Portrait of a Jewish poet, writer, feminist: Marge Piercy

If, as Marge Piercy writes, words are "magic to open the sky and the earth," she herself is a Merlin of sorts. She has used her gift to craft 15 books of poetry and 15 novels that sweep history, politics, contemporary life, eroticism, feminism, Judaism and much more into the arc of her universe.

She is an unpretentious Merlin, her black hair worn Cleopatra style despite her 64 years. On a book tour to New York from her Cape Cod home, she gives precise, no-nonsense answers; she has probably reiterated many from three previous interviews the same day. To save her voice for an evening reading, her husband, Ira Wood, who accompanies her, answers some questions. "We're a unit," Piercy explains. "Unapologetically," adds Wood, also a writer.

From her poetry, it might appear that Piercy would enjoy self-revelation. In her latest volume, "The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems With a Jewish Theme" (Knopf), Piercy's strong, spiritual, humorous, poignant first-person voice divulges that she was 50 before she learned to read Hebrew. She introduces her bubbe, Hannah, the daughter of a Lithuanian rabbi; her zayde, a union organizer murdered while organizing bakery workers; and her mother, Bert, with whom she had a bittersweet relationship.

Although Piercy says her poetry allows her to "exorcise her autobiographical impulses," she distinguishes the source of her material from the creative process. "When you're writing a poem it isn't intimate," she says. "Your ego isn't engaged. Though I work with material from my life, it's as if it were clay or molten ore."

Whatever its personal side, her lush, sensitive poetry has been used in settings from weddings to rallies. Read it, and it's no wonder:

The discipline of blessings is to taste each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet and the salty, and be glad for what does not hurt. The art is in compressing attention to each little and big blossom of the tree of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit, its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give children, mothers, fathers, pets, our friends, the news, the woes of others. What we want to change we curse and then pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can with eyes and hands and tongue. If you can't bless it, get ready to make it new.

From "The art of blessing the day"

Piercy received the Golden Rose, the oldest poetry award in the country, in 1990. She has even written liturgy for Or Hadash, the Reconstructionist prayer book. At a recent wedding she attended, she chuckles, after one of her love poems was recited, a guest asked her if that poem was now part of the Jewish wedding service. It was the third wedding he'd been to in which it had been used.

Her fiction, on the other hand, explores the choices in other peoples' lives, fueled by empathy and imagination. In her latest novel, "Three Women" (Morrow), Piercy examines generational conflict, responsibility and rapprochement through the eyes of Suzanne, a divorced lawyer approaching 50, her 20-something daughter Elena, who moves back home when she's unable to pay her rent, and her mother, Beverly, a political activist who suffers a stroke.

"The novel is not about me," stresses Piercy, who has no children of her own, but whose mother and brother died of strokes. "I see many women caught in that sandwich situation, being responsible for their children long after they become adults, and becoming caretakers to their own parents."

"Each novel is a small world I research and inhabit for two or three years, and then I move on to another small world," she says, noting that she writes poetry while she writes fiction, usually alternating between the two. It took time for her work to be accepted by mainstream publishers: She wrote six novels from a feminist viewpoint before her first book, "Going Down Fast," in which she switched to a male perspective, was published in 1969. "You simply couldn't publish serious fiction about the lives of ordinary women then," says Piercy.

She is a feminist, she says, because she "was born a woman. I can't imagine not wanting things to be better, safer, more fun and less dangerous for myself and other women." She worries about issues of economic justice, domestic violence, families becoming impoverished by illness and "excessive concern with body image that programs every woman for failure because she gets old." The constant in all the issues she espouses is simple: choice.

Choice is also the backbone of her own writing and of the books published by the small literary press she and Wood began last January. Leapfrog Press has produced eight titles so far, both original and repackaged out-of-print works for talented writers who do not produce bestsellers.

When asked to describe herself, Piercy chooses the words "poet" and "novelist." Pressed further for personality traits, she turns to Wood. "Brilliant, feisty and spunky," he says. "Feisty and spunky are too similar," Piercy demurs. "How about warm?" "Warm is something I was thinking of," he agrees. "OK, that's fine," she concludes.

Born in Detroit to a family deeply affected by the Depression, Piercy began writing when she was 15, "right after my family moved into a house where I had a room of my own with a door that shut — in other words, when I had privacy for the first time."

Although her father was not Jewish, her mother and grandmother educated her in Judaism. Both were great storytellers, Piercy says, but their versions of the same stories never coincided. In her early years as a writer, Piercy supported herself with a variety of part-time jobs: secretary, switchboard operator, department store clerk, artist's model and faculty instructor. She married twice before she met Wood; lived in Chicago and Brooklyn and got heavily involved in the civil rights, anti-war and women's movements. In 1971, suffering from chronic bronchitis and tired of city life, she moved to Cape Cod.

Her house in Wellfleet, Mass., is on a freshwater marsh, surrounded by mixed oak and pine woods. She takes enormous pleasure in gardening. Piercy also loves to cook, walk, hike, and take care of her cats–Dinah, Oboe, Max, Malkah and Efi.

"The seasons are very vivid and real to us," she says. "Living seasonally is part of what I love about Judaism, as well the tradition of social conscience, and the historical, religious and spiritual aspects of Jewish holidays." She became involved in Jewish renewal while looking for a balance between her grandmother's Orthodoxy and the Reform Judaism she found "dry" in college. When her mother died in 1981, she said kaddish for a year, but since she had never learned Hebrew, had no idea what she was saying. She became interested in ritual, started lighting Shabbat candles and observing holidays at home, and became a bat mitzvah at 50.

What does Piercy herself believe in? "My whole work is an answer to that question. Freedom and individual responsibility are both terribly important. We're far more connected to other people than our society encourages us to realize. We're taught to think of ourselves as separate beings but we're part of a people, part of a history, part of each other."