Mother’s Milk and Rat Poison
Made in Detroit
by Marge Piercy
Review by Jehanne Dubrow
Over the past ten years, Detroit has become a symbol both of the American financial collapse and of the ensuing narrative of recovery, the story of how a great city began to rebuild itself after crisis. For Marge Piercy—former poetry editor of Tikkun and author of nineteen poetry collections, seventeen novels, a book of short stories, and the critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats—Detroit is a locus of memory. But Made in Detroit also joins recent books, such as Jamaal May’s debut collection Hum and Erika Meitner’s Copia, that depict the city as a brick-and-concrete representation of what has gone wrong with America’s particular brand of capitalism. While she has long been viewed as an important feminist figure in American poetry, an environmentalist, and an antiwar activist, with Made in Detroit, Piercy proves that nearly fifty years of publishing have only sharpened her gift for articulating our current political concerns through the intimate medium of verse.
The book’s title poem is a lyrical examination of the speaker’s childhood, defined by tenderness as well as by the sharp edges of an urban setting. “My first lessons were kisses and a hammer. / I was fed with mother’s milk and rat poison. / I learned to walk on a tightrope over a pit / where snakes’ warnings were my rattles,” Piercy begins. And later she tells us, “I suckled Detroit’s steel tits,” the city itself a parent, one that toughens its children into “coal and flame.” Piercy frequently returns to this conceit, calling attention to the idea that we are so intimately connected to our environs that we might as well be part of the skyline. We should care about our cities because we become the landscapes in which we live, just as they, in turn, become us.
Poetry of Poverty
Much of the collection is concerned with the experience of American poverty. In “Detroit, February 1943,” the poet remembers wearing clothes “shaped / by other bodies” and reading books already dog-eared by other readers. Like birds fed stale bread, the inhabitants of Piercy’s poems survive “on what no one else wanted.” In “The scent of apple cake,” a mother only finds pleasure and sweetness in the desserts she bakes, the rest of her time spent “begging dollars . . . mending, darning, bleaching.” Yes, these texts are set in the decades of Piercy’s girlhood, but her descriptions of what it’s like to be poor—the condition of always making do, the exhaustion of worrying about how to pay the next rent check or heating bill—remain fresh and relevant. And although Piercy’s vision of city life is often grim, she argues that hope is possible, even when local jobs are “exported to China” and neighborhoods are abandoned to become “blocks of zombie houses.” The poem “City bleeding” ends with this assertion: “Out / of ruins eerie in their torn decay / where people lived, worked, dreamed / something yet begins to rise and grow.”
One of the collection’s most potent (and vicious) poems, “The poor are no longer with us,” catalogs how the poor have been made invisible. They’re imprisoned “behind high walls,” fed “fast garbage,” provided with “cheap guns” to kill one another “well out of your sight,” and put in schools to learn “how stupid they are.” Piercy ends this awful litany by explaining that the poor “are not / real people like corporations.” It’s a well-placed reference to former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, who proclaimed during his 2012 presidential campaign that “corporations are people, my friend.” Poems such as “The poor are no longer with us” demonstrate Piercy’s deep commitment to using lyricism, imagery, and irony in the service of social justice. In “A hundred years since the Triangle Fire,” the poet laments corporate exploitation and greed, and the infamous factory fire is an event that has much to teach us a century later. “Labor was cheap then,” Piercy explains, “too often cheap now.” Like machines, she says, we are still easily replaceable “to those with / power to replace us.”
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Dubrow, Jehanne. 2016. Mother’s Milk and Rat Poison. Tikkun 31(1):