Marge Piercy’s newest poetry collection, “On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light” is a meditation on love, loss, sex, religion, politics and family. Her poetry is unfailingly personal and it is clear that she is a veteran writer and thinker. She does not shy away from her ideas, nor does she apologize for them; she instead charges full speed ahead in carefully measured emotional language.
The collection begins with a personal statement of sorts. Piercy states, “Words are my business,” framing the rest of the collection as something immensely personal while asserting her authority on poetry as a form. Even without knowledge of her extensive literary background, which includes feminist literature, speculative fiction novels, and numerous other poetry collections, readers can gather that Piercy is someone worth listening to.
Piercy’s writing is perhaps strongest in her musings on aging and death. She combines insightful and thought-provoking perspectives with a masterful use of language:
all those memories I never got to catch
and keep vanished to dust motes floating
in a skein of silver moonlight and gone.
Death is by no means a new subject in the world of poetry, but Piercy confronts it in a frank way that can catch you off guard with its bleak honesty. Sometimes death is euphemistic in her writing — “the door at the end of the hall” — but most often it is uncomfortably real, like in the poem “The sum of mortality,” in which Piercy writes a list poem that begins, “When I am dead:” and includes phrases like “I’ll never do another load of laundry” and “never write another poem.”
Before she experienced it herself, “death / belonged to other people.” She acknowledges her ignorance about the subject that is common to most people. She puts into words the heavy feeling of regret in things unsaid when she writes.
I never thought to ask in childhood hang
like dead birds around my neck.
Just as she is not afraid to push the boundaries of her subject matter, Piercy is also bold when it comes to her poetic form. Her poems tend to be written in a choppy style, with line breaks in unexpected places, which she balances out by using stanzas of equal length.
Several poems cleverly interweave the title into the poem’s last line so that the composition is circular and the title only really makes sense after one reads the whole poem. One example of this is in her poem “At least a hill,” which ends with “If I were buried with all / my stuff, a mountain would rise.” The only way the title applies to the poem is as an addendum to the last line: “a mountain,” or “at least a hill.”
Taken in pieces, Piercy’s writing remains vivid and dynamic. Her talent thrives in small sentences and phrases. She adeptly uses alliteration in lines like “Green grow our graves” and intimate descriptive imagery in lines like “I was garlic and roses; / he, lemon and lawn grass.” Her language forces the reader to see something from an entirely new perspective. Instead of saying that the leaves on the tree were dry, she says “trees / that rustle their hunger for rain.”
The only place Piercy’s collection falls flat is in the section explicitly about politics. The poem “U.S.” reads like a cringey freshman year political poetry assignment. “Joiners” uses a tired metaphor of a tributary feeding into a larger river to represent a person who:
one with others, absorbed,
sharing with others now kin
the intent, the goal, rhetoric,
idioms, us versus them outside
The content of this section is familiar and clichéd. The stanzas rage against corporatism and Trumpism, lamenting what the United States has become. These poems are full of raw emotion, but lack the polish that turns feeling into lyric.
Good poetry requires that the author’s scream into the void be a little more eloquent than that of the average person; to carefully arrange into words what most people screaming into that void can’t express. That’s the poet’s job, especially when writing political poetry. All-day long we consume raw emotion and exposed ideological nerves on social media and the news, making it harder to write good poetry about a specific political subject.
But this also means that we need that good poetry — distinct from Facebook rants and Twitter threads — more than ever. Some lines make their mark, like “red hot empty calories / of rightwing hatred” and “What we fail to do / rots, breeding maggots.” However, Piercy’s writing is definitely strongest when talking about her personal experiences and weakest when writing about current politics.
Ultimately, in “On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light,” Marge Piercy creates the kind of poetry book that can be dog-eared (if you do that sort of thing) and revisited to find comfort and hope. Her self-acceptance of aging and her own body is refreshing and offers solace in a world that too often acts as if all women disappear at the age of 30. She slips quiet lines of her personal philosophy into her poems, like a friend giving gentle advice.
She tells us that “Every moment does not need to be stuffed,” and reminds us that “We cannot regret our wanderings / no matter how hard and cold.” The way she writes about love and her long-term relationship with her husband elicits a sweet kind of longing to experience the kind of love that she writes about. Much like her meditations on death, her musings on love wear no rose-colored glasses. She knows that “It’s a job of heavy excavation / even to see each other clearly” through past baggage in a relationship; she understands that after a breakup, some words “feel sticky and sad, something sweet / spilled on the counter that glues itself / to your arm, that stains your sleeve.”
Her poetry is uplifting without being syrupy. It contains phrases and even whole poems that should be highlighted, underlined or copied down into a journal for safekeeping. In “Holidays sweet and sour,” Piercy offers us a piece of advice that works well for readers of her collection: “I celebrate what touches me. / What doesn’t, I try to ignore.” In this case, there is little to ignore, and much to celebrate.
Daily Arts Writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.