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Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it. (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, on Ecclesiastes 7: 13) Studying the often anthologized poem, “To Be of Use,” as an MFA student in the 1980s, I had no idea that Marge Piercy was Jewish. Thinking back, I recalled a seminar pairing Piercy’s poetry with Judy Grahn’s The Work of a Common Woman. Given the cultural milieu of Civil Rights and the Women’s Movement, Piercy’s commitment to feminism, labor, and anti-war activism was relevant and timely. Even more recent literary anthologies (1999–2013) have included “To Be” along with “Barbie Doll” in themed sections—such as feminism and labor—to support political and social action. Piercy’s activism and identity politics have loomed large in the minds of critics and scholars, who, until recently, tended to ignore Piercy’s Jewish heritage. For instance, Rochelle Ratner, in a review of “Louder: We Can’t Hear You (Yet!); The Political Poems of Marge Piercy,” says, “ … there is no doubt that Piercy is at her best when addressing feminist issues.” However, Piercy has garnered more attention as a feminist science fiction writer, although her oeuvre includes both 19 volumes of poetry and 17 novels. In fact, she won the 1993 Arthur C. Clarke Award for her science fiction novel, He, She and It. Much to my surprise, around 2008, I rediscovered “To Be of Use” in Piercy’s 1999 collection, The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme. I knew that poets sometimes recast the meaning of a work, so I was particularly intrigued, though puzzled, by the poem’s placement as the second piece in the “Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World)” section. This new context frustrated my earlier reading of the poem—which I saw as Piercy’s admiration for people with a strong, traditional American work ethic. The idea of repair inspired me to reexamine the new collection beyond labor and feminist issues. More recently, scholars are beginning to include Piercy in what is called a “new wave” of American Jewish writing, called “The Jewish Literary Revival” (Kraver 23). Until its early instantiation in the late 1990s, Jewish American poets were largely either ignored by media or “scorned by prominent Jewish scholars” (Schneider 61). Furthermore, reviewing the 1997 anthology, Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Jacob Neusner lamented that “the heritage of sanctity and moral regeneration captured by the word ‘Torah’” is lacking (qtd. in Schneider 61). More recently, the Jewish Literary Revival has embraced the work of Jewish women poets, such as Adrienne Rich, Alicia Ostriker, Enid Dame, and Jacqueline Osherow, recognizing them as interpreters of aggadic midrashim: the use of “poems to expand scriptural narratives, verses, words, or even single letters” (Schneider 61). In essence, Piercy “rework[s], subvert[s], and redefin[es] Jewish religion, spirituality, and culture in the American language” (Hellerstein, qtd. in Lyons 37). This Jewish-inspired thread highlights the sacred nature of Piercy’s poetry “which depicts an interconnectivity of the personal, the political, the social, and the spiritual” (Osborne 79). My reading of Art of Blessing demonstrates how Piercy braids Jewish themes—rituals, ancestry, prayer, and spirituality—with environmental and social justice motifs, which are subtly, elegantly, and insightfully rendered in the “Tikkun Olam” section. In doing so, the poet reimagines the work of tikkun (repair) as a potential restoration of order and harmony in both the physical and spiritual realms. Through poetic imagery and a strong narrative voice, Piercy argues—sometimes vehemently, sometimes plaintively—to reverse the effects of environmental neglect and destruction. I begin with a brief discussion of “deep ecology,” a philosophy embraced by many environmental scholars, and based on principles that best reflect Marge Piercy’s worldview of environmentalism. The concept, proposed by Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher, includes biospherical egalitarianism, meaning the human species is not dominant or higher in status than non-human species; biodiversity, recognizing the importance of all life; nature, understood as a dynamic, holistic, integrated system; and self-realization, expanding the self to respect nature and avoid harming life (Troster, Rosenblum, Kortetmaki). At the same time, deep ecology goes beyond ecological principles to include empathy; that is, individuals must become “joyfully receptive to nature, and empathetically aware of the equal status of all elements in nature” (Griffiths 254). In this way, felt experience becomes a prime motivator for environmental action. (Theorists of deep ecology reject “conservation” and “stewardship” as “shallow ecologies.” The former is generally equated with distribution of resources, which obscures underlying causes of environmental destruction, and the latter envisions humans as managers, rather than equals in a holistic system.) Deep ecologists don’t necessarily espouse an ideology, metaphysical position, or theological perspective. However, Piercy’s poetry in The Art aligns with a deep ecological perspective that is theologically grounded—in the use of biblical allusions, references, and narratives, and her translations of Hebrew prayers. Jeanne Kay notes that the Bible calls for “reciprocal justice,” in that “all moral and immoral deeds have positive or negative impacts on the land on which they are perpetrated, and the land responds accordingly” (96). Much of Piercy’s poetry under discussion gives agency to the land when human intervention threatens to destroy it. Bradley Artson, a Jewish environmental ethicist, constructs a Jewish ecology by asserting that the biblical “relationship between the People Israel … and the Land of Israel” is covenantal, a brit (164). For Artson, the narrow strip of land that constitutes the nation of Israel, stands in, metonymically, for the entire Earth: in the ideal human-planetary interaction “our behavior allows the Earth to fulfill its covenantal relationship, and our planet, in turn, provides humanity with further grounds for gratitude to G-d” (168). Piercy employs this Jewish-inflected principle of deep ecology—the covenant—but without references to a deity, Jewish law, or Israel. For instance, the title poem, “The Art of Blessing the Day,” indirectly alludes to the Hebrew prayer for rain, which the Israelites depended on for sustenance. The first stanza of the poem is an apostrophe to the rain itself, rather than G-d: “This is the blessing for rain after drought:/Come down, wash the air so it shimmers” (3). These lines acknowledge the traditional prayer, recited during the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. The verse also recalls water libations in the Temple period (Schaffer 117). However, the persona actually prays to the rain, thus bestowing sanctity on Nature itself. Piercy uses a similar strategy in other poems, calling on or referencing natural elements—often to warn about consequences and retribution for soiling the Earth as if divine punishment were being inflicted. To intervene on Nature’s behalf, Piercy draws on the deep well of knowledge about Jewish rituals and biblical texts, sustainability, and feminism in order to raise awareness about environmental degradation. Poetic lines/stanzas defending the natural world indulge the senses through flamboyant imagery—sometimes to inspire awe and sometimes to instill fear. Others engage the intellect, nudging readers to participate in a midrashic process of environmental repair. The word “midrash”—derived from the Hebrew root “drsh,” meaning to seek, study, or investigate—has traditionally been understood as biblical exegesis. Taking the form of sermons, parables, or homilies, midrash has a moral and interpretive function that the Talmud compares to a “hammer which awakens the slumbering sparks in the rock” (Jacobs and Horovitz). Piercy poetically taps the readers’ sensibilities, but also hammers them into action. Her project, in the “Tikkun Olam” section of The Art of Blessing the Day, reflects the concept of ecosystem restoration, defined by Yankee et al. “ … as the process of direct intervention by humans to restore natural function to human-disturbed ecosystems” (qtd. in Rosenblum 200). From a Jewish perspective, Rosenblum considers ecosystem restoration as an example of tikkun ha-olam, meaning “repair of the world.” The concept has a long history, first mentioned three times in the Bible and numerous times in the Talmud, often related to divorce laws In medieval times, it meant religious obedience, such that “G-d’s rule and therefore G-d’s moral standards [would] become absolute and universal” (Dorff 9). The spiritual and cosmological significance of this concept was beautifully rendered by Isaac Luria, a sixteenth century Kabbalist. He explained the origin of tikkun olam, derived from a process of creation called Tzimtzum (contraction), the withdrawal of the divine light—which in its pure state humans could not withstand. The contraction then created a hollow space where divine light was contained in vessels, which ultimately shattered from the intensity of the light. As a result, unholy shards mixed with the emanated light (Failer 51). The process of tikkun is to gather together the fragments of Light from the shattered vessels, metonymically repairing injustices of the world. However, Piercy interprets the work of repair as a broader human calling—not to necessarily live a Jewish life, but to save the earth from environmental shattering. Piercy’s complex rendering of repair in Art of Blessing—with an ecological focus—can be traced to her own reconnection with Jewish identity. At 35, in 1981, Piercy said Kaddish (prayer for the dead) for her mother and committed to living as a Jew again, “but with my entire being, my history, my intelligence, my knowledge and aesthetics” (qtd. in Horowitz). In her 50s, Piercy embraced Reconstructionist Judaism, a movement comfortable with combining “social justice with pride in Jewish identity” (Lyons, “Marge Piercy”). Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the movement, likened a “modernized” Judaism to a civilization that “enables the Jewish people to be a means of salvation to the individual Jew” (513). He saw creativity, renewal, and self-fulfillment through Jewish literature, religion, laws, folkways, and art as a means to salvation (513). Taking Kaplan to heart, Piercy has marshaled her creative and intellectual energies to compose liturgical poems for the Reconstructionist prayer book, help found a havurah (Jewish fellowship group), and regularly teach at Jewish renewal retreats (Horowitz). More broadly, she extends Kaplan’s Reconstructionist vision of creativity and salvation beyond Jewish culture and ritual—to reflect deep ecology principles. These ecocritical concerns are symbolized in the traditional graphic images Piercy chooses as introductions to each of Art of Blessing’s six sections. For instance, the artistic graphic on the title page for the “Mishpocheh” (family) section symbolizes harmony and mutuality, with two symmetrical birds, lions, and other figures. The image on the title page of the “Tikkun Olam” section is more complex, portraying three sets of animals, extensive plant life, a candelabra, and twelve figures, possibly representing the twelve tribes of Israel. I will demonstrate how both text and image introducing the “Tikkun Olam” section reveal a code for reading these ten poems from a Jewish and deep ecological framework. The juxtaposition of text and graphic anticipates a central theme in the collection: that environmental activism is a spiritual obligation. The title page uses three typeface styles of varying sizes spaced above and below a central graphic, a typographical design that George Bornstein calls bibliographic code. He argues that material features of a text “affect the reception and interpretation of the work” and transmit meaning (30), in this case reminiscent of Hebrew calligraphy. At the top of the page, “Tikkun Olam,” a transliteration of the Hebrew, is centered in bold script. Many Jews, from every movement (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal), are familiar with this term and know how to pronounce it. Read from top to bottom, the eye focuses first on this phrase, announcing the framework to Jewish readers. This style of script looks handwritten, conferring an air of authenticity, credibility, and craftsmanship. For those who are unfamiliar with the phrase, it is translated underneath in a smaller, more contemporary font as “(REPAIR OF THE WORLD)”. Underneath the graphic, the phrase is written in large Hebrew script, reminiscent of letters in a Torah scroll. As the eye drifts down the page, it settles on those letters, creating an aura that “points to the work’s presence in time and space” (Bornstein 31). The size and aesthetics of the script convey trust, for as many Jews know, every letter in the Torah must be perfect, without errors or tears in the parchment. Thus, these words on the title page visually transmit the importance of the Hebrew language, its history, and presence across time and space, alerting readers to its cultural and ancestral heritage. The resonance of these words creates a visual synesthesia with the graphic centered between the English and Hebrew letters. This environmental motif interprets tikkun olam as a dynamic, interdependent ecosystem. As such, the entire image is graced with two urns on the bottom left and right, each with a feathery plant curling upward and then circling around a goat. The central focus—a wide, lacy circle—has embedded within it twelve tiny animal-like figures, each enveloped by its own circle, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel; each is equally responsible for a territory, but sharing one sacral center, the menorah, for religious observances. The circularity and fecundity in the graphic are semiotic reminders of deep ecology’s call for biodiversity and equity—among plants, animals, and people. The symmetry of the objects (i.e. two urns, two birds, two goats) also reflects harmony, another central tenet of deep ecology. It is as if everything in the world is sheltered and given nourishment, recalling the Garden of Eden. Our task, then, is teshuvah, meaning both atonement and return. By “making restitution and resolving to avoid future error [environmental catastrophe]” (Rosenblum 200), teshuvah can serve as a motivating force toward perfecting the world. At the same time, Rosenblum asserts, restoring the ecosystem brings about self-realization as spiritual redemption (200). Thus, the individual’s physical and spiritual well-being and the earth’s recovery are interdependent. Although each person is implicated in Jewish environmental ethics, Piercy includes all humanity in this endeavor, demonstrating that people who submerge in tasks (read repair) must “move in a common rhythm” (“To Be of Use” 73). The “Tikkun Olam” poems, from “Yartzeit” and “She Is a Tree of Life,” to “Up and Out” and “The Task Never Completed,” suggest that our daily work should include repairing the life of all people and the earth itself, with a return to and reinterpretation of tradition and prayer. For example, “For She Is a Tree of Life,” makes a traditional Jewish prayer, Etz Khayim (originating in Genesis and Proverbs), new by transmuting the Tree of Life metaphor into a flesh and blood grandmother—who ultimately becomes a biological tree in danger of extinction. We see the beginning of this process through a visual image in the first stanza, where the tree of life, part of the speaker’s childhood memory, is mentioned only as a decorative pattern in an oriental rug: In the cramped living room of my childhood between sagging rough-skinned sofa that made me itch and swaybacked chair surrounded by ashtrays where my father read every word of the paper shrouded in blue smoke, coughing rusty phlegm and muttering doom, the rug was a factory oriental and the pattern called tree of life. (78) It appears that this visual memory—tree of life pattern—has been buried amidst the weariness, gloom, and degradation of everyday existence. A specter of death and gloom penetrates the room, whose very “sagging” and “swaybacked” objects symbolize human decline, not to mention the father who is “shrouded in blue smoke.” But the static, nearly suffocating scene of the first stanza is replaced by feminine, life-giving energy. The speaker of the poem, a young granddaughter, gives voice to her mother, who explained the tree of life as she, her mother, and grandmother “plucked a chicken.” Piercy transliterates part of the liturgical prayer, “Eytz khayim hee/l’makhazikim/bo v’kol nitee-voteh-ho shalom” (78) in the voice of the grandmother, for the granddaughter. (Any synagogue-going Jew might start humming along with the familiar tune to this prayer, which concludes every Torah service.) These words employ the “tree of life” as a metaphor for the Torah scroll. The child experiences the prayer through musical cadences, and then is given the meaning in translation: “for she is a tree of life to all who hold her fast,/and the fruit of her branches is peace” (78). So far, Piercy is faithful to tradition, since the Torah is feminized and understood as the foundation of the Jewish people. At the same time, the child gains ancestral knowledge through a matriarchal process (grandmother, mother, daughter), one that is experienced through the senses and begins to repair a severed past. Here Piercy is reclaiming knowledge, ritual, and prayer for women, as Mordecai Kaplan counsels. In the third stanza, the symbolic tree metamorphoses into human flesh. Piercy boldly feminizes the tree of life in material terms, simultaneously for “Mother Nature,” and for individual women, whose natural instincts include physical desire. The child imagines grandmother Hannah as a tree: I see her big bosomed and tall as a maple and in her veins the beige sugar of desire running sometimes hard, surging skyward and sometimes sunk down into the roots that burrow and wriggle deep and far among rocks and clay and the bones of rabbits and foxes lying in the same bed at last becoming one. (78) From an environmental perspective, the transformation from tree into flesh supports the idea that biospheric events “actually comprise a kind of planetary intention, in which all life strives to perpetuate life” (Lovelock, qtd. in Rosemblum 184). Hannah, tall as a maple, becomes a life force that symbolizes strength and stature, traits that the child-narrator now sees. The grandmother also embodies the physical stature and regenerative ability that we associate with trees. On the level of ecosystem, the last two lines reinforce the interdependence of all life—animal (human, fox, rabbit), vegetable (roots), and mineral (rocks, clay)— that ultimately comes to the same end, but regenerates into new forms. From a feminist perspective, this stanza conflates regeneration with feminine desire. The tree is represented as a sensual, sexual woman, with “sugar of desire/running sometimes hard, surging skyward/and sometimes sunk down into the roots.” The “surging skyward” suggests movement toward physical gratification, a need in line with Jewish theology, which does not separate the flesh from the spirit. In fact, the importance of sexual satisfaction is addressed in rabbinic literature, specifically in the Mishnah (Ketubah, verse 6): the wife can demand a bill of divorce from the husband if he should refuse her conjugal rights (Schechter and David). Through this double vision of plant and body, desire in the poem becomes the source of physical vitality and stability (rootedness). However the last two stanzas take a dystopian turn with the specter of an ecocritical crisis. The child still sees the robust Hannah transforming into an apple tree, but now with her “branches dipping under the weight of the yield” (79) and with “apples fallen beneath the deer crunch” (79). The Tree of Life trope undergoes its final transformation: from grandmother’s body to mother earth’s body. Unlike in stanza three, where all life converges, “becoming one,” here all nature disintegrates into chaos. The allusion to the Garden of Eden (“apples fallen”) is unmistakable, but instead of Adam and Eve breaching moral and religious edicts, overcome by desire—like the “Yellow jackets in the cobalt afternoon buzz/drunken from cracked fruit oozing juice” (79)—Hannah’s descendants, and by association all humanity, are now in danger of actually destroying the tree. (In the Bible, Adam and Eve ate from the symbolic Tree of Knowledge, rather than a tangible, life-sustaining Tree.) Like many of Piercy’s poems in the collection, the entire human community is implicated: “Yet we are the mice that gnaw at her root/who labor ceaselessly to bring her down” (79, emphasis added). Such destructive labor (the implicit opposite of tikkun olam) threatens severe consequences, for “When the tree falls, we will not rise as plastic/butterfly spaceships, but will starve as the skies/weep hot acid as the earth chafes into dust” (79). This apocalyptic ending is the potential result of a sin of unprecedented proportions and serves as a dire warning. If this new “Fall” should occur, not only humankind but the Garden itself—the earth, our mother—will perish. The poem’s imagery creates visceral fears of human starvation and environmental combustion. The “hot acid chaf [ing] into/dust” (79) echoes the travesty of Hiroshima. It also recalls G-d’s punishment of Adam, Eve, and humankind into perpetuity: “For dust you are/And to dust you shall return” (Tanakh, Gen. 3.19). Even the ground was cursed. This was the final link in the chain, from the physical body to the embodiment of humankind, a fading vision. The poem prophesies that only people can repair the physical and spiritual world, creating harmony and balance. Likewise, only people can cause biospherical cataclysm. This theme is sustained in “The Ark of Consequence,” a poem that mimetically employs the Noah narrative in Genesis. As in “For She Is a Tree of Life,” Piercy tightly braids Jewish theology with environmental principles. However, biblical references are veiled in “The Ark of Consequence,” since Noah is evoked, not explicitly named, and the covenant between Noah and G-d after the flood is only suggested. By referring to Noah implicitly, Piercy reflects Mordecai Kaplan’s call to “reevaluate theocentrism in terms of anthropomorphism, and identify the striving after righteousness [and] the discovery of truth” (214) for a new age. Piercy’s poem engages in this work by first broadening the environmental message to include audiences of diverse traditions and with different levels of belief or disbelief. In Piercy’s poem, the rainbow (that the biblical Noah sees as a covenantal sign) becomes a metonym for the divine, “… It is a fraction of a circle,/a promise only partial, not a banal/sign of safety like a smile pin” (71, emphasis added). Visually and conceptually, the rainbow appears only “as an arc.” Piercy plays with the ark/arc connection as a reminder that although the world may not self-destruct, it could very well deteriorate due to human abuse, becoming dangerous to human and animal life. The poem implies that “this floating round ark” (72), standing for the entire earth, is in dire need of repair. We are enticed in the first stanza, by an aesthetic sensibility: The classic rainbow shows as an arc, a bridge strung in thinning clouds, but I have seen it flash a perfect circle, rising and falling and rising again through the octave of colors, a sun shape rolling like a wheel of light. (71) In midrashic collaboration, I feel the earth’s natural rhythms within the “perfect circle” and sense the mystery of divine light with the “sun shape rolling like a wheel of light.” In contrast, the second stanza undercuts the beauty, promise, and symbolism of the rainbow’s “perfect circle,” with its “octave of colors” and “a wheel of light.” Suddenly the rainbow is only “a fraction of a circle,” and “a promise only partial” (71), in that “this world will not self-destruct.” But what happens short of self-destruction? Are we taking for granted “that [the] rainbow cartoon affixed to vans/and baby carriages” (71) symbolizes luck regardless of human action? Have we forgotten that by building the physical ark according to divine specifications, Noah demonstrated both chesed (lovingkindness, an aspect of tikkun olam) and commitment to the covenant between G-d and “all flesh that is on earth” (Tanakh, Gen. 9.17)? Are we then assuming that Noah’s covenant will maintain throughout eternity? That the aggrieved earth will not retaliate and spit us out? Clearly we should not. The syntax of the first two stanzas shifts from descriptive statements and warnings to directives in the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas. Readers are implicated and obliged through commands and personal pronouns to: Account the rainbow a boomerang of liquid light, foretelling rather that what we toss out returns in the water table; flows from the faucet into our bones. What we shoot up into orbit falls to earth one night through the roof. (71) “Account the rainbow” might have been expressed by biblical prophets as “Take heed, you children of Israel.” Richard Rubenstein notes that the prophets depict G-d “addressing Israel as if he were the plaintiff in a lawsuit against his people” (206)—as in, for example, Tanakh, Isa. 1.2; Jer. 2.4; and Mic. 6.1. This legal challenge was meant to be corrective, more than punitive, “remind[ing] Israel of the broken covenant and to seek its restoration to wholeness” (206). Likewise, “account the rainbow” from a contemporary, environmental perspective is a covenantal reminder that “a full human relationship to the world is one in which the Earth is loved and cultivated, a partner with Jews and all other people …” (Artson 168). However, if the Earth is not protected, then even innocent bystanders “who happen to be present when the punishment descends” are inflicted (Kay 96). That is, the rainbow itself warns (foretells) that even if only some of us pollute, we all suffer, presumably from bone cancer. For a contemporary reader, this threat of survival is felt as a personal assault. Like Jeremiah and Micah, the fear-inducing speaker wields a midrashic hammer in this stanza, with the stress on the “boom” in “boomerang.” The rhetorical effect is causal: if you do such and such, the result will be … . As a contemporary prophet, Piercy documents material evidence (pollutants invading the water table) that resounds as a legal threat. The poem’s ominous arc foretells environmental evils of neglect, such as “waves of the poisoned river” (72), rather than a symbol of obedience to G-d and good deeds. Jewish environmentalists envision an aggrieved earth, one that “makes itself felt, and demands respect,” and if ignored, vomits out its inhabitants (Allen 82). Kortetmaki, in less volatile terms, champions “ecological justice [which] considers certain non-human entities as proper recipients of justice … Doing justice to nature would … require that the lakes are ‘heard’ or represented” (90, 93). The idea of nature speaking and acting in its own defense should signal an austere omen. Alerted readers would likely notice the reversal of the traditional ark/arc relationship. The rainbow is also an “arc of consequence” that “collects in each/spine and liver” (71–72) if we do not sustain the earth. Instead of a protective burst of color, this “fraction of a circle” represents a downward trajectory. The poem warns of a “covenant broken,” presumably between humanity and the Earth itself. Repair is our only hope according to this vision. If repair of the world means survival of the earth, then we must reflect on our mismanagement of the world’s natural resources, both individually and as a group. The pronoun shift from the merely observing “I” (“I have seen it [rainbow] flash a perfect circle”) in the first stanza to the accountable “we” in the next two stanzas inspires a unified obligation to tikkun olam. The enjambment in the third stanza (“what we/toss out”) emphasizes that “we” establish communal responsibility. And the stress on “we” doubles the effect. Piercy encourages midrashic participation by not specifying what is tossed out or what is shooting “up into orbit.” Readers can insert their individual “contributions.” The fact is that something is returning to the water, from what “we/toss out” that then “flows from the faucet into our bones” (71) despite the offending party. That is, all of us must begin working to restore the wholeness of the earth and by extension the covenant. The consequence of our reparations is restoration of the earth and our own bodies (strengthened bones). The last stanza of the poem serves as a modern day midrash, addressing “you” as individuals, but affecting all humanity: When you see the rainbow iridescence shiver in the oil slick, smeared on the waves of the poisoned river, shudder for the covenant broken, for we are given only this floating round ark with the dead moon for company and warning. (72) As a reader, I see the rainbow iridescence and hear the lyricism of the phrase just before the harsh alliteration of sibilant consonants in the next line: “shiver,” “slick,” and “smeared.” I see a distorted, misshapen rainbow mirrored in oil, symbolic of “the covenant broken.” The rainbow arc is now fragmented, a memory of its former shape. The lines’ enjambment helps to stress and elongate the word “smeared,” transforming a beautiful image into a polluted condition: the “poisoned river.” I am dismayed because oil slicks on rivers already exist, waterways continue to deteriorate, and the moon is dead, so repair seems impossible. The consequence is crushing: there is no ark to rescue us on earth and no spaceship ark in the heavens. But on rereading, I examine the stanza’s syntax and see a glimmer of hope. The speaker suggests observing the defective rainbow when you see it; then shuddering for its symbolic meaning (the broken covenant); and finally recalling G-d’s initial threat to destroy the earth. The elision of the shivering rainbow and the shuddering human fuses the two elements into a single nervous system. These somatic reactions reinforce the inseparability of people and their natural environment. But observation and interpretation can avert the severe decree. We know that all persons have not seen or noticed the oil slick. Some have not read about or reflected on Noah’s covenant. They have not considered the blessing (in The Art of Blessing the Day) of “this floating round ark” or any insipient warning—from G-d or Piercy’s speaker. By bookending the “Tikkun Olam” section first with “The Ark of Consequence” and last with “The Task Never Completed,” Piercy makes an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual case for environmental activism. However, she also recognizes that the challenge of perfectly repairing the earth is daunting and unrealistic. She conveys the truth about impossible tasks in the final poem, which consoles through a profound analogy—even invoking the deity. The speaker begins by reminding us that “Twenty-six botched worlds preceded/Genesis we are told in ancient commentary” (94). That is, even G-d messed up over and over. These attempts contest the concept of a perfect and omnipotent G-d, which is “neither compatible with reality or worthy of our adulation” —according to process theology (Spitzer 88). The poem also speaks to an “inherent relationality [that] is at the very foundation of the notion that God ‘loves’ us and ‘needs’ us, ideas that permeate biblical and Rabbinic theology” (Spitzer 88–89). Echoing this philosophy of dual dependence, Piercy’s ha-Shem (the Name) said … “of this particular attempt,/It is good, but muttered,/if only it will hold” (94). The line ending on “muttered” makes clear that a divine voice is about to speak. But rather than issuing an edict, ha-Shem sounds worried about the fate of the earth and whether anyone will hear these mutterings. The speaker of the poem has listened, becoming ha-Shem’s prophet, stating to all humanity that “the world/was given us to fix, to complete/and we’ve almost worn it out” (94). We hear not a command, but a benediction. The passive voice, “the world/was given” (94), highlights the gift or blessing of creation, rather than the divine act of creation. Thus our purpose to complete the work seems personally motivated. The use of “us” and “we” in “The Task Never Completed” testifies once again that repair of the world is a communal obligation—to all humanity— even if “My house was hastily built/on the cheap. Leaks, rotting/sills, the floor a relief map of Idaho” (94, emphasis added). Even if I, as an individual, inherited a poorly constructed building, and by analogy, the polluted land, seas, or atmosphere, it is my task to work on the problems because I am merely squatting “here on the land that owns me” (94). This is a radical reversal of biblical stewardship. The poem asserts that the land has dominion over its inhabitants, thus demanding human intervention. As a commitment to ecological restoration, the persona proclaims: “Whenever I get some money, I stove/up, repair, add on, replace” (94). This exemplar of tikkun olam commits financial resources to the task of fixing the house, a metonym for the world, in exchange for the right to remain on the land. The “I” takes small but determined steps: “Every dawn I choose “to take a knife/to the world’s flank or a sewing kit,/rough improvisation, but a start” (95). The speaker’s experience indicates that “the world consists not of little units of matter, but inconsequential moments of becoming—moments that combine elements of “choice” (that is, different possible outcomes) with the influence of the past and the surrounding environment” (Spitzer 88). It is the speaker’s choice to become unraveled during sleep, to allow “walls and fire” to pass through the body, to “birth stones”: in service of the “task,” repair of the world. In the process, the “I” experiences continual acts of creation and perhaps re-creation: “Every dawn I stumble from the roaring/vat of dreams and make myself up” (95). This deep, painful, yet voluntary penetration of both mind/“dreams,” and body/“fire” also allows for personal transformation or “self-realization” in terms of ecological justice. The concept of self-realization is coexistent with environmental action, even “constitut[ing] the overall well-being of an individual” (Kortetmaki 93). That is, being and doing within an ecological framework signify a life of value. This transformative process requires risk and experimentation as the “I” begins fixing the world through removal (surgical incision or excision) or repair (sewing or mending). The earth’s toolkit awaits the speaker, but the precise correctives remain undiscovered, thus requiring the “rough improvisation” of creativity that mirrors ha-Shem’s twenty-six attempts at creating the world. The speaker is willing to experiment, uncertain of the outcome, but trusting that progress will be made. That “We evolve through mistakes” (94) reinforces growth. Likewise, the graphic image introducing the “Tikkun Olam” section shows the potential for survival and growth. The fern-like plants trailing upward from urns on each side of the circle with the twelve tribes envelop two goats and almost break out of the graphic frame. Both the artistic symbology and the poem’s hopeful tone reflect process theology: “If chance and contingency are aspects of a Godly universe, then we can bless the uncertainties in our own lives, rather than bemoaning them” (Spitzer 93). Part of the “art” of blessing our days is imagining and then engaging in creative solutions to the earth’s woes. So how might we begin the work of tikkun olam? And how might we understand cutting or mending? Compelling arguments emerge about repairing the world, but Piercy offers no specific solutions. However, some poems suggest that awareness, motivation, and love are necessary elements for environmental “mending” to occur. “To Be of Use,” written decades earlier—and which has kept haunting me over the years—employs the trope of American work ethic for a newfound purpose in this collection: to unleash desire and passion in readers, encouraging them to interpret images as environmental signs. Such a reading is likely since “To Be” is placed immediately after “The Ark of Consequence,” which warns that “poisoned river[s]” and “the dead moon” are catastrophic events. “To Be” repeats the warning, but only in two lines: “The work of the world is common as mud./Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust” (73). I would argue that “this work” references environmental restoration. However, in contrast to “The Ark,” the narrative tone of “To Be” is optimistic, depicting a labor of love in the imagination of the persona, who seems poised to begin the work of repair. The “I” expresses loving admiration for ardent workers, “the people” who “jump into work head first” and swim so speedily that they are “almost out of sight”—presumably leaving the less determined behind. However, labor is not laborious in this stanza. The persona playfully compares people to seals “bouncing like half-submerged balls.” This frolicking image is enticing, reminding readers of seal stunts in venues such as the circus and SeaWorld. Alternatively, other people, such as deep-sea divers, get closer and more personal with seals; the relationship is reciprocal, sometimes initiated by the seals themselves, who “cuddle up” alongside divers. On a theoretical level, humans “seem[ing] to become natives of that element [the shallows]”—as seals— speaks to deep ecology’s equity among species, such that all nature is a dynamic, integrated system. The second stanza begins by reinforcing loving admiration for laborers: “I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy/cart.” However, the tone quickly shifts (from frivolity to gravity) with the image of ox and cart: the persona is now physically burdened, but slowly moving ahead. Like the metaphorical ox, the “water buffalo” models a human trait—“massive patience”—that is necessary to “move things/forward,/… do what has to be done, again and again.” The actions of harnessing, pulling, straining, and repeating encourage readers to enter into midrashic interpretation related to ecology. Readers are likely, then, to equate “things” with environmental action, though still only a mental construct. Loving and admiring people, from a distance, is much safer and more comfortable than getting down in the “mud and muck” to move things forward. However, there is progress in the third stanza, where the persona inches closer to “doing” rather than merely “being like” animals who strain and struggle. I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along. (73) With an assertive, declarative sentence, the “I” voices a strong desire to work with others. It is notable that images of real people farming, going “into the fields to harvest,” demonstrate human action only alluded to through metaphorical oxen and buffalo. People submerging “in the task” also suggests a longer, deeper commitment after “jump[ing] into work head first.” The word “task” here can be read as the genesis of environmental repair that is developed in poems such as “For She Is a Tree of Life,” and “The Task Never Completed.” While “To Be of Use” inspires environmental participation, “One Bird, If There Is Only One, Dies in the Night,” touchingly illustrates how awareness engenders compassion, which results in action. While the poem’s title appeals to the rational mind—suggesting the extinction of a species—the first four stanzas appeal to the emotions, through lived experience. I dropped my spoon into my yogurt at the crack of bird against the window. I ran in sneakers into the snow. Often their spleens rupture or their necks break. This one was tiny, stunned. The wind had fangs. Ice formed in my lungs as I picked it up. I put on my coat over it and walked. It woke up slowly, turning to stare. It clutched my finger by reflex After an hour. … (80) Dropped into an intimate scene, we hear “the crack of bird against the window” (80), see it waking up slowly and “turning to stare,” and feel the bird clutching the persona’s “finger by reflex/after an hour” (80). The speaker of the poem narrates this experience appealing to all five senses, exemplifying the necessity to feel the plight of all creatures and take action. Action, moreover, may require sacrifice. Saving the bird required the speaker to potentially endanger the self: “The wind/had fangs” and “Ice formed in my/lungs as I picked it up” (80). The enjambment nearly causes a gasp as readers follow the persona outside into the frigid air. The speaker was “of use,” however, to this fragile and injured kinglet and was willing to “strain in the mud and muck to move/things forward” (“To Be” 73), analogically to strain against the wind which “had fangs” in order to rescue and nurse the bird. Reading “One Bird” against “To Be of Use” reveals that action requires communal engagement. Both poems voice this aspect of tikkun olam—relationships with and treatment of others. From both an emotional and ideological perspective, the persona in “To Be of Use” wants to “be with people who submerge/in the task, who go into the fields to harvest/and work in a row and pass the bags along” (73). On a purely practical level, crops cannot be harvested by a lone laborer. On a humanistic level, group solidarity cannot be achieved without concern for others in the row. This idea is developed in “One Bird,” where the “I” “could hear/the sheer cries of its [the bird’s] partners”(80), suggesting a soulful connection among the flock. The spiritual overtones are unmistakable when later the birds call “all day, where are you? Here/I am, here” (81). These words evoke G-d’s call to Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Where are you?” (Tanakh, Gen. 3.9), and to Samuel in third person, “And the L-rd called to Samuel” (Tanakh, I Sam. 3.4). I argue that Piercy echoes these biblical allusions as a “call” to all living things, which she sees as a sacred imperative. Indeed, the world cries out, and we must answer. Piercy makes a more direct argument about communal responsibility from a scientific and secular standpoint. The observant persona identifies the bird as “a golden crowned kinglet” (80), poetically rendering its cries as “stitches that bound them [other birds] together” (80). The scientific evidence comes in the next lines, where Piercy draws on ornithology research, describing kinglets who are in fact “the size of a hen’s egg” or smaller, and “must clutch each other all night/to survive winters” (80). This “clutching” is known as “winter roosting,” which aids in both thermoregulation and protection from predators (Antczak 99). Like birds, people must also “huddle” in social groups. And like Piercy herself, the persona names her longtime allies in the last two stanzas: I count women in a crowd, guess at Jews, feminists, lefties, writers, all those we count someone who might watch our backside so it won’t fall off, who might warm us through a lethal night’s freeze. (81) These groups of Jews, feminists, lefties, and writers reflect people who have defined and nurtured Piercy over many decades. They are essential and life-giving. And for the persona in “One Bird,” these allies “might/warm us through a lethal night’s freeze” (81). Coexistence is existence. Marge Piercy, throughout The Art of Blessing the Day, has taken the midrash on Ecclesiastes to heart, seeing the beauty in “My works, how excellent [they are].” Like Wallace Stevens before her, she finds elegance in winter, even when “the light is red and short” as the sun “hangs its wizened rosehip in the oaks” (“Available Light” 76). In the same poem she interprets “tracks in the snow” (77), etched like calligraphy, associated with the patient way she is “finally learning Hebrew/at fifty” (77). Winter’s available light thus becomes a beacon for attaining the knowledge and wisdom vital to repairing the world. In the “Tikkun Olam” poems, the beacon reflects a pathway toward transformation of the natural world and the self. Although guided by Jewish morality and ethics originating from the Hebrew bible and Talmudic literature, Piercy appeals to all humanity—revealing how survival of our cultural values and the entire world depends on environmental and social justice. Her message strikes a poignant chord, as Rabbi Renee Edelman says: “When I finish reading her [Marge Piercy’s] words there is an audible sound of breathing in the room. It is as if everyone is letting out an Alef—the sound of beginning” (qtd. in “Jewish”). Beginning the monumental tasks of repair aesthetically, intellectually, and spiritually earns Piercy a standing in the canon of American environmental literature. Works Cited Allen E. L. “The Hebrew View of Nature.” Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader . Ed. Yaffe Martin D. , Lexington . 2001 . 80 – 85 . Antczak Marcin. “Winter Nocturnal Roost Selection by a Solitary Passerine Bird, the Great Grey Shrike.” Lanius excubitor. Ornis Fennica , 87 ( 2010 ): 99 – 105 . Artson Bradley Shavit. “Our Covenant with Stones: A Jewish Ecology of Earth.” Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader . Ed. Yaffe Martin D. . Lexington , 2001 . 161 – 71 . 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Spitzer Toba. “Why We Need Process Theology.” CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly , (Winter 2012 ): 84 – 95 . Tanahkh: The Holy Scriptures . Jewish Publication Society , 1985 . Troster Lawrence . “Created in the Image of God: Humanity and Divinity in an Age of Environmentalism.” Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader . Ed. Yaffe Martin D. , Lexington , 2001 . 172 – 82 . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 6, 2018
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