Poem of the week: Marge Piercy and workers of the world

Marge Piercy will turn 75 on March 31. She is the author of 17 books of poetry and 15 novels. Her novels and poetry often focus on women’s lives, almost always working class women and wide-ranging social concerns, although her settings vary. She has won many awards, and one of the most influential writers on women’s concerns and issues.

Raised in Detroit and deeply affected by the Great Depression, Marge Piercy was the first in her family to attend college. Piercy’s maternal grandfather Morris was a union organizer, murdered while organizing bakery workers. Her maternal grandmother, Hannah, of whom Piercy was particularly fond of, was born in a Lithuanian stetl, the daughter of a rabbi and was a great storyteller.

Piercy’s poetry tends to be highly personal free verse. Her work shows a lifelong commitment to progressive social change (what she might call, in terms, tikkun olam, or the repair of the world). The poem below, “To be of use”, exemplifies her love of those who do the work of the world.

She lives in Wellfleet, Massachusetts with her husband, Ira Wood.

To Be Of Use

by Marge Piercy

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.

From CIRCLES ON THE WATER © 1982 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Middlemarsh, Inc. First published in Lunch magazine. Used by permission of Wallace Literary Agency.

Photo: Marge Piercy from her Facebook page  or visit her website.




John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.