Susan Porterfield on Made in Detriot by Marge Piercy

made-in-detroitMade in Detroit
By Marge Piercy
192 pp. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2015
Hardcover $27.95
Barnes & Noble NOOK $14.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-35388-5
                                                       .

American Grit

If Marge Piercy — poet, novelist, and memoirist — is not already considered a national treasure, she should be. She is the author of eighteen books of poetry and seventeen novels. She has tackled every traditional genre of the written word: essays, poetry, fiction, memoir, and plays, and she has won numerous awards for her work, including a Pen award, an NEA grant, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction. But it’s neither the prolific number nor nature of her writings that suggest her standing as national treasure. It’s her voice, so typically American, and so characteristic of a particular time, from the 1960s right up to today. The title of her newest collection of poems Made in Detroit (Knopf), couldn’t be more apt. It refers to Piercy’s place of birth and childhood, the heart of America’s auto industry — a city of steel and rubber — that has always seemed to epitomize American grit. The best cars in the world are made there, we’ve long boasted. And maybe also the best writers.

Perhaps it’s the autobiographical nature of Made in Detroit that seems so clearly to echo the traditions of American verse, going straight back to Dickinson and Whitman. We are, we have been individuals proud of how we tell it, our impressions and stories. Few of our writers hide, especially those practicing the art after WWII, and even when masks are donned, as with Eliot or Berryman, we understand that the mask is just another facet of the face. At the same time, our telling of ourselves is far from solipsistic, at least in the best of this kind of verse. What happens is that we start from the personal, because, really, where else would one start, and root out the universal or, if not “root out,” then intuit the communal inherent in the private and aim our barks straight for that distant shore. To do so takes guts, revelation always does.

Take, for example, “Detroit, February 1943.” Here, Piercy writes of the poverty of her childhood, felt most brutally in the bruising cold of mid-winter found in the upper Midwest:

Rising from my cold bed
into the cold room, my clothes
laid out for school stiff, rustling
with cold, I would run to stand
over the hot air register, hoping the furnace had been fed coal.
My father’s cigarette cough
rattled from their room.
I smelled oatmeal. Once we
ate it for three weeks of hunger.

The reader doesn’t have to have experienced a situation exactly like this in order to feel the despair of the young protagonist.  Her life seems bleak and small, in part because she has no control over circumstance, no power at this point to change anything.  Piercy’s introduction of her father’s cough is a brilliant detail, because it shows that not only is she trapped but also that her parents are as well, and that cough starts the shift of focus to her mother so that by the end we are given a picture of her feeding birds,

                                    talking
with them as they flew to perch
near her, leftovers, stale bread,
crumbs. We too survived
on what no one else wanted.

The reader is left with the vision of a woman, who, like her daughter, really has very little control over circumstances.  She has a family to feed, children to get ready for school in whatever way she can.  She too is trapped in a world that can seem or be unkind, and that feeling, that sense of harshness and lack of volition, is a shared one, something that almost all have known at one time or another, as is the almost universal desire to seek out beauty and joy in the middle of despair.  It’s even possible to suggest that Piercy’s mother’s communion with the birds serves as a metaphor for poetry writing or, for that matter, for the making of all art.

Piercy’s poetry is also historically American because her voice is colloquial and direct and appears to shun poetic games, perhaps because her purpose in writing seems to assume that her art is obliged to speak to and about her readers, to affect their immediate lives.  We have a tradition of socially-aware poets, Whitman included, of course, but also Ginsberg and Baraka, to name a few, and I would also count as belonging to this group our poet/songwriters, like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez.

The poem “Those bills are long unpaid” is told using language as fierce and unpretentious as any found in a Seeger song; it has to be in order to make itself, not only understood but felt.  This poem calls us all to action, whether we’re in financial distress or not, because everyone’s got some kind of bill to pay.

To predict disaster, to invoke treachery
and malice, to spin tales of rotten
luck to make it not happen:
that doesn’t work.

What does work, when there’s “ashes in the wind, darling,” and a “mortgage on my spine,” not to mention a “lien on your/ass,” is this:

If you’re going to stand get up.
If you’re going to fight, get moving.
Nothing comes to those who wait
but hunger’s claws . . .

As colloquial as Piercy’s voice can be, however, her imagery is frequently reminiscent of Dickinson’s intricate little gems. Just when you’re going along with the breezy narrative of one of Piercy’s poems, she zaps you with a lovely, complexity. In “The late year,” for example, she declares her preference for celebrating Rosh Hashanah later, when leaves are “half burnt/umber and scarlet,” and all that lives counts its days “toward death.”  But then we are given this image of a certain kind of cold, the kind

whose tendrils
translucent as a jellyfish

and with a hidden sting
just brush our faces
at twilight.

Until this point, Piercy has described the waning year for us, but here, we’re made to feel the cold, a chill as stinging as a jellyfish. The image itself is as unexpected, in a poem that to this point had been descriptive, as the bite of wintery cold always is.

If it’s true that we write who we are, that we can’t help but do so, then it’s also true that the poems in Made in Detroit, like its author, were forged in that most American city, and they and she belong to our world. This is not to say, of course, that either lacks universal appeal, because if that were the case, we’d have to wonder about the relevance of Shakespeare.  What it does mean is that Piercy’s voice comes out of a place and time that represents a crucial era in American history and poetry. Just as the work of our early 19th century-poets tells us something about the time in which they lived, so too Piercy’s voice and concerns frame the particularly American experience that we commonly think of as beginning in the 1960s and that informs our world right up to today, this time of reform and struggle for human rights. Here, for example, in “Hope is a long, slow thing,” Piercy reminds us of how long a journey this struggle has been and continues to be.

Maybe

I cannot with my efforts displace
a rock but the energy of a movement

can force it from the way. Look back:
My great-grandmother was killed
in a pogrom. My grandmother gave
birth to eleven children in a tenement
eating potatoes only sometimes.

Piercy reminds us in these lines that we’re in it for the long-haul, that reform is never easy.  When she concludes by saying that “A long/ ‘we’ is the power that moves the rock,” she channels a reformist energy and spirit that is characteristically us, that is “we.” If something’s wrong, we fix it, even if we get it wrong again and again, even if it takes a long time. We keep at it: this is American optimism, and Made in Detroit is filled with the stuff.

*****

Susan Porterfield is the associate poetry editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. Her most recent book is Kibbe (Mayapple Press). She lives in DeKalb, Illinois, and is a Professor of English at Rockford University.

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