractive pot
could have grown eighty feet tall
on the side of a mountain
till split by lightning.
But a gardener
carefully pruned it.
It is nine inches high.
Every day as he
whittles back the branches
the gardener croons,
It is your nature
to be small and cozy,
domestic and weak;
how lucky, little tree,
to have a pot to grow in.
With living creatures
one must begin very early
to dwarf their growth:
the bound feet,
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers,
the hands you
love to touch.

by Marge Piercy |

To Be of Use

 The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil, 
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used. 
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

by Marge Piercy |

Barbie Doll

 This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs. 

She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
She went to and fro apologizing.
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs. 

She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up. 

In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.

by Marge Piercy |

What Are Big Girls Made Of?

 The construction of a woman:
a woman is not made of flesh 
of bone and sinew 
belly and breasts, elbows and liver and toe. 
She is manufactured like a sports sedan. 
She is retooled, refitted and redesigned 
every decade. 
Cecile had been seduction itself in college. 
She wriggled through bars like a satin eel, 
her hips and ass promising, her mouth pursed 
in the dark red lipstick of desire. 

She visited in '68 still wearing skirts 
tight to the knees, dark red lipstick, 
while I danced through Manhattan in mini skirt, 
lipstick pale as apricot milk, 
hair loose as a horse's mane. Oh dear, 
I thought in my superiority of the moment, 
whatever has happened to poor Cecile? 
She was out of fashion, out of the game, 
disqualified, disdained, dis- 
membered from the club of desire. 

Look at pictures in French fashion 
magazines of the 18th century: 
century of the ultimate lady 
fantasy wrought of silk and corseting. 
Paniers bring her hips out three feet 
each way, while the waist is pinched 
and the belly flattened under wood. 
The breasts are stuffed up and out 
offered like apples in a bowl. 
The tiny foot is encased in a slipper 
never meant for walking. 
On top is a grandiose headache: 
hair like a museum piece, daily 
ornamented with ribbons, vases, 
grottoes, mountains, frigates in full 
sail, balloons, baboons, the fancy 
of a hairdresser turned loose. 
The hats were rococo wedding cakes 
that would dim the Las Vegas strip. 
Here is a woman forced into shape 
rigid exoskeleton torturing flesh: 
a woman made of pain. 

How superior we are now: see the modern woman 
thin as a blade of scissors. 
She runs on a treadmill every morning, 
fits herself into machines of weights 
and pulleys to heave and grunt, 
an image in her mind she can never 
approximate, a body of rosy 
glass that never wrinkles, 
never grows, never fades. She 
sits at the table closing her eyes to food 
hungry, always hungry: 
a woman made of pain. 

A cat or dog approaches another, 
they sniff noses. They sniff asses. 
They bristle or lick. They fall 
in love as often as we do, 
as passionately. But they fall 
in love or lust with furry flesh, 
not hoop skirts or push up bras 
rib removal or liposuction. 
It is not for male or female dogs 
that poodles are clipped 
to topiary hedges. 

If only we could like each other raw. 
If only we could love ourselves 
like healthy babies burbling in our arms. 
If only we were not programmed and reprogrammed 
to need what is sold us. 
Why should we want to live inside ads? 
Why should we want to scourge our softness 
to straight lines like a Mondrian painting? 
Why should we punish each other with scorn 
as if to have a large ass
were worse than being greedy or mean?

When will women not be compelled
to view their bodies as science projects,
gardens to be weeded,
dogs to be trained?
When will a woman cease
to be made of pain?

by Marge Piercy |

The Woman in the Ordinary

 The woman in the ordinary pudgy downcast girl
is crouching with eyes and muscles clenched.
Round and pebble smooth she effaces herself
under ripples of conversation and debate.
The woman in the block of ivory soap
has massive thighs that neigh,
great breasts that blare and strong arms that trumpet.
The woman of the golden fleece
laughs uproariously from the belly
inside the girl who imitates
a Christmas card virgin with glued hands,
who fishes for herself in other's eyes,
who stoops and creeps to make herself smaller.
In her bottled up is a woman peppery as curry,
a yam of a woman of butter and brass,
compounded of acid and sweet like a pineapple,
like a handgrenade set to explode,
like goldenrod ready to bloom.

by Marge Piercy |

The Cats Song

 Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness. 
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says 
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing 
milk from his mother's forgotten breasts. 

Let us walk in the woods, says the cat. 
I'll teach you to read the tabloid of scents, 
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt. 
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat. 

You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends, 
says the cat, although I am more equal than you. 
Can you leap twenty times the height of your body? 
Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?

Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch. 
My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard. 
My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
walking round and round your bed and into your face. 

Come I will teach you to dance as naturally 
as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long. 
I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers. 
Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word 

of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg 
and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.

by Marge Piercy |

Colors Passing Through Us

 Purple as tulips in May, mauve 
into lush velvet, purple 
as the stain blackberries leave 
on the lips, on the hands, 
the purple of ripe grapes 
sunlit and warm as flesh. 
Every day I will give you a color, 
like a new flower in a bud vase 
on your desk. Every day 
I will paint you, as women 
color each other with henna 
on hands and on feet. 

Red as henna, as cinnamon, 
as coals after the fire is banked, 
the cardinal in the feeder, 
the roses tumbling on the arbor 
their weight bending the wood 
the red of the syrup I make from petals. 

Orange as the perfumed fruit 
hanging their globes on the glossy tree, 
orange as pumpkins in the field, 
orange as butterflyweed and the monarchs 
who come to eat it, orange as my 
cat running lithe through the high grass. 

Yellow as a goat's wise and wicked eyes, 
yellow as a hill of daffodils, 
yellow as dandelions by the highway, 
yellow as butter and egg yolks, 
yellow as a school bus stopping you, 
yellow as a slicker in a downpour. 

Here is my bouquet, here is a sing 
song of all the things you make 
me think of, here is oblique 
praise for the height and depth 
of you and the width too. 
Here is my box of new crayons at your feet. 

Green as mint jelly, green 
as a frog on a lily pad twanging, 
the green of cos lettuce upright 
about to bolt into opulent towers, 
green as Grand Chartreuse in a clear 
glass, green as wine bottles. 

Blue as cornflowers, delphiniums, 
bachelors' buttons. Blue as Roquefort, 
blue as Saga. Blue as still water. 
Blue as the eyes of a Siamese cat. 
Blue as shadows on new snow, as a spring 
azure sipping from a puddle on the blacktop. 

Cobalt as the midnight sky 
when day has gone without a trace 
and we lie in each other's arms 
eyes shut and fingers open 
and all the colors of the world 
pass through our bodies like strings of fire.

by Marge Piercy |

You Ask Why Sometimes I Say Stop

 You ask why sometimes I say stop
why sometimes I cry no
while I shake with pleasure.
What do I fear, you ask,
why don't I always want to come
and come again to that molten
deep sea center where the nerves
fuse open and the brain
and body shine with a black wordless light
fluorescent and heaving like plankton.

If you turn over the old refuse
of sexual slang, the worn buttons
of language, you find men
talk of spending and women
of dying.

You come in a torrent and ease
into limpness. Pleasure takes me
farther and farther from the shore
in a series of breakers, each
towering higher before it
crashes and spills flat.

I am open then as a palm held out, 
open as a sunflower, without
crust, without shelter, without
skin, hideless and unhidden.
How can I let you ride
so far into me and not fear?

Helpless as a burning city,
how can I ignore that the extremes
of pleasure are fire storms
that leave a vacuum into which
dangerous feelings (tenderness, 
affection, l o v e) may rush
like gale force winds.