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The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme and Early Grrrl: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy

The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme
by Marge Piercy
Knopf, $23

Early GrrrI: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy
Leapfrog Press, $15

Fans of Marge Piercy, newly installed as LILITH’s poetry editor, are accustomed to waiting two years between her books. We have a pleasant surprise with these collections, published in the same year. They represent two ends of the trajectory of Piercy’s writings: poems going back as far as the author’s teenage years and those that represent her renewed interest in Judaism as a middle-aged adult. The Art of Blessing the Day includes a set of prayer-poems written for a Shabbat morning prayerbook. Piercy brings freshness to central prayers; Kaddish comes alive in her hands, freed from its mournful Aramaic incantations. She works to make it less formal, subtly substituting “Let’s say amen” for the standard “And let us say. Amen.” In “S’hema” (her punctuation), Piercy weaves together familiar phrases with reworked ones: “We must speak about what is good/and holy within our homes/when we are working, when we are at play,/when we lie down and when we get up.”

In another section, she addresses the items assembled on her Passover seder plate, and when she writes about biblical characters she uses the same easy familiarity she has with her family members, who populate the volume.

Early Grrrl stands on its own as a collection of potent, forceful poems, but it is even sweeter to readers who will recognize in the adolescent Piercy the woman she became. What a thrill to watch as her signature themes, images and linguistic style take root. Most of the poems have been published in Piercy’s earlier collections, but there are 12 from “high school, college, and a couple of years after that.” Yes, they tend to be less artful than later ones, and yes, they can sound a bit adolescent (“Face in the mirror” repeats, “Who am I? What am I? Tell me”), but they are literary artifacts, and as such, valuable.

It is especially exciting to learn that even as a teenager, Piercy knew she was a poet, and not just someone who wrote poems. “Grand tour 1957” concludes, “the word, the word, the future word/was being formed in my blood./In me was the poet I will be./In me were the words heating/hardening, the words/taking shape and growing/ticking in my womb/like a bomb.”

Karen Prager is a book editor and freelance writer in New Jersey.