Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tuesday Poem - To Be Of Use


The people I love best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shadows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek head of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

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,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.



If my sister Pip were asked to gather a handful of words to express what she considers important in this world, to be of use would surely be among them. (Marge Piercy could almost have written this poem with Pip in mind - thank you, Marge; and please, may I?).

Today is Pip's 46th birthday. She lives under a Northern Hemisphere sky on the opposite side of the world from me. It's not often we get to see each other, and years since we celebrated our birthdays alongside each other in the same place. Living with distance is something our family has had to become well-acquainted with; perhaps it's called us into a different kind of attentiveness? I do know that the distance has offered - offers - up its own unexpected gifts (how to stay present in absence, for instance). How often is the way? (Have you noticed, for instance, how circuitous routes have a habit of helping us come to grips with certain things, as if the ultimate purpose is to facilitate our moving forward?)

Here's a recent pic of Pip. It's copied from an email she wrote to her three children from Liberia earlier this year and Cc:-ed to me -

"... Here I am playing Mum to a chimpanzee orphan in Liberia ... little girl chimp really needing a cuddle and some love (after first stealing my hair band, and throwing my glasses on the sand)... She was so strong, and so certain. Living on a chain behind the Forestry Department's buildings (the law enforcing agency). She made me cry..."

You can read more about Pip's environmental passions and pursuits here.

inspirational, Earth-loving sister
'Native to your element',
today's TP is for you

And to partake in this week's Tuesday Poem banquet, click here


  1. What an amazing family.

    More power to ye.

  2. Marge Piercy was my favourite and most influential poet for many many years, and probably has not been replaced a single poet I can love as whole heartedly, rather my tastes have broadened with age. It was lovely to start my Tuesday Poem reading with this beloved old favourite which I haven't read for such a long time.

  3. Happy birthday, Pip! Though continents divide you, you both are lucky to have such sisters.

    L, M.

  4. Happy Birthday to your sister!

    Great poem choice...I'd write more but my hands are too fatigued after a day of 'being of use' -- and then some!

  5. I love the heft of this poem — great tribute to a sister. Happy Birthday, Pip.

  6. Thank you, John - all good things to you, too.

  7. Hello Melior - this poem was the first of Marge Piercy's I came across (perhaps a decade ago). Aside from "To Be Of Use" I'd not read many of her poems till quite recently when a friend gave me a copy of "The Moon Is Always Female". She's 'in contact' - I don't know else to put it. I can understand how she could have been your favourite and most influential poet for years.
    Thanks for coming by... I am a great admirer of your work, esp. your Antarctica pieces and your recent oil & water ones. We have very similar preoccupations!

  8. Melissa, T. Clear & Pen = thank you for leaving birthday wishes for Pip. She will appreciate them, I know. L, C xxx

  9. "...and a person for work that is real." To be reminded that the most simple of things is enough...we are not meant for laying waste our powers, not if we wish to feel complete. Being close in birthdays must make the distance between you and your sister harder; my brother, in another hemisphere, across many waters...we were restored by the internet. I will never bad-mouth it for such a gift.

  10. You have a beautiful gift for synthesis, Marylinn - your words 'we are not meant for laying waste our powers, not if we wish to feel complete' say it all. Your latest post shows we are contemplating similar questions and concerns.

    Like you, I will never bad-mouth the internet for all it has opened to us, for the ways in which it makes communication and connections possible where once they would have been been impossible. I am glad for you and your brother that you have been 'restored' by the internet. (And I especially appreciate your choice of the word 'restored.').

    L, C