Marge Piercy is known as a feminist poet. Her 17 books and 17 poetry collections are filled with stories of women finding it necessary to conform to an external social ideal rather than defining themselves in relation to some internal quality. In her later works, she shifted from shaming society for this state of affairs and began calling on women to use their voices to change the status quo. This focus in her writing can be found throughout the collection What are Big Girls Made Of. Published in 1997, the collection is divided into five unequal sections grouped by subject – to her brother, to women, about relationships, celebrating nature, and exploring identity. The book is an excellent resource into the social focus of this poet.
While the poems within the book are often highly entertaining and humorous, there is also typically much deeper meanings within the words. For example, in “Brother-less Six: Unconversation,” she says “You were a closet from which odd toys / and bizarre tools fell out on my head” (X-X). The image she paints in these lines is a fun one of a little sister poking her nose into places it didn’t belong, partly for the joy of discovering her brother within the items that fell from his closet so unexpectedly. It seems a cozy family relationship. However, the rest of the poem illustrates how distant they really were as adults as she grieves for his death without fully understanding why.
Thus, one of the strengths of Piercy’s book is its ability to delve into these humorous yet melancholy moments that function to encourage her readers to be true to their own inner voice rather than some external ideal. This becomes a more blatant message as she moves into her poems for women such as the title poem, claiming women are made out of pain. “A woman is not made of flesh / of bone and sinew / belly and breasts, elbows and liver and toe. / She is manufactured like a sports sedan. / She is retooled, refitted and redesigned / every decade” (2-7). Piercy tells it like it is, but doesn’t let anyone off the hook – each person is responsible for his or her own experiences in life.
One weakness of the work is that the poems can tend to sound repetitive in their messaging. Especially regarding the poems addressed to women, Piercy is not saying anything new although she isn’t worried about phrasing it in pretty words and subtle innuendo. It is common knowledge that the consumer culture has created an impossible image of women that most women, even though they are aware of the impossibilities, still kill themselves to try to match. One more voice saying the same thing doesn’t have as much impact as it might have when Piercy first started writing in the 1960s. However, she increases the focus on women themselves, calling for women to speak out and contribute to the change.
This particular novel is a strong resource for understanding the changing voice and message of Marge Piercy. Comparing this body of work to earlier volumes such as To Be of Use published in the 1970s demonstrates this change of message as the earlier work tends to focus on how external factors shape the female identity while the later work focuses more on individual responsibility, both for accepting the message and in terms of having the power to change the message. Directly from the poet’s pen, these poems are also less abstract than some of her later work.