Marge Piercy doesn't live that far off the beaten track--it's only Cape Cod, after all--but it feels remote, especially in the offseason. The poet, novelist and longtime feminist activist, who's now 83, has lived in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, since the 1970s. Flying there to see her in a 10-seat puddle jumper is like visiting a guru on a mountaintop. You land in Provincetown, at an airport so cozy that the departure lounge offers a stack of board games, and then drive a half hour to a house tucked far back from the road, among pine and oak woods, on the edge of a freshwater marsh.
From the front, the brown-shingled house looks small. Greenery swallows it up: Bushes climb a steep slope to the porch, a great pine tree hugs the roof. More green peeks from inside the broad windows, their sills jammed with plants. The gardens are, Piercy likes to say, "profuse": Stone-flagged paths wind through the trees, past hosta plants with giant, nodding, fairy-tale leaves. Inside, the house rambles, from a cozy downstairs kitchen (ceramics, still more plants, two black cats) to a light-filled, wood-framed upstairs living room so filled with art that one painting (of more leaves) is mounted on the ceiling.
"I designed it," Piercy says of the house. "I built it, and every time I published a book, I added a room. I stopped when I had enough rooms." The caveat's helpful, since she's published, to date, 17 novels and 19 books of poetry, plus assorted plays and memoirs, and is still going strong. (Another novel is with her agent.) Although Piercy looks exactly as she does in every author's picture going back to her 30s--the curtain of black hair, the apple cheeks and impish dark eyes--she has trouble getting around these days. Her back and replacement knees bother her, she tells me, and she walks with a cane, so I don't have the heart to ask for a proper tour. But I imagine the different rooms opening out of the different worlds of her many volumes of prose and poetry, each with its distinctive vision: the bitterly contested kitchens and bedrooms in early feminist novels such as Small Changes (1973), in which a generation of women saw their own struggles mirrored as they searched for non-traditional relationships and identities; the harsh New York City mental hospital ward in Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), from which the incarcerated protagonist, Connie, makes disembodied journeys to two possible futures, one an egalitarian agrarian Utopia, one an urban dystopian nightmare. There are the rich historical landscapes of Gone to Soldiers (1987), Piercy's World War II epic, and City of Darkness, City of Light (1996), her novel of the French Revolution, both books teeming with the stories of forgotten women. There's the technologically advanced but environmentally wrecked future of the 1991 science fiction classic He, She and It, in which multinational corporations, or "multis," build domes over their enclaves to protect the elites from a climate gone amok, while the masses scrape an existence in the "Glop," the gang-ridden megalopolis, and a woman in one of the last free towns falls passionately in love with the cyborg she's helping to program. You could wander through many more rooms, more land-scapes, and still not capture the breadth of Piercy's vision and career.
Instead, we end up in the kitchen, where Piercy shows off her "prophet plaque," a framed certificate from the Reconstructionist Movement's Shalom Center that awards her the Brit HaDorot, or Covenant of the Generations, and invokes the prophet Elijah, who will "turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest [God] smite the earth with utter destruction." The link to Elijah seems appropriate for a writer whose poetry has enriched Jewish liturgy and whose work delves repeatedly into the relationships within families--particularly mothers and daughters--while spiraling outward to address the fate of the world.
Piercy's life seems low-key today, but the remoteness is misleading. Waves of new visibility radiating out from the explosions of the Women's March and #MeToo have lifted other longtime feminist icons to prominence; but while her contemporaries Margaret Atwood and the late Ursula K. Le Guin have been embraced and lionized by a new generation, Piercy has remained a constant presence, not just in literature but in many people's lives. Her books are widely taught as feminist and science fiction classics, and her poems and blessings have entered the cultural bloodstream--what might even be called the common prayer language of a certain strain of liberal Judaism. They're heard at weddings, funerals, namings; they hang on refrigerators. When I studied creative writing in college, her poem about creativity, "For the young who want to," was thumbtacked to many a department bulletin board. That poem hints at the work ethic that may partly explain her prolific output:
Talent is what they say you have after the novel is published and favorably reviewed. Beforehand what you have is a tedious delusion, a hobby like knitting. Work is what you have done after the play is produced and the audience claps. Before that friends keep asking when you are planning to go out and get a job... Work is its own cure...