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Marge Piercy

The Secretary Chant

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1973

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Secretary Chant” is a poem written by contemporary Jewish American poet Marge Piercy. Published in 1973, Piercy’s poem contains a feminist conceit, comparing a woman to office supplies and, in turn, questioning both the objectification of women and whether or not the expansion of women’s roles into the workforce creates any real progress or simply replicates existing issues. The themes of the poem are largely aligned with the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s, focused on female sexuality, the family, the workplace, and various other social and legal inequalities. This was a movement in which Piercy was very much involved. Much like “The Secretary Chant,” Piercy’s greater body of work is steeped in feminist issues as well as Marxist, antiwar, and environmental considerations.

While not of a specific school or cohort of poets, Piercy is considered to be a political poet with her work exploring topics of social importance. Piercy claims the poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as two of her greatest poetic influences, firmly rooting her within the American poetic tradition. Other influences include the romantic poets and modernist poets, including Muriel Rukeyser. Throughout her career, Piercy published 20 volumes of poetry, as well as numerous works of fiction, nonfiction, and plays.

Poet Biography

Marge Piercy was born into a working-class family on March 31, 1936. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Piercy’s close family ties included her mother Bert, father Robert, and an older half-brother from her mother’s previous marriage. As a child, Piercy was particularly close to and inspired by her maternal grandmother, Hannah—a gifted storyteller who proved instrumental in cementing Piercy’s Jewish faith, giving her the Hebrew name Marah.

Considered one of her earliest influences, Piercy’s mother encouraged her to read and maintain an active imagination. Throughout her childhood, Piercy attended Detroit-area public schools and at the age of 17, won a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Michigan. Piercy was the first person in her family to attend college and while there, she received multiple Hopwood Awards for her fiction and poetry writing. These awards further financed her education and upon graduation in 1957, the money received from the Hopwood Awards allowed Piercy to travel to France. In 1958, Piercy earned her M.A. from Northwestern University where she was recipient of a fellowship.

Soon after her university studies, Piercy married her first husband—a French Jewish physicist—and moved to France. The marriage was short-lived, leaving Piercy a divorcee at the age of 23. After the dissolution of her marriage, Piercy returned to the Midwest, landing in Chicago; there, she focused on developing her writing craft. She was able to support herself through various part-time jobs, including work as a secretary and switchboard operator. She remarried in 1962 to computer scientist Robert Shapiro, moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and San Francisco before returning to Boston. During these years, Piercy became involved in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a leftist organization focused on anti-Vietnam War efforts and the civil rights movement, among other things.

From 1965 to 1971, Piercy lived in New York City where she expanded her political participation with SDS and the women’s movement. In 1971, Piercy moved to Wellfleet in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with her husband Shapiro; they divorced in 1976. Piercy remained in Wellfleet, as she found the naturalistic location on Cape Cod a source of creativity. In 1982, Piercy married fellow writer Ira Wood, to whom she is still married. Piercy and Wood created Leapfrog Press—a small imprint publishing literary works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

A currently living poet in 2021, Piercy is the author of 20 volumes of poetry, 15 novels, one play, an essay collection, a nonfiction book, and a memoir. She has received numerous awards for her work including the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction (1992) that she received for her novel Body of Glass, alternately titled He, She and It: A Novel. Piercy also received a Sheaffer-PEN/New England Award for Literary Excellence, and a National Endowment for the Arts award (1978), among numerous other recognitions and honorary degrees. Piercy currently lives in Wellfleet, Massachusetts where she continues to write across genres and teach intensive poetry workshops.

Poem Text

My hips are a desk.

From my ears hang

chains of paper clips.

Rubber bands form my hair.

My breasts are wells of mimeograph ink.

My feet bear casters.

Buzz. Click.

My head

is a badly organized file.

My head is a switchboard

where crossed lines crackle.

My head is a wastebasket

of worn ideas.

Press my fingers

and in my eyes appear

credit and debit.

Zing. Tinkle.

My navel is a reject button.

From my mouth issue canceled reams.

Swollen, heavy, rectangular

I am about to be delivered

of a baby

xerox machine.

File me under W

because I wonce


a woman.

Piercy, Marge. “The Secretary Chant.” 1973. Library of Congress.


Piercy’s poem opens with a metaphor: “My hips are a desk” (Line 1). The following lines further complicate the opening metaphor by interchanging and intermingling body parts with office supplies. Use of onomatopoeia in Line 7, “Buzz. Click,” marks a turn in the poem, with the following lines 8-13 providing a refrain in “My head is…” and shifting the poem away from the purely physical comparison of the body in Lines 1-6.

Lines 14-16 mark the first concrete moment of action within the poem: “Press my fingers / and in my eyes appear / credit and debit.” Line 17 mirrors Line 7 with two onomatopoeic words, “Zing. Tinkle.” Line 18 shifts back to the rhythm of the earlier lines and, coupled with Line 19, suggests a connectivity between the body parts and the office functions.

Piercy uses an extended pregnancy metaphor in Lines 20-23, conflating the functions of a xerox machine with those of pregnancy and labor. Lines 24-27, “File me under W / because I wonce / was / a woman,” close the poem using the device of alliteration to play on the letter “W.” Summarily, the speaker concedes that though she was “wonce” (Line 25) a woman, she’s become a sum of parts, constructed of small bits and pieces of office life.