There are a lot of poems I could have chosen to show you where my inspiration comes from. If you like these, maybe I’ll write more of them – it’s not like I’d ever run out of poems to talk about. Today, let’s talk about another poet whose work I not only love to distraction (both her poetry and her fiction) but who I admire a great deal as a human being, as well.
I decided on this photo because, cat! Also, she has amazing hair. It has a life of its own. I’m a fan of people with crazy hair. Because my own hair WILL NOT BE TAMED.
Marge Piercy was another poet I discovered in college – this time in poetry class. My poetry professor/mentor Ruth Stone, who I adore (and who was a brilliant poet in her own right, and who has recently passed away, and is very missed) was a big fan of Piercy’s work. Ruth knew everyone. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’d met at some point. Ruth was a big fan of feminist poetry, and we read a lot of that in class. (Which either made the men in class nod like “look how SENSITIVE I am!” or get all up-in-arms like “GRUMP GRUMP I AM BEING OPPRESSED.”)
Piercy has written more books than I can count (both poetry and fiction; my favorite book of hers, The Moon is Always Female, is the one I annotated and gave away when we had our IB anniversary giveaway recently) and this poem, my favorite of hers, comes from that book. (If you like this, please treat yourself to some of her other work. I had a hard time narrowing it down to this one.) I was lucky enough to see Piercy speak at a writing convention in…oh, let’s see, probably the late 90s? She was wild and funny and intelligent and I don’t think I stopped grinning the entire time. Nothing like seeing one of your idols on a stage to make you feel like you can do anything in the world, you know? (It’s a long one. Stick with me, jellybeans, it’s worth it, I promise. It’s more of a…I guess you’d say it’s a statement? A poem as statement? A statement as poem?)
Right to Life
A woman is not a pear tree
thrusting her fruit in mindless fecundity
into the world. Even pear trees bear
heavily in one year and rest and grow the next.
An orchid gone wild drops few warm rotting
fruit in the grass but the trees stretch
high and wiry gifting the birds forty
feet up among inch long thorns
broken atavistically from the smooth wood.
A woman is not a basket you place
your buns in to keep them warm. Not a brood
hen you can slip duck eggs under.
Not the purse holding the coins of your
descendants till you spend them in wars.
Not a bank where your genes gather interest
and interesting mutations in the tainted
rain, any more than you are.
You plant corn and you harvest
it to eat or sell. You put the lamb
in the pasture to fatten and haul it in to
butcher for chops. You slice the mountain
in two for a road and gouge the high plains
for coal and the waters run muddy for
miles and years. Fish die but you do not
call them yours unless you wished to eat them.
Now you legislate mineral rights in a woman.
You lay claim to her pastures for grazing,
fields for growing babies like iceberg
lettuce. You value children so dearly
that none ever go hungry, none weep
with no one to tend them when mothers
work, none lack fresh fruit,
none chew lead or cough to death and your
orphanages are empty. Every noon the best
restaurants serve poor children steaks.
At this moment at nine o’clock a partera
is performing a table top abortion on an
unwed mother in Texas who can’t get
Medicaid any longer. In five days she will die
of tetanus and her little daughter will cry
and be taken away. Next door a husband
and wife are sticking pins in the son
they did not want. They will explain
for hours how wicked he is,
how he wants discipline.
We are all born of woman, in the rose
of the womb we suckled our mother’s blood
and every baby born has a right to love
like a seedling to sun. Every baby born
unloved, unwanted, is a bill that will come
due in twenty years with interest, an anger
that must find a target, a pain that will
beget pain. A decade downstream a child
screams, a woman falls, a synagogue is torched,
a firing squad is summoned, a button
is pushed and the world burns.
I will choose what enters me, what becomes
of my flesh. Without choice, no politics,
no ethics lives. I am not your cornfield,
not your uranium mine, not your calf
for fattening, not your cow for milking.
You may not use me as your factory.
Priests and legislators do not hold shares
in my womb or my mind.
This is my body. If I give it to you
I want it back. My life
is a non-negotiable demand.
I read this poem in college – we’d been studying Piercy in class, so I took The Moon is Always Female out from the library and read some of her other work on my own – and as I read this my eyes opened. That’s a cliché, isn’t it? But I come from a very small, very religious town. Women are seen, not heard. We come in second to our husbands and we have our babies and we vote Republican because that’s what our husbands tell us to do and we don’t shout. Because it’s not ladylike.
If I’d stayed in my hometown, this person would be writing this post. Or wouldn’t be, because her husband wouldn’t have approved of book-larnin’.
This poem is a shout. This poem is a barbaric yawp. And, better yet? It’s a woman doing the yawping.
I won’t break this down line by line – I mean, who has all day, right? But let’s talk about a little of what I love here, and what works for me, and what inspires me:
- The passion and the anger in this poem. I know (especially if you’re one of my, to quote King, Constant Readers) this will probably shock you, but I used to be pretty quiet. Especially about things that I knew would upset people. I mean, I had my beliefs. But shh, we don’t SAY them. That’s not pretty. That’s not ladylike. This poem gave me permission. Can a poem do that? This one did. I remember trying to explain that to my freshman roommate – a very liberated Lawn Guylander, thank you very much – and her just laughing in delight. ”This is my body. If I give it to you/I want it back.” “I am not your cornfield,/not your uranium mine, not your calf/for fattening, not your cow for milking.” “You may not use me as your factory.” Read that again, and imagine you’re a 17-year-old girl in college who’s just realizing she has a mind of her own and it’s a big old world out there. YOU MAY NOT USE ME AS YOUR FACTORY. I felt like a door that had been closed to me my whole life had not just opened, it had BLOWN open.
- I like the politics in the poem. It’s an argument, really. It’s a response to every politician who’s trying to take away our right to choose. Oh, you don’t want us to be able to have abortions? Read stanza four and tell me again there are good homes for every unwanted baby. Really? Really?
- I like the nature imagery, the woman’s body as a pear tree, the “mindless fecundity,” the legislation of mineral rights in a woman.
- I like the length. This gave me permission to, sometimes, turn off my self-edit button: to just let it fly and see what happens. You can edit later. Sometimes, what comes out is good. Sometimes you just have to rant. Sometimes, life demands a good rant.
- That last line. “My life/is a non-negotiable demand.” Is that not brilliant? Is that not strong? Don’t you want Piercy to be your aunt and to take you to a loud lunch where you argue politics and feminist theory and laugh so loud you disrupt the neighbors? I do. I so do. My life is, you know. A non-negotiable demand. It was before I read this, and I didn’t even know it. She put it into words for me.
A huge thank you to Piercy, who – well, she didn’t give me a voice. The voice was always there. She gave me permission to use it. She let me know it was ok. She let me know it was allowed – and that I could be loud.
I haven’t looked back since.