Some readers may avoid Marge Piercy’s The Hunger Moon simply because of her reputation as a social activist and radical feminist, but that would be a mistake. Her new and selected poems, which span the past 30 years, deserve to be read without labels.
Those who do so will quickly find that the poems are surprising, inviting, and engaging because Piercy always takes a bold, confident stance, even when she changes her perspective – over time – or shares wisdom that sounds almost commonplace.
In the opening poem, for example, she takes aim at complacency and laziness in relationships:
We walk all over the common miracles
without bothering to wipe our feet.
Then we wonder why we need more
and more salt to taste our food.
My old man, my old lady, my
ball and chain: listen, even the cat
you found starving in the alley
who purrs you to sleep dancing
with kneading paws in your hair
will vanish if your heart closes its fist.
The poem establishes Piercy as a trustworthy guide, so readers follow her willingly through several pages where she describes how she felt about marriage and love years ago – as traps to be avoided. This earlier perspective is part of her evolution, which feels like an important and shared journey.
The same is true in the second section of poems, from “My Mother’s Body,” where Piercy casts a clear and sometimes withering eye at her mother, who allowed social expectations to smother her until “The anger turned inward, the anger/ turned inward where/ could it go except to make pain?/ It flowed into me with her milk.”
That relationship, always defined by tension, is a crucial theme for both the book and the poet. A young Piercy becomes an activist while her mother acts like a spectator in her own life. Later, when her mother dies, Piercy mellows and changes, finding meaning and solace in Jewish religious practices that her parents had not followed. (“What is to be said?” she asks her father. “Did you have a religion?/ If so, you never spoke of it to me.”)
But for herself, today, it’s a different story. In “The Head of the Year,” for example, she writes: “The light you seek hides/ in your belly. The light you/ crave longs to stream from/ your eyes. You are the moon/ that will wax in new goodness.”
Piercy’s spiritual awakening is one reason “The Hunger Moon” is worth reading, as is her defense of people who have no voice.
Perhaps more surprising, for those who don’t know her work well, are her nature poems and the many pages where her cats serve as friends, companions, children, and teachers. (“You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,” her cat tells her in “The cat’s song,” “although I am superior to you.”) Her beloved domestic animals become the nurturing family she lacked as a child, and they nudge her, quietly, toward other transformations – including a happy, stable marriage after two divorces.
“The Hunger Moon” includes love poetry as well. In “The First Time I Tasted You,” Piercy writes:
From your body I eat
and drink all I will ever
know of passionate love
from now till death
drains the chalice.
Piercy’s affectionate lines to her husband, Ira, are sensual and sometimes graphic (as are some other poems). Yet her feelings for him may represent her most radical shift yet – the nonconformist poet finding peace in one of the oldest social conventions – something her mother did not do.
The new work in “The Hunger Moon” is rather uneven, but the selected poems deserve to be read over and over because they work together beautifully and demonstrate the poet’s considerable talent and skill. They also remind readers why Marge Piercy is a literary icon whose work and career are unmatched.
Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.