19 pages • 38 minutes readMarge Piercy
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Written by American poet and novelist Marge Piercy, “A Work of Artifice” was published in her 1999 collection The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme. The poem is an example of Piercy’s early work as it was composed in 1970. Written in unmetered free verse, the 24-line poem is an allegory about the subjugation of women. Piercy uses the relationship between a gardener and a bonsai tree to explore how patriarchy stunts women, keeping them from realizing their full potential. Composed at the height of the second-wave feminist movement, the descriptive, evocative poem alludes to the philosophy’s concerns about artificial beauty ideals and the restrictive nature of domesticity.
Like much of Piercy’s work between 1960 and 1980, “A Work of Artifice” reflects her engagement with the themes of second-wave feminism. Additionally, the poem is distinctively postmodernist in style; it does away with formal experimentation with language. The short poem is written in Piercy’s trademark short run-on sentences and brief lines. It is deeply ironic: The narrator seemingly offers straightforward utterances which belie a dark reality. In keeping with its central metaphor of a stunted tree, the poem uses imagery from gardening and botany. The continuum between gardening, nature, and feminism in “A Work of Artifice” is an early indication of Piercy’s wider, interlinked poetic vision. The later poems of her seven-decade-long career go deeper into the connections between disparate elements of existence.
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Marge Piercy was born in the aftermath of the Great Depression in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan. In the early years of Piercy’s life, her father Robert Douglas Piercy struggled to find work in the depressed economy. He finally got a job installing and repairing machinery with Westinghouse and the family moved into a working-class, racially diverse neighborhood in Detroit. In interviews, Piercy said that as her family practiced her mother Bert Bernice’s Jewish faith, Piercy did not feel accepted by middle-class White folk. It was Bernice who gave Piercy her Hebrew name, Marah.
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A prolific writer, Piercy published more than 17 collections of poems, 15 novels, a play, and several works of nonfiction. Piercy is the rare writer whose poetry and fiction are equally well-regarded. Her 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time is considered a landmark of feminist dystopian science fiction and is often considered the first work of cyberpunk (dystopian works that imagine a high-tech future). He, She, and It, another feminist cyberpunk novel published in 1991, won the Arthur C. Clarke award for Best Science Fiction.
Like her fiction, Piercy’s poems are feminist and egalitarian. Piercy’s major poetry collections include The Moon is Always Female (1980), Circles on the Water (1982), What Are Big Girls Made of (1997), The Art of Blessing the Day (1999), and On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light (2020).
Apart from being a writer, Piercy is a well-known political activist. Her interest in feminism and social equality stems from her working-class background and experience of growing up as a woman in a restrictive 1940s and 1950s America.
Piercy, Marge. “A Work of Artifice.” 1971. Poem Hunter.
The poem is narrated in a straightforward manner by an unknown speaker. The speaker describes the relationship between a gardener and a bonsai tree growing in a beautiful pot. Bonsai, a globally popular Japanese gardening technique, involves miniaturizing trees so they can be grown in a pot. It is considered a form of art.
The speaker begins by speculating that in the natural course of things, the bonsai tree would have grows "eighty feet tall" (Line 3) on a mountainside and only cut back if it was "split by lightning" (Line 5). It was saved from this fate by the gardener who grew it indoors and “carefully pruned” (Line 7) it. The speaker refers to the gardener as “he,” (Line 9) indicating the gender. The tree is now nine inches tall, thanks to the care of the gardener. He gently sings to the tree every day as he pares back its branches.
At this point, the narrator imagines the gardener talking to the tree as he attends to it. Referring to the bonsai tree as “you,” the gardener sings that it is the tree’s nature to be small and helpless. Therefore, the little tree is fortunate to have a supporting, safe pot in which it can grow.
In Lines 17-22, the speaker zooms out of the gardener’s point of view and resumes their own narration. According to the speaker, one must start early “to dwarf their growth” (Line 19), as in the case of the bonsai tree. The speaker offers examples of such training, such as binding the feet, which refers to the pre-20th century Chinese beauty practice of binding the feet of women from childhood, so the feet remained tiny and delicate-looking. Often the feet bones were broken to keep the feet from growing too big. Further, the brains of living beings being trained for a specific purpose must be “crippled” (Line 21), or they must be brainwashed. The speaker notes the curling of hair, which refers to beautification. These examples of dwarfing living things involve artificial beauty standards imposed on women.
In the last two lines, Lines 23-24, the narrative voice shifts from the third person to the second person, with the speaker directly addressing the gardener or the reader. The speaker tells the reader the hands of the stunted living creatures must be kept very soft, because these are the hands “you” (Line 24) love touching.
By Marge Piercy