In an autobiographical essay, novelist and poet Marge Piercy admonishes, “Pay sharp attention to that trouble looming, but don’t let it taint your Sabbath celebration.” This tension between celebration and disquietude marks Piercy’s life and work. Grounded in feminism, political activism, and Jewish spirituality, more than thirty volumes comprise Piercy’s oeuvre. Above all else, Piercy wishes her work to be “useful” to people’s inner and political lives. By articulating their experiences, poetry gives “validation and dignity” to the disenfranchised. Novels persuade readers “to cross those borders of alienation and mistrust” and empathize with “characters whom the reader would refuse to know in ordinary life.” Piercy’s poetry fuses the political, domestic, and autobiographical spheres with imagery drawn from nature, sensual and dream memories, and Jewish mysticism. Her novels explore “the choices people make, out of their characters and their time and their class and their social circumstances.”
Piercy was born March 31, 1936, in Detroit, Michigan. Her father, Robert Douglas Piercy, from a working class Presbyterian family in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, installed and repaired heavy machinery for Westinghouse. Her mother, Bert Bernice Bunnin, from an observant, working class Jewish family in Cleveland, received only a tenth grade education. Together with her older brother Grant, her mother’s son by a previous marriage, Marge Piercy grew up in a working class neighborhood marked by racial tension. Remembering her mother as deeply intuitive and imaginative, Piercy attributes her own vocation as a poet to Bert. Piercy developed her love of Judaism from her Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking maternal grandmother, Hannah, daughter of a Lithuanian rabbi. Hannah gave Piercy her Hebrew name, Marah. Indeed, Piercy’s earliest memories of Jewish ritual are bound up with the scent of Hannah’s clothes and kitchen. Piercy’s grandfather, a union worker, was murdered while organizing bakery workers.
From an early age, Piercy grappled with issues of identity. In race-torn Detroit, her Jewishness set her apart, eliciting antisemitic bullying. At home, her discomfited father “told me I wasn’t Jewish and ... mother ... would wait till he went to work and tell me of course I was.” She notes wryly, “All my husbands were Jewish.... I felt a mixed marriage was more than I personally could handle. Marrying a man is mixed enough.” Central to her commitments to both Judaism and political activism is the knowledge of the Holocaust. Shaken by her Lithuanian-born grandmother’s grief over relatives murdered by the Nazis, at age ten Piercy vowed that she would always remain Jewish. The Holocaust also made clear the necessity of political engagement.
In her poetry collection Early Grrrl (1999), she says that she began “writing poetry regularly and seriously when I was fifteen and my family moved into a house larger by far than we had ever lived in. For the first time, I had a room of my own with a door that closed and some measure of privacy.”
The first in her family to attend college, Piercy earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan (B.A., 1957), winning several Hopwood awards for writing. At Northwestern University (M.A., 1958), she married Michel Schiff, a French Jewish exchange student in physics. Schiff’s family had survived the Holocaust by crossing illegally into Switzerland; her encounter with them informed the French Jewish family in Gone to Soldiers, her 1987 novel about World War II. Divorced at age twenty-three, Piercy struggled financially, writing poetry and fiction. Her first six novels remained unpublished, in part because of their feminist content. In 1962 Piercy married Robert Shapiro, a computer scientist. The couple lived in Cambridge, San Francisco, Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan, finally settling in Cape Cod in the early 1970s. Their unconventional open marriage ended with a divorce in 1980. Piercy’s first book of poetry was accepted in 1966 and published in 1968, the year her first novel was accepted. On June 2, 1982, she married writer Ira Wood, whom she had known for six years. They currently live in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. They have cowritten a play, The Last White Class (1979), and a novel, Storm Tide (1988). In 1997 they founded the Leapfrog Press, a small literary publishing company. Piercy has no children. Although no longer a student, Piercy was active in the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the late 1960s. By 1970, however, she had become disillusioned with the devaluation of women, of Judaism and Zionism, and of creative writing by the New Left. Fearing the censure of her fellow activists, she curtailed her own Jewish practice. Finally, she left the SDS and became actively involved in the women’s movement, a commitment which continues to fuel and validate her artistic work. Saying Kaddish for her mother, who died on Chanukah, 1981, renewed her creative interest in Jewish practice—in “the female lunar side of Judaism,” sparking a desire to live as “a full Jew again, but with my entire being, my history, my intelligence, my knowledge and aesthetics.” She began to compose liturgical poems and rituals, contributing actively to the Reconstructionist Movement’s prayer book, Hadesh Yameinu: A Siddur for Shabbat and Festivals. She was part of the committee that produced Or Chadash, the siddur of P’nai Or (a Philadelphia-based renewal center), where her liturgical poems also appear. She also contributed to Ruach Chadash (2003), the High Holyday prayer book of the Liberal denomination in Britain. In addition, she contributes regularly to Jewish journals such as Tikkun, where she served as poetry editor from 1988 to 1996, and Lilith, where she became poetry editor in 2000. She was one of the founders of the havurah Am ha-Yam, on Cape Cod, serving on its board of directors and in various other offices, and often teaches at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish renewal retreat in New York. In 1999 she published The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, a collection of poems on Jewish life and ritual, which won the 1999 Paterson Poetry Prize.
As fictions that “help us make sense of our lives,” Piercy’s novels focus on the possibility for radical social change. They are characterized by exhaustive background research and a close and imaginative attention to the details of domestic arrangements. In Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), an impoverished Hispanic woman time travels to a future society whose genderlessness and social organization embody the ideas of radical feminism. He, She and It (1991) intertwines the sixteenth century legend of the Golem of Prague with a cyberpunk depiction of a cyborg created to protect an embattled Jewish community in a futuristic dystopia. Gone to Soldiers (1987) creates a counter-war story by focusing on women’s experiences of World War II from multiple perspectives, including a Jewish heroine of the French Resistance, Jewish twin girls—one dies on a death march, the other escapes to America but encounters sexual abuse—a romance writer turned foreign correspondent, and a lesbian fighter pilot. Storm Tide, co-written with Ira Wood, explores issues of Jewish identity, spirituality, passion, politics and redemption. Three Women (2000) explores the familial dynamics among a multigenerational “three women”—a meticulously organized lawyer, her left-wing activist mother and her impulsive daughter.
Piercy’s poems explore ecofeminism, love, political awareness, spirituality. The “Chuppah” section of My Mother’s Body (1985) contains selections from her 1982 wedding ceremony to Wood; some of her liturgical poems appear in Available Light (1988), Mars and Her Children (1992), and What Are Big Girls Made Of? (1997).
While most feminist critics show a strong appreciation for all aspects of Piercy’s work, mainstream critics have tended to favor her poetry over her novels, which are sometimes seen as too political. Piercy notes, “People tend to define ‘political’ or ‘polemical’ in terms of what is not congruent with their ideas.” Piercy’s awards include the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction (1992), Bradley Award, NEPC (1992), Brit ha-Dorot Award, Shalom Center (1992), May Sarton Award, NEPC (1991), Golden Rose Poetry Prize, New England Poetry Club (1990), Carolyn Kizer Poetry Prize (1986 and 1990), and a National Endowment for the Arts award (1978).
Piercy has published fifteen books of poetry and sixteen novels, as well as her memoirs, Sleeping with Cats, and has been included in more than two hundred anthologies. Her works have been translated into sixteen languages, including Danish, Dutch, Estonian, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish. Her manuscripts are housed at the University of Michigan Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.
On June 3, 2004, Piercy received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.
NOVELS:Going Down Fast (1969); Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970); Small Changes (1973); Woman on the Edge of Time (1976); The High Cost of Living (1978); Vida (1980); Braided Lives (1982); Fly Away Home (1984); Gone to Soldiers (1987); Summer People (1989); He, She and It (1991); The Longings of Women (1994); City of Darkness, City of Light (1996); Storm Tide (with Ira Wood) (1998); Three Women (1999); The Third Child (2003).
POETRY COLLECTIONS: Breaking Camp (1968); Hard Loving (1969); To Be of Use (1973); Living in the Open (1976); The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing (1978); The Moon is Always Female (1980); Circles on the Water (1982); Stone, Paper, Knife (1983); My Mother’s Body (1985); Available Light (1988); The Earth Shines Secretly: A Book of Days (1990); Mars and Her Children (1992); What Are Big Girls Made Of? (1997); Early Grrrl (1999); The Art of Blessing The Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme (1999); Colors Passing Through Us (2003). MEMOIRS: Sleeping with Cats: A Memoir (2001).
Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (1982); Bryfonski, Dedria, ed. “Autobiography.” Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series 1 (1984): 267–81; Rosenberg, David, ed. “The Dark Thread in the Weave.” Testimony: Contemporary Writers Make the Holocaust Personal. (1989).
Contemporary Authors. New Revisions Series 43: 359–365; Montresor, Jaye Berman. “Marge Piercy.” In Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook, edited by Ann Shapiro et al. (1994); “Marge Piercy.” Archer Books website, 2004; “Selected Poetry of Marge Piercy.” Representative Poetry Online, 2003.