Friday, October 20, 2006

Marge Piercy at the Wisconsin Book Festival


Last night, in her Wisconsin Book Festival appearance at Madison's Orpheum Theater, Marge Piercy turned a business tool better known for mind-numbingly boring bullet points into a memorable visual tour of New York in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. It accompanied her reading from her new novel "Sex Wars." Her PowerPoint slide show showed us Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull along with images of the city's night life and the wretchedness of the lower East Side, transporting us back to an era much like our own, when corruption was rampant and society was divided along lines of class, gender, sexual and religious morality. As she explained in an interview with David Medaris of Isthmus:
It's less boring than lecturing and since there are many photos, cartoons, portraits and other artifacts available from that period -- the immediate post Civil War era -- those images can make real what I'm talking about and what the novel focused on. Instead of just describing the abandoned children of the time, I can show you photos of them. I don't have to say that Victoria Woodhull was beautiful -- I just show you images of her. I don't have to say that the Woman's Rights movement was caricatured in the daily papers -- I can show you cartoons.
She has more information about "Sex Wars" on her website, along with some of the visuals from her PowerPoint presentation.
I was attracted to the era after the Civil War because I found it had so many of the same divisions and conflicts as our own time. The role of women in the public sphere and in the family, the degree to which free sexual expression was valuable, permissible, tolerated or condemned, whether Church and State should continue to be separated or whether Christianity should be the official religion, as opposed to all the other religions found in the States – these are all deep divisions in our own time as they were then.

As a woman active in the Second Wave of feminism, I was curious about the important figures in the First Wave. The standard figure is Susan B. Anthony, spinster, plain woman with her hair pulled back in a tight no-nonsense bun. Did she really represent the women active at that time? In the Second Wave, we had a huge variety of women from the puritanical to the libertarian, and I suspected that as also true of the First Wave. Every generation tends to think they invented sex, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. I wanted to know if the Victorian period in American politics was really as staid as we imagine. And of course it wasn’t – not even slightly.
Piercy also read some poems, including the antiwar poem "Buyer Beware," which reads, in part:
Shopping is our favorite entertainment.
We go to the mall to wander and eyeball
stuff. More stuff. We’re stuffed with stuff.
But at least you can wear that orange
cashmere sweater. You can gobble that pizza.
What do you get when you buy a war?

Death. You get death retail and whole
sale. You get death by the planeload.
You get young death, old death, baby
death. You get part death – limbs blown
off, heads racked with shrapel, spines
torn apart and brains toasted. You are

delivered hatred by the decadeload. You
purchase rape and pillage, you purchase
torture and graft, bribery and looting.
Your great grandchildren will pay off the debt.
Are you happy with your purchase of this war?
I’m so sorry. This is not returnable.
We enjoyed escaping the crowd downstairs and watching her performance from the mostly deserted balcony. It was a great angle for seeing the pages of her presentation escape from her hands, one after the other, and flutter down like autumn leaves. She concluded to animated applause, standing in the center of sheets of paper carpeting the stage around her like leaves on a forest floor.

1 comment:

Dr Diablo said...

Unless you believe that the highest form of poetry is the ham-handed polemic, that's really a crap poem. Break your own last paragraph into arbitrary lines and you have a lyric that blows the doors off of "War-Mart", or whatever the title is. I can't see it because this stupid box is blocking it.